Beyond Blocks, Tokyo

Thanks to my work with Techemy and Brave New Coin, Content in Context is currently on the road, attending various blockchain and crypto events in Tokyo, Vienna, NYC and Chicago. The next few blogs will attempt to capture notes from the field.

In Tokyo, the Beyond Blocks Summit was a stellar affair, with marquee blockchain projects and major investors presenting on stage, alongside cosplay characters, light shows, upbeat music and a crowd of crypto fanatics.

Given the significant developments in Japan’s regulatory framework for crypto-currency trading, there was a lot of interest in the presentations by bitFlyer, Quoine and Smart Contract Inc.

As with the recent APAC Blockchain Conference in Melbourne, there was a strong representation from China’s growing base of Blockchain projects (but not ICOs, of course), keen to demonstrate their infrastructure projects.

There was much debate about regulatory developments across Asia, made all the more interesting by the announcement that Monex is acquiring Coincheck, despite (or because of?) the recent hack on NEM tokens held on the local exchange.

Among international key speakers were Patrick Byrne from Overstock and tZERO, John Burbank of Passport Capital, and Techemy’s own Fran Strajnar – all looking to the future of this new asset class, especially so-called security tokens.

Interspersed throughout the two days were panel discussions and presentations on scaling, infrastructure, decentralized exchanges, stable coins and the future of ICOs.

Although this was only their second event of this kind, the Beyond Blocks team have quickly established themselves on the conference circuit.

Next week: Crypto-Asset Summit, Vienna

Tech Talk on Crypto

There’s an adage about not investing in something you don’t understand. There’s another about not betting more than you can afford to lose. And then there’s crypto, which in the words of TV commentator, John Oliver represents “Everything you don’t understand about money combined with everything you don’t understand about computers.” So it was with great interest that I attended last week’s General Assembly’s Tech Talk on Crypto, presented by a team from Bitcoin.com.au.

This intro to crypto was actually very illuminating, as much for the audience questions as the presentation itself.

To begin with, there was an attempt to explain the underlying technology of Blockchain; which, thanks to a certain YouTube video, seemingly reduced Blockchain to a trading platform or networked database. There was also an analogy to the internet itself: first, we just had protocols like TCP/IP; then we had web browsers; next we had e-mail clients; now we have Netflix.

Next was a reference to Bitcoin‘s mining infrastructure, its associated monetary policy, and the specifics of Bitcoin’s tokenomics. And then we jumped straight to Ethereum and the development of smart contracts – with particular reference to their potential to disrupt/transform the legal profession and the insurance industry.

There was brief mention Venezuela’s “petro”, a government-issued, oil-backed cryptocurrency, as evidence of further disruption in financial markets (although the petro has raised a number of concerns in some quarters). And, in a week when revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica dominated the news, the speakers talked about Blockchain applications displacing even core social media, offering more privacy and control over our personal data and content.

The first of the audience questions were about crypto valuations. “The market decides”, which prompted some comments about market volatility and speculation. There were also some comments about regulation, tax, privacy and security.

Next question: “What about hacking?” “That’s more of a problem with exchanges, than user wallets.” That lead to a brief discussion of different types of wallet, which I’m not sure everyone in the audience fully understood.

We then moved on to look at other types of coins, and specific Blockchain use cases (such as remittance services, patient healthcare records, identity, P2P solar energy trading, voting, education etc.). In particular, Golem (crypto-powered network computing), Brave (crypto-enabled web browser), Steemit (earn crypto from your content) and TenX (an everyday crypto payment solution) were projects that the presenters liked.

Finally, to underscore how little some people understand about fiat currency and traditional financial markets, one attendee, struggling to fathom how the price of Bitcoin was determined, insisted that with equity markets, “the Stock Exchange sets the price…”

Next week: Startup VIC’s Retail & E-Commerce Pitch Night

 

 

 

What should we expect from our banks?

As I have written elsewhere, bank bashing is a favourite Australian pastime. In recent months, this has struck a new crescendo. There have been various allegations, legal cases and regulatory investigations surrounding such misconduct as mis-selling of products, rate fixing, over-charging and money laundering, all culminating in a hastily announced Financial Services Royal Commission.

Cartoon by David Rowe, sourced from the AFR, published November 30, 2017

The banks had tried to get on the front foot, by abolishing ATM fees, reigning in some of their lending practices, and appointing a former Labor politician to help them navigate the growing calls for a Royal Commission (largely coming from her former colleagues in the Labor party). But the (Coalition) government clearly decided enough was a enough, and sprung their own inquiry into the industry.

For the benefit of overseas readers, Australia has a highly concentrated banking sector, which is also highly regulated, highly profitable, and in some ways, a highly protected market oligopoly. There are only four major banks (also know as the four pillars, as they cannot acquire one another, nor can they be acquired by foreign banks), and a few regional banks. There is a smattering of non-bank financial institutions, but by their very nature, they don’t offer the full range of banking products and services. As an example of this market concentration, the big four banks traditionally account for something like 80% or more of all home loans.

Aside from the Royal Commission, there are a number of policy developments in play which will inevitably change the banking landscape, and the dynamic between market participants. In addition to the growth of FinTech startups aiming to disrupt through digital innovation, there are four key areas of policy that will impact traditional banking:

  1. Open Banking – giving customers greater access to and control over their own banking data
  2. Comprehensive Credit Reportingmandating the hitherto voluntary regime among the big four banks
  3. The New Payments Platform – designed to allow real-time payment and settlement between customers, even without using bank account details
  4. Restricted ADI Regime – to encourage more competition in the banking sector

The major banks have tried to laugh off, rebuff or diminish the threat of FinTech disruption. They believe they have deeper pockets than startups and just as good, if not better, technology processes. Moreover, customers are traditionally so sticky that there is an inherent inertia to switch providers.

But with banks having to set aside more risk-weighted capital to cover their loans, they may be vulnerable to startups focussing on very specific products, rather than trying to be a full service provider. Banks no longer have the technology edge, partly because of the legacy core banking systems they have to maintain, partly because they lack the know-how or incentive to innovate. And changing demographics will influence the way new customers interact with their banks: “mobile first”, “end-to-end digital”, and “banking for the gig economy” are just some of the challenges/opportunities facing the sector.

So what should we expect from our banks? I would say that at a minimum, a bank should provide: trust (but with Blockchain, DLT and trustless, zero-knowledge proof solutions, banks are no longer the sole arbiter of trust); security (linked to trust, but again, with biometrics, digital ID solutions and layered encryption, banks do not have a monopoly on these solutions); capital protection (although no bank can fully guarantee your deposits); reasonable fees (still a way to go on account keeping fees and some point of sale transaction fees – while disruptive technology will continue to challenge legacy costs); and an expectation that it will not bet against the direct interests of their customers (like, shorting the housing market, for example). The latter is particularly tricky, when banks are mainly designed to deliver shareholder value – although of course, most Australian bank customers also own shares in the banks, either directly, or indirectly through their superannuation.

In recent months, and based on personal experience, I think a bank should also know its customers. Not just KYC (for regulatory purposes), but really understand a customer as more than just a collection of separate products, which is how most banking CRM systems seem to work. Given how much banks spend on consumer research and behavioral data, and how much they talk about using big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning to anticipate customer needs, it’s a constant frustration that my bank does not really know me – whenever I contact them, for any reason, I always feel like it’s a process of “product first, customer second”.

Moreover, I can’t think of a single new product that my bank has launched in the past 15 years of being a customer. Sure, they have rolled out mobile apps and online banking, and they may have even launched some new accounts and credit cards – but these are simply the same products (accounts, loans, cards) with different prices and a few new features. Even the so-called “special offers” I get for being a “loyal” customer bear no relation to my interests, or even my spending patterns (despite all the data they claim to have about me). And because banks are product or transaction-driven, rather than relationship-driven, their internal processes fuel silo behaviors, to the extent that the left hand very often does not know what the right hand is doing.

Finally, with more and more of the working population becoming self-directed (self-employed, freelance, portfolio career, contracting, gig-economy, etc.) banks will have to innovate to meet the financial services needs of this new workforce. Bring on the disruption, I say.

Next week: Box Set Culture 

 

 

 

 

Equity crowdfunding comes to town

Earlier this month, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) announced it had approved the first seven crowdsourced funding platforms (CSFs). It seems that after much debate, equity crowdfunding is finally open for business.

Image: Aaron Pruzaniec, sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Although not named in the ASIC media release, the seven successful applicants are:

There are significant limitations to the CSF legislation – namely:

  • the type of eligible companies (only smaller, public unlisted companies);
  • the amounts individual investors can invest (up to $10,000 per company per 12 month period); and
  • how much companies can raise (no more than $5m in any 12 month period)

Also, there is no indication as to whether other CSF license applications are still pending, or which applications may have been rejected. It may also be difficult to assess the relative merits of each platform, since there only appears to be one class of license.

Meanwhile, legislation is already in the pipeline to extend the CSF regime to proprietary companies – which would significantly expand the potential number of issuers.

Compared to some of the largest initial coin offerings (ICOs) over the past 18 months, a $5m capital raise looks like small change. If anything, ICOs took the decade-old crowdfunding experience and supercharged it with Blockchain, cryptocurrency and decentralized issuance platforms. But then, regulators tend to lag markets and technology; plus, their primary focus is protecting the interests of less sophisticated retail investors (as well as market stability).

It’s also worth remembering that a limited crowdsourced funding model has been available in Australia for several years, almost as long as crowdfunding itself: Enable Funding (formerly ASSOB) was established in 2007, but with a much more restricted license than the latest CSF legislation. (And in other countries, early-stage companies have been able to more easily raise equity capital via market listings on secondary boards of the main exchanges – e.g., Mothers in Japan, GEM in Hong Kong, and AIM in London.)

The new CSF regime (and whatever else comes in its wake) does raise a few interesting points:

1. Although expressly confined to equity issuance in the form of common shares, by giving it a more generic name, does this mean CSF will be used for other types of securities (bonds, structured finance)?

2. What expectations has ASIC placed on the number of raises, and the total amounts to be raised, over the next 3-5 years – how will it measure or define the success of CSF?

3. More importantly, where is investor money expected to come from – will investors switch from property or other assets?

4. How will the increasing practice of issuing digital tokens as traditional securities (and potentially vice versa) add to the demand for CSF platforms and services?

It’s very early days, of course, and very small scale, but judging by the response so far to one of the first companies to take advantage of the CSF legislation, investors like what they are seeing.

Next week: Australia Post and navigating the last mile