BLOCKCHAIN & CRYPTO: Part 1 - Crypto Whales, IEOs, and the US-China trade war take Crypto to new heights

Its very difficult to ignore the noise when cryptocurrencies increase in value, especially since the crypto-apocalypse of 2018 which saw $400 billion in value wiped from the market #NeverForget. And as of Saturday May 11th, the noise has been deafening with Bitcoin rallying to price levels around $8,300 which we hadn't seen since late July 2018. So what exactly happened here? Well, to answer this we need to look at a few things:

Firstly, lets look at what triggered the rally in the first place. As recorded by Whale-Alert.io, 47,000 Bitcoins at a value of $340 million were moved in a single transaction on the evening of May 11th. According to coinmarketcap, such a large movement of the digital currency resulted in a 13% increase in bitcoin's price from $6,378 to $7,204, and an almost 50% increase in volumes traded. Transactions of this magnitude or made by "Whales" -- entities with large sums of the cryptocurrency -- who often use such transactions to "burn margin traders" who use money they don't have to stake out long or short positions in hopes of hitting it big or "riding a lambo to the moon" as they like call it. As of Monday, $84 million worth of shorts had been liquidated on Bitmex, with some affected parties announcing crippling losses (see pic below).

Secondly, let's touch on the rise of Initial Exchange Offerings (IEOs). An IEO is different to its Initial Coin Offering (ICO) sibling, in that funds are raised and administered by an exchange on behalf of the startup, whilst an ICO is completely independent of any major entity to enable its fundraising activity. This is important because participants in the IEO need to be registered on the specific exchange's platform in order to get access to the startup's tokens. Regulators obviously love the idea of this as (1) the exchange needs to screen every project it lists on its platform -- eliminating any scams from happening (see how Bittrex cancelled RAID IEO), (2) from a security standpoint, KYC/AML is conducted on each participant by the exchange, and (3) token issuer startups receive better support on marketing initiatives and credibility from exchanges. An increasing number of cryptocurrency exchanges have started to embrace IEOs. One of the first in line was Binance, which launched its IEO platform Binance Launchpad, swiftly followed by Bittrex, BitMax, Huobi, OKEx, and KuCoin. Whilst it's still too early to quantify the significant impact of IEOs, we can report a 220% increase in overall token sales from February this year, IEOs contributing to this are: Celer Network raising $4M, Matic Network with $5M, and Newton Project with $28.5M.

Lastly, such a rally couldn't have happened at a better time for Crypto evangelists. The news of the trade war between the US and China resulted in the fall of the Dow Jones Industrial Average by as much as 696 points on Monday the 13th, and MSCI's index for emerging markets by almost 300 points. Whilst this was taking place, Bitcoin's price was still increasing, and closed 12% up for that day -- unaffected by global markets. Although this is not sufficient evidence to conclude that cryptocurrencies are good hedges against global market volatility, the sentiment towards such a reality is progressing, especially with enhanced institutional support from large incumbents and the launch of regulator-friendly IEOs. 

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Source: Whale Alert (via Twitter), Bitmex Forum (via Twitter), CryptoPotato (IEOs vs ICOs), Autonomous NEXT Analysis

BLOCKCHAIN & CRYPTO: Part 2 - From Main Street to Wall Street, institutions are the key to mainstream Crypto adoption...oh the irony

As we know, one of the aims of cryptocurrency was to provide a means to anonymously and securely transfer value between transacting parties i.e., removing the power away from financial intermediaries whose distribution channels exploit fees from those wishing to transact in the current system. Funnily enough, it seems that the very same institutions that crypto sought to disenfranchise, are key to its success. Success here being widespread adoption.

Let's start with mainstream adoption in retail where Flexa -- a payments network startup is partnering with New York-based exchange Gemini to enable crypto payments to be made at an estimated 30,476 stores, including Wholefoods, Nordstrom, and Gamestop. Flexa works by processing the payments made on its platform using its custodial wallet and mobile app called 'Spedn' which enables spending of specific cryptocurrencies -- Gemini Dollars, Bitcoin, Ether, and Bitcoin Cash. Flexa uses its own native coin -- Flexacoin as collateral to secure payments until the transaction is approved on the blockchain, and custody is taken care of by Gemini. Spedn is custodied with Gemini who provide security for this new payment technology. Finally, adoption is enhanced by (1) ensuring merchant's payment processing costs are reduced whilst the blockchain maintains security, (2) no changes are needed to the existing payment hardware, and (3) revenue can be received in fiat as opposed to crypto.

This institutionalization of crypto is also echoing in larger public companies. See NYSE’s partnership with Bakkt. Or XRP being launched on securities marketplace Deutsche Boerse and Coinbase. And lets not forget the likes of JP Morgan's coin, and Fidelity set to launch its crypto Trading service. According to Fintech Analyst Efi Pylarinou Wall Street institutions are looking at crypto as a new structured product business i.e., ETP’s linked to baskets of cryptos (low-hanging fruit) and tokenised real-estate (main focus) which is good if it democratizes exposure to the real-estate market, but bad if we see a reformat of the 2008 mortgage crisis. We will leave this gem for you to make up your mind – Banco Pactual issuing an STO in distressed Brazilian real-estate. 

As the institutionalization of crypto and blockchain continues to gain traction, it is likely to see the services and products they offer provide the gateway into the crypto markets, which may ultimately result in a surge in fresh capital making its way into these markets, and possibly kindling the flame that ignites the next price rally.

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Source: Flexa Spedn App (via news.bitcoin)

ROBO ADVISORS: Robo-advisors are winning but leaving cash on the table

We will keep this brief. In a recently updated, “Robo-Advisors with the Most AUM” the top 5 robo-advisors, consisting of three Fintechs and two Incumbents, remained in the same position as last year, although each of them have seen gains in Assets Under Management (AUM) and the number of accounts. Yet, the jury is out as to whether gathering assets or gathering users are good measures of success -- we wrote about it here.

A lot of digital wealth management innovation targets people who have been excluded from the traditional wealth management business because the amounts they have to invest are too small for the economics of traditional wealth management to work. So the strategy is to target this opportunity by getting to the consumer, earn them loyalty with at least one good service, perhaps free, and then lock them into a full financial services relationship. The expected outcome of this is to see a reduction in the number of these individuals and/or the assets they hold -- Unadvised assets - the liquid cash in real wallets and check & savings accounts.

Daily fintech's Efi Pylarinou, has done the heavy lifting on this, finding unadvised assets in the US, EU, and UK to be around $14.5 trillion, $13.7 trillion, and $3 trillion respectively. Surprisingly, each of these on average have experienced growth of 9% over the past 3 years. Such findings point to the fact that, since their inception, robo-advisors have had none or a negligible impact on unadvised assets. Although unadvised assets are impacted by all innovations in Fintech, robo-advisors are more likely to be the ones that incentivise you to split up with your cash to some degree in hopes of generating returns with very little friction/costs. And if this is a direct result of trends in monetary policy, public markets, and human behavior superseding the digitization of capital markets, when should we expect the reversal to occur?

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Source: Robo-Advisors with the most AUM (via Roboadvisorpros)

BLOCKCHAIN: Why China's ban on all cryptocurrency mining activity is a good thing

Ever since decentralized currencies came into fruition, they have posed an existential threat to a government's ability to control the purse strings of its citizens -- which is important to prevent illicit activities such as money laundering. In China, this lack of control coupled with the growing rate of crypto-induced bankruptcies led to the swift imposition of sweeping reforms. All trades of legal tender (i.e., Yuan) into cryptocurrencies and vice versa, as well as all Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) were made illegal. The resultant lack of legal exchanges and ICO activity meant crypto-mining was the last remaining pillar propping up this intangible edifice. Today, China holds around 70 percent of the world's crypto-mining capacity, predominantly due to: easy access to the hardware (i.e., Nvidia processors which are locally manufactured) essential to crypto-mining operations, cheap cost of labor, and crucially, cheap and bountiful energy via massive coal and hydroelectric power plants.

A recent report now suggests that the Chinese government, more specifically the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), intends to ban all crypto-mining activity as well. The report lists cryptocurrency mining as one of 450 activities slated for elimination, citing “wasting resources, polluting the environment, being unsafe, or not adhering to law” as the primary reasons, and they wouldn't be wrong on the pollution front -- a study in the journal Nature Sustainability suggests bitcoin alone was set to consume more energy in 2018 than the country of Denmark.

So does this spell disaster for crypto as we know it? Well, not quite, and here's why: (1) China's largest and most visible miners, such as Bitmain's Antpool, will be forced to explore new locations for mining operations specifically where renewable power is cheap and abundant to keep costs low and win favor with the regulatory entities governing these jurisdictions, (2) Mining activity is more likely to become more decentralized and safer, as large Chinese mining pools who dominated the networks, are dismantled into smaller factions, (3) Crypto-miners could use this as an opportunity to pivot into work that is deemed more crucial to the overall success of the ecosystem i.e., blockchain scalability (speed of the network) and interoperability (cross chain information movement) solutions. Such benefits could catalyze adoption rates by addressing the underlying environmental, safety, infrastructural, and centralisation issues that have plagued crypto since its inception. Additionally, a recent survey by Harris Poll for Blockchain Capital suggests, the overall sentiment towards crypto relative to other investable assets is positive with 21% of respondents preferring Bitcoin over government bonds, 17% over stocks, 14% over real estate and 12% would invest in Bitcoin before investing in gold. Finally, although it is still argued whether the NDRC was implying a outright ban or more oversight on mining activity, the resultant benefits fueled by positive market sentiment towards crypto could mean great things to come.

Source: Hans Moeller Illustration, Divvy (homepage), Divvy (Brex comparison)

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Source: CoinDance (BTC Mining Data), OVOEnergy (Electricity Cost per country

INNOVATION & PAYMENTS: Divvy’s $200 million raise proves that all is not what it seems in Fintech

We love relating FinTech to the fabled analogy of six blind men describing an elephant solely on touch -- each man taking a narrow perspective to describe what is in their hands but never considering that there is more i.e., One feels a rope because he grabbed the tail, another a spear because he grabbed its tusk. As a result its easy to assume that the Fintechs involved in addressing an industry solution from their own narrow perspective, create significant barriers to entry for any additional player seeking to enter that market. In this sense, if retail banking was the elephant's trunk then who out of Starling, Monzo, or Revolut are using the best descriptor (neobank solution) for identifying it? What about enterprise expense tracking? You may recall a Fintech startup called Brex -- who provide a corporate credit card for small businesses, which consolidates spending and expenses across the entire organization and leverages existing corporate spending behavior to offer higher credit limits. i.e., attacking the problem vertical-by-vertical. Brex is often likened to another enterprise expense tracking platform called Divvy -- who recently secured a $200 million Series C funding round.

Whilst Brex takes a top-down approach to enterprise expense management, Divvy takes a bottoms up approach -- attacking the problems of: (1) limited access of corporate credit cards across an organisation due to trust, (2) enterprise expense management software being inherently complicated and manual, and (3) a single-view enterprise subscription management solution i.e., a single view of all the software/tools your business subscribes to and the status, cost, and terms thereof. Divvy does this by providing teams and individuals with access to their budgets for projects, campaigns, and day-to-day expenses, essentially providing access to slices of the firm’s credit to employees. Its product is aimed at whole companies, instead of just regular recipients of corporate cards (executives, founders, etc.). The point here is that enterprise expense tracking can be deemed a saturated market with companies like Brex offering novel and innovative solutions that would be tough to compete with. However, Divvy seems to have found such a unique way to describe the same part of the elephant as Brex, that backers forked out an additional $200 million for further exploration of it. In the end, the winner is not the company that best describes what it believes to be touching, but rather why it is even touching something in the first place i.e., addressing a customer need.

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Source: Hans Moeller Illustration, Divvy (homepage), Divvy (Brex comparison)

VIRTUAL REALITY: Enterprise applications of VR prove we are on track for a $200 billion mixed commerce market by 2025

We stand by our position that mixed reality seems to be headed more towards large, enterprise use-cases like city planning, construction, low skilled worker on-site instruction for utilities or manufacturers, and the military. Yet among young consumers, the behavior of buying digital goods in video games, and the associated monetization of content from video games using channels like eSports continues to be a powerful secular trend. Billions of revenue are generated by free games that only sell cosmetic in-game objects. See, as proof points, the fast growth of Twitch users and the $1B+ in revenue Fortnite made from microtransactions. Last week, Facebook doubled down on the former enterprise-centric use case for mixed reality -- announcing its Oculus device-management subscription for enterprise users. The subscription will cost $180 per device per year and promises "a dedicated software suite offering device setup and management tools, enterprise-grade service and support, and a new user experience customized for business use cases" (see here). Evidently, companies deploying mixed reality solutions generally see better customer retention, satisfaction and operating metrics. Take VR surgical training platform OssoVR -- who claim to have witnessed a 230% improvement in performance by surgeons training in VR. Whilst Walmart admits to VR training boosting employee confidence, retention, and overall training test scores by 10-15%. And let's never forget the VR training platform for cooks in fast-food giant KFC's Chicken Mastery program -- the nightmare-sh and BioShock-esque “escape room” replete with narration from an omnipresent, mildly demonic Colonel Sanders. Apart from giving trainees a mild post-traumatic stress disorder, the training platform (on average) reduced instruction time by 60%.

In financial services much of the framework-setting falls to a centralized function, whether that's a Chief Investment Officer creating portfolios or a more decentralised one i.e., branch or advisor office role assisting in the task of consolidating accounts, or discussing mortgage finance options. Yet realistic presence and emotional resonance, via a truly immersive experience, still matter. Facebook Reality Labs, recently announced, that it's working on this -- bringing full-body avatars to its Oculus experience. Will this allow us to emotionally connect with others in a virtual setting or merely remind us that virtual worlds have no place for such complexity? Either way it's important to note that in our latest payments report we estimated the install base for AR/VR active devices to reach 1 billion by 2025, fueling a revenue pool for mixed commerce of $200 billion at the same time. Seemingly, we are on track.

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Source: Oculus for Business, KFC Virtual Training Room (Youtube), Facebook Full body VR (via CNN)

BIG TECH & BLOCKCHAIN: SamsungCoin & Blockchain protocol distract us from foldable phone fiasco

Earlier this year, we admittedly took a hard stance on two seemingly meaningful pieces of news from South Korean tech giant Samsung: (1) the launch of the Galaxy Fold, the likeness of which we compared to a pizza box, and (2) Galaxy S10 phones confirmed to be crypto-native, allowing for private key storage (here). To catch you up on the Fold, Samsung have found themselves in the hot seat with their $2000 foldable phone barely lasting a week in the hands of reviewers before experiencing a multitude of battery and screen issues (here). More importantly, Samsung is said to be developing its own Ethereum Blockchain (ERC20) Token or "SamsungCoin" and blockchain protocol. Previously we noted -- having a mobile experience that allows you to interact with the decentralized web and its applications without downloading or thinking about software management is massive. Additionally noting that there should be no difference -- from the customer view -- in using a credit card in Samsung Pay wallet, and using a self-custodied digital asset. Same use case, same ease of use. And this is truly groundbreaking when every merchant that takes Samsung Pay takes crypto, especially if that crypto is native to Samsung itself. But there are some concerns here, mainly surrounding South Korean regulations preventing the issue of tokens via Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) and banning investors to invest in domestic ICO projects. Whilst rumors suggest that these regulations are likely to be revised by authorities, there is no idea when this would take place. Such policies may lead to the company considering a private blockchain with a B2B approach -- remember what we said about those walled gardens? Yet, there is still the possibility that Samsung could circumvent South Korean regulatory frameworks by establishing subsidiaries in overseas crypto-friendly jurisdictions to conduct its token sales. Doing so without clarification from the authorities, however, may land it in even hotter water than its foldable phone fiasco.

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Source: CNET (Samsung Fold), Blockboard (Samsung Blockchain Wallet), Cointelegraph (South Korea ICO ban)

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: Synthesia prove that not all deep fakes are malicious, but for those that are, is Blockchain the answer to spotting them?

Last week we touched on how convolutional neural networks can be easily duped using nothing more than a computer-generated "patch" applied to a piece of cardboard (here). This week we want to keep the theme of neural networks alive, only this time addressing the fascinating topic of deep fakes. We have discussed this before (here), touching on how hyper-realistic media formats, such as images and videos, can be faked by a model where one algorithm creates images and another accepts or rejects them as sufficiently realistic, with repeated evolutionary turns at this problem. These algorithms are known as generative adversarial neural networks (GANs). Initially GANs were used in jest to make celebrities and politicians say and do things they never (here), over time, however, their sophistication has prompted more malicious use cases. Evidence of such malicious intent is reportedly coming from China in which GANs are used to manipulate satellite images of earth and/or provide strategic insight to manipulate the Chinese landscape to confuse the image processing capabilities of adversarial government GANs. Think about it, GANs, much like in our cardboard patch example, can be fooled to believe that a bridge crosses an important river at a specific point. This, from military perspective, could lead to unforeseen risk exposure to human lives, similarly so, in the context of open source data used by software to navigate autonomous vehicles across a landscape. Such malicious use cases of GANs have resulted in the concern of government entities such as The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence who explicitly noted deep fakes in the latest Threat Assessment Report (here). China has gone one step further, recently announcing a draft amendment to its Civil Code Personality Rights to reflect an outright ban on deep fake AI face swapping techniques. Currently, GANs dedicated to counteracting deep fakes are purely reactionary to those dedicated to creating them, but we are seeing novel solutions harnessing blockchain technology come from the likes of Amber - who protect the integrity of the image/video data via "fingerprinting" -- a sequenced cryptographic technique applied to bits of data associated with a single frame/image, which flags any manipulation to the original file.

But let's end this on a good note shall we. An AI-driven video production company called Synthesia used GANs to "internationalize" a message delivered by football icon David Beckham to raise awareness around the Malaria Must Die initiative. Synthesia's GANs were trained on Beckham's face so that 9 different malaria survivors could deliver their message through his avatar in their mother tongue. The resultant campaign has over 400 million impressions globally, and provides insight into the evolution of digital video marketing, corporate communications, and advertising which leverages GANs to reduce production costs and improve engagement.

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Source: arxiv.org (Deep Video Portraits Report), AmberVideo, Malaria Must Die (via Youtube)

INNOVATION & PAYMENTS: Tesla entering the autonomous vehicle "space race" does not bring us closer to a Utopian future, yet

It's difficult to ignore the utopian dream of riding shotgun in a fully autonomous vehicle whilst chuckling at the seemingly prehistoric ideas of road rage, congestion, and side-mirrors. Yet, upstarts dedicated to making this dream a reality ingest massive amounts of venture funding with little return. Take transportation-on-demand app Uber -- who recently raised $1 billion for its Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) from Softbank, Toyota, and auto-parts manufacturer Denso (here). The aim of the investment is to accelerate the development and commercialization of automated ridesharing services, especially given that the company blames the bulk of its estimated $702 million net loss this quarter on costs attributed to human drivers (here). Question is, how sophisticated the software has become since the 2018 incident in which a driverless Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian? Interestingly, Alphabet-backed and Uber-rival Waymo, boasts racking up over 10 million miles worth of autonomous driving data as a hedge against such fatal incidents. Up until last week, Waymo prided itself as the only upstart to have launched a dedicated commercial driverless car service (Waymo One). Enter electric-vehicle giant Tesla -- who promised an all-electric, 1 million car fleet of self driving Tesla taxis by the end of 2020. Some, of which, will come from existing Tesla's on the road -- which will be used as autonomous taxis when their owners do not need them. This is noteworthy because Tesla has amassed over 1 billion miles worth of 'Autopilot' data, which was used to build their latest custom-designed artificial intelligence driving chip -- claimed to allow Tesla's to pilot themselves. The only missing pieces to the puzzle are (1) regulatory approval for such vehicles to legally operate and (2) "feature-complete" software to prevent any life-threatening incidents, both of which are assured to be ready for 2020 year end launch. 

Whilst there's no doubt that we have a "space race" type scenario between digital transportation upstarts: Waymo, Uber, and now Tesla -- all competing to arbitrage a phone's GPS to deliver custom mobility solutions with greater precision and experience than a human transaction can. There is concern around the impact that autonomous taxis will have on the existing infrastructure, especially what they will do in-between customers: park, go home, or drive around aimlessly. All of these have significant congestion implications. Such implications could incentivise upstarts aimed at offering an aggregated view of transportation options available to customers, such as CityMapper -- whose latest subscription offer 'Pass' -- exemplifies how to take this one step further by building an instantiated financial product on top of abstracted digital infrastructure (here). Until then we will continue to dream.

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Source: BusinessWire (Uber's Advanced Technologies Group $1 billion), Waymo, Techcrunch (Tesla Ridesharing App), Techcrunch (Uber vs. Tesla), Gizmodo (Citymapper Pass)

BLOCKCHAIN: Pay no attention to that Chain behind the curtain...

Enterprise blockchain, is a cost-cutting effort by an oligopoly of financial firms to mutualize processes and costs around the front, middle, and back offices. As we deduced in our Crypto Utopia keystone deck, nearly $250 billion of industry cost across payments, banking, capital markets and insurance is available for transformation. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, it's difficult to ignore that blockchain and its true value to enterprise is, now more than ever, met with the same level of skepticism that cryptocurrency now receives post the 2018 crypto-apocalypse. 'The Finanser' - Chris Skinner does a good job at teasing the reasons why this is the case in a recent blog post. In contrast, it's difficult to ignore the significant growth projections forecasted by the IDC -- specifically the 88.7% increase in worldwide spending on blockchain to nearly $2.9 billion in 2019. Such projections make sense when looking through a recent publication by Forbes which lists 50 large enterprises with minimum revenues or valuations of $1 billion, that are leading the way in adapting decentralized ledgers to their operating needs, leveraging industry consortiums and other proprietary projects to do so. Examples include the likes of Spain's second-largest bank - BBVA issuing the first blockchain-based syndicated loan, or Chinese chip manufacturer - Foxconn using blockchain to streamline its supply chain, or US restaurant supplier - Golden State Foods using the blockchain to reduce food spoilage. It is clear that it is becoming more and more difficult to ignore the significant value behind the application of distributed ledger technology on large enterprises, just as much as it was for Dorothy to ignore the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. The real question for today's skeptics is when they'll realise they had the heart, brain, and courage to believe this reality the whole time?

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ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: Cornell students break convolutional neural networks using cardboard

Earlier this year we touched on how the the digitization of the human animal continues unopposed, with symptoms all over. China is a great example of a sovereign infatuated with this more than any other. Harnessing sophisticated machine vision software and swarms of CCTV cameras to strengthen the sovereign-imposed social human constructs of law, power, culture and religion. Leveraging apps to do its dirty work, such as Chinese firm Megvii, maker of software Face++ that has catalyzed 5,000 arrests since 2016 by the Ministry of Public Security. Pretty scary stuff. But, as with any software, there are always ways to break it, and it seems as though the folks over at Cornell University have figured out a creative way to deceive a convolutional neural network. Using computer-generated "patches" that can be applied to an object in real-life video footage or still frame photographs to fool automated detectors and classifiers. The main use case is to generate a patch that is able to successfully hide a person from a person detector i.e., an attempt to circumvent surveillance systems using a piece of uniquely printed cardboard which faces the camera and covers some aspect of the subject's body. The accuracy of machine vision stems from the software's ability to break the image up into various filters and pixels, comparing it to thousands of digested images, and using statistics to generate a probabilistic classification of what is presented in that image. Given this, it is clear why such a rudimentary solution could fool such sophisticated neural networks. Your move China. (READ MORE)

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NEOBANKS: T-Mobile offers a bank account with all the perks

Following a soft launch in November 2018, T-Mobile has officially taken its Money checking account live for all T-Mobile customers in the US. The telecommunications company has joined forces with digital-only MobileBank who is operated by Customers Bank. Yes, you have to be a T-Mobile customer to take advantage of the account, but it does come with some competitive perks such as: 4% yield per annum on balances under $3,000, full mobile platform payment (e.g., ApplePay or GPay) support, and comes with a Mastercard. There are no minimum balance requirements and no fees to keep it open, however, because T-Mobile Money is not supported by a major bank such as BoFA, it is likely to incur ATM fees. Such perks are indicative of a focus towards a younger market who like the idea of high annual percentage yield, whilst keeping the overall account balance low due to lower incomes -- hello Goldman's Marcus. So why is this notable news? Whilst telecommunications companies offering financial services in the US is not necessarily new, with examples like 2013's "Softcard" (originally called "Isis") - a mobile payments system created from the unique partnership of Telcos -- AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile with Financial Service companies -- Mastercard, Visa, and AMEX, which subsequently failed due to low customer adoption. We should see more resiliency from the T-Mobile Money account as MobileBank gives T-Mobile an out-of-the-box solution to offer to their 73 million strong US customer base without the need for large capital outlays or significant risk exposures to do so. However, regulatory risk is a major factor at play here, which could be financially crippling if something were to go wrong at a time when T-Mobile Money is regulated as a Financial Services Provider.

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Source: MarketingDigest (SoftCard), CookiesandClogs (Isis), T-Mobile Money

INSURTECH: Softbank's $300 million double-down on digital insurer Lemonade

Last week we saw Softbank double-down on its backing for Lemonade - the renter's insurance company built for Millennials. In its Series D funding round led by Softbank and supported by Allianz, General Catalyst, GV, OurCrowd, and Thrive Capital, the poster child of disruptive InsureTech innovation, raised an additional $300 million. This latest cash injection, coupled with revenues of $60 million in 2018 and potential $100 million in 2019, puts the company at an estimated $2 billion valuation, and is set to help fuel further growth in the US and with expansion into Europe. We will remind you that Lemonade uses artificial intelligence and analytics to replace the front-office function of incumbent carriers. Simply, their mobile app can chat with users and onboard them without much human involvement. Last year, this was personified in an attempted smear ad run by competitor - StateFarm, who ridiculed the usage of bots and technology in insurance, mentioning “a knockoff robot created by a rival insurance company.” Needless to say that the digital insurer took that lemon and made...well...lemonade - sponsoring the ad across social media, essentially because it promoted Lemonade's AI tech. Last year, we mentioned that Softbank's portfolio of millions of American financial services companies with modern technology stacks and cool brands, spread across different verticals, requires only one of them to be a Goldman Sachs. Could this news be a sign?

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Source: DigitalInsuranceAgenda (Lemonade), Lemonade (2018 Results), Youtube (Lemonade - StateFarm Ad), Twitter (Daniel Schreiber)

CRYPTO: Coinbase's new Visa debit card wants to assimilate cryptocurrency and fiat accounts

We still believe that the absolute largest roadblock to economic activity using cryptocurrency is the barrier to entry in user experience (followed closely by financial instrument packaging and bank buy-in). And in our write-up of Samsung's crypto phone gamble, we stressed that there should be no difference -- from the customer view -- in using a credit card in a digital wallet, and using a self-custodied digital asset. Well it seems the folks over at Coinbase were paying attention, as last week the crypto trading website unveiled a Visa debit card that lets users buy things with fiat money converted from cryptocurrency stored in their online Coinbase wallets. Users can take advantage of the full neobank treatment with Coinbase's app providing nifty visualisations on your spending behaviour, and security controls such as disabling the card if it gets lost or stolen. The card will only be available in the UK, with a wider European release to come later this year. UK users can expect to be charged a 1 percent transaction fee and a 1.49 percent conversion fee, totalling 2.49 percent for every transaction using the card (2.69 percent in Europe and 5.49 percent elsewhere). These fees seem high when we compare them to the C2B credit card transaction fees for US-based retail and online merchants at 2.2 percent and 2.52 percent respectively, per $100 transaction -- as outlined in our latest Payments keystone report. The big question is -- is this new? and our answer is not really. Revolut, amongst others, has offered the ability to make transactions using cryptocurrency for well over a year, however, the merchant doesn't actually receive bitcoin, rather the app does a conversion back to fiat to make payment. From a transaction standpoint, we see Coinbase as no different, as they are simply taking exchange custodied wallet holdings and converting them at the spot rate to make payments. Cryptocurrency-native transactions are difficult because the distributed ledger (Blockchain) requires each transaction be verified through network consensus before it is finalized, which for Bitcoin is 10 minutes -- imagine waiting 10 minutes for the credit card machine to print the transaction slip?. What is notable about Coinbase's card is that it helps cryptocurrency adoption by assimilating one's crypto holdings at Coinbase with their fiat holdings at a bank, promoting a better user experience than before.

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Source: Coinbase (Coinbase Card via Twitter), ComputerWorld (Coinbase Card)

NEOBANKS: Monzo and Tandem seek massive new raises whilst RBS's Bó seeks to shake things up

Just months after raising £85m in a Series E fundraise, it seems as though neobank Monzo's aspirations for US dominance is being assisted by means of a £100 million in further funding, in a new round led by US-based VC and accelerator Y-Combinator. Such a raise would see the coral-carded digital bank valued at around £2 billion, positioning it on par with rivals N26 and Revolut. Whilst neobanks who focus on current account products like Monzo drive massive consumer adoption yet are inherently loss making, those who build lending and savings products through credit cards such as Tandem Bank, have lower user adoption rates but higher revenues (£5.1 million in 2017 compared with Monzo's £1.8 million). As such, it's not surprising that Tandem Bank are looking to secure an investment in the next three months, which is likely to be larger than the £80m it raised when it took over Harrods Bank last year. And in true neobank fashion, the ex-Harrods bank is looking to expand into continental Europe over the coming year. Finally, RBS has just exposed their neobank play with Bó -- a new online-only bank RBS has created, similar to Goldman's Marcus, to rival the likes of Monzo, N26, and Revolut. The specific target market being the 17 million UK residents with less than £100 of savings in their bank accounts. With the aim of this to “nudge” users towards ways of saving money by providing them access to a “marketplace” of different providers — from rival financial services companies to energy companies. Should Starling be worried?, only if they didn't help RBS build it, which they did. I won't say we called it, but have a revisit to our 2019 Fintech prediction, and see for yourself.

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Source: Techcrunch (Monzo), Fintech.Global (Challenger Bank Analysis), Finextra (Starling help RBS)

GAFA: Snap seeks to colonize the web one Tinder profile at a time

From camera-mounted sunglasses that failed to be welcomed in any social setting, to Bitmoji's creepy cartoon depictions of reality, it seems like Snapchat's parent company - Snap has tried it all to stay relevant. Especially, when Zuckerberg's army of clones - boasting an impressive 1 billion daily story users vs Snap's 186 million, threatens the story-based core social media model of the app,. Well, it seems Snap has yet to be snapped. At its recent partner summit, the social media company announced its launching StoryKit - a plan to allow apps like Tinder the ability to embed Snapchat stories into their app. The incentive being enhanced engagement and security for the partnering app, whilst Snap additionally benefit from the data they gather from users using their native camera. Quite the colonization strategy you might say. Then again, with the day-to-day data privacy-exploitation headlines streaming from Facebook HQ, it's a no-brainer that advertisers, content creators, and businesses alike are looking to alternatives such as Snap to save them from being victims in the Facebook apocalypse. 

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Source: Statista (Social Media Stories)INMA.org (Storywars)

DIGITAL WEALTH: Betterment gives in to its premium retail clients and drops its $100k minimum

Roboadvice – the automation of wealth management services – continues to put pricing and product pressure on the industry. Traditionally, financial advisors assess their fees as a percentage (1-2%) of the individual portfolio amounts they manage. Portfolio minimums have safeguarded the work expended by advisors in relation to the percentage fees earned. Roboadvisors like Betterment or Acorns feature lower barriers for customers as a result of their digitally native infrastructure, and thus low minimum balance requirements for a fixed set of portfolios - which require little human input. This not only enhanced B2C business for such Robos (i.e., individual investors opening accounts), but also B2B business (i.e., other financial firms using roboadvice powered platforms on behalf of clients). Betterment recently acknowledged dropping its $100k portfolio minimums for its 40bps premium service which gives retail clients the flexibility to customize their exposure in certain asset classes. We see this move in two ways, (1) to cater to the customers demanding greater flexibility, and (2) attracting and capturing customers from the ever-present competition, such as Acorns, Wealthfront, and Schwab.

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Source: Valuewalk (Wealth management), Betterment (For Advisors)

PAYMENTS: Visa plays deal or no deal with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) over Earthport

Earlier this year we touched on the $250 million acquisition of UK-based B2B cross border payment giant Earthport by Visa. To refresh your memory, click here. The acquisition came after a drawn out pricing battle between Mastercard and Visa who are desperately seeking to harness the expanded networks of Earthport to improve their 17% and 7% respective growth rates within the cross-border segment - based on those numbers we can see why Visa won the bidding war at a $320 million offer (28% higher than the original). But such developments have recently attracted the attention of the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) of the UK to investigate the potential monopolistic power Visa would hold if such an acquisition were to take place. And we don't blame them, as such a network effect could see Visa receive a hearty slice of the potential +$200 billion up for grabs to companies seeking to improve cross border B2B payments, remittances, and the unbanked, as detailed in our latest payments report. Furthermore, companies like Earthport were built to create an international interbank money movement platform more efficient than Swift and cheaper than the credit rails. Giving this network back to the “Networks” makes it hard to see how anyone can beat them at their own game. 

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Source: Visa (Q1 2019 Earnings Call)

DIGITAL WEALTH: Schwab's $30 subscription, Abra and Bitwise on digital assets explain the future of wealth management

Roboadvice is close to our hearts as one of the first themes, but for digital lenders, to erode the walls around the most expensive parts of financial services. Between Mint.com in 2007 and our world in 2019 is an ocean of difference. We highlight three symptoms that show just how far we have come. First, Schwab announced a new pricing model for its digital wealth and financial planning offering. Core robo portfolios will remain free by earning interest on the cash allocation (listen up stablecoins!), while the human-augmented service will cost $30 per month with a $300 onboarding fee. While prior attempts at paying directly for planning services were attempted unsuccessfully by Learnvest, and Robinhood has a freemium model where a subscription fees earn you a margin account, Schwab is a way-bigger fish. 

We've pointed recently to the importance of understanding subscription as a shift from selling a manufactured product for a price (even if it is financed over time) to filling a consumer demand holistically. Subscriptions don't have lockups, can't take excess economic rents if your account grows from $100,000 to $500,000, and shift the business risk back to the business. They also squarely place Schwab among the likes of Apple, Google, Netflix, Microsoft, Salesforce and other *modern* consumer companies. Goodbye 1.5% on a minimum $1 million in assets for overpriced private equity and IPO access.

For now, $30 will only get you traditional money management. But if Bitwise and Abra get their way -- among dozens of other high quality companies -- investment infrastructure and associated choices will be changing entirely. Bitwise, a crypto-index fund with a passive approach, had authored a stellar document linked below describing the state of digital asset markets. In it, they show how to separate the 95% of noise in fake, manufactured crypto exchange volume created by bots to game rankings from the 10 real exchanges on which demonstrable human activity is taking place. We are building in the age of the Internet, and with that comes fake traffic, fake news, fake Twitter followers, and fake financial products. This document, and efforts by folks like Messari and DASA, is clearing the way for digital-native assets to actually work. None of this ecosystem, from investors to products to allocations to exchanges to crypto regulation, even existed in 2007.

So where is it going? One example is Abra, which has grown from a pure Bitcoin wallet to a provider of a synthetic asset allocation built using contracts-for-difference. While CFDs may not be accepted in all jurisdictions, don't look at manufacturing but at the customer. If a user can access stocks, bonds, real estate, private equity, gold, commodities, Bitcoin, tokens, banking accounts, loans and payments all from an app, that is the Holy Grail. And that is what the next 10 years is all about. The custodians and broker/dealers that have traditionally supported investment businesses, from Fidelity to Schwab, will move to integrate, own and support digital assets as well. And in that environment, solutions will not need derivatives to offer what is the most sensible package for the consumer. It will just be on your phone.

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Source: RIA Biz (Schwab), Yahoo Finance (Schwab), The Block (Abra), MessariDASABitWise 

BIG TECH: Apple's Credit Card, Google's Digital Gold, and IBM's Crypto Custody show the reckoning is here

After years of existential angst from finance executives about the big tech companies entering financial services, it is time to pay the piper. Excuses like regulatory cost and complexity, strategic disinterest, and complexity of products are incrementally falling away each and every day. Across every single vertical, something is nipping at the banker's ankles. The splashiest announcement came from Apple, which launched a credit card backed by Goldman Sachs (the storied mass retail financial firm!) and transacted over the MasterCard network. You can sign up for the card directly from your phone, which integrates it into Apple Wallet and Apple Pay, and provides a 2% cash back on all transactions made with ApplePay. There are no fees on the card other than an interest rate on credit.

For Apple, this financial product is one of a thousand features within their platform. It is no more or less important than music, video, news, email, or podcasts. The presence of credit makes customers more sticky within the ecosystem, offering 3% cash back on all Apple purchases. For Goldman, this is a leapfrog into the consumer market, riding a much better recognized and respected retail brand. Finance for the wealthy is just not cool anymore in the era of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Meanwhile in India, Google and Facebook are battling with Paytm over payments. Facebook's rumored cryptocurrency will target sending remittance over WhatsApp. Google, on the other hand, is working on a service to add a savings account to money movement. This account will be backed by custodied gold, and may include expanded wealth management products -- from mutual funds to insurance -- in the future. None of this should be surprising, as Chinese tech companies have been providing mobile search bundled with online shopping, saving, investing and payments for the last five years. These Asian companies are moving into Europe and the US, sometimes by investing in neobanks or through acquisitions. Our American tech companies are moving into Asia.

Let's round out the whole thing with IBM, the OG of American tech companies. Several young firms like BitGo, Gemini, and Kingdom Trust have all built custody for crypto assets, including a notable recent announcement from Trustology about bringing custody to the iPhone. But IBM is now moving into the space, leveraging its expertise from working on enterprise blockchain projects via Hyperledger. What's important to understand is that financial products -- including their embedded capital, credit and investment risks -- are transforming from legal paper to software. And as that happens, it is technology companies that are best positioned to hold, analyze, report on, and safekeep our money. Among the incumbents, Goldman, JP Morgan, BBVA, Santander, DBS, BlackRock, Schwab, Fidelity, NASDAQ, ICE and several others get it. So many others think it is a false alarm. Which side are you on?

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Source: Apple Card (ForbesBBC), Coindesk (Trustology iPhoneIBM), Deal Street Asia (Google Gold)