decentralized finance

CRYPTOCURRENCY & BLOCKCHAIN: Goldman furthers the institutionalization of Crypto whilst global economic instability furthers its benefits

The Cypto-universe is experiencing what can only be described as a storm of epic proportions. Fueled primarily by warm positively-charged air coming from the launch of the Libra project, and cool negatively-charged air from the dramatic price volatility and speculation in the market. Contrary to some testaments, the likelihood of the former impacting the latter is about as much as the correlation between the price's of Bitcoin and avocados (see here). However, the coincidence of these two developments does speak to how they both capture elements of a massive, worldwide financial transformation, all happening at a time of rising global economic instability and uncertainty.

Let’s start with the mainstream global money movements over the next decade being channeled through a mix of Blockchain-era stable-money services that operate along a centralization-to-decentralization spectrum — from JPMorgan’s JPM Coin and the new Swift Blockchain project at one end, to Facebook's Libra project and more open-standard Crypto stablecoin projects such as CENTRE’s USDC at the other. And it would be safe to assume that as these projects grow in usage and adoption, so too will the demand for Bitcoin as the digital asset hedge of choice. Emphasizing this point was the recent news that the US banking giant Goldman Sachs reportedly wants in on Blockchain now more than ever, with in-depth research going into the concept of tokenization. For the Blockchain community this is Good, for the Crypto community is this Great? According to David Solomon, Goldman Sachs will be using the Blockchain to reduce its transaction costs, and improve access to and overall efficiency of services to clients. More specifically, providing greater transparency, speed of settlement, and more resilient compliance procedures. Such a move will put Goldman in line with JP Morgan, Fidelity, and Citi who have all made huge strides in the space. This is not to discount the fact that the incumbent bank has already backed stablecoin startup Circle, and toyed with the idea of launching its own over-the-counter Crypto trading desk. Yet, Goldman has failed to reveal what exactly they’re working on, and very few are waiting on baited breath. Progress in Blockchain and decentralised ledger technology has recently been so rapid to the point where news of a major financial incumbent signing on is treated as a non-event.

The wider point merges the above with significant global economic uncertainty stemming from US-China trade tensions and the significant capital flight out of China and Hong Kong. This new round of global economic uncertainty is occurring at the same time that Cryptocurrency and Blockchains are establishing themselves as key elements of the emerging financial architecture of the world. Shortly following the financial crisis of 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto posted his/her/their white paper to a select number of online cryptography experts, also known as cypherpunks. Little did they know that such an alternative model for global finance would shift the direction of large institutions and regulators alike -- with projects like Libra playing a critical role in elevating the profile of this new model. As the global economic and political stages continue to experience massive shifts caused by the vested interests of the few, so the instability independent benefits of digital assets and Blockchain are realized. As proven by the chart below indicating a strong negative correlation between Bitcoin and the S&P500.

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FINTECH & PAYMENTS: BBVA launches a product that will ‘live’ within a third party’s platform & Uber’s new move looks to restaurants-as-a-service

Three weeks ago, we wrote a story on how Fintechs such as Square and Stripe are prime examples of digital startups that have used their enrolled bases of small merchants to cross-sell other services. Additionally, ride-hailers are starting to take note by replicating this model -- using their extensive base of both drivers and riders to build out their own ecosystems. See here for a refresher.

Turns out we could have been closer to the truth. As a new alliance between car-hailing giant Uber and digital bank BBVA seeks to leverage the potential of open banking to enhance financial service provision to Uber's Mexico-based drivers and delivery partners and their families. Essentially, the Uber application becomes the interface through which the aforementioned users can open a BBVA digital account linked to Uber's worldwide 'Driver Partner Debit Card,' allowing family members to receive instant access to earnings made by the driver, without the need of costly international money transfers. Additionally, the benefits of offering a centralized and aggregated platform to drivers and their families means the collected data can be used to offer financial benefits such as loans and insurance, as well as, non-financial benefits such as loyalty rewards, discounts, and subsidized purchases. A smart move if you ask us, especially knowing that Uber is currently incurring card processing fees of around $749 million (2017) to get paid and pay its drivers.

On another note, this last week Uber announced the launch of a dine-in option to its UberEats app – this feature lets users order food ahead of time, go to the restaurant, and then sit down inside to eat. Adding Dine-In lets Uber Eats insert itself into more food transactions, expand to restaurants that care about presentation and don’t do delivery and avoid paying drivers while earning low-overhead revenue. And now that Uber Eats does delivery, take-out and dine-in, it’d make perfect sense to offer traditional restaurant reservations through the app as well. This move pits the on-demand food app directly against OpenTable, Resy and Yelp. Similarly, instead of focusing on a single use-case of on-demand food delivery -- exposing the company to the risk of heavy competition -- appealing to a niche demographic requiring such services, Uber Eats’ strategy is to own the digital service aligned to the impatient and hungry customer.

By changing gears to offer its drivers more perks and job security through the BBVA partnership, as well as, embedding functionalities that promote customer, user, and employee experiences, it’s only a matter of time before Uber launches a fully functional financial suite allowing for users to make payments, customers to maximise profits, drivers to maximise earning potential, and the incentives across the application to cater to a wider demographic as its competitors. It's always better to be a product than a feature.

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Source: El Sol De Mexico (website), Techcrunch (Uber dine-in)

ROBOADVISORS & DIGITAL WEALTH: Artificial intelligence battles in financial markets but conquers in cryptocurrencies

It has become commonplace for users of online platforms to expect that their attention i.e. time spent using the platform, converts to loyalty -- in the form of an artificial intelligence algorithm that knows them better over time e.g. auto-populating search fields, recommending preferred clothes to wear, books to read, or food to eat. Yet, when it comes to applying such sophisticated algorithms to financial markets, why aren't such quant funds always outperforming the market?

Artificial Intelligence is most useful where the problem set is narrowly defined, i.e., it is well known what is being optimized and how, and where the fuzzy data needs the structuring at scale that AI provides. A narrowly defined problem may be – given this particular set of personal characteristics about a person, should they be allowed to borrow this particular amount of money based on prior examples. A poorly defined problem may be – predict the price of a stock tomorrow given thousands of inter-correlated data points and their price history. It all boils down to the reliance of quant investment strategies reliance on pattern recognition: models look to correlate past periods of superior returns with specific factors including value, size, volatility, yield, quality and momentum. Such approaches have several fundamental weaknesses: (1) hindsight bias — the belief that understanding the past allows the future to be predicted, (2) ergodicity -- the lack of a truly representative data sample used in the model, and (3) overfitting --  when a model tries to predict a trend in data that is too noisy i.e. too many parameters or factors. Logically, over time the anomalies that these quant strategies are relied upon to exploit should dissipate, given the swift pace at which technology, competitors, and data moves to correct such anomalies. This is not stopping the likes of augmented analyst platform Kensho (acquired by S&P Global for $550 million), crowdsourced machine learning hedge fund Numerai, and the industry-leading quantamental funds of BlackRock. There is an inherent contradiction in that the approach exploits inefficiencies, but requires market efficiency to realign prices to generate returns.

With Cryptocurrencies, the strategies are different. Native Cryptocurrencies i.e. Ether and Bitcoin, are considered unconstrained assets, with limited correlations to other assets. Additionally, the data sets and factors that need to be considered when trading Cryptocurrencies are far fewer — many of which are speculative and co-dependent, resulting in far more predictable patterns than in financial markets. Because most of Cryptocurrency trading is autonomously and algorithmically driven, patterns are more easily discernible and human trading behavior often sticks out in stark contrast to established market behavior.The issue of course is not the opportunity to profit — it’s the magnitude of such profits. Currently, Cryptocurrencies simply do not have the volume and liquidity necessary for autonomous trading strategies to be deployed in large quantums. Percentage returns for algorithmic Cryptocurrency trading may be significant, but beyond certain volumes, especially when assets under management start approaching the hundreds of millions of dollars, traders need to get far more creative and circumspect in deploying funds as the opportunities are far fewer at larger order sizes.

For now at least, AI and machine learning are still some ways away from consistently beating the financial markets, but with a bit of tweaking they may be a lot closer to beating the Cryptocurrency markets. Evidence of this is already beginning to show -- in 2018 Swiss asset manager GAM's Systematic Cantab quant fund lost 23.1 percent, as well as, Neuberger Berman is considering closing their factor investing quant fund over poor performance. All this whilst Cryptocurrency quant funds returned on average 8% over the same period. While the prospect of searching for phantom signals that eventually disappear could dissuade some people from working in finance or Cryptocurrency trading — the lure of solving tough problems coupled with the potential to dip into the $200 billion opportunity means that there will always be more than enough people who will try.

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Source: Autonomous NEXT Keystone Deck (Augmented Commerce), PWC (2019 Crypto Hedge Fund Report)

2019 FINTECH PREDICTION: Real Autonomous Organizations Take Shape

The last 5 years have seen fundamental innovation in crowdfunding, regulatory technology, the digitization of financial services, Blockchain native organizations, and automated propaganda bots to attract human attention. 2018 brought with it sobriety and a back-to-traditional regulatory treatment of financial assets and their structures. In particular, the crypto asset movement (and its crypto-anarchist community construction) has been put into a well-understood, regulated box by most national regulators. While many interesting lego pieces exist, none of them have yet to fit together. Still, regular people have gotten a taste of both the distribution and manufacturing sides of financial mana.

At the beginning of this year we were hopeful that 2019 would re-combine these pieces to instantiate functional autonomous organizations that work in a constrained market environment and perform useful services. In order to achieve this, however, these new DAOs will need a clear corporate form, a regulatory anchor, and to focus on delivering products and services to regular people, but scaled through machine strategy. We toyed with the idea that the automation of company formation (Stripe Atlas) will combine with the outsourced human/machine assembly line (Invisible Tech) and distributed governance (Aragon) to create companies that scale frighteningly quickly.

So where are the systems that deliver most of the financial primitives without human intervention? Let's start with the fact that Facebook's digital currency Libra is far from being considered a form of decentralized finance. For starters, Libra falls on a permissioned or centralized network, meaning the governance structure consists of a fixed number of entities (29 institutions), although this is said to be only for the first 5 years from release. Nonetheless, Decentralized Finance has grown to hold over $589.9 million of value across its lending, exchange platforms, derivatives, payments, and asset management entities. A notable development comes from Maker -- the most popular decentralized protocol focusing on lending -- is considering to expand the assets it uses as collateral for its smart contracts that generate cash loans. Although Maker is only considering digital tokens such as Basic Attention Token, Ether, Golem, Augur etc. at this time, would it be crazy to think that in the near term we could see the likes of tangible assets such as land, property, and commodities in the form of security tokens included aswel?

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Source: DeFi Pulse

CRYPTOCURRENCY & BLOCKCHAIN: An adoption & regulation deep-dive in Facebook's new digital currency Libra

First came digital gold in the form of Bitcoin in 2009, then utility tokens led by Ether in 2014 and now, the global payments world could be turned upside-down by Facebook's stablecoin, Libra. It is very difficult not to be excited over this new digital currency, and without repeating the good work done by many great resources (referenced below), we wish to touch on two aspects that are important to get your head around, namely: (1) Adoption & Scale, and (2) Regulatory acceptance.

(1) Adoption & Scale

Let's get straight to the point here. According to its whitepaper: "Libra's core mission is to enable a simple global currency and financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people". As with most digital goods and services, the issue of adoption and scale is directly correlated to the efficiencies of the onramps and off-ramps (taking deposits and making withdrawals) provided by the infrastructural layer supporting them e.g., exchanges like Coinbase or Binance for cryptocurrencies. Interestingly, Libra's whitepaper mentions the term "global currency" five times, meaning that Libra's ambitions are to skip the intermediate step of concurrently using cash and digital payments, and somehow become a primary currency used by most economies around the globe.

But, just how ambitious is Libra? In short, very! We know stablecoins are traditionally backed on a one-to-one basis by mainstream assets like the U.S. dollar e.g., USD Coin, while others are collateralized by baskets of cryptocurrencies e.g., Havven. Some of these use algorithms to maintain stable values e.g., CarbonUSD. Libra is a different beast that uses a basket of real assets -- currencies such the US Dollar, GB Pound, and Japanese Yen, as well as, government bonds -- to be backed by, in what it calls the Libra Reserve. This has profound implications on adoption in targeted unbanked-heavy economies as Libra will have to coexist with the local currency, and be supported by the existing financial on-ramps and off-ramps (Bank branches, ATMs, MPesa agents etc.). Local governments are thus likely to demand concessions before allowing Libra access to its market, such as: (1) The Libra reserve must contain assets denominated in the local currency, (2) access to facets of the transaction data to track possible money laundering cases, and/or (3) permitting the local central bank to retain control over the monetary supply necessary to implement monetary policies. Iran and North Korea are good examples of a countries whose imposed sanctions by the U.S. could hinder the adoption of the digital currency by its unbanked target market.

(2) Regulatory Acceptance

Facebook have been clever here. Firstly, the Libra Association is made up of regulated entity partners who will provide the front-end platforms (on-ramps and off-ramps). Facebook is not required to become a financial entity as a result. Secondly, Calibra is set to "have strong protections in place" to keep the reserves and private information of users safe. Bank-grade KYC / AML processes are said to form part of these protections, as well as, automated systems designed to proactively monitor activity and prevent fraudulent behaviour on user’s accounts. Lastly, Libra, supported by its Association members, could be the whipping boy of cryptocurrency – defending the ecosystem against regulators, politicians, institutions, and central banks that seek diminish its legitimacy.

Such regulatory question marks have led to the creation of a task force within the Group of Seven (G7) nations to address these. There is a major concern that Libra will severely threaten not only the economic structures of the global economy, but the political dynamics as well. France’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, making this explicitly clear by stating that “It is out of question’’ that Libra be allowed “become a sovereign currency a sovereign currency, and thus. The G7 currently consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S.

Keep a firm eye on the Libra scales over the coming months -- like our artwork for the week depicts -- these are exciting times.

For more detail see the following:
Basic breakdown
10 Takeaways from the announcement

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Source: Libra Association (via Techcrunch), Libra (via Financial Times), Facebook Libra (via Financial Times)

PAYMENTS: E-Commerce sales growing at a "solid" 12.4% vs. Retail's 2%. What is driving this?

Last week was made great by the release of Mary Meeker's Internet Trends report. If you haven't seen the 2019 version yet, what are you waiting for? Time to read 334 slides in 30 minutes. The key takeaway we remember from last year was the broad digitization of commerce, with E-commerce living in the web and in our mobile apps, plus the augmentation of the physical space with embedded digital commerce. See entry 1 above. 

Ecommerce is still very much a highlight of this report. Specifically, the fact that US ecommerce sales growth is noted as being “solid”, reaching 12.4% year-on-year growth in Q1 of 2019, up from 12.1% in Q4 2018. Similarly, physical retail sales are noted as “solid”, albeit growing more conservatively at 2%. Additionally, customer acquisition costs were found to be rising to unsustainable levels.

What we found most interesting about the reported ecommerce growth in 2019, is its sources where not only from the expected channels i.e., offline sales shifting to online, or search-directed sales on ecommerce websites. Rather, Meeker’s report tells a story of retail becoming a feature that is integrated into apps and services of every kind, and ecommerce reaching new communities and demographics: (1) Social apps -- like Kakao, Line, and Instagram are increasingly integrating transaction and ecommerce features. The monetisation of features embedded in large scale attention platforms makes sense.(2) Ecommerce platforms are making delivery a focal point of their offering. Much of the friction on these platforms lies in the delivery phase of the customer's journey with either cost or time creating negative experiences. Data-driven and direct fulfilment is growing rapidly with agile and low cost third-party platforms -- such as Rappi -- helping to remove such friction points. Enabling local merchants to expand their online presence, and improve access of their ecommerce platform to customers in entirely new and traditionally inaccessible markets. (3) Online grocery formats in China are competing for consumer wallet share. Here, Meeker showcases the sheer variety of grocery retailers competing using different formats for customers to access them i.e., digital-only stores, physical stores with a native digital app, digital-only stores that leverage a franchised community of retail partners to provide the goods and deliver.

It's always good to know we were right. As our 2019 predictions state "customer acquisition costs will rise and the digital model will become more competitive as servicing costs commoditize at a cheaper price point. What we mean is that if everyone -- including large operating businesses -- will understand how to market to and serve Millennials, driving away the arbitrage opportunity Fintech companies have had to date". We'll take that!

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FINTECH: From mobile networks in Africa to global eCommerce platforms, marketplace banking is on the rise

It has long been the promise of regulations like PSD2 or plain old web-forced transparency, that banking information and products get popped out from behind the curtain and made to compete within the foreign land of tech platforms (i.e., App stores and e-commerce). This means prices fall and economic rents go to fewer winners that have strong APIs, integrations, and a nimble balance sheet. The promise is a utopian Fintech ideal in which one’s cash, savings, debts, bills, tax, investments, and assets exist in a single platform that is fast, secure, and globally accessible. And where the long tail of banks evaporates into commodity providers as their regulatory and distribution moat falls away. The symptoms of this happening aren't difficult to find either.

Take open banking platform Plaid – a US-based data aggregation platform that powers authentication and banking detail provision -- not "personal financial management" only -- for any tech startup that wants your bank account and routing number. The platform has built a major open financial data infrastructure for over 15,000 tech startups such as Venmo, Acorns, Robinhood, and Coinbase. It goes without saying that these startups Such success has driven the platform to the shores of the UK, in which it is already connected to over eight of the largest digital-only banks. The claim is that the platform will give UK Fintech businesses access to 70% of all personal current accounts and promote the democratization of financial service offerings to customers between the US and UK. Essentially, these open banking platforms -- Tink and Bud included -- aim to be the Amazon Web Services for financial service companies.
 
A less obvious but just as important example is in eCommerce, where marketplaces like Amazon are partnering with financial institutions to shift the flow of retail into its walled garden -- Bank of America for merchant lending, American Express for SME credit cards, JP Morgan for checking accounts, and so on. The goal here being to monetize a sticky business customer (SME) within the eCommerce platform over and over again -- remember the cross-sell is bigger than the sell. We found two noteworthy new developments in this department. (1) African mobile network operator MTN is building a digital marketplace platform to offer everything from financial products to household goods. The platform will be bootstrapped to MTN's existing mobile money app MoMo, with hopes of it becoming a leading full service banking and eCommerce platform, offering loans, savings accounts, insurance, as well as third party products. The reach of such a digital service would be massive with MTN operating in 22 countries with over 200 million customers. Compare that to the "Amazon of Africa" eCommerce giant Jumia's 4 million customers across 14 countries and you have yourself a juicy competitive advantage situation. 

(2) eBay has just announced a partnership with Santander to offer loans to its 200k SME customers – similar to the Amazon BoFA cooperation. The vision is that eBay have proprietary data that that could indicate SME revenues before those revenues even materialize -- for example: the traffic on product pages by consumers on the eBay website. Here the story is the same where financial institutions are leveraging the customer base and stickiness within eCommerce platforms to sell their products, with the intention to either up-sell or cross-sell them to higher margin products at a later stage.

Overall, it is clear that there is a movement to consolidate financial products and services into digital marketplace platforms is afoot. Should this concern existing banking incumbents? Not entirely, as such institutions still hold the resources sufficient to rapidly spin up their own Fintech startup -- Goldman Sach's Marcus and Well Fargo's Greenhouse. For those that don't, and rather partner with Fintech marketplaces -- the incumbent becomes the client of the Fintech -- the risk is clearly commoditization. Why would anyone choose the pain of shopping for and opening a third-party bank account, if one comes pre-installed in our virtual shopping assistants? Here, Fintech's have their cake and get to eat it.

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Source: Novobrief (article), Plaid screenshot (Plaid Blog), MTN MoMo (MTN Cameroon)

ROBOADVISORS & INVESTING: Robinhood's latest $8bn valuation means that scale players need to wake up

There’s no such thing as a free lunch in life, but there are such things as free trades on Robinhood. What Chime did with banking, Robinhood has done with trading. Their massive 4 million active user base is enviable to every other Fintech. So then it's no surprise that the firm is estimated to be valued at $7-8 billion, following a $200 million fund raise with existing investors. Founded in 2013 by two former Stanford University roommates, Baiju Bhatt and Vlad Tenev, with the goal of  building a brokerage service that democratized access to the financial system -- specifically, stock trading and its significant barriers to entry (costs, fees, and minimum capital requirements). Since it's launch, millennial investors -- an elusive audience to traditional financial services firms -- have flocked to the service to trade stocks, options, cryptocurrencies and exchange-traded funds, at low-to-no fees.

Such success stems from the app's ability to earn fees via indirect channels such as marginal interest, lending, a $6 per month premium product called Robinhood Gold -- offering up to $1,000 of margin to trade with, and lastly, rebates from high-frequency trading and payment order flow. Here, third-party market makers, such as Citadel Securities, Two Sigma, and Virtu, pay Robinhood a rebate for processing trades on the app's behalf, apparently to offer better execution quality and prices. Whilst that sounds noble, it must not be forgotten that such a non-transparent practice -- as noted by CNBC -- could encourage brokers to send orders to market makers that offer the most generous rebates, and not necessarily the ones who offer the best prices for stocks. However, this is likely not to be the case as Robinhood's leadership has stressed that "we don’t take rebates into consideration when we choose which market maker will execute your orders. Also, all market makers with whom we work have the same rebate rate". Last year Bloomberg reported that Robinhood made in excess of 40 percent ($69 million) of its 2018 revenue from payment order flow.

Additionally, Robinhood is planning a U.K. launch to muscle-up against the likes of challenger broker Freetrade -- a London-based twin of Robinhood, and challenger bank Revolut -- who has indicated its intention to offer a free trading platform in the near future. The interesting aspect here is that Robinhood has been desperate to become a full-service bank, with evidence of this coming from last year when the company ended up with egg on its face after announcing its intentions to launch savings and checking accounts with 3% interest rates (30 times the U.S. national average) - despite not being FDIC insured (which is illegal). All too soon after this discovery was brought to regulator's attention, the product was rebranded as a "cash management program" and references to deposit protection were swiftly removed. Yet, the pursuit continues, as the company's second attempt has recently been made via an application for a bank charter in Push-to-Offer Traditional Banking Services with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC).

Lastly, there are rumors that Robinhood is expecting a much bigger round of funding later this year, which could value the company at over $10 billion. This, coupled with the success of the company's latest commission-free crypto trading app, U.K. expansion, and launch of its full service bank, should make scale players in the industry such as Schwab, E-Trade, M1 Finance, and Fidelity fairly nervous. From zero-fee index funds, to zero-fee trading of single stocks. Fee-free trading apps like Robinhood, Vanguard, and FreeTrade have initiated a pricing war between scale players and themselves. So long as the strategy to fight this war remains: platforms and marketplaces who cross-sell products with the aim to retain customers and lock them into a sales cycle, this tech-enabled price war will squeeze margins down to zero. Last one to the bottom is a rotten egg.

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

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Source: Robinhood (via Bloomberg), Robinhood Gold (Robinhood Blog), CNBC (article), Robinhood Crypto (Robinhood Blog)

FINTECH: Greentech and Fintech are a match made in heaven

Here me out here. Decarbonisation and sustainability are becoming buzzwords within the hallways of big venture. Why? Because -- global warming tensions aside -- financial services companies both big and small are coming to the realisation that they are the end customer for energy startups focused on operations, management, and analytics platforms. Bloomberg backed this up in a recent report indicating that investments into the Global clean energy totaled $332.1 billion in 2018 -- with Solar and Wind receiving the lion's share of investment at 39% each.

Politics aside, renewable resources have grown more cost competitive as a direct result of production economics -- sourcing cheaper and more efficient methods and resources to harness energy in more sustainable ways. For example, Tesla's solar roof is deemed to be 20% cheaper than a normal one. So where does Fintech fit in all of this? Since alternative energy generation sources like wind, solar, and fuel cells have become more cost competitive and popular, financial players have stepped in to source the tools and platforms necessary to maximize the return profiles of these alternative energy generating assets -- specifically using technology to inform the operational and financial performance of such assets. For example, blockchain enabled energy trading platform -- Electron, insurance and risk management platform -- Energetic Insurance, or renewable energy finance plans and services platform -- Sunrun

Ultimately, it is without a doubt that what Fintech brings to the table is customer centricity -- creating enjoyable user experiences via friendly graphical interfaces and having an obsession with cost efficiency where it matters most for the customer. Case in point is what Transferwise did for cross-border payments, or Robinhood for stock trading, or Venmo for payments. Yet, it will be up to the greentech startups as to whether the inherently dirty financial services players have cleaned up their act enough to join them on their journey. For more on this, read here.

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Source: BloombergNEF Report, Chubb Cleantech's Global Balancing Act Report, Electron (via Etondigital),Sunrun (Plans & Services)

PAYMENTS: Chinese WeChat Pay follows Alipay into Western Markets, which could mean tokenized digital finance for all

New attention platforms create the opportunity to re-negotiate market share and consumer behavior in open frontiers. Mobile commerce leverages the increasing attention spent by users in phones to design elegant and high-conversion shopping experiences for anything from clothes to food. Nowhere has this been more successful than China where such shopping and lifestyle experiences are augmented by financial services after the onboarding of a few million customers, making the experience stickier -- a great example of this is China's version of Uber called Didi Chuxing which sells insurance, loans, and wealth product to its 550 million users via its app.

We have highlighted before how eCommerce giant Alibaba's financial arm called Ant Financial has partnered with 7,000 Walgreens locations in the US on accepting Alipay. The business rationale is that Chinese tourists abroad are used to paying with QR codes on their mobile phone and do not have credit cards. This initiative would make the lives of that target audience easier. Tencent's multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app WeChat Pay seems to be following in its competitor's footsteps, announcing its plans to grow its cross-border business into Europe, in hopes of capitalising on over 16 million Chinese tourists who visit the region each year. The Chinese mobile payment app has already begun to expand its list of merchants within Europe with two of the first examples being Paris-based department store Le BHV Marais, and Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.

But why should WeChat Pay bother with Western markets? Firstly, 32% of the transactions made by tourists abroad were with a mobile phone in 2018. Additionally, 90% of Chinese tourists admitted that the lack of merchant support in destinations abroad prevented them from using mobile payments. Therefore, growing its merchant network abroad will help boost volumes by a considerable amount. Secondly, mobile wallets pose a direct threat to card networks competing in Europe such as UnionPay, Visa, and Mastercard, who miss out on large chunks of transaction fee revenue as more consumers are enticed by WeChat Pay and Alipay's attractive fees, ease of use, and overall stickiness. In China, such benefits have culminated in 92% of consumers using either Alipay or WeChat Pay. 

Another point we love to make is that the presence of such QR-code based payment platforms would train western staff in retail locations to use QR-codes to process value transfer. Tokenized digital finance enabled by QR-coded mobile wallet platforms -- from key management to open banking to cryptocurrency -- becomes second nature to these new consumer bases. So would it be wrong to cheer these platforms on?

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Source: Autonomous NEXT Analysis (2019 Payments Report), 2018 Trends for Mobile Payment in Chinese outbound tourism (Nielsen), ChinaDaily (Article), Airport Review (Article)

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)

CRYPTO: Understanding the Decentralized Finance Movement with Data Sources

When digital music assailed the music labels, their first response was to sue teenagers for peer-to-peer file sharing and to hire technologists to write Digital Rights Management software. DVDs bought in Asia wouldn't play in American DVD players, and so on. For finance, as blockchain nips at the ankles of storied industry, much of the response has been to (a) bring sovereign power to bear on the misfits, chasing them around to jurisdictions like Bermuda and Malta, and (b) hire technologists to build up enterprise control of crypto assets for issuance and trading. Symptoms of this abound -- from London Stock Exchange putting $20 million into Nivaura, to Swiss private bank Julius Baer entering the space, to regulators of various risk-tolerance drawing lines in the sand around token activities.

This is all good progress, we think, but it is an intermediate step to the Spotify (or Google or Netflix) of finance. Let us dwell on a distinction for a moment. Fintech players democratized access to financial products -- see our many earlier entries on amassing consumers through attention platforms at discounted prices. Those financial products, however, are still institutionally manufactured. But when you look at music or film today, an increasingly large portion of our attention is going to creator-generated content that sits on Youtube and Twitch. We all watch Game of Thrones (i.e., made by the Goldman Sachs of content production), but we also see Gary Vaynerchuk and Joe Rogan endlessly peddling their hustle -- without traditional institutional backing. The same point can be made about Uber drivers.

Decentralized finance is the latest iteration of the crypto theme, and its core premise is that the manufacturing of financial products across the whole stack will be done by individual creators, or aggregated to scale via crowd cooperation driven by DAO governance like Aragon. For the more traditional readers of this newsletter, these words sound like nonsense, but they are not. Payments is the simplest use-case, and already has a decentralized product that works to this day: Bitcoin. Lending, Trading, and Derivatives -- intermediated by software networks and not by legal issuers -- are starting to come online. The tracker below shows some of the smaller independent projects, the maturity of which reminds us of Ethereum's dApp tracker in early 2017.

The other reading we encourage you to do is check out Multicoin Capital's report on crypto exchange Binance, its BNB token, and decentralization plans. Facebook and Amazon, companies whose value has been built over 20 years, are locked into a public shareholder structure that will disallow them from burning down the house and giving all the value away to users. Not so for a multi-billion dollar phenomenon built in a few years, where the largest existential danger is legal sanction to the billionaire founders for unregistered securities dealing. Atomizing the economic value of a quickly-built monopoly into software running on millions of computers, such that it cannot be shut down or controlled (e.g., Pirate Bay), could be the chassis of real, at-scale decentralized finance. Right now though, this theme is struggling to get off-the-ground with meaningful volumes, so a heroic event will be necessary to properly kick things off.

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Source: Forbes (Nivaura), Finextra (Julius Baer), Cambridge Associates (on Venture), Decentralized Finance (The BlockDeFi Pulse), Multicoin (Binance), Bloqboard (Lending DeFi), ConsenSys (Trading DeFi)