neobank

ONLINE BANK: Just how are US incumbent banks using Fintech to future-proof themselves?

It's without a doubt that the global banking industry is undergoing a digital renaissance. Digitally native neobanks are serving customers at a third of the cost of incumbent banks, leveraging modern core technology architectures to innovate faster and operate more efficiently, and earning them a significant chunk of market share. Fintech companies are building solutions around lucrative niches in the value chain. A good example of this is payments unicorn Stripe, valued at a cool $22 Billion, recently announcing it will be offering loans to online businesses to support their growth ambitions. In contrast, incumbents are subjected to the limitations of their core architectures and the resultant slow rate of change to innovate and adopt operational efficiencies necessary to retain their market share.

In the US, incumbent banks are actively investing in Fintech companies as a means to "future-proof" themselves. By "future-proof" we mean three things: (1) increasing the potential for high returns in the short-to-medium term leveraging the benefits stated above -- take Goldman Sach's investment in digital lender Better Mortgage. (2) Gain exposure to emerging sub-industries, as well as, utilize new Fintech platforms to enable rapid scaling and less expensive development of ecosystems and ancillary services -- take Wells Fargo's investment in OpenFin, who is now used to help modernize the bank's software for front-and-back-office functions. (3) Lastly, reduce spending on IT by leveraging the structures of Fintech companies such as the removal of technical debt, leveraging the economies of scale of cloud-based services, and using development tools that support automation (DevSecOps).

We recently came across CB Insights' latest Fintech trends report which notes that in 2019 YTD, US banks have participated in 24 equity deals to Fintech companies -- approximately 54% of the record 45 deals in 2018. Unsurprisingly, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and JP Morgan Chase were noted to be the most active US incumbent bank investors in Fintech. Since 2016, Goldman Sachs has primarily invested in Real estate and data analytics Fintech companies which compliments their current strategy, Citigroup has focused on payments & settlements and Blockchain Fintechs providing evidence of a potential Banking-as-a-service platform in the near future, and lastly JP Morgan Chase has prioritized investment in capital markets and accounting & tax Fintechs in hopes of strengthening its payments play.

For those incumbents averse to Fintech partnerships, McKinsey outlines three options for replacing the core to their next generation platform. The costliest ($100M to $500M+) and most time consuming option being a full replacement of the core with "new" traditional tech platforms. Opposite to this is the cheapest ($50M to $100M) and arguably the most value-add option of migrating the bank's core onto a "greenfield" tech stack -- essentially a modular and API-first cloud-native architecture. RBS' Bó, National Australia Bank's launch of unsecured lending solution QuickBiz, and Goldman Sach's Marcus are all examples of the greenfield approach. As noted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the greenfield approach was considered the most sought after bank innovation strategy by 36% of the 400 banking respondents, a close second was to invest in Fintech start-ups with 31%.

We have noted it before and we will note it again, greenhouse approaches are only effective when the incumbent acknowledges digital as more of a transformation strategy than a channel -- case in point is JP Morgan Chase's failed digital bank Finn. The financial initiatives of Chinese tech companies such as Alibaba and Tencent, for example, serve as a powerful representation of how a core tech chassis serving e-commerce can translate to the physical world leveraging a digital value proposition across its front, middle and back ends. This is why we still believe to see more Fintech mergers and acquisitions beyond the current industry aggregate deal value for 2019 -- more than twice the aggregate of the same period in 2018.

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INTERNET OF THINGS & APIs: The Internet of Things wasn't really a thing

Look, we love our buzzwords as much as you do, but this one has gone on long enough. The Internet of Things (IoT) is one such buzzword that is synonymous with product design, connectivity, infrastructure, and the future. Pretty broad right? To enforce this point, IoT can be simply defined as a network of interconnected digital devices in order to exchange data. Doesn't this sound like the definition for the internet? Effectively the Internet of Things is purely a term of scale, in which the "things" are any device that can be connected to the internet. The issue of scale has resulted in a mass of tech companies -- such as GoogleAppleLGSamsung, and Huawei -- each building and protecting their own IoT solution vertical with which they compete. An example of such verticals that fall into the scope of IoT include automated temperature, lighting, and security controls for your home, or fleet tracking and driver safety controls for a logistics company. For a consumer, having multiple apps to control the functions of their home is no better than using the analogue controls IoT sought to replace. For regulators, ensuring the safety, reliability, standardization and efficiency of each solution has massively hindered the deployment of IoT across the globe.

The assumption that the future of technology relies on faster, better, newer, and more hardware is debatable. Something that big tech companies like Apple are starting to realize. Rather, the future of technology should be centered around machines working together to make magic. How this is achieved is via the gatekeepers enabling the solutions -- Application Programming Interfaces's (APIs). Essentially APIs store and dispense both data and services for hardware and software. Enabling the data source(s), the data consumer(s), and the tech manufacturer(s) the opportunity to compete within the foreign land of tech platforms (i.e., App stores and e-commerce). This generally means prices fall and economic rents go to fewer winners that have strong APIs, integrations, and a nimble balance sheet. Consumer facing services such as ZapierIFTTT, and Signalpattern form part of an emerging segment, allowing for consumers and businesses to connect devices and services together to build truly innovative solutions. Similarly, payments Fintech InstaReM launched an API-based digital B2B platform enabling companies to create their own branded credit cards. Via APIs to InstaReM's card-issuing platform, customers are said to have greater control over the creation, distribution and management of card accounts -- a Visa-supported parallel to Brex.  

For the network of interconnected digital devices in order to exchange data to succeed device manufacturers need to open their APIs, like items on a menu, and users assemble them together into the perfect meal. The level of inter-connectivity we are talking about here is, for example, when the machinery in a factory stops operating whenever a maintenance person swipes into the main floor, or your car's navigation depended on your calendar, financial well-being/budget, and personal well-being (taking scenic routes when stressed). That is truly an internet of API-enabled things. READ MORE.

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Source: Nordic APIs (APIs power the Internet of Things)

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)

2019 FINTECH PREDICTION: Collision of Fintech Bundles and Focus on Transformation Strategies

The economic principle of perfect information is applied to instances in which arbitrage opportunities are driven away by a market with indifferent and absolute information. This principle has led us to predict that in 2019, we will see the convergence of unicorn fintech startups like Robinhood, Acorns, Revolut, Monzo, N26, Betterment, SoFi, Lending Club and others on the same multiple financial product offering across lending, banking, payments and investments. Noting that, if most players -- including large operating businesses -- understand how to market to and serve Millennials in relation to their competitors, then customer acquisition costs are likely to rise and the digital model will become more competitive as servicing costs commoditize at a cheaper price point.

Let's take this one layer deeper. Digitization costs are falling -- fueled by open banking regulation, data democratization, and freely accessible infrastructural platforms offering data storage or marketing for nothing. This is, in part, thanks to the long tail of finance aggregators such as Plaid, Bud, and Tink who pull data across multiple capital sources, using it to build/offer consumer facing products/services like budgeting tools, wealth management nudges, and/or service provider recommendations. As a result, Fintech verticals are becoming more competitive red oceans, as both big and small players fight over shrinking profit margins driven by such transparent data and freely available technology. But this isn't new news. What's happening now is a reaction by Fintech players and financial incumbents to get bigger, shed fixed costs, and take a shot to monopolize the industry vertical. The payments industry is a great example of where consolidation is happening all at once, with FIS buying Worldpay for $35 billion and Fiserv winning First Data for $22 billion. Consolidation is taking place in other forms as well, take UK-based challenger bank Revolut -- consolidating its cost exposure per transaction by building its own payment processor called RevP, and potentially launching a fee-free trading product to target Robinhood by the end of the year.

We have already seen what happens when traditional bank-backed neobanks use apps as digital channels in an attempt to capture a younger client base through edgy and innovative user experiences tied to traditional financial product -- JP Morgan's Finn became a victim of this approach which eventually resulted in its demise. Wells Fargo's Greenhouse, RBS's Mettle,and MUFG's PurePoint could face a similar fate, should they fail to acknowledge digital as more of a transformation strategy than a channel. The financial initiatives of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, for example, serve as a powerful representation of how an online e-commerce chassis can translate to the physical world leveraging a digital value proposition across its front, middle and back ends. This is why we still believe to see more Fintech mergers and acquisitions beyond the current $97.53 billion industry aggregate deal value for 2019 -- more than twice the aggregate of the same period in 2018.

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NEOBANKS & FINTECH: Secrecy reigns supreme as JP Morgan recruit for new digital bank, and Revolut seek beta testers for their new in-house payments processor

Neobanks, Challenger banks, Digital Banks, Fintech Banks -- the complicated taxonomy of how we classify the companies bound to these labels seems to be ever-changing. What's consistent is that Fintech is, at its best, multifaceted, difficult, iterating on a solution to cater to the largest customer demographic as possible. Access and democratization are its core values, even if it is not decentralized nor truly disruptive. Get this wrong and you are subjected to a fate similar to that of JP Morgan Chase's recently deceased neobank Finn.

In 1892, two boxers, Harry Sharpe and Frank Crosby, went head to head for 77 rounds lasting five hours and five minutes, making it the longest fight in the sport’s modern history. Like one of the boxers in the late rounds of this fight, JP Morgan is pretty beat up having lost the neobank round, but the investment bank isn't done with digital-first products just yet. Although there is very little information in circulation, JP Morgan is said to be recruiting for a secretive Fintech skunkworks project based in London. The goal is to build a completely cloud-based banking platform i.e., AWS for banking, similar to that of Starling Bank or 11:FS Foundary. The offerings are said to compete with Goldman Sach's digital bank Marcus, as well as, challenger banks Atom and Tandem. Success would mean considering digital as a transformation strategy, as opposed to a mere channel. If JP Morgan get this wrong the second time then we will continue to watch them fight a losing battle in the longest match in history.

Digital as a transformation strategy seems to be the philosophy behind Revolut's latest move to build their own payments processor. We will remind your that a payment processor is a company that handles the secure authorisation communications between the different players in the payment workflow e.g., PayPal. Revolut's processor will be called RevP, and is currently in a public beta test to work out some kinks in hopes of processing the millions of Revolut transactions which take place across the globe each day. In our recent payments report, we noted that Payment Processors can take as much as US$0.30 per transaction from the merchant. The long tail of online commerce (i.e., the many small shops on the Web and social networks like Instagram) has been trending towards renting software from horizontal platforms. This includes website development tools like SquareSpace, storefronts like Shopify, various marketing agencies, and payments solutions like Stripe. Stripe claims to generate a 50-70% reduction in ongoing costs per 1,000 annual transactions, which is particularly meaningful for small businesses. This is a juicy steak for Revolut to sink its teeth into, don't you think?

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Source: JP Morgan's secret digital bank (via TechCrunch), Autonomous NEXT Analysis

NEOBANKS & FINTECH: Ride-hailing apps are becoming the Uber of Fintech

Steve Jobs defined a key distinction that stuck with many entrepreneurs -- is your company a Product or a Feature? It's bad to be a feature -- you are just one widget in someone else's platform. It's good to be a product -- you fit into many environments and use-cases. What we are observing now is that Fintech product is being transformed into a platform feature by non-Fintech players -- specifically ride-hailing apps like Uber, Lyft, and Grab. 

These ride-hailing giants have built their empires by making the burden of payments a truly seamless experience for their customers. Which is why the potential for them to expand into Fintech and financial services far outweighs the need for new forms of transportation -- autonomous human-carrying Uber drones or Lyft trains. The kicker being that their robust platforms and/or large customer bases create ripe cross-sell opportunities. 

Take Grab -- the $14 billion-valued ride-hailing giant that acquired Uber's Southeast Asia business last year. Since then, Grab has faced growing competition from Go-Jek -- its +$9 billion-valued rival who is backed by Google, JD.com, and others. Forcing Grab to earmark financial services as a core pillar of its strategy for regional dominance over Go-Jek and financial incumbents who are disadvantaged by the lack of financial services infrastructure and unified credit scoring. Since then, Grab has partnered with Mastercard to launch a prepaid card to target the unbanked, spun out its own financial arm -- Grab Financial Group, which brings group payments, rewards & loyalty, and insurance to its drivers and customers, and recently announced a co-branded credit card with Citi. 

Uber's initial foray into financial services was the launch of Uber Cash -- a digital wallet allowing credit to be added in advance via prepaid cards. Since then, the popular ride-hailing app has partnered with Venmo for payments, Finnish-Fintech Holvi for offering financial services access to its drivers, Flexible car-leasing startup Fair for car leasing, a credit card in partnership with Barclays for loyalty and promotions, and a recent hiring spree showing signs of a potential New York-based Fintech arm -- much like that of Grab's. One of the interesting outcomes from such an arm would be the potential for a native Uber bank account, which would help remove the ride-hailer's reliance on the existing banking system -- Card processing fees alone cost Uber $749 million in 2017 -- to get paid and pay its drivers. Such a move would see Uber partner with cheaper and more agile low-profile FDIC-insured banks such as Cross River, Green Dot, or Chime, rather than have its own charter or partner with larger institutional banks. This is likely, as US-based ride-hailing companies such as Uber and rival Lyft have come under scrutiny by lawmakers to consider their drivers as employees rather than "independent contractors". Both Uber and Lyft argue that such a move would be cripplingly expensive -- Quartz estimates the cost to be $508 million and $290 million respectively. Our question is, to what extent would native bank accounts offset these potential employee-related costs?

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. 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.

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Source: Grab (via Business Insider), Grab Financial (via TheDrum), Uber (via Business Insider), Uber Credit (via Techcrunch), Uber-Lyft wage concessions (via SFChronicle)

NEOBANKS: JP Morgan Chase's Finn proves that digital banking is tougher than you think to get right

JP Morgan Chase's Finn -- is a bit of a hybrid -- a digital app loaded with features suited for its millenial target market, as well as, a digital branch mechanism to transfer customer's funds to new Chase checking and savings accounts. The reason for this was to attract customer's that sought to bank with Chase, but had little to no access to a branch. The digital banking app launched in 2018, and soon proved that the Chase brand was in fact best positioned to provide that combination of services to Finn's 47,000 customers.

Three important takeaways from this: (1) Consumers who open accounts with digital banks don't do so because they want a bank with no branches. A higher value is attributed to better financial management tools, rewards, and interest rates. (2) A differentiated service offering than what exists in the market is critical to garner significant adoption rates amongst a younger target market. Finn didn't offer its consumers -- nor existing Chase customers -- anything they couldn't get elsewhere. (3) A lack of understanding the market you are attracting, is probably the cause of poor uptake. In a recent poll by Cornerstone Advisors research – Finn had clearly tailored its market to the wrong demographic with just 7% of 20-something Millennials and 6% of 30-something Millennials said a digital bank would be in their consideration set. Contrast that to the 9% of Gen-Xers and 7% of Boomers who said they would consider a digital bank.

This is Fintech at its best -- multifaceted, difficult, iterating on a solution to cater to the largest customer demographic as possible. Access and democratization are its core values, even if it is not decentralized nor truly disruptive. The kicker is if you get this wrong, then call it a day. 

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Source: Finn Bank (Via Chase), Insight Vault Q4 2017 (via Cornerstone)

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

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)

PAYMENTS: Is Digital Banking hurting the Underbanked?

Here's a conundrum. You don't have a bank account and therefore cannot set up a digital payment option. Now try ordering and paying for an Uber! This example reveals a simple truth: digital services -- and in particular digital financial services -- can be regressive (benefit the haves, hurt the have-nots). As countries like the United Kingdom, China, India and the Nordics move towards demonetization, driven by technology and policy, the social and structural implications of getting rid of cash could make things a lot worse for the most vulnerable. Based on a recent UK report linked below, lowest grade workers and the unemployed use cash 49% of the time for their purchases, while those in the highest professional occupations use cash only 39% of the time. And conversely, card use is split at 37% (low income) vs. 44% (high income).

Weird. Fintech is supposed to be a democratizing force that allows anyone, regardless of account size, to access quality financial product. Let's stick with the UK for a clean analysis. If you look at penetration of mobile devices, 85% of the populace owned a smartphone in 2017, massively up from 52% in 2012. So that means, generally speaking, most people have some payment-enabled digital hardware that they can lug around in their pocket. And yet that device is not the financial key (yet) for the unbanked and underbanked. Why? One hypothesis is to look closer at the rails on which money travels, and their interoperability.

The first is paper cash. It requires no intermediaries, at least in concept, and therefore 100% of the population is able to "self custody" a little bit of it under their bed, and use it for commerce. The second is banking. Banking intermediates the financial system, and allows for modern services to function and thrive. But it also has an onboarding cost, set by the banking industry's risk tolerance, set by the legislator and the regulator, which may be prohibitive to some share of the population. It excludes "bad risks" by design. Banking also introduces costs into moving money around, which must be covered through business activity, and often warps into unethical economic rents (i.e., overdraft fees). When we talk about mobile payments, what we are really talking about is extending the banking system into the population that has adopted mobile phones -- and this excludes unbanked mobile users. As homework, we suggest the reader think about WeChat (mobile UX, media industry intermediation, government rails) and Bitcoin (mobile UX, hardware industry intermediation, blockchain rails) as being a solution to avoiding the regressive outcome. 

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Source: Access to Cash (Report), Consultancy UK (2017 mobile penetration), Latin America's Banking Revolution (Euromoney)

ONLINE BANKING: Metro Bank and Revolut in the Doghouse

Facebook used to say "Move Fast and Break Things". It sure did. There are many ways to win, and some are sharper elbowed than others. Is growth inevitably tied to bad behavior, or is there a version of sustainable entrepreneurship that doesn't require us to sacrifice Ethics at the altar of Monopoly? Prior marquee Fintech bad-actors include Zenefits (fastest growing insurer whose brokers were unlicensed) and Lending Club (what's a little self-dealing?), not to mention all of Wall Street and at one point or another. Now we are seeing the same sharp elbows from Revolut and Metro Bank.

Metro Bank may be a fast growing operation, but it doesn't seem to be very good at being a bank. Of its £14.5 billion loan book, the company mis-categorized 10% of its assets last month, grading that capital at 100% when it should have been at best a 50% (e.g., commercial property loans are more risky than cash). That means the balance sheet needs way more cash, and Metro Bank is out raising a cushion of £350 million -- a number that will mean chunky dilution given that the public market cap has been under pressure. There is a certain irony here as well. Consider the sins of a bigger offender -- RBS getting a £45 billion bail-out a decade ago and being forced to set aside £775 million to as penance. Of those funds, £120 million are now flowing to Metro Bank to promote banking competition. 

One of our favorites, Revolut, has also been in the news with a spat of ugly news. There are reports of over-clocked, destructive culture. Some Fintech aspirants are asked to sign up 200 funded accounts for Revolut as part of the interview process, without a job guarantee. Once they do land a job, workers are expected to drive 100 mph through weekends and holidays, leading to burnout and churn. Sounds like SoFi two years ago. Money Laundering concerns abound, with information coming out that KYC/AML control lapsed in the middle of last year. For a company that launched Bitcoin trading, this type of news is both embarassing and systematically destructive. And lastly, the main adult in the room (CFO Peter O'Higgins, former JP Morgan) has just quit as well. 

It's easy to say to look at people doing hard things and judge them on style. But sometimes the ambition isn't worth the damage. 

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Source: Guardian (Metro Bank), SharesMagazine (Metro Bank), AltFi (RBS Settlement), Wired (Revolut Culture), Finextra (Revolut CFO), Banking Tech (Revolut AML)

ONLINE BANKING: European Fintechs backed by Goldman, Paypal and Nordea get $200 Million

Open banking is happening, but it feels different than expected. The story is not the gradual digitization of incumbents through Application Programming Interfaces that liberate data and modernize incumbents. Incumbents -- other than a select few giants (e.g., JPM, Goldman, BAML, BBVA, Santander, DBS) -- are primarily performing Fintech Kabuki to look good for public equity investors. And even more, their financial performance is driven too much by exposure to capital, interest rates, regulation and compliance, physical retail costs and other risk-averse incentives, that tech-first approaches do not matter. The ice cube is melting slowly, like the media industry in early 2000s. This is how you get to absurdist PR poetry: in advertising their merger of equals, creating a $300 billion deposit bank, BB&T and SunTrust proclaim: "Two Legacies, One Future". Yes, the future of Planned Obsolescence.

Instead -- open banking looks like this. London-based Bud has raised a $20 million round from Goldman, HSBC, Investec and Sabadell to sit on top of legacy, obsolescent systems and pull data out of them into modern architecture. The firm has 80 fintech partners, and can connect third party developers into products like credit cards and insurance, as well as categorize the data exhaust coming from these sources using machine learning (but who couldn't at this point). Or take Tink, raising EUR 56 million in new funding from Insight Ventures and the Nordic banks, similarly going after the PSD2 as a service opportunity. Yet another example is Raisin, which just got $114 million for interest-rate shopping across the continent. The company has placed $11 billion across 62 partner banks; 62 banks that offered the most interest to customers, and therefore made the least money. This technology intermediator is accumulating the long tail of capital as product, while owning the customer directly.

So yes, these are all little bits. But such is the nature of erosion, until the rock-face breaks off into the ocean with a final splash. We note the investors in these entities are from the financial industry, so that creates a hedge. But we can also imagine Amazon, with a net promoter score 3x better than the national banks, snapping one of these apps as the industry yawns. Bud and Tink are cloud services, which could sit in AWS for finance. Raisin is a comparison shopping engine, at home in Prime. Neither make financial products, instead relying on the industry to get hollow in the middle and provide capital through the long tail. And capital is fungible -- for example, if a legitimate crypto-first bank comes along, offering 1% returns backed by insurance on a stablecoin, why shouldn't these open banking players connect to the decentralized ones? 

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Source: Forbes (Bud), Finn.ai (Amazon), TechCrunch (RaisinTink), Company Websites

CRYPTO: Re-making Traditional Banks with Custodian/Exchange Staking-as-a-Service

2019 has started off with a bang in capital markets blockchain -- (1) a $20 million investment by Nasdaq in enterprise blockchain FX player Symbiont, on the heels of Baakt and ErisX, (2) a Security Token Realized conference well attended by financial services execs from companies like State Street, of which 70%+ owned BTC, (3) and meaningful technical developments and financial products from folks like Tokeny, Securitize, Templum, Atomic Capital and others. But let us shift to another leg of the crypto stool this year, which is staking-as-a-service. We recommend reading the Coindesk op-ed from Michael Casey linked below, which outlines how a transition from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake in Ethereum (if it ever happens) could lead to the intermediation of crypto deposit holding on behalf of consumers. If investors get paid for outsourcing private key management to custodians, argues Casey, we re-create the fractional banking system with its pitfalls, like counterparty risk and incentive trends towards leverage. 

We agree, but aren't immediately put off by the comparison because credit is the lifeblood of inter-temporal economic decision making. Staking reminds us of two things from traditional finance -- capital requirements for banks, and interest-bearing deposits within those banks. As soon as users realize that they should be getting some interest return from their outsourced cryptocurrency accounts at exchanges or custodians, there should be broad competition around this product. If Coinbase offers 3% while Binance offers 4% of staking rewards (or vice versa), the consumer choice becomes more clear. This is exactly what banks compete on in terms of attracting deposits.

Users can already get an interest rate on their crypto for margin lending, up to 7% or so depending on the token. As an aside -- that margin lending may be a bad deal for the lender, since you are powering the short-selling of the capital asset you hold. You could also compare staking returns to dividends that corporations pay to their shareholders, as shareholders buy the equity and commit capital to an asset.  Given that these staking rewards are raw inflation (rather than cashflow earned by a corporation), the dividends become a value transfer between holders that stake and those that do not -- a tax on the unsophisticated user. Also, a dividend by law has to be passed on to the beneficial owner, which is a good thing. But that's not very anarchist of us.

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Source: Forbes (Symbiont), Security Tokens Realised (agendavideo), Coindesk (Staking op-ed), Medium (On fractional banking), Token Daily (on staking as a service), Celcius Network (interest on ETH)

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: "Financial Deadbeats" map is the worst things about Chinese Fintech

In our continued amazed gawking at the Chinese fintech landscape, we bring you the following. There is now a feature within WeChat, one of two channels for all mobile chat communication, to show a map of "financial deadbeats" around you. That's right -- a shaming visualization of people who are in financial trouble, like some sort of public sex offender list. We link to the article below, and assume that it is true despite how preposterous the whole thing seems. 

Offenses that could land you on the blacklist include serious ones like being the founder of a digital lender that collapsed with 12 million unpaid accounts, and trivial ones like being a single mother embroiled in a divorce proceeding. Once you are on the list, not only will your full name and financial information be public entertainment on this app, but access to credit, commerce and university admission could be revoked. To add insult to injury, a special ringback tone is added to the "discredited" person's mobile phone, alerting any potential caller about your poor financial management skills.

We add to this soup the idea of algorithmic bias exhibited by AI based on training data. We've covered this issue in the past, but point to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) recently bringing it up into mainstream conversation. From propaganda bots to algo-racism, these arcane issues are starting to concern the broader Western polity. So when you combine historical training data reflecting past social and economic biases with social media enforcement systems, dystopia calls. One of the most important financial innovations in the West was bankruptcy, allowing entrepreneurs to fail and start over. This normalization of financial wipe-out led to an equilibrium with higher risk-taking and innovation. It is chilling to see technology being used, with potential for error and misuse, to stifle that spirit. Based on the US personal bankruptcy data below, you can see that 6 out of 1000 people would be guilty according to WeChat, skewed in large part to minority populations. No thanks. 

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Source: Abacus News (deadbeat map), Independent (deadbeats), Vox (algo-racism), On bankruptcy normalization and bankruptcy zip codes

ONLINE BANKS: $22 Billion from Fiserv for First Data, creating a Public Banktech utility

In one of the most massive Fintech headlines in recent history, core processing company Fiserv is buying merchant acquirer First Data in a $22 billion stock deal. Much of the thinking about the combination is about scale (12,000 financial services clients plus 6 million merchant locations) and synergies ($900 million in cost, $500 million in revenue). The combination is well engineered in a spreadsheet, and has the strategic rationale of defending a competitive position by vertical consolidation -- "if we own all the Payments and Banking products, we'll touch all the clients". Some folks also mention the pressure on revenues across the industry, as Fintech start-ups create transparency and competition in the space. Consolidating business lines in such an environment makes sense, though perhaps this is an afterthought at the scale we are talking about.

There are two angles we want to consider. The first is that enabling financial technology -- i.e., the infrastructure needed to manufacture something financial -- trends towards both utility and monopoly over time. It is a utility in the sense that it should be dirt cheap, easily available, and nobody in their right mind would want to rebuild one (also note utilities are public, as in owned by the government). It is a monopoly in the sense that a single player should win the whole market, consolidate all the costs, and charge only at the margin. As technology evolves, the threat of entry by new players like Alipay and Whatsapp is almost as scary as the actual entry of such players. The infrastructure provider would be wise to compress their own margins to make entry by smarter, faster, better players unattractive. A corollary to this line of thinking is that the long tail of small banks and credit unions rent software from utilities, while firms like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs get to hire AI PhDs from Google. 

The other lens to think about is where the innovation and associated growth happen. We recently re-discovered 2015 slides from venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, which showed how the flow of investment value in technology -- i.e., the investment returns for taking on some risk -- are happening in large part in the private, and not in the public markets. Said another way, private market valuations no longer have a meaningful ceiling (thanks to SoftBank and Tencent), and therefore private investors get to capture all the capital gains from fintech disruption. To go public merely is to monetize those private gains, whereas in the past going public meant getting capital for growth. That means we expect Payments and Banking industry innovation to stay private, and for large players like Fiserv and First Data to rent or acquire them, rather than lead and source them. 

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Source: Business Wire (Press Release), Andreessen Horowitz (Presentation on Venture), Company Websites for screens

OPEN BANKING: Newly-horned unicorn Plaid acquires data aggregator Quovo for up to $200 million

In another unicorn story, let's take a look at Plaid, which we discussed just a few weeks back when they raised $250 million at a $2.7 billion valuation. Plaid solved the problem of financial authentication. Some of you may remember that when you connected a third party service to your bank account in the Dinosaur Age, that service would send you a few pennies into the account as a secret pass-phrase. It would be a random number, which you would then tell to the provider as proof you control the account. A few billion dollars later, Plaid has replaced this for tech companies with a simple API call. They do other stuff too -- which, broadly speaking, can be said to encompass all of the "Open Banking" PSD2 regulation in Europe. They just do it in the US, regardless of the wishes of the banks.

So we were delighted to see that Plaid used some of its new money to buy Quovo, a strong player in the digital wealth data space for up to $200 million. Unlike Plaid's banking focus, Quovo is strong at understanding investment management data. Take for example the following -- credit card transaction data categorization (Starbucks is a coffee shop), and tax basis reporting for stock purchases (bought at $100). These are different problems and require different teams. Quovo had built a strong stack on the investments side, powered a meaningful amount of the account aggregation for folks like Betterment and AdvisorEngine. Still, the acquisition likely has (1) much of the consideration in the form of Plaid stock, since venture investors don't love funding acquisitions, and (2) revenue-based valuation earn-outs. The cash outlay in that $200 million, we suspect, is more modest.

But also, let's look back and compare. Quovo's closest analog would be ByAllAccounts, which Morningstar bought for $28 million. Someone wasn't good at selling! Plaid's closest analog would be Yodlee, which used to power Mint and was purchased by wealth platform Envestnet for $590 million. In turn, BlackRock has bought into over $100 million of Envestnet stock. These more traditional versions of the same business were way, way cheaper than the Silicon Valley equivalents, and were prescient moves by the incumbents. Yet these are early days for financial data -- we are rooting for the whole industry to open up and digitize. 

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Source: Envestnet (Yodlee), Investment News (Morningstar), RIA Biz (Plaid/Quovo)

ONLINE BANK: Here's why N26 can be valued at $2.7 Billion

One key prediction for 2019 -- digital, mobile-first Fintech bundles -- is already coming true. N26, a German neo-bank, has raised a new $300 million to fund international expansion at a ridiculous, eye-popping, anxiety-inducing $2.7 billion valuation. After just a few years of operation and some European Millennials downloading the app. Can this thing really be worth it? Our initial bearish take was that this is not about how much the company is worth, but how much it needs. Venture investors are happy to burn money in order to grow B2C consumer brands, which have now gotten large enough to need (rather than earn through revenue or income) their unicorn valuations. Anecdotally, there's a 5x difference between the public and private markets -- so if you divide the billions by 5 and are no longer outraged, then this price is fair.

But on further thought, there is some defensible industrial logic here. Let's assume -- for the sake of argument -- that all the tech and financial product is trivial, and that all of the venture funding is being used to acquire customers. Further, let's assume that each round is responsible for client acquisition in the prior period. This translates into a simple fact: venture money is a marketing budget, so traction acquiring customers isn't an accomplishment. It's just paying for Facebook ads. On N26's 2.3 million users, customer acquisition costs are between $20-100 per user.

Let's assume that deposits are at $1.5 billion, which is about $650 per customer. That looks a lot like Acorns and Robinhood to us. Depending on assumptions, N26 could make somewhere between $3 and $10 per user per year, which is roughly a 5-10 year payback period. Looking at Revolut, who raised $344 million and probably spent about $150 million of that, venture capital per user looks like $40-110, slightly more expensive. Revolut's revenue is somewhere in the $20 to $30 million range, with a per user revenue of $5-10 as well. There are 600+ banks in the US with assets over $1 billion, so this looks ridiculous (i.e., not special) on its face. Until you realize that customer acquisition cost for financial products is $300, regardless of business line, that customer turn-churn is low, and that acquisitions in the market recently happened at $60 per lead. So we think that the customer acquisition machine is fairly reasonable. Deriving enterprise value on that by multiplying money raised by 10x does seem a meaningful stretch.

Another interesting angle is the fact that the last two rounds involved Asian money -- Tencent and GIC respectively. Those are not particularly price sensitive investors, and N26 is -- from that frame -- a cheap experiment to run in order to see what a foreign banking entrant can do in the United States. If I were Tencent, I would be taking detailed, copious notes.

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Source: Autonomous NEXT analysis, Bloomberg (N26), Company website

2019 FINTECH PREDICTION: Collision of Fintech Bundles and Pivots to New Channels

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Unicorn fintech startups like Robinhood, Acorns, Revolut, Monzo, N26, Betterment, SoFi, Lending Club and others will all converge on the same multiple financial product offering across lending, banking, payments and investments. This is driven by the need to cross-sell new revenue in order to justify high spending on customer acquisition. Large financial incumbents will be following the same bundling playbook through their mobile apps, intensifying the progress of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, UBS, DBS, BBVA and Santander along this axis. Tech and finance (as well as incumbents and startups) will all be pursuing the same customer-centric solution for the digital consumer. Great for the customer.

As a result, 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. As a result, at least one unicorn will implode when the cross-sell does not materialize. Most likely this will look like a devaluation of the equity component in the capital stack, such that new money is raised to maintain profitable marginal operation, but the hundreds of millions already invested in the business are mere sunk cost.

New revolutionary entrants will use channels that are foreign to existing Fintechs and financial incumbents, like video, Twitch, Discord or AR/VR. One example would be credit-as-a-service, similar to Stripe payment-as-a-service, built into a B2B customer journey. Another would be native payment systems for digital experiences and environment. Yet another idea could be social currency within chat streams for video gamers. It will be foreign territory for many, and the key to success is correct market timing balanced with adoption.

Source: Images from Pexels, 2019 Keystone Predictions Deck

ONLINE BANK: Killing the Banks softly with Robinhood and Good Money

But wait, there's more! Certainly all top-3 neobank champions by geography are hungrily eyeing international expansion . The US is looking delicious for Revolut and N26, Europe is interesting for Ping An as it invests over EUR 40MM into fintech venture studio Finleap, Fidelity wants to open a roboadvisor in the UK, and so on. Technology does not have borders. This is why we are particularly interested in Good Money, funded to the tune of $30 million by Galaxy EOS VC fund (remember EOS raised $4 billion). Good Money is a "banking platform" whose equity will be owned by users when they take certain actions, like opening an account, installing the app, or referring friends.

If that sounds like tokenized equity intermingled with Binance referral codes, you're right! One thing we've learned from the ICO mania, other than that some people are sharp-elbowed opportunists who will go to jail, is that human beings like being in communities, and that communities grow way faster and cheaper than "customers". By combining crowdfunding with account actions, this play has a chance to build viral loops, and pioneer a model where a corporate structure (equity) and utopian philosophy (communal ownership of money) have mutually-reinforcing benefits. The blockchain software progress of the last two years makes this possible. Whether it will work or not is another fun story. 

Last, but not least, is Robinhood and their announcment of banking service to their 6 million mobile-first customers. The products is called "Checking & Savings", will deliver a 3% interest rate (vs. Goldman Marcus at 1.85%) and rebated ATM access with a debit card. It is not a bank account and therefore not subject to FDIC insurance. In fact, the whole thing is old hat -- Schwab does this well now (albeit with lower rates on its money market funds), and every HNW wealth management shop ran such an offering for the last 20 years. But you know, Robinhood actually knows how to sell and position a product for its audience, and are willing to burn venture money to deliver a 3% return. Steve Jobs made a killing announcing previously existing products as inventions of Apple -- and he won, because Apple's re-inventions were better suited for the times. Who will you bet on? 

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Source: Cointelegraph (Good Money), TechEU (Finleap), Newswire (Good Money), Bloomberg (Robinhood)