ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: Morgan Stanley, Yext and Chinese AI-first Apps.

A point is not enough. It takes two points to make a trend-line, at least in a two dimensional space. One of the muscles we try to flex often is to connect points in different sectors and themes to see the limits of the possible. Let's contrast the following: (1) Morgan Stanley partnering with Yext for financial advisor business pages, and (2) Andreessen Horowitz' commentary on Chinese consumer artificial intelligence applications on a path to capture the hearts of teenagers everywhere. Disparate, funky, and painfully obvious.

About ten years ago, "hyper-local" became a venture catchphrase. News would go from being general to local, video would go from main-stream to niche, and so on, contextualized by the GPS in our pockets. Yext is a company that won one of the battles for hyper-local content by building the retail knowledge graph that gets printed on Google Maps. Simply, if you see a business listing for a laundromat on your Maps app, likely the app provider is licensing local data from Yext. This data then scales up into pre-made business websites, analytics, and customer funnel conversion. Morgan Stanley inked a partnership with this scale content manager to give their 15,000 financial advisors a digital presence. Controlling and printing out that content at scale, with embedded compliance and into every Google/Apple phone, is hard and smart. And perhaps physical presence is the main value of a human advisor.

Now for Chinese AI. Unlike Americans, with their hand-wringing about privacy, choice, and human agency, Chinese apps don't care. The next generation version of Instagram and Snapchat is called TikTok, and the storied venture firm Andreessen celebrates them for taking away any human choice in what content a user would see. The algorithm is not a search support tool, it is the only and ultimate arbiter of where your attention goes. And it tends to make kids happy (unlike Youtube, which generally makes them into Twitter trolls). 

So let's mesh these things together. A financial services version of TikTok with a Yext overlay would be an app that is tied to the physical world, perhaps through Augmented Reality or just simple Maps, that would decide for you which financial provider to find. It would know that you still want to talk to a person for that emotional connection, and would find one that's closest geographically and a best-fit emotionally -- a two factor optimization problem for an AI. Yext financial advisor reviews, combined with a Morgan Stanley risk/behavioral client questionnaire could do this. Thus the TikTok aspect kicks in, with the human in the loop simply being a form of physical content marketing, gaming the algorithm with a meatspace presence. 

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Source: Finextra (Yext), Andreessen Horowitz (AI apps), FactorDaily (App downloads), 

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)

ONLINE BANK: Killing the Banks Softly with Plaid, Cross River, and Open Banking

A great set of symptoms this week for the theme of banking-as-a-service / open banking. To recap, due to regulations like PSD2 or plain old web-forced transparency, banking information and products are getting 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 falls and economic rents go to fewer winners that have strong APIs, integrations, and a nimble balance sheet. The long tail of banks evaporates into commodity providers as their regulatory and distribution moat falls away. Maybe true, maybe just a fun story!

Symptom number one is the $100 million raise of Cross River Bank, of which 75% came from private equity firm KKR. Cross River provides the balance sheet to Affirm, Coinbase, and TransferWise. Those companies in turn are building credit-as-a-service into points of sale (think Stripe), custody and banking for digital assets (dozens of millions of users), and the destruction of international money transfer margins. Finance is correctly integrated as a product/feature within a much more meaningful and long customer journey. This means customer ownership leaves the product manufacturer and goes to the point of actual economic activity.

Symptom number two is the $250 million fundraising into Plaid, a data aggregation company, backed by Mary Meeker as her coup de grace from Kleiner Perkins. Remember Europeans, there is no PSD2 in the US, so we have to screen scrape the information out of the protesting bank hands. In the early 2000s, a number of data aggregators were built, the winners of which were Yodlee (bought for $500mm-ish by Envestnet), ByAllAccounts (bought by Morningstar), Finicity and a few others. Plaid's venture valuation of $2B+ boggles the mind, but the answer is in the product. It powers authentication and banking detail provision -- not "personal financial management" only -- for the hungry host of Silicon Valley. Any tech startup that wants your bank account and routing number goes to Plaid, not to Yodlee. Thus is built a major open financial data infrastructure for tech companies in the US. And in Europe, open banking is progressing bit by bit, with the largest incumbents opening the door to barbarians. It's a fun story.

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Source: Payments Source (Cross River), Open Works (APIs), CNBC (Plaid), Fortune (Plaid) 

PAYMENTS: Can Facebook be trusted to provide Whatsapp Payments to 200 million users in India?

Facebook's hair is on fire again. A set of company emails from around 2015 have been acquired by a UK parliamentary committee, despite being sealed by a court in the United States. The emails were on a private computer of a person of interest (Ted Kramer, CEO of Six4Three) who was traveling in the UK. The sovereign issues are interesting in themselves, as global technology companies stretch across jurisdictions to be subject to the laws of each one of them. Case in point is the US arrest of the Huawei (massive Chinese phone manufacturer) CFO in Canada as part of a feud on intellectual property and selling goods to economically sanctioned countries like Iran. So, if you're running a tech company with global impact, maybe just telecommute lest you be snatched by a regulator.

What we learned from the emails is that Facebook acts like a monopoly, using its control over APIs and data to (1) starve or (2) reward players that help cement its position at the center of the attention economy. It is ruthless in its taking and leveraging of customer data, it does so with minimal warning, and it is largely unconcerned about the social consequences unless they have negative PR implications. What else is new ? It's a successful capitalist organism following its incentive structure. But from this vantage point, let's take a look at Whatsapp in India.

Whatsapp has 200 million users in India, and like several other tech companies, wants to power payments to this population. It has formally written to the Reserve Bank of India to get permission. Why do we think India is a better target for tech company wallets than the West? A few reasons. The first is the large percentage of the population that is unbanked, and therefore not served by a financial incumbent, but served by a chat app. The second is the cost of customer acquisition is far lower when a user is already captured, vs. when you have to convert them cold. And third, consumer preferences have not been set with "good enough" services as in the West, and China's example shows the way. A takeaway concern we have is around Aadhaar, India's digital government identity. If Facebook can't be trusted with data we permission it to store, can it be trusted to ingest the equivalent of Social Security numbers?

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Source: Guardian (Huawei arrest); Slate (on Facebook emails), CNN (Facebook), Telegraph India (Whatsapp)

BLOCKCHAIN: $1 Trillion lost in Crypto since all-time-highs, but $700 million in November still flowed in

Ugh. Here's the monthly update on the crypto fundraising figures. Let's start with some good examples -- we are fans of Trustology raising $8MM in equity from Two Sigma and ConsenSys, and ErisX raising $28MM from Fidelity and Nasdaq. Those sound a lot like the institutional chassis needed for traditional players. However, from a retail perspective, the crypto markets are not holding their value in an overall downturn, and have been fairly correlated with traditional equities as everything nosedives together. This is in meaningful part, we think, driven by the availability of instruments to take short positions in the market. 

We took the ever excellent OnchainFX data from Messari, and looked at the total loss of market capitalization (i.e., "hopium") across their tracked coins from all-time-highs. The answer is that there has been nearly a trillion of burned down value in the last year. Millennials are going to be salty for a long time! But look, it's not all doom and gloom. November saw another $700 million or so in blockchain-first funding, again roughly split 50% between token sales and venture investment.  The sustained flow of venture is encouraging to the promise of this sector in the future.

Some conclusions from looking at the tokens in detail: (1) an Arizona offering stood out as an interesting jurisdiction, (2) a few EOS projects are going forward, (3) some projects are using the STO monicker to try and position more positively, and (4) there are still quite a few questionable business models in the mix. Looking at crypto funds, we continue to see new entrants in the space, even as 2018 funds face -80% performance profiles and shed employees. Crypto projects are also starting to downsize, and we projected for Bloomberg a contraction of 25-50% in the number of funded seats at the blockchain table for existing companies today. That doesn't mean there can't be new companies with new opportunities ahead -- it just means their journey will be more rational, and potentially more fruitful.

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Source: Messari (liquid coin data), Autonomous NEXT (crypto fund data set, ICO tracker leverages and cleans CoinSchedule, ICO Rating, ICO Bench, ICO drops and various others), Bloomberg (layoffs)

VIRTUAL REALITY: Headset shipments grow to almost 2 million per quarter

Simple, feel good news. IDC updated its mixed reality headset shipment tracker, and people are buying more devices. Relative to a year ago, sales went up by about 10%, and global shipments are nearly 2 million per quarter. Headsets that don't have a screen (like Samsung's Gear VR or Google cardboard) are becoming less popular, while intrerest in standalone headsets that come with a screen and a processor seem to be growing. Facebook's Oculus Go would be an example (as an aside, the thought of Facebook knowing what we look at in a VR environment seems inevitable). The rest -- or about half of all the shipped devices -- are those you plug into a computer or a Playstation.

Dedicated Augmented Reality hardware is doing much worse in the retail market, shipping a couple of dozen thousand for even the best biggest brand. We think this is due to (1) every Apple and Android phone manufactured from now on being an AR device, and (2) folks waiting for Magic Leap and the next gen Microsoft Hololens. Further, as we had explored previously, Microsoft just secured a $480 million HoloLens contract with the Untied States military. It's likely that some of these early technologies will fail to be attention platforms, but succeed at being government or enterprise technology. 

To bring it back into financial services, we recently attended Fintech Connect to moderate a panel on artificial intelligence. There, we came across digital consultancy Softserve, which built a fun prototype for the conference simulating a payment experience using hand gestures within a Magic Leap environment. Payment menus appeared in the view, and a camera that read hand gestures could understand whether you were confirming a transaction. This suggests different ideas -- from building a virtual checkout located physically next to a purchased good with a rendered interface, to the sale of virtual goods in a physical environment. And the folks at Magic Leap are willing to pay developers up to $500,000 per app to fill up its barren app store.

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Source: IDC Tracker (release), Verge (US Army contract), Game Daily (Magic Leap), Hollywood Reporter (Infographic)

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: Apple trying to catch up in conversational interfaces through privacy

Apple acquired Silk Labs, an AI startup with significant tech pedigree, whose tagline is to "embed instant cognition into your next product". We have to respect the science fiction marketing, of course. But we also respect that the machine learning solutions from this company allow machine vision, sound recognition and natural language processing to be done locally on a particular device. That means that a specific device that you use for conversational interface interaction will be locally better at understanding you -- rather than some giant squid-like monster AI hosted on Amazon Web Services. And of all the tech companies, Apple is the most credible in its claim to protect your privacy on the iPhone, with such an acquisition potentially powering other edge-computing / Internet of Things products.

Edge computing is the concept that there are lots of unique distributed smart devices scattered throughout our physical world, each needing to communicate with other humans and devices. Two layers of this are very familiar to us: (1) the phone and (2) the home. Apple has become a laggard in artificial intelligence -- behind Google on the phone, and behind Amazon and Google at home -- over the last several years. Further, when looking at core machine learning research, Facebook and Google lead the way. Google's assistant is the smartest and most adaptable, leveraging the company's expertise in search intent to divine meaning. Amazon's Alexa has a lead in physical presence, and thus customer development, as well as its attachment to voice commerce. Facebook is expert in vision and speech, owning the content channels for both (e.g., Instagram, Messenger). We also see (3) the car as developing warzone for tech company gadgets.

Looking back at financial services, it's hard to find a large financial technology provider -- save for maybe IBM -- that can compete for human attention or precision of conversation with the big tech firms (not to mention the Chinese techs). We do see many interesting symptoms, previously covered in our Augmented Finance analysis, like AllianceBernstein building an AI-based virtual assistant for bond traders, but barely any compete for a relationship with a human being in their regular life. The US is fertile ground for this stuff, because a regulated moat protects financial data from the tech companies. Is there room for a physical hardware financial assistant in your home? How much of your financial life would you delegate to some*thing* that decides how you should live it?

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Source: Silk Labs, Bloomberg (Bond Bot), TechCrunch (Google to be nicer if you say please), Autonomous NEXT (Augmented Finance), USA Today (car AI), Voicebot (Install Base)

ROBO ADVISOR: BlackRock's $120 million buy of Envestnet stock and Morgan Stanley's platform

We believe that most financial industry incumbents deeply misunderstand and miscategorize Fintech startups and their innovations. They think the small size of a particular roboadvisor at some time X, or the number of accounts of a particular neobank at time Y, hold any meaningful information about the future. The truth is that most of the consumer Fintech symptoms are telling you what the underlying cause -- digitization -- doing to your industry. In the case of investment management, the outcome is a re-forming of consumer preferences, which then gets reflected in the pricing of solutions (50 bps), which then require entirely new products and value chains within a digital chassis (hey there 6 bps SPDRs).

Case in point. BlackRock, which had paid $150 million for FutureAdvisor, as well as invested in European robo Scalable Capital, has now bought $120 million in public equity of turnkey asset management platform Envestnet. In the same turn, Morgan Stanley has praised a deployment of a BlackRock-powered digital wealth desktop dashboard, rolled out to 15,000 front office advisors, as a "4-year head start" versus competitors. While that's not factually true -- many other great wealth platforms exist -- it does show that finally investment distribution firms understand the operating efficiency of digital-native solutions. 

Watch carefully also what this does to asset managers, i.e., fund manufacturers. In order to get into client portfolios, which are mostly intermediated in the US, they provide technology solutions to the intermediaries, nudging the intermediaries towards their proprietary investment products. That's not nefarious, just surprising that the best way to sell iShares is to give Morgan Stanley some high quality roboadvice software.

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Source: SWFI Institute (BlackRock), Financial Planning (BlackRock), Morgan Stanley (wealth screens)

CRYPTO: Takeaways from Consensus:Invest and Overstock developments.

We moderated a panel on crypto funds (Pantera, Milticoin, Outlier Ventures) at Coindesk's Consensus:Invest conference, as well as appeared on a fun Coindesk Live segment. The general sentiment was that across strategies -- trading, passive, venture -- the funds are very optimistic about a long term horizon, ignoring short term volatility. Of course they have no choice but to tell that story! Second, the event felt very institutional and focused on financialization. That means that there were many security token, custody and exchange solutions, and that many people were garbed in formal dress. While retail peak may have been December 2017, enterprise solutions are coming to market now, and will be catalyzing a very different environment next year. Anecdotally, this New York event was more coherent in its finance vector than the recent European blockchain and token conferences that we have attended.

This institutionalization is also echoing also in larger public companies. See Amazon launching blockchain-as-a-service inside AWS. Or take Overstock -- a discount version of Amazon helmed by outspoken eccentric capitalist Patrick Byrne (not to be confused with Tim Draper, John McAfee or David Byrne) -- which is planning to sell its entire retail business in order to focus on tZero, the blockchain capital markets arm. The company's price is already highly correlated with Bitcoin, and it just feels like Patrick will have a lot more fun running a fintech company.

We dislike this for a few reasons. The first is that Overstock is a commerce destination, and it would be nice if cryptocurrencies, stablecoins or other Frankensteins, were actually used to buy stuff. So that maybe goes away. And second, we remember Overstock launching a roboadvisor, and claiming that the eCommerce footprint was going to be a distribution arm. Well, not if you don't have traffic. There is meaningful money to be made form institutional-grade capital markets on blockchain infrastructure -- but everyone from Nasdaq to Fidelity to JP Morgan is already chasing that dream. Who's going to sell cat food and crypto to the little guy?

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Source: Coindesk Live (video), CNBC (Overstock)

PAYMENTS: Amazon working towards digital wallet retail adoption

News broke that Amazon is back at trying to push its payments rails adoption into retail. The gist seems to be that it plans to do QR payments using the Amazon app in restaurants and gas stations as a pilot. No NFC reader necessary. This is regular customer behavior in much of the Asian world, but foreign to Americans who still cash in wet-signature checks at their local bank. We've discussed financial products within Amazon's strategy before -- mere features to increase platform adoption. In this way, pushing its wallet into physical commerce from e-commerce makes sense, as it increases the number of people who might want a digital Amazon wallet used for consolidated shopping. The other notable point is that Amazon has Whole Foods and other retail properties, which means it can choose to be its own first customer (as per the Strategy framework).

So where can this go? Looking at Hong Kong, both Ant Financial and Tencent have announced a plan to add QR codes as a payment method to the public transport system. Instead of tapping a credit card against an NFC chip, or swiping a Metrocard, or (worst case) dropping in a metallic coin, commuters will just use a payments app that takes a picture of the code, and automatically send a payment in that encrypted direction. For reference, 92% of China's 970 million mobile users have already used mobile payments. 

Further, Switzerland is planning also to introduce a QR-based billing system into the economy. These can be used at both the consumer and enterprise level, with B2B payments as a particularly compelling use case. Instead of entering in IBAN numbers and bank accounts, a generated QR code can contain all of this information inside the image. Perhaps this type of initiative can work to train enterprise users for QR adoption, and spread into consumer mind-share. As a relevant aside, transferring digital assets via QR codes read by an app on your phone (perhaps a phone running a local wallet) would be one way that crypto currencies make their way into the mainstream economy.

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Source: WSJ (Amazon pay wall), The Verge (Amazon), Stratechery (Amazon), TechCrunch (WeChat, Finextra (Switzerland), UBS (Swiss QR)

BITCOIN: ETP launches on Swiss Exchange, while Chinese miners go out of business due to price collapse

What a weird crypto week. This market moves in conflicting directions at once, in large part because the execution speed of the actors is very different. A billionaire selling on a whim is instantaneous, while an enterprise team's process to build a product can take 18 months. So we simultaneously get to see (1) Switzerland's SIX stock exchange listing a crypto index product composed of BTC, XRP, ETH, BCH and LTC and (2) the long tail of miners starting to shut down their machines as BTC crashes below break-even range. Financialization and speculation up, infrastructure and hash power down. Would this be different if the timing was better synchronized?

This isn't the first exchange traded product, the honor for which goes to Coinshares (Bitcoin ETP at $500mm+ in assets on Nasdaq Stockholm). But it is meaningful. The underlying index comes from VanEck, a mid-size traditional asset manager which had tried to get a US ETF going and failed. And it is also a basket -- broadly speaking, diversification is a strict good, putting the arguments around inclusion of BCH and LTC aside for now. We hope now to see at least some family offices and Swiss private banks allocate 1-5% to crypto in liquid, regulated wrappers.

Right, so the second point is that Bitcoin mining pools across China are slowing down activity, with certain devices (Antminer S7, S9, Canaan Creative's AvalonMiner 741) becoming unprofitable at prices below $5,000. We have pegged the range of break-even somewhere at $6,000 for individuals with regular access to electricity, and $2,500 for large scale players inside a hydro-electric dam. Regardless of scale, this is bad news for Bitmain and several other Chinese hardware manufacturers. But, BTC was designed for this eventuality -- as price drops, miners will exit, and the probability of rewards to the remaining players goes up. 

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Source: FT (Switzerland pay wall), Coin Telegraph (Swiss ETP), South China Morning Post (Mining), Amun/VanEck (Index Sheet -- which we neither hold nor endorse)

DIGITAL LENDERS: Our new keystone deck finds $100B in global originations, merely 10% of market opportunity

We are excited to share with you our latest keystone analysis titled “Digital Lender Evolution”, which expands on our 2015 white paper on digital lending. In the updated deck, we highlight the major drivers of the space across the US, Europe and Asia -- from venture funding, to addressable market sizes, to current origination volumes, as well as operating performance. Additionally, we highlight systemic risks and technological opportunities facing the sector today. 

A few key takeaways: despite the difficulty in the public markets, the digital lender model continues to raise $5 billion in annual venture capital investment, dominated by the US, with Asia becoming a close contender year-on-year. We find that the opportunity remains large and under-penetrated: (1) in the US, the addressable market is $250 billion in originations or $1 trillion in outstanding debt; (2) for Europe, including the UK and the continent, it is $150 billion in originations or $450 billion in outstanding debt; (3) for China it is $600 billion in originations or $2.7 trillion in outstanding debt (though the Chinese market is undergoing major crackdowns on fraud and the collapse of SME lending).

Digitization of the lending process shows clear cost advantages across onboarding and ongoing servicing (up to 70% reductions). However, platform economics are challenged -- marketing costs have been unable to scale lower than $250 per loan, the high cost of capital hurts pricing from being competitive with banks, and surprise expenses, like legal fees or new product development, have eaten into margins. Initiatives like digital identity verification or AI-based underwriting can add meaningfully to cost-saving, and perhaps improve the marketing conversion funnel as well. We were also surprised to see that large global banks have begun to track digitally active or mobile-first customers as a KPI, going from <20% to 40%+ digital penetration at some of the key institutions.

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BITCOIN: $15 Billion Losses and Pointless Fork Wars

Bitcoin went down 15%, losing $15 billion of market cap in a flash last week. We're not focused on every gyration of the markets, but this case deserves analysis. The first quick point is that there are four major components of BTC value we see: (1) secular, permanent adoption of blockchain technology across every use-case, (2) the proliferation of new crypto assets that reduce the use-cases that BTC satisfies, (3) a team's operating ability to grow and maintain the network, and (4) the financialization of the sector. Putting aside (4), we can say that the more stablecoins succeed at payments, the less BTC will be the medium of exchange; the more smart contracts platforms grow DApps, the less BTC will be programmable; the more XPR banks use, the less BTC they are likely to adopt. But there are massive tailwinds in the secular shift for the sector overall, which should counterbalance increased specialization. Smaller pie slice, bigger pie.

Which brings us to operating execution. On November 15th, Bitcoin Cash, a fork of Bitcoin that was about 10-20% worth of the parent, underwent another fork, while making the headlines for major personality conflict between several crypto billionaires. The split is by now a familiar story --  trying to solve for scale using (1) new concepts that are additions to the "original" protocol (Scalia would be proud!), or (2) just increasing the blocksize again. Depending on what asset you own (a mining pool, a manufacturer of chips, merchant processor), software decisions drive economics in your other assets. And there is also the opportunity to be Internet_King, ruling over an open source protocol and being written in the history books as a progenitor of digital money.

Forking is an interesting experiment. Believers in the homo-econonomicus - that mythical creature of marginal utility maximization, see forks as a reasonable voting mechanism for deciding human policy. We agree that it's neat to see hash power from collective mining pools be directed as votes for software versions. But this is a naive view of human collective decision making. Imagine a constitutional democracy where any petty disagreement -- between oligarchs controlling private oligopolies mind you -- lead to a secession of states, currencies, systems and assets. No requirement or need for forced compromise. If you want to build a network that flows across nation states to lift people into techno-utopia, endless fractal splintering facilitated by no meaningful governance is not the way. Using either the logic of Metcalfe's law to say that network value falls exponentially with each node removed, or the logic of corporate spin-outs to say that some minimum entity size is important (you shouldn't spin out all your employees into LLCs, looking at you Uber), suggests that BCH's fork was a bad idea. 

This had a $15 billion effect on Bitcoin proper. Perhaps some of the aspirants needed to liquidate assets to wage a hash war, mining 51% of empty blocks on their opponent's chain to break their asset. Or perhaps there was simple confusion, or a desire to sit out the volatility, on the part of investors. Regardless, Bitcoin Cash ABC is trading at 5% of BTC, and Bitcoin Cash SV is at about 3% of BTC. Hard to see the future of money in there.

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Source: Bloomberg (BCH Fork), Coin Dance (charts), Binance (ABCSV), Coinmarketcap (BTC)

CRYPTO: $600 Million of both ICO and traditional venture funding in October for $1.2 Billion total

Some positive news for the crypto world, in the form of fundraising figures. The financialization of crypto assets, melding securitization with tokenization, continues to move forward. Based on our latest data, this year saw over 140 crypto investment funds enter the space. While that is below the 270 from last year, a couple of developments are notable. First, we continue to see new entities formed month over month, even though the narrative is that most crypto funds are 50%+ down this year. Second, there has been a healthy development of ecosystem funds, attached either to exchanges or at the protocol level. These entities are well aligned with funding projects that are adopted by consumers, which then would use the exchange or protocol to engage with the token. Circular logic, or lifting yourself up by the bootstraps -- you decide!

We also know that much of the focus in crypto fundraising has now shifted to STOs, with both enterprise blockchain success stories like BNP Paribas building out syndicates of financiers to provide large loans (e.g., Red Electrica), as well as public STO asset examples like the Aspen resort token from Templum. Similarly, many of the crypto funds are doing equity investing first, and getting tokens for free. With that in mind, we are encouraged by the October numbers in our ICO/token database.

ICO funding data listed on public trackers, and cleaned/confirmed by us to the extent possible, shows about $600 million in flows, which is higher than $450 a month ago. There were not any major unusual chunky raises like the Petro or RubyX. But there was a roughly equivalent amount ($600 million) of traditional venture capital activity in the space. Looking at the chart below, it is becoming a trend that VC funding constitutes 50% of the overall money flowing into the space. From an economics perspective, it is good to see institutional investors find the risks attractive again. From a decentralization perspective, it seems less likely that global crowdfunding will democratize the ownership of a future Internet. 

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Source: Autonomous NEXT (analysis of various trackers for $1mm+ ICOs), Pitchbook Data

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: Facebook's Lasso clones Asia's TikTok to grab 500 million users

ByteDance is a $75 billion AI-powered Chinese attention gathering machine. Their marquee application TikTok -- a frankenstein formed from the combination of Vine-like videos and the acquisition of Musical.ly -- boasts 500 million users, and is currently ranked the #6 free app in China and #7 in the US. That position is ahead of Facebook (surely angering comic book supervillain Mark Zuckerberg), Snapchat and Messenger, having achieved this result in mere months since launch in the US market this past July.

TikTok engages teenagers with personalized content driven by ByteDance’s proprietary machine learning algorithms, emoji video commentary features, Snapchat-like augmented reality renders, and glitchy filters. Creators on the platform have the chance to make viral content, which is distributed at scale and mass-targeted at consumers by a machine. Using AI this way is a growing strength for Chinese companies. It is also a strength of recently beleaguered Facebook, which is fighting back by launching a clone called Lasso. The app features nearly identical gesture features, structures, endless content feeds, and hashtag groupings for browsing. The main differences lie in (1) video creation, where TikTok offers up to 60 second videos compared to Lasso’s 15 seconds, and (2) TikTok’s ability to customize content using filters, music, and lenses, which far outweigh the limited selection of Facebook's Lasso.
 
Two conclusions of note. First, Facebook has defended their turf before, and succeeded. For photos, it outright bought Instagram. For video stories, it failed at buying Snap but succeeded at building the feature into Instagram. For messaging, it bought Whatsapp and built Messenger. We wouldn't count it out in this case either. Second, these attention companies exist to deliver advertising and form consumer preference functions. In China, data about customer preferences already informs access to financial services, such as credit, payments and investing. In the US, increasingly Facebook is seen as a conduit for opinion manufacturing to the highest advertising bidder, with such data still a step away from being included in a financial underwriting decision. Yet as tech solutions and norms are exported between global jurisdictions, we expect that line to increasingly bend.

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Source: TikTok, Lasso, Slate on Facebook's Recent Allegations

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: Self-driving cars and self-speaking news anchors inch us closer to dystopia.

Financial services regulators have been so hard on crypto currencies, roboadvisors, digital lenders and payments companies. It's as if that money is a life or death situation! But getting a permit to drive a robot car on a public road without a human being holding the wheel -- not a problem in California. Waymo, which is the Google car spinout, has been given the green light to put 40 autonomous cars on the road. This is already happening in Arizona, with 400 users that can get into a robot car via an app around Phoenix.

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We don't want to be alarmist, of course. Statistically, these machines are likely much better than humans at driving -- they are just more likely to make mistakes that humans would think are preventable. The same process took place in regards to machine vision, with early prototypes making classification mistakes between cats and dogs; now, such algorithms can tell apart the difference between hundreds of breeds. So we hope to see similar progress as driving and visual data is incorporated into autonomous car systems. We'd be remiss not to mention our white paper on the topic, which models out how the insurance industry may lose its lunch when cars don't crash. On the other hand, we note that the DMV required a $5 million bond to put a self-driving car on the road, so the risk is still wildly unknown.

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In a more sinister move, China's state-owned news agency recently launched "composite anchors", which is a machine vision version of a news anchor that can be manipulated with text. Here's how it works. You shoot dozens of hours of video of a person speaking, and then spin up neural networks that can (1) manufacture sounds similar to the target's speech and (2) manufacture video resembling the human making that speech. Presto -- just type in whatever into a command box, and your generated anchor will say it, in any language you would like. Given the recent video editing experiments that the White House supported in relation to denouncing a journalist, we are acutely terrified of how this can impact the attention economy. Not to mention the implications for selling a human likeness for endless manipulation. 

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Source: SF Chronical (Waymo), South China Morning Post (AI Anchor)

ROBO ADVISOR: $40 Billion Per Month Goes from Active to Passive, But Robo Performance Mixed.

One part of the digital investment management story is the shortening of the value chain in wealth and asset management. As active asset managers (fund manufacturers that pick investments to create alpha) face compression driven by asset flows into passive products -- indexes packaged in ETFs -- one answer form asset managers have been to build out their own distribution channel, where they control asset allocations. This is why roboadvisors have primarily gained traction with manufacturers (revenue sale) and not distributors (efficiency sale). So let's highlight a few relevant data points.

First, Autonomous asset management analyst Patrick Davitt just put together our October sector data, which is highlighted below. Looking at over 9,200 active funds and $9.3 trillion in assets, a full 63% under-performed their benchmark in October. Out-performance in a down-market is supposed to be the reason active management exists! As for 2017, there was a 50% chance of out-performance, a coin flip on whether it's better to hold an active fund or just the index. In terms of actual assets, regardless of market environment, about $20-40 billion is flowing out of active funds and into passive funds. Hard to find a more clear example of a secular shift. Part of this story of course isn't fair to fund managers. When bad things happen in an active fund, you can blame and fire the fund; but in a passive index, you blame the market and hope it recovers. This is a permanent, psychological disadvantage.

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The second part of the story is the fantastic Backend Benchmarking Robo Report (link below). The analysis follows the performance of 24 roboadvisors, with several over a 2 year horizon, which we partly highlight. Notably -- Merrill, TIAA, Zack's and Morgan Stanley are all listed as incumbent robos. Our estimate of $600 billion in the strategy feels increasingly correct. In the charts below you'll see 2 treatments of the data: (1) annualized returns vs standard deviation, sized by Sharpe ratio and colored by incumbent/startup status; and (2) an upside and downside capture ratio plot, which shows how good an allocation is at capturing alpha during market momentum. In the first analysis, incumbents like FidelityGo and Vanguard look stronger than the independents in terms of the unit of return per unit of volatility. In the capture category, TD Ameritrade, Personal Capital and Wealthfront stand out. Merrill Edge is the worst on capture, and FutureAdvisor has the worst 2-year performance. What's most telling perhaps is that 77% under-performed their benchmark (as set by this third party) in Q3, and 82% under-performed over a 2 year period. Hard to fire the whole market.

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Source: The Robo Report (download here), Autonomous NEXT (robo AUM), Autonomous Research (flow data)

ONLINE BANK: Lloyds to cut 6,000 jobs to create 8,200 digital ones, Natwest launches SME neobank

Digital hurts! In a sort-of-confusing announcement, Lloyds is getting rid of 6,000 jobs; but it's also adding another 8,000 jobs, for a net gain of 2,000, as part of a £3 billion plan to invest in digital banking. Why have a call center in Kent, if you can have a chatbot in Facebook Messenger? Reportedly, many of the existing staff will be re-skilled for new roles. But the reality is economic dislocation as a paper industry moves online -- data scientists and engineers are not the same as branch operators and lending officers.

As another example, take RBS/Natwest and their latest launch of Mettle, an SME neobank. The tech was built mobile-first by fintech consulting outfit 11:FS and Capco, with the capabilities of opening a business current account in minutes, build invoices, and automate payment reminders. Business financial management and forecasting would sit on top -- trying to apply the personal financial management concepts of the retail market in an SME market that would get immediate, tangible value of a Quickbooks with a bolted-on bank account. Think about who built this thing -- a third party composed of entrepreneurs who launched a set of neobanks and roboadvisors in the UK (Monzo, Starling, Nutmeg). You can't get something new without trying something new.

And the last data point is Zopa, which is the UK-based digital lender that hasn't gotten public (that would be Funding Circle). They've just raised £60 million to build out another next gen digital bank. The company already has the revenue side built out in place from p2p loans, having lent about £4 billion of personal credit since 2005. But without a banking license to take deposits, it doesn't have reliable capital for the bumpy economic cycle. Like every other personal finance Fintech out there, the company plans to offer savings accounts, credit cards, investments, and various other financing options. Everyone pivot together now!

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Source: Finextra (Mettle), ComputerWorld (Mettle), Independent (Lloyds), Techcrunch (Zopa)

CRYPTO: The $1 Trillion market where Stablecoins will succeed and why most will fail

Last week we talked about the value of having a bag of cash in a down-market, using Circle as an example. This week, the news broke of Coinbase raising $300 million from Tiger Global (which had also invested in roboadvisor Wealthfront, among others). Circle and Coinbase earlier joined efforts to popularize their stablecoin USDC, their version of crypto cash pegged to the US dollar, which has reportedly had over $125 million in circulation since September. Meanwhile, USDT (Tether) associated with Bitfinex has been seeing outflows and general anxiety about whether the currency is a fraud -- with the total market cap falling by over $1 billion. Tether just released a statement from a Bahamas based bank that claims the firm has $1.8 billion in portfolio cash value; however, this statement was not signed by a named officer and disclaimed all liability. So at the very least, we can say that Coinbase+Circle seem to be forming a more credible stablecoin alternative than Bitfinex+Tether in the short term.

But what should we think about the usefulness of stablecoins in the first place? The core thesis is that BTC has not been used as a currency because of its volatility, and therefore merchants and individuals would not rely on it as a unit of account or medium of exchange. This premise is not entirely true -- volatility is only partially explanatory of why BTC is not being used by consumers. In our view, the main barrier is not volatility but ease of use and form factor. It's just too hard to figure out how to actually pay with BTC or any other digital currency for real (i.e., non digital) goods and services. Second, volatility in Bitcoin has actually subsided over the last 6 months -- that's not enough for long term company planning, but if it were the problem in commerce, then we would have seen a spike in economic activity correlating to this volatility damper. 

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Any floating currency needs to be collateralized, whether or not it is printing money algorithmically or has bots arbitraging itself against exchanges. Otherwise you cannot fund redemptions (and if you can't fund redemptions, then you are just printing specious moneys). Holding the peg to your desired currency basket, whether USD, yuan or Euro, requires being able to defend the currency with capital reserves. Any private capital reserve can be broken by a larger private capital reserve -- or even by a government actor. Consider Soros and the Bank of England. As a result, these coins are fragile and ripe honeypots for attack and manipulation. In the case where the reserve becomes so large as to be unbreakable, and where the currency is meaningfully used as a medium of exchange, it becomes a threat to the world's actual reserve currency, the USD. The US sovereign is unlikely to allow private parties to issue and own a digital dollar at scale -- though the Treasury may be catalyzed to mint digital dollars as a result.

Here's what we think will work -- private company networks that ride the blockchain rails with the equivalent of a Cash Sweep account or a Money Market Fund. Imagine opening up a Schwab brokerage account. Your free cash in a portfolio -- let's say 1.5% -- would get invested into a cash sweep vehicle, which could be a money market fund, or a trust company cash account, or something similar. For a crypto financial company, you are unlikely to want to hold a financial license for traditional banking or investment services. But you still need to manage the cash somehow. So efforts like UBS settlement coin, or any of the exchange-backed stablecoin projects, could fill in the gap of moving USD around within a limited size network in order to reduce friction between going in and out of fiat. If the network gets so big as to include the entire economy, then it again pops up on the Treasury's radar. That's not to say it's a dead end -- MMF assets were nearly $1 trillion for retail and $1.8 trillion for institutional investors. And banks print money by issuing credit all the time, levering up the economy many times over, they are just heavily regulated to do so.

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Source: Cointelegraph (Coinbase), Bitcoinexchangeguide (USDCCirculation), Centre, Medium (Bitfinexed), Bloomberg (Tether), Coindesk (Tether Bank Statement), Investopedia (Sweep account), ICI (Money Market Funds), Bitcoin Volatility 

ROBO ADVISOR: Titan startup mimics hedge fund trades, repeats mistakes of the past

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It's 2018 and startups like Titan are still launching B2C roboadvisors claiming to invent the "modern, mobile version of BlackRock". Did we forget that FutureAdvisor, a modern, mobile version of a money manager, was bought by BlackRock in 2015 for $150 million, and is now being deployed both B2C and across financial institutions? Or that SigFig (previously WikiInvest) has gone through the same pivot, and is now powering financial advisor platform CoPilot for Citizens Bank, backed by UBS. Or that HSBC just signed Marstone as its provider of similar software? Or that WisdomTree did the same with AdvisorEngine, or Invesco with Jemstep?

Titan scrapes hedge fund filings data in order to mirror their purchases into a basket of 20 stocks for the price of 100 bps per year, which is 2-4x more expensive than most roboadvisors. This was also done before. Remember AlphaClone, or Covestor (sold to Interactive Brokers), or Motif (now sells IPOs), or Kaching (now Wealthfront)? The idea that there is a "pro-sumer" audience that wants to delegate investing a little bit, but still retain control to pick directional themes, has been repeatedly proven wrong. Having raised $2.5 million and grown assets under management to $20 million does not change the underlying issue -- the market does not exist at scale.

If you think we're being too critical, here's what appealed to token Millennial Matt Low from our team: "We are all human and succumb to peculiar logical blindness when the words “hedge fund”, “algorithmic trading” and “Mobile BlackRock” are placed together in the same article. This was particularly the case when reading up on Titan, which appeals to my mindset of supporting anything but the glass tower financial monoliths of Wall street and Canary Wharf". Fair point, Matt. But there's only so many of you to go around. To make Titan actually work, you'd need to funnel in $100 million of growth capital to acquire customers, cross-market banking, payments and insurance products, and then sell the whole mess to BlackRock.

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Source: TechCrunch (Titan), Wealth Management (SigFig), Company Websites