Sean Park Portrait
Quote of The Day Title
We have to get better in believing the impossible.
- Kevin Kelly

Articles tagged 'financial services'

This is no way to run a financial system

The micro-cracks are turning into fissures, soon to be gaping crevasses as (finally) the obsolescence of our industrial age banking system plays itself out in spectacular front page headlines. Meanwhile it would seem that our society and our leaders are (mostly) frozen in some kind of macabre trance – eating popcorn and mesmerized by the inevitable Crash.

If you look at the LIBOR scandal in the context of the technology of the fast emerging information economy, it is absolutely mind-boggling that such an anachronistic process even exists in the world of 2012. In a world where every financial flow is digitized and only really exists as an entry in a database. In a world where truly enormous real-time data sets (ones that make the underlying data required for a true LIBOR look puny) are routinely captured and analyzed in the time it takes to read this sentence. In a world where millions (soon billions) of people have enough processing power in their pocket to compute complex algorithms. In a world where a high school hacker can store terabytes of data in the cloud.  In this world, we continue to produce one of the most important inputs into global financial markets using the equivalent of a notebook and a biro… WTF???

You think I’m joking? Libor is defined as:

The rate at which an individual Contributor Panel bank could borrow funds, were it to do so by asking for and then accepting inter-bank offers in reasonable market size, just prior to 11.00 London time.

For each (of 10) currencies, a panel of 7-18 contributing banks is asked to submit their opinion (yes, you read right) each morning on what each rate (by maturity) should be. The published rated is then the “trimmed arithmetic mean”; basically they throw out the highest and lowest submissions and average the rest. No account is taken of the size or creditworthiness or funding position of each bank and the sample size after the “trimming” for each calculation is between 4-10 banks. However, the BBA assures us that this calculation method means that:

…it is out of the control of any individual panel contributor to influence the calculation and affect the bbalibor quote.

You don’t need to be a banker or a quantitative or statistical genius, or an expert in sociology, or even particularly clever to figure out that this is a pretty sub-optimal way to calculate any sort of index, let alone one that has an impact on the pricing and outcomes of trillions of dollars worth of contracts…

In the 1980s when LIBOR was invented – and (lest the angry mob now try to throw the baby out) it should be said an important and good invention – this methodology just might have been acceptable then, as the “best practical solution available given the market and technological context.” Banks used to have to physically run their bids in Gilt auctions to the Bank of England (thus why historically banks were located in the City, tough to compete on that basis from the West End or Canary Wharf, at least without employees a few Kenyan middle distance Olympians…) But you know what?  And this is shocking I know… They don’t do it that way anymore!!!

So if LIBOR is important (and it is), how should we be calculating this in the 21st century? Here’s a few ideas:

  • include all banks participating in the market – and not necessarily just those in London – how about G(lobal)IBOR??
  • collect and maintain (in quasi-real time) important meta-data for each contributing bank (balance sheet size and currency breakdown of same by both deposits and loans, credit rating, historical interbank lending positions, volatility/consistency of submissions, derivative exposure to LIBOR rates, etc.)
  • collect rates and volumes for all realized interbank trades and live (executable) bids and offers (from say 9-11am GMT each day)
    build robust, complex (but completely transparent and auditable) algorithms for computing a sensible LIBOR fixing arising from this data; consider open-sourcing this using the Linux model (you might even get core LIBOR and then forks that consenting counterparties might choose to use for their transactions, which is ok as long as the calculation inputs and algorithms are totally transparent and subject to audit upon request1)

This is not only possible, but in fact relatively trivial today. Indeed companies like the Climate Corporation*, Zoopla*, Metamarkets*, Palantir, Splunk (and dozens and dozens more, including newcomers like Indix* and Premise Data Corp) regularly digest, analyze and publish analogous datasets that are at least (almost certainly far more) as big and complex as the newLIBOR I’m suggesting.

Indeed, the management of this process could easily be outsourced to one – or better many – big data companies, with a central regulatory authority playing the role of guardian of standards (the heavy lifting of which could actually be outsourced to other smart data processing auditors…) In theory this “standards guardian” could continue to be the BBA (the “voice of banking and financial services”) but the political and practical reality is that it should almost certainly be replaced in this role, perhaps by the Bank of England, but given the global importance of this benchmark, I think it is also worth thinking creatively about what institution could best play this role. Perhaps the BIS? Or ISO? Or a new agency along the lines of ICANN or the ITU - call it the International Financial Benchmarks Standards Insitute (IFBSI)? The role of this entity would be to set the standards for data collection, storage and computation and vet and safekeep the calculation models and the minimum standards (including power to subsequently audit at any time) required to be a calculation agent (kitemark.) Under this model, you could have multiple organizations – both private and public – publishing the calculation and in principle if done correctly they should all get the same answer (same data in + same model = same benchmark rate.) Pretty basic “many eyes” principal to improve robustness, quickly identify corrupt data or models.

As my friend (and co-founder of Metamarkets and now Premise Data Corporation) David Soloff points out:

TRUST ONLY THE MACHINES.

And it’s not just LIBOR as Gillian Tett highlights in the FT:

If nothing else, this week’s revelations show why it is right for British political figures, such as Alistair Darling, to call for a radical overhaul of the Libor system. They also show why British policy makers, and others, should not stop there. For the tale of Libor is not some rarity; on the contrary, there are plenty of other parts of the debt and derivatives world that remain opaque and clubby, and continue to breach those basic Smith principles – even as bank chief executives present themselves as champions of free markets. It is perhaps one of the great ironies and hypocrisies of our age; and a source of popular disgust that chief executives would now ignore at their peril.

Rather than join the wailing crowd of doomsayers, I remain optimistic. The solution to this – and other similar issues in global finance – either exist or are emerging at a tremendous pace. I know this because this is what we do here at Anthemis. But I’m clear-headed enough to know that we only have a tiny voice. Clearly it would seem that our long predicted Financial Reformation is starting to climb up the J-curve. I just hope that if Mr. Cameron does launch some sort of parliamentary commission that voices that understand both finance and technology are heard and listened to. Excellent, robust, technology-enabled solutions are entirely within our means, I’m just not confident that the existing players have the willingness to bring these new ideas to the table.

* Disclosure: I have an equity interest, either directly or indirectly in these companies.


1 There may exist some good reasons for keeping some of the underlying data anonymous, but I think it would be perfectly possible to find a good solution whereby the data was made available to all for calculation purposes but the actual contributor names and associated price, volume and metadata were kept anonymous and only known to the central systemic guardian. Of course you’d have to do more than just replace the bank name by some static code, it would need to be dynamically changing, different keys for different calculation agents etc. but all very doable I’m sure. You’d be amazed what smart kids can do with computers these days.

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A Kodak Moment

Over the years he watched digital projects lose battles for research dollars. Even though film’s market share was declining, the profit margins were still high and digital seemed an expensive, risky bet.

He recalls efforts in the 1980s to drive innovation by setting up smaller spin-off companies within Kodak, but “it just didn’t work.” Venture companies in Silicon Valley are “pretty wild”, “in Rochester, people come to work at 8 and go home at 5.”

When disruptive technologies appear, there is a lot of uncertainty in the transition from old to new. “The challenge is not so much in developing new technology, but rather shifting the business model in terms of the way firms create and capture value.

These are just a few excerpts from a great piece “What’s Wrong with This Picture: Kodak’s 30-year Slide into Bankruptcy” from Knowledge @ Wharton that (inadvertently) does a terrific job explaining the context and gigantic opportunity that drove Uday and I to create Anthemis and it’s networked ecosystem approach to re-inventing financial services for the digital century. Let’s take each of these in turn:

< < Over the years he watched digital projects lose battles for research dollars. Even though film's market share was declining, the profit margins were still high and digital seemed an expensive, risky bet. >>

I lived this directly and in full Kodachrome color my last few years working for Dresdner Kleinwort, culminating in the creation and subsequent dismantlement following my departure (in 2006) of a new business unit in Capital Markets called Digital Markets. This was the brainchild of then CIO (of the year!) JP Rangaswami and myself, built on the basic premise that exponential technological progress was going to drive an entirely new optimal business model for capital markets activities (as opposed to simply enabling accelerating growth of the existing traditional business models which it had done so well for the previous two decades or so.) That technology, rather than simply being an (important) enabler of the business, was set to become the central driver and that accordingly we had an exceptional opportunity to get out in front of this disruptive change – embracing not resisting – affording us the once-in-a-paradigm-shift chance to fundamentally change (for the better) our competitive position. Further, we felt that Dresdner Kleinwort was ideally positioned in its mediocrity to seize this opportunity: we had much less to lose than the market leaders. (And as history shows, in fact the firm had pretty much nothing to lose…RIP.) But the problem was – and almost always is with large, established, publicly-listed companies – that the vast majority of decision-makers had significant vested interests in maintaining the status quo, and insufficient sensitivity to the downside. Classic agent/principal conflict. Turkeys just don’t vote for Christmas. It’s not rational for them to do so. This is a fact of life, not something really worth bemoaning.

< < He recalls efforts in the 1980s to drive innovation by setting up smaller spin-off companies within Kodak, but "it just didn't work." Venture companies in Silicon Valley are "pretty wild", "in Rochester, people come to work at 8 and go home at 5." >>

My experiences as a senior manager at Dresdner Kleinwort / Allianz led me to increasingly understand that there was a fundamental incompatibility between successfully managing a large incumbent organization and successfully nurturing dynamic, entrepreneurial, disruptive new ventures. I like to think of it as the corporate equivalent of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: just as one cannot simultaneously know the position and momentum of a particle, neither can one reap the advantages of a large-scale, established corporation and simultaneously drive and manage emerging, innovative new business models. (Call it Park’s Corporate Paradox?) And in the past 5 or so years since leaving the traditional corporate world, my empirical experience of working closely with start-ups (including starting one!) has only increased my conviction in what I now believe is a fundamental truth. Dresdner Kleinwort (and Paribas before that) – as old hands in the markets world will I hope attest – had positive reputations in the industry for their (relative) ability to innovate, to be at the forefront of new markets and ideas. I believe a key reason they were able to do this was actually because they were well, let’s just say “loosely” managed. They were anything but well-oiled machines. Which, frankly, if you are going to take best advantage of the benefits of being a large, established corporation, is what you need to be. The innovation that emerged in these organizations was a by-product of their relatively weak organizational structures. Put another way, if disruptive innovations are akin to viruses (which I think is not a bad metaphor) then these companies had relatively weaker immune systems (than their market leading counterparts like Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan for example.) However, that is not to say that they had no immune response, and ultimately the incumbent prerogative to maintain the status quo and protect the vital organs won out (in Paribas’ case accelerated by its acquisition by the more tightly managed BNP.)

The important truth to grasp is not that one (the incumbent) is better or worse than the other (the start-up), rather that they are incompatible – structurally, culturally, strategically – in the same host. Yet they are Yin and Yang, and need each other, “complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole, as part of a dynamic system.” The optimal state occurs when they exist in symbiosis – this is in fact the central tenant of Anthemis – our vision, our mission is to act as a substrate that catalyzes, nurtures and enhances this symbiotic relationship. We exist to “improve the health of other companies who grow near us.”

< < When disruptive technologies appear, there is a lot of uncertainty in the transition from old to new. "The challenge is not so much in developing new technology, but rather shifting the business model in terms of the way firms create and capture value. >>

It’s not really about the technology per se, it’s about what technology allows you to do. Often I hear people describe us as “financial technology” investors, but at the risk of being pedantic, this is not really the case. We invest in people and companies that use technology to enable better, often disruptive, new business models. Businesses that seek to address the fundamental needs of their customers in new and better ways that were previously either impossible or sometimes even unthinkable without the enabling power of fast evolving information and communication technologies. It’s not the same thing. And although we invest in these new companies, we are not investors – at least not in the mainstream sense. We aren’t a venture capital or private equity fund. We are ourselves leveraging technology to create a new type of organization, one that we believe is highly additive to the existing ecosystem of large incumbents, start-ups and traditional venture and growth investors. Complementary rather than competitive.

Too often, the conversation around innovation is framed as big v. small, good v. evil and works against the grain of what we believe is the objective reality. We want to re-frame the conversation, work with the grain of the history and the market to help the various different participants in the (financial services) ecosystem leverage their innate advantages (and mitigate their inherent weaknesses.) And if we succeed in this mission, we are certain that we will create enormous value for our own shareholders along the way.

Networks not hierarchies

We believe that the most successful companies of the future – both large and small – will be the ones who embrace a network-driven philosophy and operating ethos. The vertically-integrated Sloan-ian corporation of the 20th century, so ideally adapted to the economy of the Industrial Age, will increasingly struggle to remain relevant in the environment of accelerating cultural and technological change the characterizes the economy of the 21st century Information Age. Large, sector-leading incumbents will need to become more self-aware of both their defensible strengths and core competencies and of their inherent weaknesses and blind spots, which includes the ability to manage disruptive change. They will need to purge all vestiges of not-invented-here mentalities and pro-actively support (both financially and commercially) wider, outside innovation networks while developing optimized methodologies for bringing these outside innovations into their organizations as they mature. And continuously remain aware of the always changing ferment on the edges of their competitive space. Small, cutting-edge start-ups will need to become increasingly good at leveraging existing infrastructures – not just compute and storage infrastructure – but distribution and industry specific infrastructures, or as John Borthwick of Betaworks points out, the best new disruptive innovators “do what (they) do best and outsource the rest.”

This new paradigm creates a significant opportunity for a new type of company to emerge. Companies that are natively optimized to act as a connective layer between the old and the new. Companies that are deliberately tuned to operate within the new network-centric economy. Companies that are explicitly built to nurture ecosystems of talent, technologies and products and services. Anthemis is one of these new companies – a “third place” so to speak – positioned between the established industry leaders and the emerging new innovators, acting as a sort of “translation layer” helping the former to understand and adapt to the changing environment and the latter to identify and focus on the biggest market opportunities while leveraging the core strengths of the existing industry infrastructure. While our focus is on financial services and marketplaces, I am certain this same opportunity exists across any number of industries or markets. Indeed, Betaworks – “A New Medium Company” is a good example of a successful emerging company with a similar positioning and philosophy but focused on the media space. If they don’t exist already, I am sure similar constructs would work well in other industries.

Rusting away

Often when I give presentations on our vision of the future of finance, I am challenged with the question: “But do you really think [insert favorite giant financial services company] will disappear?”, I am at pains to make clear that (a) I don’t know (b) it’s possible, though not necessarily likely, or will take a very (very) long time and (c) that it kind of misses the point in that one would hope that their aspiration is to thrive and not simply survive.

There are a number of different failure modes for established market leaders, most of which are relatively unspectacular and many that don’t actually result in the company disappearing. We remember the Lehmans, the Enrons and the WorldComs but thankfully these are actually the exception. The greatest risk for these companies is not catastrophic overnight disaster but a slow inexorable decline into irrelevancy or even bankruptcy. Big companies typically don’t blow up, they mostly just rust away. The actual speed of this decline often depends on the nature of the sector, it’s “installed” base and particularly it’s regulatory “relevance” in particular. Leaders in highly regulated and deeply embedded (in our economies) industries like finance and telecoms can survive for years and even decades by deploying their considerable resources to protect their position and slow (but not stop) their decline. But how much better off would their shareholders, employees and customers be if they instead marshaled these same resources in a more constructive direction, embracing their real strengths and acknowledging their structural weaknesses in order to evolve and succeed in our changing world, rather that just settling for survival? (Side note: this strikes to the heart of the principal/agent problem that plagues many big, listed companies – for the middle and senior management of these firms, simply ensuring their company survives is often a more than good enough outcome, requiring significantly less energy and psychological commitment while delivering sufficient financial rewards and positional prestige to meet or exceed their personal aspirations. I am not criticizing so much as acknowledging that human nature being what it is, that it is damn hard to resist such a path, even for those with the best intentions.)

Say Cheese

The experts at Wharton note that “adapting to technological change can be especially challenging for established companies like Kodak because entrenched leadership often finds it difficult to break old patterns that once spelled success. Kodak’s history shows that innovation alone isn’t enough; companies must also have a clear business strategy that can adapt to changing times. Without one, disruptive innovations can sink a company’s fortunes — even when the innovations are its own.”

The world is changing. Financial services are no longer immune to these forces of fundamental change. Changing technology, demography and culture are unstoppable forces that if ignored will slowly but surely rust away the competitive advantages of traditional business models. Resist it or embrace it. But you can’t change it. It’s a bit scary sure but also incredibly exciting. Jump in. If you are in financial services, we can probably help.

It’s a better choice than waiting for your Kodak moment.

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More competition beats more regulation

As the “Occupy[anywhere bankers work]” movement gains momentum, renewed calls and support for more regulation of banks and other financial institutions grow. And yet.

Financial institutions are already highly regulated and one could argue that at best, this has not achieved the desired outcomes and at worst has actually contributed to some of the most egregious behaviors as the clever folks in financial institutions lost sight of the end game (ie the products and services and customers that lie at the heart of their raison d’etre) and focused increasing amount of energy and talent to working the system.

And not unlike Br’er Rabbit fighting with the Tar Baby, getting stuck and then pleading with Mr. Fox not to be thrown into the Briar Patch, the large incumbent banks pleading with the regulators not to write more rules may just be a brilliant case of misdirection.

but do please, Brer Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch

Of course more regulations hurt the large financial institutions, but they hurt new entrants more. And competition is a whole lot scarier than regulation to incumbents. If you want to get a sense of this, you could do worse than reading Aaron Greenspan’s take on US payment regulations. And similar examples exist across the spectrum of financial services and across the globe.

The irony is that most financial regulations are born through the desire to protect the little guy from losses, and to some extent they achieve this on one (direct) level but following the law of unintended consequences, the result to often is to create an environment where far larger risks (and losses) are incurred at a systemic level. And who pays for that? Well as we all know now, increasingly it’s all of us (including of course, the little guy.) Via government subsidies, interventions, increasing costs to maintain ever larger and more complex regulatory regimes, all of which need to be paid for with higher taxes and more importantly slower economic growth. Here the bankers are right, all these new regulations make our current system less able to produce growth which of course hits the 99% hardest. But then the bankers stop before asking for a level regulatory playing field that would pour fuel on the smouldering fire of new, innovative, disruptive entrants. Please Lord deregulate me, but not just yet.

I’d like to coin a new phrase, “regulatory theater” inspired of course by Bruce Schneier‘s “security theater“:

Security theater is a term that describes security countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security…Security theater gains importance both by satisfying and exploiting the gap between perceived risk and actual risk.

Regulators (and politicians) sensing the need to be seen to be doing something about the risk, fall into a trap of creating more and more regulations hoping to protect all of us from ourselves, only to create new (almost always) more dangerous and costly risks higher up in the system. Rinse and repeat. Until these risks reach the top of the pyramid and can no longer be shuffled and redistributed. At which time, they come tumbling down on all. This regulatory theater can be comforting in the short term but actually takes us further and further away from a sustainable solution to managing financial risks in our economies.

These risks exist and cannot be regulated away. Call it the 1st law of Financial Dynamics: the of conservation of risk. And I would postulate that pushed down to the base of our economic system, these risks would be easier and less costly to manage. With a more competitive and open system, with continuous renewal through many new entrants, the end users of financial services would get better (higher quality, lower cost) products and services with much lower risk of catastrophic systemic failures. Certainly – statistically – some of these new entrants would be managed incompently. Some would be frauds. People, customers would lose money. But the costs of dealing with these failures would pale in comparison to the multi-trillion dollar, economy-crushing losses that the existing system has allowed, nay encouraged to build up.

I’ll finish with an example, take UK retail banking. Concentrated, uncompetitive, legacy. No new entrants, no competition. Metro Bank, NBNK, Virgin/Northern Rock in my opinion are just shuffling deck chairs; better than nothing I would grant but essentially no real innovation, run in the same way with (mostly) the same assets, same people and same business models that previously existed. A token nod for the industry and the government to be able to say their is new competition (much as a dictator allows a hapless opponent to run in an election…) – window dressing. And even here, look at the hoops Metro Bank (who claim to be the “first new UK bank in 100 years”, QED…) had to go through to get a new banking license… If I were Cameron/Osbourne/Cable, the first thing I would do to start fixing the problem would be to create a new “entry” banking charter. Light touch. Basically just vet the founders and investors for fitness. Perhaps make them put up a certain minimum amount of the equity and/or guarantees as a percentage of their net worth. 90 days from application to charter. Nothing more. But restrict these new banks to say £50mn of assets until they have a 2 year track record (at which point they could apply for an increase in permissible assets and/or a full license.) Then oblige the large banks to open up their core banking infrastructure via APIs – analogous to obliging BT to make available their core telecom network to other operators.

I wouldn’t be surprised if within a year or two you had 30 or 40 new banks competing in various different ways, with many different (and differentiated) value propositions. And some would go bust. And some would be frauds. But even making the (ridiculous in my opinion) assumption that they all lost all of their customer’s money, and all of this money was insured by the government, we are talking about £2bn. Compare that to the direct losses of c. £23bn on RBS and Lloyd’s alone, not even considering the contingent losses and indirect costs born by the UK economy as a result of their predicament. Of course, I believe that many of these new banks would succeed and grow and any losses would be substantially smaller than £2bn. But none of these new banks would be too big to fail for a very long time (hopefully never) and although failure of even just one of them would attract headlines and aggrieved customers giving interviews on BBC1, especially if the cause of failure were to be fraud – it would behove us to put this into perspective. To not forget the difference between perceived and actual risk. To remember that huge failure even if diffuse and “no one individual could credibly be blamed” even if more psychologically comfortable, is actually much much more damaging than smaller point failures where cause and effect are more brutally obvious.

The world’s incumbent financial institutions are deeply mired in Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, protected by regulatory barriers to entry that while not fundamentally altering the long-term calculus, have pushed back the day of reckoning only to make that day seem ever scarier. It might seem counter-intuitive, but I think we should be calling not for more regulation but for de-regulation of financial services (the real, robust, playing-field-leveling type and not the let-us-do-what-we-want-but-keep-out-any-competitors type). Competition is a far more robust route to salvation than regulation. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Spilling dirty secrets.

Luke Williams, author of Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business, lays out a roadmap for developing disruptive hypotheses:

To meaningfully differentiate yourself from everyone else in the same space, you have to define the situation in the industry, segment, or category that you want to challenge. Here’s what a list of what you want to challenge might look like:

  • This is an area in which everyone seems to be stuck in the same predicament and nothing has changed in a very long time.
  • This is an area where profit performance is average—it really should be more successful than it is.
  • This is a category where growth is slow and everything seems the same.

Once you have a situation to focus on, describe it in one sentence: “How can we disrupt the competitive landscape in [insert your situation] by delivering an unexpected solution?”

I guess if you had to boil our mission statement at Anthemis Group down to one question,

How can we disrupt the competitive landscape in financial services by delivering an unexpected solution?”

would probably do the trick quite nicely.

Of course, our approach to answering this question is perhaps not to answer it directly but rather to seek out and support a constellation of passionate, brilliant, “what if?” thinking entrepreneurs who are asking this question with respect to specific sectors, products and geographies in financial services (banking, payments, risk management, identity, investing, etc.) and contribute our intellectual and financial capital towards amplifying their vision and improving their chances of success. For all you capital markets geeks out there, we think this approach generates (as close as you can get to) pure “alpha” in that our returns are pretty much divorced from general market movements as the impact on valuation of success (or failure) in building these new businesses far exceeds the second or third order impacts on valuation of prevailing overall public (or even) private market conditions. Clearly, our success is not guaranteed – not by any stretch of the imagination – but at least the input parameters, the choices we make, are the key drivers and within our control. (And not subject to the vagaries of a co-hosted blade pumped up with algos in New Jersey…cf my last post.)

This in our opinion is a much better set of reference terms. Even more so because it doesn’t rely on our unique genius, but rather structurally taps in to a deep and expanding pool of talented people, pursuing their own visions and goals, loosely-coupled through the ecosystem and networks we strive to nurture and grow. We don’t have to make all the decisions. We don’t have to have all the brilliant ideas. We don’t have to do all the heavy lifting. Which is certainly a relief to us and I suspect to our investors as well. If you want to take the ecosystem metaphor a bit further, I guess it would be fair to say that our position is akin to dirt in forest. Or swamp water in a wetland. ie Trying to provide a fertile and supporting substrate upon which the wonders of evolution and life can flourish and grow. Perhaps not a very sexy image, but ask any farmer and she’ll tell you there is nothing as wonderful as a field of deep, dark, steaming dirt.Soil.

And coming back to Luke’s three foundational criteria, I think it is clear to all that you can take pretty much any sector of financial services and it would emphatically tick each box. It’s an incredibly fertile environment for disruption. So you know, we’ve got that going for us. We just need to make sure we plant the right seeds.

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Lift11: Re-inventing Financial Services – Join Us!

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of great things about the Laurent Haug‘s Lift Conference in Geneva, including from my friend Fred Destin, but until this year I’ve never had the opportunity to attend. And not only am I attending this year (February 2-4, 2011 in Geneva) but I’m hosting a workshop that we’ve called “Re-inventing financial services for a digital century” (which btw is pretty much the mission statement of our company Anthemis | Group):

Until very recently, financial services have been relatively immune to the technology-enabled disruptive innovation that has swept through other industries over the past decade or so. This is now changing for a number of reasons, both technological, economic and societal:

  • continuing advances in communications and information technology – in particular ubiquitous cloud computing and smart devices – is enabling economically viable new approaches to delivering all types of financial services (payments, risk management, investing, banking, insurance…)
  • demographic change is creating a large addressable population of financial services consumers who have a different expectations (in terms of transparency, control, etc.)
  • the financial crisis of 2008 has broken many of the bonds of trust that contributed to significant customer inertia wrt financial services providers.

This is opening up one of the most important sectors of our economy to new entrants with new ideas, new approaches and new technologies.

I’m going to give a short presentation, hopefully setting the scene and getting some creative juices flowing before the more interesting part of the workshop where my partner Uday and I will be working with those attending to ideastorm potential new approaches, business models and services that are natively adapted to the technologies and economies of the 21st century. Attendance will be limited to 30 people so if this is something that excites you and you’d like to contribute, don’t wait too long to sign up. The workshop is at 9am on Friday, February 4th and of course you need to be signed up for the conference – if you haven’t already you can do that here.

And if you have any ideas for what you’d like to see or hear or discuss at the workshop, please don’t hesitate to comment below.  Hope to see you there!


Update:
Workshop went well I think and I was really lucky to have such an engaged and interesting group. Would have loved to have had another hour to explore the ideas that emerged…here’s the presentation I gave as an intro:

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You better, you better, you BET(terment!)

Yesterday, our latest investment was announced to the world.  It’s in a super exciting NYC based company called Betterment.com who, in their own words, have created a “better way to save money.”

Betterment ticks the box on so many of our investment themes and fits so well into our vision of digitally native 21st century financial services that they had us at ‘hello’…but the clincher was the amazing team and impressive execution to date.

When asked, I often tell people that we invest in the “emerging Apple’s of financial services”,  ie that we look for companies who use technology to create powerful, intuitive, user-friendly customer experiences by essentially abstracting complexity away from the user (not ignoring it, but managing it – with skill and dexterity – behind the scenes) rather than exposing it in all its glory to customers with the implicit goal of profiting from then managing (exploiting?) their confusion and disengagement.  Of course the Apple analogy is not perfect but probably can’t be beat in terms of a pithy soundbite summary of our approach.

So with this in mind, think of Betterment as having a Jobsian approach to savings and investment:  combining a intuitive and powerful user interface with a robust back-end execution platform, Betterment allows anyone to quickly, easily and without mystery manage asset allocation and risk budgeting using a simple, multi-asset class portfolio.  No hassle, no time wasted, no blizzard of trade confirmations.  The first time I saw it, I immediately wanted to be able to manage all my cash balances using their platform.  (Unfortunately they are currently only operating in the US so not super-practical for me personally but you can bet we’re keen to help them expand their horizons…) Say goodbye to the money market account.  Indeed, if you are based in the US and have a bunch of your savings tied up in money market accounts or CDs, you should definitely take a very serious look at replacing these with a Betterment account.  Have a look at their product tour:

But the most exciting thing about Betterment is that they have only just got started and it’s scary (good) to think what Jon, Eli, Kiran and Anthony, can and will do over the next couple years.  And it’s a great fit with our nascent but growing ecosystem and we look forward to helping them work with other great digitally native financial firms like BankSimple, Blueleaf, FX Capital Group and others as they grow their business in the months and years to come.  And the icing on the cake is getting the opportunity to invest alongside guys like Rob and Eric at BVP who bring a lot more to the table than just capital.  Congratulations guys and thanks for inviting us along for the ride.

And was just thinking this might be the right track for their inaugural global marketing campaign…

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The Financial Reformation

Last week I spent the week in Amsterdam at Sibos 2010 where I had kindly been invited by Peter Van der Auwera to participate in the Innovation stream, and in particular in the Cloud Computing and Long Now streams within Innotribe.  On Monday, I gave a short “scene-setting” talk on cloud computing and app stores in finance called The New Financial Stack (more on this / link hopefully later this week) and also I agreed to produce a video aimed at provoking and/or inspiring some original and non-linear thinking about the future of finance. Called “The Financial Reformation”, it sets the scene for two decades of fundamental change in the financial services industry based on the amazing democratising power of information technologies. I hope you like the result:

But as you might suspect if you have watched the video, this is just a start… Indeed, this initial video could be considered as simply the trailer for a longer form video which will look at the period from 2008 to 2028 in more detail; similar in some ways to the AmazonBay video of several years ago. The first draft of the script for this story is already written but I am very keen to build on and enrich it, not only with the fascinating concepts and insights that I absorbed in the Innotribe sessions at Sibos last week, but also – insofar as anyone is interested – with comments and ideas from the wise crowd of Park Paradigm readers. I’ve got a few ideas as to how best to go about this, and plan to post these later this week or next, but in the mean time if you would like to share your thoughts, please feel free to comment below.


ps I’d like to give a special thanks to the amazing team at Motherlode who were instrumental in turning my ideas into reality and who worked tirelessly to deliver the video in time for the world premier at Sibos;  I’d also like to thank and congratulate Peter, Kosta and the rest of the Swift Innotribe team for what was simply an incredible four days.  I hope Swift gives you the recognition you deserve!

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Flatlanders don’t even know a 3rd dimension might exist

And so it’s hard to blame them when they ignore it. Still, call me crazy but I can’t help but being somewhat surprised and disappointed when one of the smartest, most reasoned leaders of the financial world writes that “the signs of a deep transformation in the financial landscape are very visible” and then ascribes this to two main driving forces without once mentioning the impact of changing technology (Mario Draghi from the Financial Times, 17sep10):

The first is a different perception of risk. For many years an optimistic view that underestimated the level of risk and overestimated its dispersion across participants had become the conventional wisdom; that view has been wiped out by the crisis. A re-pricing of risk of all sorts, higher volatility, reduced valuation of certain assets, more careful examination of credit quality and greater attention to the longer-term sustainability of debt positions – as highlighted by the recent sovereign debt crisis in Europe – are all manifestations of this changed perception. Business models are being reassessed according to their ability to manage risk. Complexity and opacity of financial instruments are no longer rewarded; the demand for transparent, complete and accurate information has increased.

The second source of change is policy driven. After Lehman, any remaining doubts on the need profoundly to reform the financial sector were dispelled. It became clear that a common, internationally co-ordinated approach, involving both advanced and emerging economies, was needed.

I’m not taking issue with his two drivers – they are clearly both important and relevant. I just think he should have added a third driver. And the fact that he didn’t, just confirms my conviction that way too many of our leaders – political, economic, financial, industrial – are increasingly disconnected from the world as it is (as opposed to the world as it was.) Which in my opinion can’t be a good thing. Indeed it’s worse that ‘not getting it’ – it’s not even knowing it is there…

Of course this throws up a multitude of opportunities, but it also carries with it the risk of more a more volatile and dangerous transition from old to new paradigm as our leaders remain blithely unaware of the sphere that is about to envelope their plane…

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Fixing finance.

There’s nothing more valuable than an unmet need that is just becoming fixable. If you find something broken that you can fix for a lot of people, you’ve found a gold mine. As with an actual gold mine, you still have to work hard to get the gold out of it. But at least you know where the seam is, and that’s the hard part. - Paul Graham

In the latest of his series of great essays, Paul Graham makes the obvious – but all too often overlooked – point that one of the best ways to create value is by working to “fix things that seem broken.” He also highlights the fact that sometimes it pays to step back from your daily environment to get a clear picture of what is broken:

You may need to stand outside yourself a bit to see brokenness, because you tend to get used to it and take it for granted. You can be sure it’s there, though. There are always great ideas sitting right under our noses.

At the end of 2006, after a long, successful, and mostly exciting and enjoyable career in capital markets I took that step outside. And my suspicions became convictions. Finance seemed broken to me. And it bugged me. It still bugs me. It bugs me when super smart people (who aren’t financial or market professionals) resign themselves to accept crappy advice and ill-suited products and services when it comes to their finances. It bugs me that so many bright, energetic, ambitious people working within the financial services sector continue to be trapped in the status quo of 20th (even 19th) century business models, their talents misdirected when the alternative is so much more appealing.

And so I thought I should try to fix it. Not all of it. Not all at once. But more than just a single facet. I haven’t got it all figured out yet, but I think I’m headed in the right direction and most importantly I’ve learned more – about the industry, about people, about building value and about myself – in the past 3 years than in the 10 before combined. I’ve never worked harder and I’ve never had more fun. And I’ve met some pretty amazing people too.


A few days ago, Fred Wilson commenting on the (ridiculous) inclusion of venture capital in the financial stabiliy bill wrote this:

The only systemic risk the VC business is creating for the financial system is attempting to put the current one out of business by financing entrepreneurs with new ideas for banking, brokerage, insurance, and other financial services. I’m not joking about this. I believe entrepreneurs will use technology to reinvent the way financial services are provided to consumers this decade.

“Using technology to reinvent the way financial services are provided to consumers this decade.” Nice. In fact that is our elevator pitch. I just hope Fred doesn’t mind if we use it.

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Through the Looking Glass, Midterm Report

Five years ago I wrote a thought piece called ‘Through the Looking Glass’ to provoke non-linear thinking and foster debate on the possible future direction of the financial services industry and market structures. (I later turned it into a short video called AmazonBay.) It was a retrospective told from the point of view of an observer in 2015. It was never meant to be taken literally – in particular with respect to (most of) the specific corporate mergers – rather I used these as a concise and dramatic way of highlighting the possible or even probable consequence of the deep secular currents that I felt would inevitably work to reshape the landscape.

(December 2015:) …The global securities and investment banking groups that dominated the market in the last century are now extinct. In their place we have an intelligent galaxy of new specialist advisory, investment management, algorithmic software and consulting firms networked with a universe of powerful transaction facilitation exchanges. Banks now exist only as giant regulated pools of capital.

Following the sweeping banking reforms proposed last week by President Obama, and the fact that we are now halfway to this hypothetical future, I thought it might be worth doing a quick mark-to-market of how my ideas have lined up with reality.

Oracle

  • stock exchange consolidation and emergence of new exchange venues (A-) pretty close both in outcomes and timing – the major stock exchanges have been merging a-go-go while at the same time new trading venues have proliferated, and exchange (or quasi-exchange) trading of new asset classes continues to develop strongly.
  • sports/outcome trading in US legitimized (B-) my narrative had this happening in February 2010, not there yet but Congressman Frank’s bill might open the doors later this year and the trend seems to be on the right track and will probably be signed into law by Obama (!); as an aside was way early on a Betfair IPO…
  • giant bank mergers followed by break-up of vertically integrated universal banks, with Goldman Sachs leading the way (A) we have seen the big get mostly even bigger (RBS/ABN, BoA/ML, Barclays/Lehman…and while JPMorgan didn’t buy MS, they did get Bear Stearns and WaMu); GS hasn’t yet broken itself into three as predicted but I’m still confident it will lead the way when/if industry structure changes, and more generally the trend of regulatory thinking across the globe is definitely a trailing wind for the kind of change I envisioned. The 2010-2012 timeframe for the re-organization of global banks is probably a bit early but plausibility has certainly gone up (from near zero) significantly since I wrote this.
  • more (and more) algorithmic / automated intermediation of markets (A-) this was obliquely referenced in my article but was really at the heart of the idea that this fictional ‘AmazonBay’ platform would end up dominating this aspect of markets; clearly the market is heading this way – in fact it may seem obvious now but most people did not fully understand this even as little as five years ago.
  • Amazon anything (B+) The jury is probably still out on this one, but in my view it is looking increasingly likely that Amazon.com will become a giant of the next economic paradigm; whether or not they use their vast intellectual and technological resources to participate more directly in the financial services arena is not yet clear, but I can tell you the only ‘big company’ job I would not hesitate for two minutes to accept if it were offered would be CEO or CSO of Amazon Financial Services (AFS) Jeff are you listening? ;)

(Note: Remember I used real company names mainly to add vividness to the ideas underlying the narrative. The key concept I wanted to convey with this GS break-up vignette was that the vertically integrated model would decompose under the light of new technology and regulations into a (technology-centric) Sales & Trading component, a more focused, relationship driven Advisory component (cf. the emerging proliferation of pure advisory ’boutiques’) and independent, conflict-free Asset Management businesses (cf. the secular growth of hedge funds and Barclays sale of BGI, etc.))

(February 2009:) …Reacting to new competition, Goldman Sachs becomes the first major investment bank to break itself up. Securities and distribution are sold to Ebay Financial Markets, while the remaining activities are split into two new companies: GS Advisory Services and GS Capital management…

Charlatan

  • eBay anything (D) Despite the fact that the actual companies cited are more symbolic than literal, the choice of eBay to represent the cutting edge of online, data-driven, algorithmic marketplaces was simply awful. To the extent that it risks distracting the viewer from the key, underlying messages. It is now entirely implausible and so instead of bridging the cognitive gap, the inclusion of eBay simply extends it. Thank goodness this is somewhat mitigated by my inclusion of Amazon.com (see above) as the other new markets avatar but they come late to the narrative…
  • sports trading developing as an asset class (C+) this clearly hasn’t happened, although there are one or two small funds and firms offering managed accounts; and a vibrant ecosystem of professional traders and the associated software has emerged around the Betfair and other exchange platforms. In my defense, I picked sports as just a provocative and emotionally attractive example of the idea that – enabled by technology – a vast array of new tradable markets in goods but also outcomes, would emerge. Work in progress.
  • credit crunch and asset bubbles (D) although the overall purpose of the piece was to provoke thinking on the sustainability of existing business models in financial services in the face of radically shifting underlying technological, economic and demographic trends, I failed to include a thread touching on the possibility of catastrophic systemic discontinuities arising as a result of the prevailing market structure and business models. It’s a significant ommission, especially as at the time of writing this I was in the process of exiting my former responsibilities as a senior executive in the credit business due in part to my increasing discomfort with the sustainability and prudence of the risk pricing in that market.

All in all, I would give myself a mid-term grade of B+/A- with room both to improve and to slip back. Mostly on the right track, especially with respect to big themes but perhaps a bit optimistic in terms of some of the timelines. What do you think? Better? Worse? To be fair, the correct measuring stick is not so much whether or not I was right or wrong, even in terms of ‘macro’ predictions but whether or not this article and video helped catalyze serious discussion, debate and thought about the potential for disruptive and non-linear change in the financial services industry. Alas I have no idea how one could even attempt to measure that, but any thoughts or anecdotes you might have with respect to this would of course be appreciated.

Through the Looking Glass (2005)

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