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BEYOND THE BANKS; HOW COVID-19 WILL CHANGE THE WORLD OF BUSINESS FINANCE

The COVID-19 pandemic will see the world of business financing increasingly evolve beyond traditional bank-based borrowing, according to Pauline Rigby, Head of Corporate at Forbes Solicitors.

Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic in the UK, there was a growing trend of alternative business finance originating from outside of the high street lenders. In part, this was being driven by alternative lenders embracing digital technologies, which improved their routes to market and awareness amongst business borrowers.

However, the trend was also being propelled by a growing difference between the financing requirements of companies, especially SMEs, and a resonance amongst institutional lenders. A report by The SME Finance Forum in 2018 estimated that SMEs were facing a funding gap of USD$5trillion, with 41% of these businesses having unmet financing needs.

Fast-forward to this year and SME businesses have taken on record levels of debt through the

Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) and Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS) measures introduced by Government. As part of the UK’s economic recovery, companies with strong fundamentals and plans for future growth will be looking towards alternatives to support their ambitions.

 

SMEs embracing the alternatives 

SMEs have been turning to alternative sources of investment such as Private Equity (PE), with a realisation there are options for part-investment, rather than having to complete a full sale. Whereas once smaller companies may have feared relinquishing control to PE houses, they now view them as partners which can provide both finance, network and expertise to accelerate growth. There’s also a better understanding of the options around long-term and development capital, which allows business owners to take investment for a minority stake, so management teams ultimately have control of the business, as well as the capital to fund the company’s growth plans.

Asset-Based Lending (ABL) has also proved popular amongst SMEs. Companies are much more comfortable securing capital against property and equipment they own or debtors they’ve delivered goods and services for, instead of saddling themselves with debt.

Debt has also been avoided through vendor assisted deals, which further benefits some SMEs as they sell-off non-core parts of their businesses to better prioritise the focus of capital and resource.

 

More than money

These alternative forms of finance are resonating with SMEs for three key reasons. They are more accessible than the banks, offer more than capital and are often more dynamic than rigid lending. It’s for these reasons the impact of COVID-19 will increasingly see SMEs turning away from bank-based borrowing.

Accessing finance via traditional lenders can be restrictive and time-consuming for SMEs. More often than not, they find banks do not share their assessments of risk and growth potential. The end result is either lending which doesn’t fully finance an SME’s plans or lending that arrives too late to realise the opportunity.

Unfortunately, some banks have only reinforced their perception of inaccessibility amongst some SMEs during lockdown. The feedback seems to be that a large number of companies have struggled to quickly access borrowing, despite it being very low risk for the banks. This has strengthened beliefs amongst some SMEs that traditional lending is too skewed towards the interests of making money for the bank’s stakeholders. Businesses targeting growth or those looking for ways out of difficultly often want more than money. They want advice, experience and contacts that provide them with added value. They want capital which works as hard for them, as it does the lender. This is why PE is striking such a chord with SMEs. They see the value in releasing equity to a partner which has vested interests in the success of their company.

Along with a cash injection, PE can bring with it new connections, ways of thinking and problem solving, management incentives and economies of scale that may have previously been beyond an SME. The funding can be structured to provide companies with a more dynamic means of finance that’s better suited to realising their goals. The PE partner may also draw on its experience to offer fresh perspectives that show new possibilities for driving growth.

 

Resilience and reinvention 

The financial effects and business disruption of the pandemic have undoubtedly challenged businesses and will continue to scar some for quite some time. While this is likely to lead to increased due diligence, risk aversion and some form of a slowdown in financing, it will also encourage innovation and creativity.

We’ve seen companies rethink the conventional during lockdown, with some completely reinventing themselves. Businesses have reutilised products, equipment and resource to meet new demand and create revenue streams where others have dried up.

This creative thinking will extend to financing, as SMEs continuously turn away from banks to look for more accessible, dynamic and value-added ways of financing their businesses. It will drive greater appetite for alternative finance and SMEs must ensure they explore all options to find the most suitable solution for them.

Working with external advisors such as lawyers and accountants will support SMEs in taking an independent view of what they want to achieve. This will prove effective in helping them find ways of structuring mutually beneficial financial arrangements, which serve the interests of all parties and move away from debt-based and lender-biased borrowing.

 

Technology

WHY TECHNOLOGY IS KEY TO THE FUTURE OF AUDITING

By Piers Wilson, Head of Product Management at Huntsman Security

 

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC), which is responsible for corporate governance, reporting and auditing in the UK, has been consulting on the role of technology in audit processes. This highlights growing recognition for the fact that technology can assist audits, providing the ability to automate data gathering or assessment to increase quality, remove subjectivity and make the process more trustworthy and consistent. Both the Brydon review and the latest AQR thematic suggest a link between enhanced audit quality and the increasing use of technology. This goes beyond efficiency gains from process automation and relates, in part, to the larger volume of data and evidence which can be extracted from an audited entity and the sophistication of the tools available to interrogate it.

As one example, the PCAOB in the US has for a while advocated for the provision of audit evidence and reports to be timely (which implies computerisation and automation) to assure that risks are being managed, and for the extent of human interaction with evidence or source data to be reflected to ensure influence is minimised (the more that can be achieved programmatically and objectively the better).

However, technology may obscure the nature of analysis and decision making and create a barrier to fully transparent audits compared to more manual (yet labour intensive) processes. There is also a competition aspect between larger firms and smaller ones as regards access to technology:

Brydon raised concerns about the ability of challenger firms to keep pace with the Big Four firms in the deployment of innovative new technology.

The FRC consultation paper covers issues, and asks questions, in a number of areas. Examples include:

  • The use of AI and machine learning that collect or analyse evidence and due to the continual learning nature, their criteria for assessment may be difficult to establish or could change over time.
  • The data issues around greater access to networks and systems putting information at risk (e.g. under GDPR) or a reluctance for audited companies to allow audit firms to connect or install software/technologies into their live environments.
  • The nature of technology may mean it is harder for auditors to understand or establish the nature of data collection, analysis or decision making.
  • The ongoing need to train auditors on technologies that might be introduced, so they can utilise them in a way that generates trusted outputs.

Clearly these are real issues – for a process that aims to provide trustworthy, objective, transparent and repeatable outputs – any use of technology to speed up or improve the process must maintain these standards.

 

Audit technology solutions in cyber security

The cyber security realm has grown to quickly become a major area of risk and hence a focus for boards, technologists and auditors alike. The highly technical nature of threats and the adversarial nature of cybers attackers (who will actively try and find/exploit control failures) means that technology solutions that identify weaknesses and report on specific or overall vulnerabilities are becoming more entrenched in the assurance process within this discipline.

While the audit consultations and reports mentioned above cover the wider audit spectrum, similar challenges relate to cyber security as an inherently technology-focussed area of operation.

 

Benefits of speed

The gains from using technology to conduct data gathering, analysis and reporting are obvious – removing the need for human questionnaires, interviews, inspections and manual number crunching. Increasing the speed of the process has a number of benefits:

  • You can cover larger scopes or bigger samples (even avoid sampling all together)
  • You can conduct audit/assurance activities more often (weekly instead of annually)
  • You can scale your approach beyond one part of the business to encompass multiple business units or even third parties
  • You get answers more quickly – which for things that change continually (like patching status) means same day awareness rather than 3 weeks later

Benefits of flexibility

The ability to conduct audits across different sites or scopes, to specify different thresholds of risk for different domains, the ease of conducting audits at remote locations or on suppliers networks (especially during period of restricted travel) are ALL factors that can make technology a useful tool for the auditor.

 

Benefits of transparency

One part of the FRC’s perceived problem space is that of transparency, you can ask a human how they derived a result, and they can probably tell you, or at least show you the audit trail of correspondence, meeting notes or spreadsheet calculations. But can you do this with software or technology?

Certainly, the use of AI and machine learning makes this hard, the learning nature and often black box calculations are not easy to either understand, recalculate in a repeatable way or to document. The system learns, so is always changing, and hence the rationale that a decision might not always be the same.

In technologies that are geared towards delivering audit outcomes this is easier. First, if you collect and retain data, provide an easy interface to go from results to the underlying cases in the source data, it is possible to take a score/rating/risk and reveal the specifics of what led to it. Secondly, it is vital that the calculations are transparent, i.e. that the methods of calculating risks or the way results are scored is decipherable.

 

Benefits of consistency

This is one obvious gain from technology, the logic is pre-programmed in.  If you take two auditors and give them the same data sets or evidence case files they might draw different conclusions (possibly for valid reasons or due to them having different skill areas or experience), but the same algorithm operating on the same data will produce the same result every time.

Manual evidence gathering suffers a number of drawbacks – it relies on written notes, records of verbal conversations, email trails, spreadsheets, or questionnaire responses in different formats.  Retaining all this in a coherent way is difficult and going back through it even harder.

Using a consistent toolset and consistent data format means that if you need to go back to a data source from a particular network domain three months ago, you will have information that is readily available and readable.  And as stated above, if the source data and evidence is re-examined using a consistent solution, you will get the same calculations, decisions and results.

 

Benefits of systematically generated KPIs, cyber maturity measures and issues

The outputs of any audit process need to provide details of the issues found so that the specific or general cases of the failures can be investigated and resolved.  But for managers, operational teams and businesses, having a view of the KPIs for the security operations process is extremely useful.

Of course, following the “lines of defence” model, an internal or external “formal” audit might simply want the results and a level of trust in how they were calculated; however for operational management and ongoing continuous visibility, the need to derive performance statistics comes into its own.

It is worth noting that there are two dimensions to KPIs:   The assessment of the strength or configuration of a control or policy (how good is the control) and the extent or level of coverage (how widely is it enforced).

To give a view of the technical maturity of a defence you really need to combine these two factors together.  A weak control that is widely implemented or a strong control that provides only partial coverage are both causes for concern.

 

Benefits of separation of process stages

The final area where technology can help is in allowing the separation and distribution of the data gathering, analysis and reporting processes.  It is hard to take the data, evidence and meeting notes from someone else and analyse it. For one thing, is it trustworthy and reliable (in the case of third-party assurance questionnaires perhaps)? Then it is also hard to draw high-level conclusions about the analysis.

If technology allows the data gathering to be performed in a distributed way, say by local site administrators, third-party IT staff or non-expert users BUT in a trustworthy way, then the overhead of the audit process is much reduced. Instead of a team having to conduct multiple visits, interviews or data collection activities the toolset can be provided to the people nearest to the point of collection.

This allows the data analysis and interpretation to be performed centrally by the experts in a particular field or control area. So giving a non-expert user a way to collect and provide relevant and trustworthy audit evidence takes a large bite out of the resource overhead of conducting the audit, for both auditor and auditee.

It also means that a target organisation doesn’t have to manage the issue of allowing auditors to have access to networks, sites, data, accounts and systems to gather the audit evidence as this can be undertaken by existing administrators in the environment.

 

Making the right choice

Technology solutions in the audit process can clearly deliver benefits, however if they are too simplistic or aim to be too clever, they can simply move the problem of providing high levels of audit quality. A rapidly generated AI-based risk score is useful, but if it’s not possible to understand the calculation it is hard to either correct the control issues or trouble shoot the underlying process.

Where technology can assist the audit process, speed up data gathering and analysis, and streamline the generation of high- and low-level outputs it can be a boon.

Technology allows organisations to put trustworthy assurance into the hands of operations teams and managers, consultants and auditors alike to provide flexible, rapid and frequent views of control data and understanding of risk posture. If this can be done in a way that is cognisant of the risks and challenges as we have shown, then auditors and regulators such as the FRC can be satisfied.

 

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Business

BACK TO SCHOOL – CEOS NEED TO LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE, FAST!

By Simon Axon, Financial Services Industry Consulting practice lead in EMEA, Teradata

 

Chief Executive Officers of banks know all about change. Leading responses to new challenges, new opportunities, new regulation and new markets is all in a day’s work. But the existential challenge posed by Big Tech requires a totally new set of skills. It is an entirely different beast that inhabits a totally new environment and speaks its own language. CEOs now need to learn the language of data to survive in the emerging digital world.

Learning a new language later in life is hard. CEOs need to fully commit to accomplish it. Becoming data literate means mastering the basics of vocabulary and grammar. Gartner defines data literacy as the ability to read, write and communicate data in context, including an understanding of data sources and constructs, analytical methods and techniques applied — and the ability to describe the use case, application and resulting value.” Extending the language analogy: the building blocks are an understanding of logical data models – the basic vocabulary; meta data providing rules and information about data is the grammar.  Learning needs to go beyond parroting a few key phrases and acronyms. To really communicate in this new language CEOs must not only be data literate – but data cognitive. Language shapes thinking, and to succeed, today’s CEOs need to think data like digital natives.

Simon Axon

As anyone who has learned a language will recognise – practise makes perfect. This means rolling up your sleeves and getting into the data ‘lab’. Run some queries, experiment with data to test theories and learn how data can, and should, inform all aspects of business management. It is daunting, and different functions are fiercely protective of their data. But that’s one of the big cultural shifts the CEO needs to lead. Data is more valuable when it is used across the business. Developing safe and secure ways to combine, refine and analyse data at an enterprise level is fundamental to competing with Big Tech. The Chief Data Officer can help. Spend time with them and use them as a teaching-resource to get more familiar with what can and cannot be done with your data.

As you practise you will build confidence and move from school-level conversations to business-class data fluency. Spending more time looking at and working with data and you will begin to recognise ‘quality’ data, identify attributes and flag anomalies. This will build confidence and essential trust in data. Last year KPMG found just 35% of CEOs trusted the data in their organisations. This shocking stat undoubtedly stems from a data skills deficit among CEOs themselves. If they don’t know what to ask for, and can’t recognise what they get, they won’t trust it. To stretch our linguistic analogy, if you are not confident in the language then you’ll be anxious ordering food in a restaurant!

Ultimately, no one expects the CEO to personally implement data-analytics programmes across the business. But unless they have the confidence and the skills to accurately communicate what’s needed, to sit at the head of the table and ask the right questions about the menu, then the organisation is unlikely to put the right emphasis on the data strategy.

In How Google Works, former Google Chairman Eric Schmidt outlines how every meeting revolved around data – it is simply how Big Tech works. Banks need to adopt the same approach. Exploiting data in all scenarios must become second-nature. By modelling the use of data across the business – dissolving silos rather than sticking to narrow data sets that reinforce them, the CEO can define a powerful data culture. Operationalizing data strategy will, just like using language skills, stop data literacy from becoming rusty.

Entering any new market requires investment in understanding the language, culture and business environment. In the Big Tech world, data is the lingua franca informing every decision. Bank CEOs need to learn from them and invest in building their knowledge to become data fluent. There are no short cuts. Throwing money, bodies and tech at the problem will not get you there.

 

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