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FROM EFFICIENCY TO NEW INVESTMENTS – WHY BLOCKCHAIN IS MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

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Thomas Borrel, chief product officer at Polymath

 

Blockchain has been an extremely hot topic in 2021. With companies and financial institutions internationally having to adapt to an increasingly digital world, the true potential of blockchain is becoming increasingly clear. We have seen hospitals using the technology to track vaccine distributions, major blue-chip companies floating digital assets or ‘stablecoins’, even progress made by central banks in piloting and adopting digital currencies

When it comes to the world of finance, much of the attention has focussed on the booming price of Bitcoin, and there has been much excitement around using cryptocurrencies as an alternative investment. However, the real potential of blockchain technology stretches far into traditional finance and beyond.

 

Improving access to investment options

Security tokens created and issued on the blockchain are already being used to improve efficiency in a variety of more traditional asset classes, ranging from real estate to green bonds. The Sustainable Digital Finance Alliance (SDFA) and HSBC Center of Sustainable Finance recently joined forces to highlight how security tokens for green bonds can reduce management costs and increase operational efficiency by up to ten times. And in early 2020, RedSwan CRE Marketplace tokenised $2.2B in commercial real estate, making it one of the biggest tokenisations we’ve seen so far.

Thomas Borrel

However, the potential of tokenisation does not only stand to improve the process of trading traditional assets; blockchain can also open up the pool of investors able to participate. To date, the focus has been on how fractionalisation brings benefits to retail investors by lowering the bar to entry. However, the retail regulations are still very stringent, which is important to protect non-professionals from disproportionate losses.

Tokenisation can be used to enable large institutional investors to buy into smaller projects. Referred to as aggregation, this process can be used to bind assets together so that they meet an institution’s minimum investment threshold. Because of the transparency of blockchain, the investor is still able to inspect each individual offering and ensure each element meets their quality and risk requirements, but by packaging it into one larger token, an institution can diversify with assets that would have otherwise flown under its radar.

 

Optimising efficiency and minimising risk

Risk management and operational efficiency are usually at the core of any financial institution’s wider strategy. However, no matter how much firms optimise their own processes, there are a range of financial instruments that are still very prone to issues in these areas, especially those that are traded ‘over the counter’ (OTC). The best example of this is likely the bonds market – a multi trillion-dollar market, where OTC trades are still common practice.

When an OTC trade is conducted, it is often so over the telephone – one person calling another to make a deal. This introduces significant information risk with securities operations teams reporting error rates as high as 40%. When instructions for the trade are passed on to the custodians, they will spot the discrepancy. They then have to investigate and find out what has gone wrong, often resulting in very long delays to settlement times.

Blockchains go a long way to solving this problem, providing transparent access to trade and clearing information so that operational issues can be caught earlier and help mitigate settlement risk (i.e. settlement failure). For example, on Polymesh settlement instructions must be affirmed prior to settlement, in a case where an OTC trade has been improperly captured by one counterparty, the counterparty which has affirmed the instruction can see that the other counterparty has not affirmed the instruction within a defined period. In this way, the affirming counterparty can reach out proactively prior to the settlement date to rectify the situation and avoid settlement failure.

Trading on blockchain also generates an easily accessible, secure ledger of trading information. When it comes to reporting in traditional asset classes, the process is highly manual and often expensive. But, with a blockchain solution, reporting is built into the ecosystem from the ground up. There are no significant additional costs or resources required to extract this data and share it where necessary, and the number and complexity of the steps required to complete reconciliations between different entities are reduced and simplified.

 

Is tokenisation a ‘cover all’ solution?

Fundamentally, certain traditional asset classes are not right for the blockchain yet. Instruments with well-established frameworks, like publicly traded stocks, already have very well-formed, rigorous rails in place, and so transferring to a blockchain could cause disruption and incur unnecessary costs.

It is very common to hear blockchain advocates claiming that blockchain technology should be introduced into every corner of the finance space, which is misguided. Blockchain should be introduced where it brings value to investors or institutions. It should be about augmenting and supplementing the marketplace – not overhauling it, or at least not until the incumbent systems no longer keep up with demand.

The costs and infrastructure associated with capital markets have made some assets – like green bonds or real estate – too expensive to bring to market and service, or too difficult to invest in. These use-cases are examples of where tokenisation can really shine.

Blockchain is an extremely powerful tool, with a range of exciting applications and potential benefits for businesses and financial institutions, ranging from risk management and efficiency through to enabling new investments. However, as with any product, it isn’t the answer to all problems, and must be treated as a powerful enabler – not as an agitator.

 

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The customer expectations driving insurance change

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Carl Strempel, CFO and co-founder, Imburse

 

Customer expectations are continuously evolving, with simplicity and speed a significant priority in the current market. These expectations have been driven primarily by well-executed technology advancements in eCommerce. For example, many eCommerce platforms allow for instant payment and transparent tracking and delivery. Customers also have the option of availing of a chatbot, allowing for problems and issues to be solved quicker than relying on telephone customer support.

The best examples of these customer engagement solutions are integrated across multiple channels so that customers can switch from the chat-bot to a phone call to an email seamlessly, with the context and conversation retained. Companies and providers understand that there is nothing more frustrating for customers than having to explain the issue multiple times to multiple service representatives.

Customer expectations are continuously changing as mobile technology continues to make advancements. The growing prevalence of super apps that can do it all, from booking food deliveries to ordering taxis, is massively impacting customer expectations. These enhanced offerings mean that individuals are now also expecting this level of detail and personalisation from banks and insurers. Whether buying personal insurance for yourself or your family, or a CFO or risk manager purchasing commercial insurance for a business, customer expectations are rising. There is no longer an excuse for insurers to deliver a poor customer experience.

Insurers, especially in the retail and SME business, have scrambled to overhaul their customer experiences to meet modern consumers’ demands. For example, if an insurance company cannot turn around a quote for a comparison website within a few seconds, they won’t win any business. In fact, if they are not in the top three quotes with a competitive price, they are most likely irrelevant.

Carl Strempel

As a result, insurers need to think about their technology stack and how they can deliver the best possible experiences for their customers, to generate sales and improve retention. In this case, real-time API integrations into comparison websites.

Other areas of innovation are the ongoing migration to the cloud, which allows for the building of scalability and resilience in insurance carriers, as well as enabling technologies such as document ingestion, workflow automation, A.I., and payments technology delivering a better customer experience with a reduced Total Cost of Ownership for the enterprise.

First and foremost, insurance companies need to understand their customers and how they expect insurance interactions to be delivered. Following this, a technology strategy must be formed to enable them to deliver in an agile way. Being agile is significant because customers’ expectations evolve over time, and technology also changes. As a result, insurers need to understand their customers and be able to deploy relevant technologies in an appropriate time frame to meet demands.

Many insurance providers partner with innovative technology companies to deliver solutions that will support the needs of the end customer. By offering relevant payment checkout experiences, similar to those by large eCommerce platforms, insurers can increase their top line and keep more customers satisfied. Insurers can further reduce payment site costs by using external partners to manage integrations with the global payment ecosystem. This makes the configuration of payments more cost-effective and quicker than what existing IT integrations allow for. This technology can deliver a 90 percent saving on payment integration and configuration.

The advantages of technology in the insurance industry are clear. Technology enables insurers to improve coverage for customers, enhance customer experience, reduce costs and improve product-market fit. There are several new insurance business models being deployed, including embedded insurance, parametric insurance, and soon “open insurance,” which are all designed to make the customer experience more seamless and provide the right cover at the right time. When deployed in the right way, technology is a critical enabler for insurers to deliver to their customers and avoid becoming irrelevant capacity providers.

There are numerous opportunities for insurers to embrace innovation in the industry. The challenges with enterprise payments, however, are primarily transforming traditional IT systems, and maintaining multiple IT integrations with different payment technologies and providers. The impact is not only on top-line income and bottom-line costs, but inadequate payment capability also inhibits insurance innovation. Payments need to meet the needs of the modern consumer and the insurance product. These are the barriers preventing insurers from pursuing their digital transformation journeys. It is for these reasons that third-party innovative solutions prove valuable, enabling insurers to completely optimise their payment systems, for a fraction of the cost, resources, and time.

 

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Wealth Management

Rising Importance of Retail Investors

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Gediminas Rickevičius, VP of Global Partnerships at Oxylabs.io

 

Retail investors play an interesting role in the markets at large. For one, most academic researchers and hedge fund managers significantly downplay the importance of their everyday counterparts due to underperformance.

On the other hand, there has been a surge in the amount of retail investors since 2020. Investing has been made much more accessible and available to everyday folk. Combined with the global pandemic, these factors led to retail investors’ share of total equities trading volume now being close to 25%. Finally, there seems to be a push towards opening up private markets to more participants, as evidenced by EY research.

If such a trend continues, a massive influx of retail investors might increase the influence of their actions on the market. It might seem like a headache to seasoned veterans, but in many cases it might be a boon.

 

Gediminas Rickevičius

Retail investors provide cushion

As is often the case with many things in life, retail investors are seen through somewhat of a mythical lens. If one were to ask what event would define them, that answer would probably be the GameStop debacle.

It was certainly a visible and emotionally charged event that seemed to have everything you’d expect from a retail investor. Most people sought huge speculative gains through short-term trading without having access to tools that would enable such high frequency endeavors.

Additionally, some invested obscene amounts of capital, “leveraging” what they could. Often those were personal or spending loans. Some liquidated other investments to gain additional funds for the speculative play.

In the end, the event had all the hallmarks of everyone’s preconceived notions of retail investors. They were highly speculative, emotional, and chased significant gains. So, it would seem that would transfer over to other areas of investing.

Yet, some research would state otherwise, making retail investors highly useful to the market. As mentioned previously, they have begun to play a more significant role due to the increasing availability of investing.

A recent study has indicated that retail investors might be providing stability in times of market swings and crashes. COVID’s exogenous shock to the markets caused prices to tumble, but it was offset, by some margin, through the funds of retail investors.

Additionally, stabilization happens through providing additional liquidity to certain stocks. Finally, while they may seem contrarian as they pick stocks of which institutional investors think less, even if the contrarianism were true, it would still provide liquidity to stocks, which have less of it. In the end, retail investors play an important role in markets, especially during times of turmoil.

 

Retail investors talk (a lot)

Convincing someone to give up their investment strategy with all the data and potential software might be a little difficult. It’s a business that entirely revolves around knowledge intended to beat everyone else. Data and strategy sit at the core of investing.

As a result, outside of pure academical theory, any investment strategy is a closely guarded secret for institutional investors. Retail investors, on the other hand, are not quite the same. Many of them participate in various internet forums as a way of talking about strategy.

You can often find anything, ranging from simple investment advice (usually, ironically preceded by the saying “not financial advice”) to long posts discussing why some companies might be undervalued or overvalued.

Additionally, they are often posted in public forums where, while anonymous, posts are rated according to popularity. It would hold to reason then that such posts would have more sway over other retail investors. As a result, tracking large masses of small investments becomes an easier task.

Collecting such data, however, can be quite challenging. For one, there are places where retail investors congregate, but even then, there are a ton of posts going through them every day, making manual collection inefficient.

Couple that with the fact that sentiments expressed and overall influence can differ, and collecting such data for investment purposes nears to zero ROI or below. Fortunately, automated data collection methods have been developed.

Web scraping can be utilized whenever public data from the internet needs to be gathered at a large enough scale. There are plenty of solution providers online that can build complete out-of-the-box solutions that would make the collection of such semantic data easy.

 

Calculating talk

An important caveat is that even with automated public data collection, everything gathered would be semantic. There would be sentences and paragraphs expressing some sort of sentiment, which might not be immediately obvious, and have an effect that is also shrouded in mystery.

One way to calculate influence is to look for raw ticker mention volume. Quiver Quantitative has done exactly that for a certain piece of Reddit. There’s value to be found, however, pure volume likely only weakly correlates with investments.

It is entirely possible that a majority of such mentions are hidden deep in posts and comments no one ever sees. Only the crawler bot captures them, because it goes through absolutely everything. As a result, it can produce signals that miss the mark.

As scraping can collect any aspect of the data stored within the page, extracting popularity indicators and adding them to the ticker calculations would produce more accurate estimations of how impactful the mention would be.

Finally, sentiment is an important piece of the puzzle. Luckily, we don’t have to build customized machine learning models to extract sentiment. Google’s Natural Language AI and many other tools have already been developed that can serve our purposes just fine.

Combining these three factors with the general talkativeness of the retail investor can give us fairly accurate insight into the inner movements of capital from them. Whether these can serve as a separate investment strategy or enhance current ones, it is something for those who track such data to decide.

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