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Towards Data-as-a-Service – why the next step in Managed Data Services is resonating with financial services firms

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by Martijn Groot, VP Marketing and Strategy, Alveo

Financial services firms are collecting ever-greater volumes and an ever greater diversity of data. Concurrently, they generate more data too as a by-product of business activities, not least driven by regulatory demands for increased pre- and post-trade transparency. Safe to say that most if not all processes in the financial services industry have gotten increasingly data intensive. But to capitalise on the insights this data brings, they must home in on the most relevant information, filter it, integrate it, curate it and embed it into their decision making to use it to deliver competitive edge.

There are multiple ways and techniques that can be used in setting up the right process to do this. Firms can use methods such as Natural Language Processing to directly extract content from text-based data. Working with shopping lists of instrument or entity identifiers or keywords to analyse textual data can help them focus on extracting the required content. The curation or quality-control of data then requires the integration of multiple data sets from different sources to attain a composite picture.

In this context, a conservative approach to data acquisition is no longer viable. Historically, drawn-out data preparation processes were typically driven by monthly or quarterly reporting cycles, leading to insights that were inaccurate, dated or both. Processing data over a long period and relying on poor-quality data to drive business decisions will be insufficient to enable firms to keep pace with nimbler fintechs and challenger banks.

To properly steer data management requirements, firms must first decide its objectives. This can focus on regular supply of data sets to streamline BAU operations, improve data quality, setting SLAs for turnaround time on data deliveries or onboarding new financial instruments or entire datasets or, more generically, on enabling data scientists to deliver self-service data collection and analysis. But there must be a defined business goal to work towards.

Firms need to leverage data scientists to gather the right data and ‘ask the right questions’. What constitutes the right data will depend on the clients, markets and geographies the firm works with and can lead to lists of interest specifying what needs collecting. Linked to that are metadata requirements, e.g. SLAs that specify service windows, turnaround times and quality metrics. The cycle time required for data preparation and curation is continually shrinking thanks to the advanced technologies now in place to harvest data, combine data sets and derive live insights. The questions that need answering and the use cases in scope will steer data collection and curation processes.

Today, a skilled data analyst can do all this and translate data into the big picture view the C-Suite needs to base decisions on. Here we look at what’s making this possible and the benefits it brings.

Catering to changing business needs

Recent years have seen significant changes in the data management and analytics processes employed by financial services firms and together these changes are helping empower analysts, quants and data scientists.

Historically the two disciplines have been separate. The data management process involves activities such as data sourcing, cross-referencing and ironing out discrepancies. Data analytics is typically carried out afterwards, close to the users and on separately-stored subsets of data. This divide has created problems for financial institutions, with the separation impacting time to insight and holding back decision-making.

Today that’s changing. The availability of vastly more data, the benefit from using more data analysis to distil insights and the emergence of stronger data management tooling is helping firms transition to a more integrated approach to data management and analytics.

Any data used to drive decision making also needs to be of the highest quality. Otherwise, the analytics may not work and the intelligence derived may not be accurate.

All the above explains how analytics has been empowered within financial services organisations. But how do organisations get that analytics quickly to decision-makers and ensure they can use it to drive business strategy?

 

From on-prem, to managed services, to DaaS

As the data management function expands and extends into analytics, it is positioned to empower staff working in different functions through providing them self-service capabilities and easy access to data to drive better informed decision-making. On the BAU data operations side, the availability of managed services has caused a shift from implementing solutions on-prem to sourcing services. This allows firms to source new services based on SLAs and metrics such as uptime, turnaround time and performance rather than implementing bespoke requirements.

Suppliers of data management solutions have shifted their service model from software to managed services. Increasingly this is now evolving further into a Data-as-a-Service (“DaaS”) model where suppliers not only host and run the data management infrastructure, but also verify data and perform root-cause analysis to fix data quality issues. A client can view complete data sets; have dashboards into the data preparation processes but can also get different selections of data formatted in different ways for last-mile integration with business applications.

Onboarding DaaS models for pricing data, reference data or corporate actions allows firms to hit the ground running, frees up operations staff and can lead to an uptick in productivity.  DaaS can cover any data set but includes processing a range of third-party data sources in pricing and reference data, to curves and benchmark data, ESG and alternative data and corporate actions. Offering a firm cleansed, fully-prepared data will facilitate any consuming business process including risk management and compliance.

Quants and data analysts can then take these prepared data sets and use them to attain the key metrics that then play into senior decision-making processes. Data scientists are looking at historical data across asset classes looking to distil information down into factors including ESG criteria to operationalise it into their investment decision-making process. Increasingly too, they are incorporating innovative data science solutions, including AI and machine learning, into market analysis and investment processes.

The new methodology enables the faster creation of proprietary analytics to support activities including investment decisions, valuations, stress-tests, performance analysis and risk management. By disseminating such information to C-Suite decision-makers and providing them with the necessary context and detail, data scientists can help drive business strategy. Self-service capabilities to request new sources or review the lists of interest make for a much shorter change cycle in data supply.

For many firms though, it will be Data-as-a-Service that will act as the ultimate catalyst for success.  It can deliver that will act as the foundation for both operations and analytics across the business. Combined with quality metrics on the different data sets and sources, it can lead to ongoing improvement in data operation effectiveness. Perhaps, most important of all, it will shorten the change cycle and increase the quality of data provisioning to all business functions.

Finance

Hey, Gen Y and Gen Z do you think you can retire comfortably?

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By Penelope Gregoriou, technical investment specialist at Alexforbes

 

Millions of South Africans rely on the money saved in their employers’ retirement fund to earn an income in retirement. For many people, this is their only formal savings for retirement. Unfortunately, too often, this money is still not enough to sustain them in retirement.

Being a young professional has its fair share of demands and complexities, with real day-to-day demands such as housing, transportation and health needs all perpetually competing for a share of

your wallet. Retirement savings, quite frankly, is a low priority for many. But research shows that it is critically important for young professionals to take responsibility in reaching a reasonable income in retirement – the sooner the better.

According to the 2021 Alexforbes Member Insights publication 65% of members aged between 20 and 30 are expected to replace and live on less than 60% of their final salary when they retire because they have not saved enough during their working lives. Consider this: if you had retired today, could you live comfortably on less than 60% of your monthly take-home salary? This is expected to drop even further below 60% due to low contributions and not keeping retirement savings invested when changing jobs throughout the remainder of working careers.

Research by the publication found that a retirement fund member who has actively increased retirement fund contributions by 0.25% each year since 2012 would have achieved a 2% increase in salary contribution rate by 2020. A small incremental increase such as this can lead to an almost 10% improvement in expected retirement benefits for younger members.

The need for better solutions

Penelope Gregoriou

The key underlying issues compromising pension outcomes are largely due to younger members:

  • choosing lower contribution rates to increase their take-home pay
  • having little or no access to relevant information
  • not clearly understanding what their options are at critical points in their financial journey
  • not knowing the long-term consequences of the financial decisions they make today
  • not having access to financial advice or financial counselling

There is mounting evidence that more people are realising how important the right information at the right time is and the long way it can go in supporting their financial journey and setting them in the right direction.

Digital member engagement solutions, financial wellness programmes and seamless in-fund and out-of-fund savings solutions all serve a valuable purpose in helping young members improve decision-making and the prospects of a more comfortable retirement.

Supporting this notion is the finding that 78% of retirement fund members want short-term and long-term financial planning (2021 Alexforbes Member Insights). It is clear that retirement funds cannot only be solving for retirement savings and income. Providing expert, holistic advice on retirement, group risk, health management, healthcare, investments, employee wellbeing

solutions and skills development can help members make the most of their long-term financial futures. More members are realising the advantages of having access to holistic solutions that provide them with personalised information, engagement and advice to make better, informed decisions today while still helping them plan for tomorrow.

Enabling the good and mitigating the bad

Retirement might seem like a far-off reality – especially when you’ve just started working – but it is still a reality. Your money competes for a lot of immediate priorities, but a long-term priority can only be met in the present. While you might often feel like you are on a seesaw of financial instability and discomfort, finding financial services that can provide you with a balance of pertinent products and solutions during critical times in your career – such as joining or leaving a company – can assist to preserve savings intended for long-term priorities, such as retirement.

Though there are challenges that come with being a younger professional, it does come with the significant benefit of time. As a younger investor in a retirement fund, you have a long-term investment horizon. Saving from an early age means that your money has more time to work for

you. Thanks to the impact of compound interest the amounts contributed in the early years of retirement saving add the most to your probability of a comfortable income at retirement. That is why it is imperative to maximise this opportunity as best and as early as you can.

You don’t have to do it alone

Employee benefits, and what they can offer employees, have evolved into solutions that are relevant and effective enough to guide members, especially during the critical moments earlier in their career and lives. Previously isolated benefits are now more integrated in employer-sponsored retirement funds to mirror the reality of members’ lives and accommodate their immediate and long-term needs, simultaneously.

An employee benefit provider can support employer-sponsored retirement funds with information and insights when reviewing the benefit design and engagement plans of their funds. The additional support that an employee benefit provider with an integrated and holistic offering can present can help members get over day-to-day hurdles – emergency savings, health needs, education – that could derail them in meeting their long-term retirement objectives. This could be something as simple as misunderstanding retirement benefits and the options at a member’s disposal. Helping members understand the total picture of what’s on offer, and what’s at stake, throughout their individual life journeys can go a long way in guiding better decisions at the right times to ultimately improve outcomes.

Starting a new job is a big change. You may need some help to make good decisions as you start your new job. Even small financial decisions you make now can affect your ability to reach your goals. You are planning for a critical time in the future. Ensure that you are getting the right foundations in place today, holistically.

This is the most opportune time as any to rethink how you have approached your employee benefits. Financial toolkits, like the newly launched My Money Matters portal from Alexforbes, offer members guided access to content that can help them better understand their retirement fund benefits and make better financial decisions based on their personal circumstances.

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Finance

Getting ready for VAT digitisation: automation is key

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Christiaan Van Der Valk, Vice President for Strategy and Regulatory at Sovos, says technology will power real strategic success for companies required to follow continuous transaction controls (CTCs).

A growing number of governments and businesses around the world are adopting digital-first approaches for a multitude of processes, resulting in a need to move away from traditional paper-based invoicing and embrace real-time tax reporting. This trend has been largely led by Latin American countries such as Brazil, Chile and Mexico. Through adopting real-time reporting via electronic invoicing systems, they have been able to better understand their economies, reduce fraud, and close VAT gaps.

The shift to continuous transaction controls (CTCs) allows transaction data to be automatically streamed to governments, reducing the need for resource-intensive business systems and document audits for tax administrations. Through the use of rich, standardised data, tax authorities are able to compute a business’s tax liability. Businesses are generally not required to be heavily involved in this process.

With this requirement – combined with invoicing – businesses would be able to avoid filing periodic tax returns, relieving them of the burden of running VAT compliance teams and filing reports that bring no benefit. The practice, however, calls for a more comprehensive data management approach and proactive data reconciliation across different sources of government-controlled transaction data. For this reason, companies need access to a high-quality dataset in case they must challenge government-determined tax liability.

It can be problematic to have poor data quality in a VAT environment that relies heavily on legacy reporting. For example, there have been instances in which reports were inconsistent or didn’t correspond to accounting data in audits. Consequently, fines or penalties may be imposed. However, in the world of CTCs the consequences of data quality issues are of a very different magnitude. Your financial and physical supply and demand chains can practically grind to a standstill if your data isn’t approved by the tax administration – especially in nations where the tax administration ‘clears’ the invoice in real-time such as in Italy, Mexico and Brazil.

Many businesses with responsibilities in VAT jurisdictions are missing something important here. Beginning to utilise automation and other more specialised tools for producing VAT returns is a critical step toward harnessing the benefits from the mandated transition to CTCs as opposed to focusing on the challenges.

Manual is outdated

A lot of businesses are still using manual processes like spreadsheets to manage their VAT compliance, which essentially involves the time-consuming production and submission of VAT returns.

Through implementing technology like automated rules in software, companies can maximise the validity of VAT data. As well as simplifying and re-risking VAT reporting activities, the effort required to design the steps to enhance data using automated rules engines means establishing structured definitions of ‘what’s wrong with your transaction data?’ These definitions can then be used to identify the cause of quality concerns in upstream business processes and address them in order to dramatically improve CTC readiness.

For many businesses, the majority of quality concerns are down to the manual and paper-based processes used in internal workflows and trading partner relationships. Therefore, automation will play a vital role in properly preparing for CTCs.

Preparing data in this manner for VAT enforcement means that a business is paving the way for a more data-driven approach to compliance in general. Companies will increasingly be required to coordinate data being submitted to tax administrations automatically from a range of business process and accounting systems, once CTCs and other VAT digitisation initiatives become operational.

Keeping up to date with the expanding scope of information that is handed over to tax administrations in these automated data transmissions is crucial, so that companies can maintain a level of control over the image of their business operations that is constructed for the tax authorities.

As well as this, a business may benefit from this insight across data encompassing the full supply chain and transactions.  For instance, this information gathered could be turned into tactics to help with strategic planning.

Business leaders may reduce expenses, boost resilience, and improve controls by automating tax and business operations and adopting a data-driven approach to compliance, allowing for a more accurate and detailed understanding of granular reporting needs.

Organisations should prioritise the building of dashboards utilising modern analytics tools to prepare for this huge transition. It’s also important to have a well-organised evidence base with clean digital archives. Technology and the insight it brings will be the driving factor for real strategic success as economies recover from the pandemic.

Data flow is key

As tax authorities and governments work to reduce VAT gaps, greater visibility into corporate databases is at the top of their agenda. This is accomplished through the government’s digitisation of all tax reporting, in which data is delivered at regular intervals that correspond to the flow of transactions and the government’s data requirements.

It is imperative that transaction data, relevant primarily for VAT purposes (though not exclusively), be received in a transactional manner. Meanwhile, other types of information, like payment data or inventory movement, may be requested on a weekly or monthly basis, whereas broader accounting data might be requested more frequently.

The introduction of CTCs should not be viewed as an IT formality, but as the first step in tax administrations gaining easy, timely and effective access to source data. The digitisation of tax will enable administrations to access data on a regular basis, as well as at a granular level.

As companies transition from manual data entry into this new world of automated data exchange, they should concentrate on why this change is important rather than how it is happening. The real prize here is not getting the ‘plumbing’ to work according to government specifications; focusing on this ‘how’ question means that companies may be missing out on a potentially critical business enabler, but equally they may be inadvertently setting themselves up for much higher levels of compliance risk.

With the introduction of CTCs and various forms of detailed digital reporting, companies should be prepared to be exposed to much more stringent audits. The reason for this is that data quality or consistency issues will gradually become more transparent to tax administration teams, which will increasingly be enabled to respond to even the smallest inconsistencies that may previously have gone under the radar with surgical precision.

The higher level of visibility allows tax authorities to cross-check more company data, its trading partners and third parties’ data. These abilities will be vastly improved as more governments complement CTC requirements with mandates for SAF-T and similar electronic auditing requirements. Through thorough analysis of this growing mass of real-time and historic data, a firm’s operations can be fully understood.

Successfully adapting to CTCs means investing in the journey rather than the destination. As everything becomes more digitised, organisations must stay on top of these changes and maintain the same level of data insights as tax authorities do. There will be a growing need for this as more countries introduce CTC regimes (both France and Germany are on the horizon).

Adapting business tools to deliver better data insights is essential to facilitating tax digitisation, both to satisfy global tax authorities and to achieve a competitive advantage in the market. In short, companies should remain fully alert and prepared to ensure a smooth transition and successful outcome of CTCs, which are the logical next step on the road to business transparency.

The domino effect of CTCs

The willingness of autonomous governments to accept digital tax reporting will determine how widespread its implementation becomes. Following more than a decade of success with these methods in Latin America, governments all over Europe, for example, have made major moves toward introducing CTCs. In doing so, there is a great deal of preparation that international companies need to do which can take a considerable amount of time and resources.

In all jurisdictions with indirect tax systems, moving toward increasingly digitised tax controls is the only path. With real-time data, governments can better understand and analyse their country’s economic health, while also enhancing fiscal controls and reducing fraud. It’s just a matter of time until these digital programmes become standard practice on a global level, as countries all across the world begin to recognise their success in reducing fraud, increasing efficiency and closing VAT gaps.

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