By Roberts Lasovskis, Investment Platform Lead, TWINO
It’s a new year; time for resolutions and forward planning, positivity and drive. But the peer-to-peer industry would do well to engage in a bit of introspection as well; a look back to the year gone by, which serves as a more than useful reminder of what can happen in less propitious times, even for the well-intentioned.
2019 saw two major failures in the European peer-to-peer market, with both Lendy’s collapse in May and FundingSecure in October putting investor capital at risk. Between the two, a combined £240m of savers’ money was put at risk, leading to the inevitable questions of regulators. On top of the two lenders failing, the well-established Funding Circle came into difficulties with its new withdrawal processes raising investor concern. But in all three stories from last year is a sign of how peer-to-peer can succeed in 2020, providing last year’s lessons are learnt.
There is one aspect of the two peer-to-peer collapses last year that stood out for much of the criticism from both media and investors. Both Lendy and FundingSecure came advertised as ‘approved by the FCA’, yet in collapse, both displayed structural faults and warning signs that should perhaps have been noticed earlier. Managing credit risk is an expensive learning process, but should be taken very seriously, and using as many data sources and as much testing as possible. Inevitably, these high-profile failures will cause a tightening of regulation across the industry, which should be welcomed.
The industry should embrace the ongoing development of its regulation – it is not something to just be tolerated and survived. Higher levels of scrutiny from administrators lead to better industry structures and more robust business models that generate greater trust from consumers. This is an inevitable step for a maturing industry, and now is the time for peer-to-peer to ensure its regulations are fit for purpose, and that investor money is not put at unnecessary risk.
But regulation is about more than just stopping the high-profile failures and helping to build consumer trust in the sector. When implemented properly, regulation encourages the development of better products; companies are forced to innovate and adapt to meet the new challenges, eliminating the number of shortcuts or ‘easy options’ that are taken when developing a product for consumers. Ultimately, this creates safer and more sustainable returns for investors.
Transparency is key
One of the major lessons the past year has taught us is the importance of transparency, particularly when communicating with investors. But whether it’s investors, borrowers or other industry partners, transparency and clear communication are key to rebuilding trust in the P2P sector, and even as specifically as in individual products or companies. Take Funding Circle as an example. It is undoubtedly one of the most successful businesses in the sector, and yet has been suffering a recent crisis in trust, which has been largely caused by customers not fully understanding what procedural changes are going to mean for their money.
The changes in question are not necessarily the full problem. The model is no less safe, and the business is no less high-profile. Nor do investors automatically object to the idea of a delay before they can access their money (look at fixed-term savings accounts for example). As with all peer to peer lending platforms, it is simply a question of understanding risk – customers misinterpreted the changes as a sign that their money was under threat and understandably rushed to protect it.
The customer is king
Fintech exploded as a sector in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, as a reaction to bad practices in the financial services industry. The industry was created with a promise of ‘customer-first’ products; solutions to fix the shortcomings in finance and financial services, and to pivot them back to a consumer-focus. From product development to marketing and communications, peer-to-peer must remember where it came from and ensure that the customer always comes first.
This is particularly important should another economic downturn materialise, as many are predicting within the next couple of years. Fintech businesses emerged as the success stories from the last downturn by creating solutions that focused on their customers. They should do so again.
For all the perceived problems in the P2P sector, the fundamental market for the products have not changed; investors who want to generate good returns still need to be connected with those seeking convenient loans. By remembering where it came from, and the problems it set out to solve, the sector can still thrive in 2020, even if the predicted economic downturn does transpire. To avoid the pitfalls other providers have fallen into, peer-to-peer must embrace regulation, communicate with transparency and focus on leveraging their expertise to provide trustworthy customer-centric solutions.
REACHING THE NOT-SO DIGITAL NATIVES
By Garry Hamilton, Group Business Development Director, Equator
It’s 2020. There’s no denying that banks and financial institutions have found themselves in a war against the tech giants in recent years. But can they win? Can consumers ever be truly satisfied? Or will institutions in this space stick with what they know regardless of how well it is working? In the digital-first now, FS companies have moved into an uneasy but rewarding landscape. Just as with consumer goods, they find themselves in a space where they no longer innovate ahead of consumer aspiration and demand, instead finding themselves increasingly under pressure to catch up.
The experiences consumers have with global giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple (GAFA) define their expectations for all digital experiences. To stay up to speed, FS companies need to understand the shift in consumer demand as well as the multitude of threats to a business model that’s seen as traditional and staid. In short, they need to prepare.
The paltry, taped-together digital offerings from the incumbent financial service brands no longer stand. However, these brands still go to market with products and services defined by internal processes and limitations, giving little consideration to true service design principles or customer experience.
Thankfully this is changing, in part by credible (and incredible) upstart fintech companies, chipping away at the monoliths. At Equator, we work with several brands in this space, including Santander and Virgin Money, all of whom have realised the tides are changing. Major finance brands are no longer looking for the sharks in the water that come after all they do, instead realising that it’s a multitude of piranhas that pose the most significant threat.
Case in point: TransferWise has demonstrated that something as mundane as foreign exchange can be made fresh; Atom Bank has shown that a lean approach to savings and loans can drive solid business without being so reliant on rate, and Starling Bank has demonstrated that a serious focus on making the tech work can yield excellent results. Consumer choice for financial services has never been greater.
The hidden threats that GAFA may pose on traditional finance brands are, as yet, not fully realised. Apple has already demonstrated its ambition in the US with its digital credit card offering. Amazon has Amazon Pay and shown interest in the insurance market. Facebook is out there with its (stumbling) cryptocurrency effort, and Google’s feature-creep into aggregation (and payments) indicates a genuine and poorly understood threat from some of the wealthiest and most capitalised tech companies in the world. It’s hard to imagine a reality where consumers reject financial services from these brands.
But for incumbent brands in this space, the opportunity to maintain success lies in two key areas. Firstly, data. While it’s commonly understood that this is the currency that enriches the GAFA businesses, consumers’ financial behaviours are still broadly out of reach. Banks and financial institutions with historically loyal customers are sitting on a gold mine of data that can be turned into actionable insights. Insights that could deepen loyalty, increase relevance and make historically uninteresting and stuffy institutions appear modern and relevant.
Secondly, these organisations have significant human knowledge capital. These people know how the wheels turn, how to negotiate regulation and compliance, and how to manage risk. When you look to the most successful start-ups, their success is less borne of wealth, but more of knowledge and how financial systems operate. That cannot be underestimated. Banks and financial institutions need to strive to keep their staff loyal – not just the traders with their extreme bonuses. They’re not the ones that tech businesses would come after.
Getting a financial service off the ground isn’t cheap, but that’s not something GAFA worry about. Instead, it’s the complexity of negotiating the regulations and marketplace. What FS brands need to watch out for is that the fintech piranhas do not become sharks – not necessarily through growth but through acquisition and consolidation. Acquiring TransferWise, Monzo or Starling Bank is still pocket change to these organisations. And they DO have the technical wherewithal to bring autonomous platforms together and make a success of it, something high street banks and insurance companies have proven incapable to see through.
To survive and thrive, financial brands should take advantage of the one thing they’re historically good at – assessing and mitigating risk, with the critical difference being that keeping it the same as it’s always been is no longer the safe option. At Equator, we’ve already seen clients, such as AXA and Lloyds, acquire or partner with fintech start-ups. There’s a real effort from the high street banks to deliver a Monzo-esque functionality to their customer base. And we see real innovation in everything from insurance to loans and savings.
But there is still a long way to go. Regulation in the UK has been reasonably balanced between control and competition since 2007. However, technology continues to outpace the law, and we need to keep the pressure on the regulators to allow for new customer engagement models, new ownership models and new ways to deliver financial products and services.
In the last few years at Equator, we’ve assisted many major financial institutions take on tomorrow by helping them innovate and bring new products and services to life. We’ve helped Virgin Money bring their innovative B banking service to life, pioneered original service design in the most mundane of places for Tesco Bank and a lot more besides. We know that there are many enthusiastic brands out there looking to take on tomorrow and bring digitally-enabled services to life. But the sector still has some growing up to do. Crucially, it needs to accept that the disruption that came after the 2007 financial crash has nothing on what is around the corner
We’re still only really getting off the ground with the second payment services directive. Open banking is creeping in. We’ve yet to see the promised liberation of the payments sector (which should be huge), and it’s fair to say we should expect more niche disruptors to emerge, as money continues to pour into the sector. And that’s not even covering off the effect that machine learning and automation will continue to have in the industry over the coming years. If you ever dared to think finance was dull, get ready for a disruptive and exciting time.
RISK VS REWARD: IS AI TAKING OVER?
Xavier Fernandes, Analytics Director at Metapraxis
A study by Oxford University academics into “The Future of Employment” in 2013 prompted apocalyptic headlines which stated that in the future 40% of jobs will be automated thanks to advancing technology.
The researchers subsequently claimed that the truth was in fact a little more prosaic; rather than facing complete automation, the research found that 40% of jobs faced some aspect of automation in their activity. So with new ‘AI processes a likely reality for almost half us, what does that mean for our current roles and should we be worried?
The fourth revolution?
The first industrial revolution saw machines replacing muscle, both human and animal. The second and third saw electrical power, mass production and computerisation revolutionise the job market. Now, with daily headlines of AI as an employment superpower, there is some concern that AI is bringing a fourth revolution, and with it, unknown circumstances.
This ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is defined by replacing brain power with machines. Our thinking capacity is what inherently sets us apart from other species, so it’s not surprising that any encroachment on it triggers some existential angst.
Evolve to reap the rewards
While many businesses still don’t fully understand the capabilities of AI, those who fear its development are, instead of embracing it, missing all the benefits that it can bring to the workplace. Businesses that utilise AI appropriately are seeing vast improvements across their entire value chain; better customer experience, reduced costs, and more insightful analysis to support management decisions.
AI is particularly useful for supporting tasks with repetitive activity, for example, performing financial checks and assessing large sets of data within financial services firms. AI performs particularly well within this context, spotting outliers before a human expert would notice them, allowing impending problems to be flagged and avoiding costly mistakes.
There is also an increasing focus on maximising customer lifetime value through the use of AI. Being able to predict existing customers’ needs as well as track trends in their financial circumstances is supercharging the old cross-selling approach with testable, predictable outcomes.
With potential benefits like these on offer, management teams of innovative financial services are increasingly relying on AI to help them with some of the heavy-lifting of analysis. Using advanced data capabilities and learned behaviours, AI analyses market trends to provide predictions of future performance. This insight is invaluable and allows management teams to change direction and correct any problems accordingly. This offers a huge advantage over those that have not adopted such tools.
Supporting the workplace
Algorithms and AI are typically ‘smart’ at doing one, tightly-constrained task, but they can be less helpful with many of the activities that humans find straightforward. In most white-collar jobs, automation tends to replace certain tasks in the job, rather than the role in its entirety, as the need for human intelligence is still highly necessary. In particular, we still need human input to first challenge, and then synthesise, this information before taking action. Employees should therefore work with the business to proactively identify what areas of their role could be automated, so that they can focus on the areas that add real value to the business’ commercial goals.
Challenging AI is certainly still important. We know that algorithms can be much better than humans on certain, bounded tasks. However, many algorithms rely on existing data sets to build their understanding. As a result, when a business unit has ‘symptoms’ that fall outside of that body of knowledge, the algorithm may suggest the wrong course of action with costly results.
Indeed, even with plenty of data, algorithms will reflect any biases the data set contains. We’re seeing this with some legal sentencing algorithms where there is evidence that they are treating disadvantaged people more harshly. Getting the answers to why and how far we should trust our algorithms should therefore become an everyday part of any job affected by AI.
Rather than depending entirely on AI for all decisions, workers should be taking all these new, AI-generated insights and using them to complement the human decision-making process. No manager of a complex business ever has enough time to sieve through all the analysis available, but with AI driven algorithms able to flag up any issues and indicate where action needs to be taken, we may find that we have some AI ’colleagues’ who will cover our backs and suggest innovative options. Yes, there will be times when the algorithms get it wrong, but as long as we’re watching out for those, the future is bright.
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