Not a week goes by when some of the New Narrative content team isn’t writing about fintech. So we know how tricky it can be to keep up with all the lingo and understand what new terms mean. With that in mind we’ve put together a fintech jargon buster that explains some of the ideas that are most discussed but often least well understood — such as blockchain, opening banking and initial coin offerings — while also examining some of the current discussions and developments around each topic.
This may seem a strange term to use about regulation, but it’s actually a helpful metaphor. A child’s sandbox creates a defined, safe space to play in, while a fintech sandbox provides allows companies to test out new technology and services under a controlled but more relaxed regulatory environment. Regulators have been keen to set up fintech sandboxes to promote innovation in financial services while also giving innovators the chance to figure out any regulatory issues that might arise. It’s also a way for regulators to ensure that they keep-up-to-date with the technological changes which are likely to affect future rules.
For firms, the advantage is usually that they get a chance to test their services using real market data and information, while being in dialogue with the regulator. It should mean their service is quicker to market and has a better chance of success. In Asia-Pacific, countries with a fintech sandbox include Australia, Japan, Hong Kong Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Open banking describes the process by which banks share data with third parties with the aim of improving the financial services and products available to customers. In many countries, such as Australia, Hong Kong and UK, banking services are dominated by a few major institutions which can limit choice and competition. The idea is that open banking solves this problem by getting banks to share their data with non-banks, which are then in a stronger position to launch new products.
Many banks are embracing open banking and creating platforms for third-party developers to offer new innovations to their existing customer base. In that way a bank can be seen to be offering the best range of products and services while also retaining the customer relationship. For customers — business and retail — some of the oft-discussed benefits include having a single application that contains information from multiple bank accounts in one place, easier switching between bank providers, and quicker payment methods.
It’s not always up to the banks, though. Many countries have created open banking regulation that compels them to share data with other regulated providers, as the authorities seek to encourage competition and innovation. Key regulatory initiatives include PSD2 in the European Union, CMA Open Banking in the UK, Open API Framework in Hong Kong and Open Banking in Australia.
The sharing of data is usually achieved through an application programme interface (API), essentially a way for two systems to communicate with each other and share data. In some publications the term API is used interchangeably with open banking, even though this is not strictly correct. APIs are also not a new technology — well-known examples include Google giving access to its Maps data to use in the Uber app, or a flight search website communicating with airline websites to provide a list of flight options — but the term has come to greater public prominence with the push towards open banking.
This has been one of the most discussed themes in wealth management over the last few years. While the name conjures images of androids telling people which funds to buy, it is probably more accurate to speak of greater automation of wealth advisory services. In most cases this means using algorithms and artificial intelligence to guide clients to the best investments through a series of questions and options (a process that also in theory makes it easier to work backwards from desired outcome to optimal investment strategy). For now, it is rare for robo-advisors not to be used in conjunction with some level of human input.
The advantages for both the wealth manager and the client are that robo-advisors are more cost-effective than humans alone, and can often provide better outcomes as they are capable of crunching more data. But like any automation technology, it is only as good as the information that supports it, and the algorithms that provide potential solutions.
It can be easy to get terms Blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) confused as they are often used interchangeably. Blockchain is the most well-known example of a type of DLT. Part of the reason it is so high profile is because it is the technology behind Bitcoin.
Blockchain works by allowing users to enter information — a stock trade for example — into encrypted electronic blocks known as ledgers, with everybody in the chain receiving updated information at the same time, which speeds up transaction processing. This means there is no central database or record, and once information is entered it is immutable. This is why is it often viewed as a way to reduce fraud and prevent cyberattacks in financial transactions — you will often hear people talk about ‘a single source of truth’.
In financial services, most of the focus has been on so-called private or enterprise blockchains. These are blockchains that are only open to participants that are invited to be part of the platform. The underlying technology remains the same but they tend to be limited to regulated institutions and be more structured than public blockchains.
Initial Coin Offerings (ICO)
ICOs are a way for companies to raise funds for projects. They are often likened to initial public offerings (IPOs) and while they do have some similarities, there are some key differences including the fact that ICOs are not issued on a regulated exchange and do not have the same investor protections. ICOs can also be sold directly to investors without the requirement to go through a licenced intermediary.
So how does an ICO work? A company that wants to launch a new product or service will publish a whitepaper that explains the project and how it plans to use the funds from the ICO. The company will then issue and sell a set amount of crypto-tokens to investors, much like the shares a company issues during an IPO. The capital raised is used to fund the new product or service, and investors look to make returns from the rise in the value of the token. Like shares, the value of tokens can fall as well as rise.
In most countries, ICOs operate in a regulatory grey area. The sharp growth in ICOs (see chart), means regulators are taking a closer look at the instrument. Some countries, including South Korea and China, have banned ICOs, and the sector is likely to face stricter oversight in major markets in the future. The crypto-industry is also trying to meet the challenge presented by greater regulatory oversight by evolving the product. One potential answer is Security Token Offerings (see below).
For more on ICOs, check out the excellent Investopedia page.
Security Token Offerings (STO)
Security Token Offerings are a response from the crypto-industry to the need for a better regulated method of fundraising. Unlike ICOs, STOS are classified as securities (at least by the US Securities and Exchange Commission; China has already banned the instrument) and so must adhere to securities regulations. This means they offer more investor protection but correspondingly are more expensive for companies wishing to issue them.
As well as being regulated, STOs can be and are often backed by a tangible asset such as bonds, stocks or property. By ‘tokenizing’ these assets, they can be traded using distributed ledger technology (see blockchain section above).