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Big Tech, Not Fintech, Causing Greatest Disruption to Banking and Insurance Markets

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Financial institutions’ drive to become more “experience-driven” is opening the door to potential competition from global technology giants, according to a report published today by the World Economic Forum.

According to the report, Beyond Fintech: A Pragmatic Assessment of Disruptive Potential in Financial Services, the challenge to banks and insurers is down to large technology firms hollowing out the value proposition of these institutions by carrying out more core functions, even as banks and insurers lean ever more heavily on them to compete.

Another finding of the report, which aims to examine the impact of innovation on the financial ecosystem, is that fintech start-ups, while achieving success in terms of changing the basis for competition, have had less impact than expected in disrupting the competitive landscape.

“The partnership between banks and large tech companies risks not staying a reciprocal one,” said Jesse McWaters, lead author of the study, and Project Lead, Disruptive Innovation in Financial Services at the World Economic Forum. “Financial institutions increasingly rely on technology firms for their most strategically sensitive capabilities, but can so far only offer their ongoing business in return.”

The report draws on interviews and workshops with hundreds of financial and technology experts. It highlights cloud computing, customer-facing artificial intelligence and “big data” customer analytics as three capabilities that are becoming critical to the competitive differentiation of financial institutions. All three are domains where technology giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook have far deeper experience than their financial services counterparts and where scale effects will make it difficult for financial institutions to catch up. As a result, many banks and insurers are turning to technology firms to provide these core functions.

Examples include:

  • Amazon Web Services (AWS), which provides services to dozens of finance companies, including Aon, Capital One, Carlyle, Nasdaq, Pacific Life and Stripe
  • Brazil’s Banco Bradesco Facebook app, which allows customers to conduct day-to-day banking from Facebook, relying on the social network’s customer data analytics to target users
  • Capital One and Liberty Mutual’s “Alexa” solution (a voice-activated personal assistant), which allows customers to check balances, pay bills and track spending through these devices

While these partnerships can accelerate innovation, the report points out that they also pose a risk should large technology players choose to enter financial services in direct competition with retail banks and insurers.

 “Tech giants would be able to pick and choose their points of entry into financial services; maximizing their strengths like rich datasets and strong brands, while taking advantage of incumbent institutions’ dependence on them,” said McWaters. As a result, financial institutions will likely need to walk a challenging line between capitalizing on the services of large technology players and becoming dependent on them.

For customers, the entry of large technology firms into financial services could mean entrusting both their financial and non-financial data to the same company. For policy-makers it would raise serious questions about how best to avoid both anticompetitive behaviour and the inappropriate use of personal data in decision-making.

The findings suggest a move away from a focus on the potential competitive threat of high-tech financial services start-ups, typically called “fintechs”. Much research, including the World Economic Forum’s 2015 report on The Future of Financial Services, suggested that “niche” fintechs could stage a broader disruption of the financial system. But, while they have deeply influenced the direction of innovation in the industry, there are growing doubts about their ability to directly challenge incumbent financial institutions.

“Fintechs have changed the basis of competition in financial services, but not the competitive landscape” said Rob Galaski, Partner, Americas FSI Regional Leader, Deloitte Canada, and co-author of the report. “Fintechs now define the tempo and direction of innovation in financial services, but high customer switching costs and the rapid response of incumbents has challenged their ability to scale”.

Robo-advisers, which provide automated investment advice to customers at low fees, provide an instructive example of incumbents responding to fintech. Early innovators like Betterment and Wealthfront have shown significant growth, with assets under management of $6.7 billion and $4.4 billion, respectively, at the end of 2016. However, they have been dwarfed by incumbents that have created their own robo-advisory offerings, such as the Vanguard Advisor platform, which had $47 billion in assets under management as of the end of 2016.

“The ability to be a fast follower has proven more important than being first for large financial institutions,” said Galaski. “Agile incumbents have used the fintech ecosystem as a supermarket for capabilities, making the ability to nurture and rapidly form partnerships a critical ingredient to banks’ competitive success.”

Another of the report’s findings notes the emergence of distinct financial systems in China, Europe and the United States, raising concerns for international regulatory coordination. The report observed that, in China, large technology companies like Ant Financial (a subsidiary of Alibaba) and Tencent (the parent company of WeChat) have emerged as leading providers of a range of financial services – a striking departure from the traditional bank-led model dominant in the United States. Meanwhile in Europe, the forthcoming enactment of the Second Payment Services Directive (more commonly called PSDII) is expected to open up banks’ customer data, creating an environment of more active competition between incumbents and new entrants.

“Technology is not driving a global convergence in customer experience, instead divergent customer demand and regulatory priorities are creating distinctly regionalized financial ecosystems” said Bob Contri, Principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP (US); Deloitte Global Financial Services Industry Leader, and an adviser to the report. “This could pose a serious challenge to regulatory coordination, as regulators struggle to understand the disparate impact of global regulations on each region”.

The report

Beyond Fintech: A Pragmatic Assessment of Disruptive Potential in Financial Services is the result of hundreds of meetings and interviews with executives from incumbent financial institutions like JP Morgan, BlackRock, State Farm, AIG and Munich Re, as well as more recent entrants like Stripe, Transferwise, CreditEase, R3, SigFig, Lending, Club, Trove, OnDeck and Kabbage. The Steering committee of the report included executives from HSBC, UBS, Allianz, MasterCard, Visa, Deutsche Bank, Thomson Reuters, Barclays, XL Catlin, CLS Bank and CreditEase. The report was prepared in collaboration with Deloitte and follows three previous reports on financial innovation.

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Economy

Upswing in global growth won’t last forever: IMF says world must prepare now for leaner times ahead

MD Staff

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While the world economy continues to show broad-based momentum, a new report released Tuesday by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is warning that there may be choppy seas ahead, caused by increasing protectionism or tit-for-tat trade wars.

“Global growth is projected to soften beyond the next couple of years,” said the report, explaining that: “Once their output gaps close, most advanced economies are poised to return to potential growth rates well below pre-crisis averages – held back by aging populations and lackluster productivity.”

Looking at the largest economies, the World Economic Outlook , the Fund’s semiannual report on the health of the international economy, shows growth projections at 2.4 per cent for the euro area, 1.2 per cent for Japan, 6.6 per cent for China and 2.9 per cent for the United States.

“Despite the good near-term news, longer-term prospects are more sobering,” said Maurice Obstfeld, Economic Counsellor and Director of Research at the IMF, the specialized United Nations agency working to ensure stability in the global financial system.

“Advanced economies – facing aging populations, falling rates of labor force participation, and low productivity growth – will likely not regain the per capita growth rates they enjoyed before the global financial crisis,” he continued.

Mr. Obstfeld painted a diverse picture for emerging and developing economies, saying that among non-commodity exporters, some countries can expect longer-term, pre-crisis type growth rates.

However, despite some improvement in the outlook for commodity prices, he pointed out that some exporters will need to diversify their economies to boost future growth and resilience.

The IMF, which is holding its annual Spring Meetings in Washington, D.C., with the World Bank, continued to echo its advice that the current cyclical upswing offers policymakers a good opportunity to make longer-term growth more resilient and inclusive.

“Sound policies can extend the upswing while reducing the risks of a disruptive unwinding,” Mr. Obstfeld stated. “Countries need to rebuild fiscal buffers, enact structural reforms and steer monetary policy cautiously in an environment that is already complex and challenging.”

Trade tensions

While some governments are pursuing substantial economic reforms, trade disputes risk diverting others from the constructive steps they would currently need to take to improve and secure growth prospects, Mr. Obstfeld warned.

Despite widespread economic growth, public optimism has been eroding over time by job and wage polarization trends, raising the threat of political developments that could destabilize various economic policies – even beyond those of trade.

“Governments need to rise to the challenges of strengthening growth, spreading its benefits more widely, broadening economic opportunity through investments in people […] that could radically transform the nature of work,” underscored Mr. Obstfeld. “Fights over trade distract from this vital agenda, rather than advancing it.”

Trade tensions started in early March when the US announced it would levy steel and aluminum tariffs for national security reasons, provoking China’s announcement of retaliatory tariffs on US imports.

In the present environment, excessive global imbalances should be reduced multilaterally.

“Plurilateral arrangements, if consistent with multilateral rules, can also provide a useful springboard to more open trade,” stated Mr. Obstfeld.

While each Government can do much on its own to promote stronger, resilient and inclusive growth, multilateral cooperation remains essential to address a range of challenges – including climate change, infectious diseases, cyber-security, corporate taxation and corruption.

“Global interdependence will only continue to grow and unless countries face it in a spirit of collaboration, not conflict, the world economy cannot prosper,” Mr. Obstfeld underscored.

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Economy

Why Trade, Investment, and Competition Reforms Matter for Argentina

MD Staff

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A loaf of bread. A gallon of milk. Eggs, cheese, and chicken. Most people would not link these everyday staples with a country’s integration in the global economy. But in Argentina, where customers pay 49% more, on average, for these groceries than people would have to under similar conditions in OECD countries, higher food prices are a symptom of deeper economic issues.

The country faces challenges in three policy areas that reinforce each other in fostering further integration in the global economy: trade, investment, and competition. Argentina’s trade flows have fallen by almost half over the past fifteen years, and while most countries participate in about 14 free trade agreements each, Argentina is only party to one, Mercosur. Foreign direct investment levels are low in Argentina, amounting to just two percent of GDP between 2000 and 2015. Further, state-owned enterprises in 17 different sectors are not competing on a level playing field with private investors or delivering services less efficiently than the private sector could.

A report from The World Bank Group, Strengthening Argentina’s Integration in the Global Economy: Policy Proposals for Trade, Investment and Competition, analyzes the current state of affairs in these three policy areas and proposes reforms designed to boost integration with the global markets which would then provide opportunities to grow, create welfare for consumers, and generate better employment opportunities. The reforms suggested in the report cover a wide range and include recommendations such as lowering tariffs, removing bureaucratic hurdles that make private sector investments difficult, and strengthening anti-cartel enforcement, among others. Enacting these reforms would allow firms to be more competitive and better integrated into the global economy, the report finds.

Implementing economy-wide reforms will pay off in a variety of ways. For instance, with all else being equal, a more integrated Mercosur- with lower external tariffs and streamlined internal non-tariff measures – would expand Argentina’s GDP by at least 1%over baseline projections for 2030. Increasing competition in the manufacturing sector would add 7 percent to annual growth labor productivity. Reducing the restrictiveness of market regulation in Argentinian services sectors (such as energy, transport, professional services, and telecommunications) would translate into an additional 0.1 percent to 0.6 percent growth in annual GDP.

Argentina’s government recognizes these opportunities and is taking active steps to open its markets. The Macri administration, which took office in 2015, has already reduced export taxes, replaced the import licensing system, approved reductions in energy and transport subsidies, pushed for a new Competition Law and facilitated $102 billion in new future investments in just 24 months.

“We are convinced that to defeat poverty, Argentina needs a profound productive transformation to become a developed country,” said Miguel Braun, Secretario de Comercio de la Nación, at an event in December 2017.

To reap the benefits of an open economy and increase prosperity in Argentina, the World Bank Group suggests tackling reforms across all three policy areas simultaneously, prioritizing those that can offer short-term wins and tangible benefits.

“No one policy alone ensures that firms can integrate into the global economy,” explains Martha Martinez-Licetti, Lead Economist in the World Bank Group’s Macroeconomics, Trade & Investment Global Practice and Lead Author of the report. “More must be done to ensure that everyone shares fully in the benefits of trade. Policies that help all people benefit from the opportunities that come with trade include investment and competition policies. It is only when implemented in a coherent way that reforms to trade, investment and competition can bring positive effects for the economy as a whole, better jobs for Argentine people, and more variety of goods and services at lower prices for consumers.”

The reforms suggested by the World Bank Group aim to address four particular challenges that firms in Argentina face.

  • Opportunities to enter and/or invest;
  • Access to efficient market inputs;
  • Ability to compete on a level playing field;
  • Capacity to thrive in global markets.

In the past, government interventions prevented investment from expanding or thriving. But today, Argentina is looking to the future and building policies that will help it reintegrate into the world economy.

“Even in this turbulence that we are experiencing, there is an opportunity to intelligently join the world,” said Argentina’s Minister of Production, Francisco Cabrera. “This report is an analytical anchor to understand where we are standing and to be able to make decisions.”

World Bank

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Economy

Growth Expected to Rebound in Middle East and North Africa

MD Staff

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The World Bank Group’s latest Middle East and North Africa Economic Monitor projects regional growth to increase to 3.1% in 2018, up from 2% in 2017. The increase in growth is expected to be broad based, driven by a favorable global economic environment, stability in the oil market at slightly higher prices, and the resumption of post-conflict reconstruction.

“There are grounds for optimism,” said Hafez Ghanem, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa Region. “Now is the time to focus on creating more jobs and economic opportunities for youth. The positive outlook is an opportunity to speed up reforms for a renewed private sector as an engine of growth and job creation.”

On the back of a good performance by Gulf Cooperation Council countries, oil exporters could see growth reach 3% in 2018, double the rate in 2017. Growth among oil importers is expected to increase to 4% on average from 2018 to 2020, driven by a sharp rebound in Egypt and a rise in remittances, tourism and exports. Almost all countries in the region have embarked on major reforms to reduce or eliminate energy subsidies, identify new sources of non-oil revenues, and expand social safety nets to shield the poor from adverse effects of change.

“While stabilization policies have helped economies adjust in recent years, we need much faster growth to absorb the hundreds of millions of young people who will enter the labor market in the coming decades,” said Rabah Arezki, World Bank Chief Economist for the Middle East and North Africa Region, “In this report, we study ways for transforming rather than adjusting the region’s economies, to achieve the growth needed.”

Low oil prices and a global shift toward renewable energy to meet climate goals poses risks and opportunities. With its abundant sunshine, the region can leverage the power of solar technology. Turning risks into opportunities will require innovation and the adoption of new technologies. Along with helping the region adapt to the new reality of low oil prices, leveraging new technologies could be a new engine of growth and jobs for the regions. A focus on corporate governance will need to accompany efforts to improve the business environment, to create a new system of incentives at the firm level that encourages the bold and creative thinking required for economic transformation.

Adopting new technologies will require significant investments in infrastructure, which will require greater leveraging of private finance. This can be achieved through public-private partnerships, which Jordan has used to build the Queen Alia airport, and Egypt to attract sizeable private investments in its energy sector. Public-Private partnerships have the added advantage of drawing on the innovation and efficiency of the private sector, and are a step toward changing the role of the state from the main provider of employment to an enabler of private sector activity.

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