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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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Egypt’s “Too Big to Fail” Theory Once Again at Test

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Authors: Reem Mansour & Mohamed A. Fouad

In the wake of 2022 FED’s hawkish monetary policy, the Arab world’s most populous nation, Egypt, saw an exodus of about USD20bn of foreign capital.  A feat that exerted pressure on the value of its pound against the dollar slashing it by almost half.  This led to USD12bn trade backlog accumulating in Egypt’s ports by December 2022.

Meanwhile, amidst foreign debt nearing USD170bn, inflation soaring to double digits, and a chronic balance of payment deficit, Egypt became structurally unfit to sustain global shocks; the country saw its foreign debt mounting to 35% of GDP, causing the financing gap to hover at USD20billion. 

While it may seem all gloom and doom, friends from the GCC rushed to inject funds in the “too big to fail” country, sparing it, an arguably, ill-fate that was well reflected in its Eurobond yields spreads and credit default swaps, a measure that assesses a sovereign default risk. 

For the same reason in early 2023, the IMF sealed a deal worth of USD3bn, with the government, which unlocked an extra USD14bn sources of financing from multilateral institutions, and GCC sovereign funds, to fill in a hefty portion of the annual foreign exchange gap, albeit  a considerable amount averaging USD6bn per annum is yet to be sourced from portfolio investments.  

With the IMF stepping in, the Egyptian government agreed on a structural reform program that requires a flexible exchange rate regime, where the Egyptian pound is set to trade within daily boundaries against the US dollar, rationalize government spending, especially in projects that require foreign currency; and most importantly the program entails stake-sales in publicly owned assets, paving the way for the private sector to play a bigger role in the economy.

In due course, through its sovereign fund, Egypt planned initial offerings for shares in companies worth about USD5-USD6bn, and expanded the sale of its shares in local banks and government holdings to Gulf investment funds. 

Through the limited period of execution of these reforms, the EGP hit a high of 32 against the greenback, and an inflow of portfolio investments amounting to USD1bn took place, according to the Central Bank of Egypt. 

Simultaneously, Citibank International, cited a possible near end of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar.  Also, in a report to investors, Standard Chartered recommended to buy Egyptian treasury bills, and pointed to the return of portfolio flows to the local debt market in the early days of January, 2023. Likewise, Fitch indicated the ability of the Egyptian banking sector to face the repercussions of the depreciation of the pound, and that the compulsory reserve ratios within Egyptian banks are able to withstand any declines in the value of the pound because they are supported by healthy internal flows of capital.

While things seem to be poised for a recovery, the long term prospects may lack sustainability.  The Egyptian government needs to accelerate its plans to shift gears towards a real operational economy capable of withstanding shocks and dealing with any global challenges. Egypt, however has implicitly held the narrative that the country is ‘too big to fail”. This is largely true to the country’s geopolitical relevance, but even this has its limitations when the price to bail far outweighs the price to fail.

Former President George W. Bush’s administration popularized the “too big to fail” (TBTF) doctrine notably during the 2008 financial crisis. The Bush administration often used the term to describe why it stepped in to bail out some financial companies to avert worldwide economic collapse.

In his book “The Myth of Too Big To Fail” Imad Moosa presented arguments against using public fund to bail out failing financial institutions. He ultimately argued that a failing financial institution should be allowed to fail without fearing an apocalyptic outcome. For countries, the TBTF theory comes under considerable challenge.

In August 1982, Mexico was not able to service its external debt obligations, marking the start of the debt crisis. After years of accumulating external debt, rising world interest rates, the worldwide recession and sudden devaluations of the peso caused the external debt bill to rise sharply, which ultimately caused a default. 

After six years of economic reform in Russia, privatization and macroeconomic stabilization had experienced some limited success. Yet in August 1998, after recording its first year of positive economic growth since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was forced to default on its sovereign debt, devalue the ruble, and declare a suspension of payments by commercial banks to foreign creditors.

In Egypt, although the country remains to face a number of challenges, signs remain relatively less worrying than 2022, as global sentiment suggests that leverage will be provided in the short-term at least. Egypt’s diversified economy, size and relative regional clout may very well spare the country the fate of Lebanon. However, if reforms do not happen fast enough, the TBTF shield may become completely depleted.

Hence, in order to avoid an economic fallout scenario a full fledged support to the private sector’s local manufacturing activity and tourism is a must.  Effective policies geared towards competitiveness are mandatory, and tax & export oriented concessions are required to unleash the private sector’s maximum potential and shift Egypt into gear.

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Sanctions and the Confiscation of Russian Property. The First Experience

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After the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, Western countries froze the assets of the Russian public and private sector entities which had been hit by blocking financial sanctions. At the same time, the possibility that these assets could be confiscated and liquidated so that the funds could be transferred to Ukraine was discussed. So far, only Canada has such a legal mechanism. It will also be the first country to implement the idea of confiscation in practice. How does the new mechanism work, what is the essence of the first confiscation, and what consequences can we expect from the new practice in the future?

Loss of control over assets in countries that impose sanctions against certain individuals has long been a common phenomenon. The mechanism of blocking sanctions has been widely used for several decades by US authorities. A similar methodology has been adopted by the EU, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and some other countries. Russia and China may also resort to these tactics, although Moscow and Beijing rarely use them. In the hands of Western countries, blocking sanctions, however, have become a frequent occurrence. Along with the ban on financial transactions with individuals and legal entities named in the lists of blocked persons, such sanctions also imply the freezing of the assets of persons in the jurisdiction of the initiating countries. In other words, having fallen under blocking sanctions, a person or organisation loses the ability to use their bank accounts, real estate and any other property. Since February 2022, Western countries have blocked more than 1,500 Russian individuals in this way. If you add subsidiary structures to them, their number will be even greater. The volume of the property of these persons frozen abroad is colossal. It includes at least 300 billion dollars in gold and foreign exchange reserves.

This is not counting the assets of high net worth Russian individuals worth $30 billion or more which have been blocked by the G7 countries. However, the freezing of property does not mean its confiscation. Although the blocked person cannot dispose of his assets, it formally remains his property. At some point, the sanctions may be lifted, and access to property restored. In practice, restrictive measures can be in place for years, but theoretically, the possibility of recovering assets still remains.

After the start of the special military operation (SMO), calls began to be heard in Western countries to confiscate frozen property and transfer it to Ukraine. Confiscation mechanisms have existed before. For example, property could be confiscated by a court order as part of the criminal prosecution of violators of the sanctions legislation. However, such mechanisms are clearly not suitable for the mass confiscation of property. Blocking sanctions are a political decision that do not require the level of proof of guilt that is required in the criminal process. To put it bluntly, the hundreds of Russian officials or entrepreneurs put on blocking lists for supporting the SMO did not commit criminal offenses for which their property could be subject to confiscation. The sanctions have spurred the search for such crimes in the form of money laundering or other illegal operations. But the amount of funds raised in this way would be a tiny fraction of the value of the frozen assets. To implement the idea of confiscation of the frozen assets of sanctioned persons and the subsequent transfer of the proceeds for them, Ukraine needed a different mechanism.

Canada was the first country to implement such a mechanism. The 2022 revision of the Special Economic Measures Act gives Canadian authorities the executive power to order the seizure of property located in Canada which is owned by a foreign government or any person or entity from that country, as well as any citizen of the given country who is not a resident of Canada (article 4 (1)). The reason for the application of such measures may be “a gross violation of international peace and security, which has caused or may cause a serious international crisis” (Article 4 (1.1.)). The final decision on confiscation must be made by a judge, to whom a relevant representative of the executive branch sends a corresponding petition (Article 5.3). Furthermore, the executive authorities, at their own discretion, may decide to transfer the proceeds from the confiscated property in favour of a foreign state that has suffered as a result of actions to violate peace and security, in favour of restoring peace and security, as well as in favour of victims of violations of peace and security, or victims of violations of human rights law or anti-corruption laws (art. 5.6).

The first target of the new legal mechanism will be the Canadian asset of Roman Abramovich’s Granite Capital Holding Ltd. The value of the asset, according to a statement by Canadian authorities, is $26 million.

Roman Abramovich is on the Canadian Blocked List, i. e. his property is already frozen, and transactions are prohibited. Now the property of the Russian businessman will be confiscated and, with a high degree of probability, ownership will be transferred to Ukraine. This is a relatively small asset (from the standpoint of state property), but the procedure itself can be worked out. Further confiscations may be more extensive.

The Canadian experience can be copied by other Western countries. In the US, work on such a mechanism was announced back in April 2022. although it has not yet been adopted at the legislative level. In the EU, such a mechanism is also not finally fixed in the regulatory legal acts of the Union, although Art. 15 of Regulation 269/2014 obliges Member States to develop, inter alia, rules on the confiscation of assets obtained as a result of violations of the sanctions regime. The very concept of violations can be interpreted broadly. So, for example, Art. 9 of the said Regulation obliges blocked Russian persons to report to the authorities of the EU countries within six weeks after blocking about their assets. Violation of this requirement can be regarded as a circumvention of blocking sanctions.

There are several consequences of the Canadian authorities’ initiative.

First, it becomes clear that the confiscation rule is not dormant. Its use is possible and is a risk. This is a serious signal to those Russians and Russian companies that have not yet come under sanctions, but own property in the West. It can be not only frozen, but also confiscated. This risk will inevitably be taken into account by investors and owners from other countries, which could potentially be the target of increased Western sanctions in the future. Among them are China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others. It is unlikely that the confiscation of Russian property will lead to an outflow of assets of these countries and their citizens from Canada and other Western jurisdictions. But the signal itself will be taken into account.

Second, the Russian side is very likely to take retaliatory measures. Western companies are rapidly withdrawing their assets from Russia. The representation of Canadian business in the Russian Federation was small even before the start of the operation in Ukraine. If the practice of confiscation becomes widespread, then the Russian side can roll it out in relation against the remaining Western businesses. However, so far, Moscow has been extremely hesitant to freeze Western property. While the US, EU and other Western countries have actively blocked Russians and their assets, Russia has mainly responded with visa sanctions. The confiscation could overwhelm Moscow’s patience and make the retaliatory practice more proportionate.

Finally, the practice of confiscation modifies the very Western idea of sanctions. It currently implies, among other things, that the “behavioural change” of sanctioned persons would result in the lifting of sanctions and the return of property. The freezing mechanism was combined with this idea. However, the confiscation mechanism contradicts it. Sanctions now become exclusively a mechanism for causing damage.

From our partner RIAC

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Pakistan’s geo-economic policy and regional connectivity

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gwadar

Pakistan has moved its attention to geo-economics ever since the publication of its first National Security Policy. Following a current worldwide trend, this strategy shift from geopolitics to geoeconomics. Geoeconomics is an approach to economics that considers the world economy’s geography and geopolitics. In other words, it is a type of analysis that looks at the relationships between political and economic power that have an impact on global economic activity. In the context of the global economic system, geoeconomics focuses on the interactions between governments and other participants as well as the contribution of geography. With the expansion of global economic integration and the interconnectedness of global markets and trade, geoeconomics has gained importance. Geoeconomic analysis is necessary to comprehend how economic actions made in one country affect other ones. Geoeconomics is frequently used to examine the potential effects of trade agreements, tariff agreements, and other economic policies on the financial condition of various nations throughout the world. This is particularly crucial to take into account when it comes to trade agreements because they frequently involve numerous countries and a range of economic interests.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China is a striking illustration of geoeconomics. Beijing’s premier BRI project is the CPEC. With the help of CPEC, China may avoid the trouble zones in the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca and gain dependable access to the Middle East and Africa. This offers China a wealth of energy resources and expanding economic markets. China’s BRI is rerouting economic routes from the West to the East and laying the groundwork for the emergence of a multipolar world order. Pakistan’s crucial contribution to this process makes it possible to view it as the foundation of Beijing’s long-term vision for the world. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is more than just a “highway” connecting Xinjiang and the Arabian Sea; it is a collection of regional infrastructure-building initiatives that will help Pakistan position itself as a leader in the fast evolving geopolitical landscape.

The foreign ministers of China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan met in September 2019 and decided that the three nations should improve their mutual connection and push for the CPEC to be extended to Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan’s stability is essential for the successful completion of CPEC and the bigger BRI. The security situation in Afghanistan has not been able to improve under the present administration. Afghanistan still needs to make sure that it won’t be used as a base by militants and that they are excited by China’s involvement in the growth and rehabilitation of Afghanistan. China might support the development of commercial ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan if it works cooperatively with the Taliban and the CPEC is expanded into Afghanistan. The success of such a transaction will probably depend on how stable Afghanistan’s domestic political situation is for international investment to proceed without safety worries. If the security situation in Afghanistan improves, a number of significant regional integration projects could be completed. China, Russia, Iran, and other regional and powerful nations surround Central Asia, which is situated in the centre of Eurasia. Due to their central location in South Asia, South-East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, the five Central Asian States (CAS) have easy access to a variety of possible commercial partners. Because of its geographic location, the area might serve as a transport route for goods moving between Asia and Europe or the Middle East. Strategically speaking, China, Russia, and the United States all have vested geopolitical interests in Central Asia. Pakistan, which is in South Asia, can benefit from Central Asia’s geopolitical and economic advantages. The trilateral Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan railway project, which was just approved, provides Pakistan with strong connections to the rest of the region. Greater regional integration and trade are projected to result from improved trade relations between Central and South Asia. Greater access to Pakistan’s three ports in Gwadar and Karachi would be available to landlocked Uzbekistan. Beyond expanding commercial opportunities with resource-rich Central Asia, Pakistan’s ultimate goal is more than just that. By enabling the flow of power between nations in the region, CASA 1000, a high-voltage electrical transmission line linking four nations in Central and South Asia, will help alleviate energy shortages and promote economic growth. Some Central Asian nations experience summertime electrical surpluses. Pakistan is establishing itself as the meeting place of the geoeconomic interests of the major countries in Central and South Asia through such relationships. In the event that CPEC extends to west Asia and Africa, Pakistan will have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to draw attention around the globe to its crucial geoeconomic policy. Uncertainty in Afghanistan, which serves as a gateway to Central Asia, is the main obstacle to Pakistan’s geoeconomic aspirations. In the near future, other militias will emerge and the nation may likely experience another civil war if the Taliban are unable to securely establish national control. Such a result poses a significant threat to the area. Projects like the TAPI pipeline and CASA 1000 with Central Asian countries, which have already been postponed because to instability in Afghanistan, will continue to be hindered.

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