FinTech’s Innovative Golden Age: Mid-Year FinTech Review
By Sylvain Thieullent, CEO of Horizon Software
It feels like the financial services are in a constant state of rapid evolution as regulators, leaders, active participants and vendors strive to move the industry forward. For the FinTech sector, this could be a golden age, with every challenge creating an opportunity. If the current trajectory continues, it’s a golden age that could last for some time, says Sylvain Thieullent, CEO of Horizon Software.
The financial services thrive on change. Change drives innovation, and in turn, innovation finds faster, more efficient ways of doing things. Over the last decade, FinTech has become an independent sector in its own right, increasing the pace of innovation across the entire industry.
Competition, regulatory requirements and the calibre of the teams involved are three key elements in the industry’s constant state of flux. An array of secondary factors are also adding to the mix, combining to deliver an impressive level of innovation.
Three primary elements
At every level, the industry is driven by competition. Leadership teams recognise that if they don’t keep bringing prices down, their competitors will quickly find ways to undercut them. While loyalty and relationships will always be very important for the market, price is a major consideration. This creates a constant appetite for quicker, more efficient ways of doing things.
The second element is regulatory expectations. Just as technology is changing what we can do, it is also making it easier to regulate. Trades are being tracked with a level of granularity that would have been inconceivable a decade ago, and because regulations are coming from multiple jurisdictions, institutions are expected to report on different things in different ways (as well as the same things in different ways). Making sure that the regulators are satisfied is a major catalyst for change and innovation.
The third element is the calibre of the people involved in the financial services. The downsizing of the banking industry over the last ten years has meant that a number of highly-skilled and very experienced people have found themselves free to pursue some fascinating ideas. In some cases, they’ve joined FinTech ventures and turned their attention to some of the deeper structural issues in the sector that are perhaps too specialised for major institutions. This is leading to a string of innovative solutions to challenges.
As a result, financial centres around the world are buzzing with new ideas, some of which have the potential to coalesce into very interesting products and services over the next five years.
There are also a number of secondary factors in play.
The first of these is a move towards FinTech vendors as hubs of innovation. The rising importance of regulation and compliance has come at the same time as the downsizing of banks. A decade ago, banks could keep all the talent they needed and look in-house whenever they had a conundrum to solve. Now, all but the largest institutions need to look elsewhere.
Until recently one of the tried and tested routes for successful firms to grow was through leading institutions setting up a division, strategy or technology, nurturing it for a few years (while enjoying first-mover advantage) and then setting it free to operate independently, or selling the division for a decent return.
Coupled with the downsizing, this model is likely to become less common over the next few years as fewer financial institutions will have the depth of resource to support it. As a result, there will be more fledgling start-ups looking for support earlier in their development, which could encourage them to be nimbler and more innovative in responding to potentially more risk-averse clients.
Another ingredient in FinTech’s cauldron of innovation is politics. Brexit could lead to major changes in the global financial markets, and even though London has long enjoyed an enviable position as the world’s centre for many aspects of financial services, the current level of uncertainty could see its primacy eroded. This could be another catalyst that helps some innovative initiatives move forward as businesses reassess their strategies.
Ultimately, irrespective of the choices of the British public and the subsequent political manoeuvring, uncertainty creates opportunity. London has a heritage of financial innovation that spans centuries, but other centres have been keen to challenge its preeminent position for almost as long.
At the same time as Britain enters a period of internal debate and financial institutions look at their positions to ensure that they are ready for a variety of outcomes, the French electorate, for example, has delivered a government with a modernising agenda. The interplay between London and Paris, those most traditional of frenemies, could be a source of innovation and new thinking over the next five years.
Other financial centres will also be clamouring for attention throughout this process. The growing importance and confidence of Australasia and Latin America, as well as the changing outlook in the US, could well create evolutionary pressure to innovate.
These changes are taking place as the importance of physical borders and location are coming to mean less. Financial services are exceptionally international, and regardless of the changes in individual countries, market participants will continue to focus on getting the quickest, most cost-effective solution that most closely matches their risk profile and meets the regulatory requirements of the countries where they are based and their clients are active.
But innovation means flexibility as institutions are less likely to fall into the trap of building a comprehensive in-house system that only a handful of people know how to keep working. This is not only a vast improvement from an operational perspective, it also means that regulation and compliance requests are far more easily met, and there is a far wider variety of environments in which to test models and strategies.
A further benefit of flexibility comes in the form of market participants and vendors understanding each other better, effectively reducing the risk that a system will be developed that doesn’t quite do what the traders want.
As ever, there’s risk. Some of the initiatives across the world are destined to wither and die because they are not built on sustainable business models. Businesses are going to need to evolve their strategies and possibly their focus to become sustainable. This is a route that many innovative industries follow as they grow to maturity, but institutions need to be aware of what they are exposed.
The barriers to entry as a nascent game-changer are very high, which poses yet another challenge. Incumbents have the advantage of existing relationships and proven track-records which will always weigh heavily in their favour.
Regulators are also rightly risk-averse, a stance which again favours market incumbents. With the current regulatory environment going through a process of rapid evolution, there are significant sanctions accompanying non-compliance which could make potential clients more reticent about embracing innovation.
That said, regulatory changes could help level the playing field from a data reporting perspective, again creating the conditions where innovation can thrive. The implementation process could be highly challenging for many organisations, but they could provide a shared foundation that supports innovation in the longer term.
Living in interesting times
The FinTech sector exists to help the financial services innovate and keep moving forward. Even though the last five years have been a golden age for FinTech, it is difficult to predict what the next five will bring.
The array of fascinating challenges ahead, the deep well of expertise, technology that keeps enhancing and regulators that keep changing what’s expected, all suggest that the outlook is positive.