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The Rise of the Workplace Bank

With the advent of the first industrial revolution in the late 18th century, millions of agricultural workers began a structural shift from agriculture to factories, setting in motion one of the most important events in human history since the domestication of animals and plants. While the overall impact on economic growth and productivity is undebatable, there is more controversy around what the impact was on the living standards of the workers that populated the factory floors, in some cases literally working day and night in very harsh conditions.

Some economic historians such as Robert E. Lucas argue that with the industrial revolution the living standards of the masses began to undergo sustained growth for the first time in history, while other historians argue that yes the growth of the economy’s overall productivity was unprecedented but living standards for the majority of the population did not grow meaningfully until the late 19th and 20th centuries. Some argue even further that living standards for the workers decreased initially, citing the fact that the average height of the population declined during the first industrial revolution as evidence that the nutritional status of workers was actually decreasing.

The perceived safety of having a 9 to 5 job is simply no longer there for a vast majority of workers in the 21st century.

It is actually quite easy to see the parallels to today’s debate about the digital revolution, also referred to as the “third industrial revolution” (the second industrial revolution being the advancements in manufacturing technology that took place in the late 19th century, also referred to as the “technological revolution”).

Just like back then, there is today a very important debate going on about income inequality, living standards, and worker’s rights. And for good reason, too. Widely available statistics tell the story of how more than half of all workers in developed countries are today effectively living what could be best described as “paycheck to paycheck”, without a buffer to meet an unexpected expense as low as GBP 300.   

The dangers of being a delivery person are not limited to traffic: Increasingly financial distress is becoming the bigger peril.

This is clearly a big societal problem and causes great stress and suffering on the working people that toil so hard to make sure our modern economy functions. These are in many cases the nurses, teachers, factory workers, delivery drivers, and countless others that are the glue of the modern economy, yet to an increasing extent they are facing great economic hardships and financial distress.

Finding a solution to this problem will ultimately rest with the politicians that we collectively elect, and one can only hope that our leaders will implement inclusive and progressive solutions as opposed to some of the darker paths that have been trodden tragically in the past. There is however also much that can be done at the level of the companies that employ these workers, and I believe many of the fintech companies of today will have a role to play in helping employers solve this problem.

I refer to this phenomenon as “the emergence of the workplace bank”, and to best illustrate what this means there is a very useful case study from one of the big west coast tech companies. This company contracts with millions of gig economy workers globally and used to pay them on a monthly or fortnightly basis as they completed their work.

Several years ago, it became apparent that these workers wanted to get paid real time as they completed their work (driven by the financial stress referred to above), and the tech company arranged with a fintech start up to help achieve this in what we today refer to as income streaming. It turned out that this was such a critical and strategic area for the tech company that they decided to actually bring all income streaming functionality inhouse. Given that they had the tech and developer resources, this was in fact relatively easy for them, and before long they were paying their contractors on a real time basis.

However transferring money each time the worker completed a task (or in some cases at the end of the shift) had a cost associated with it, and the company realized they could save money if they issued their contractors their own cards. This was welcomed by the workforce, and this new card had great (and quick!) adoption. With the advent of embedded payments and advancement in fintech infrastructure, it was also increasingly easy for the company to do this.

Then something very interesting happened. The contractors increasingly started to close their accounts with their former bank, reverting to live their financial lives fully within this newly issued “employer card”. Once that happened, the next logical steps started falling in place like dominoes. The workers wanted to pay their bills from that card, send money from that card, and pay for their groceries with that card.

And it did not stop there. As we know, these workers were very much living paycheck to paycheck, and they started asking their employer for advances or overdraft facilities on this card as urgent financial needs related to their work or personal lives started cropping up. The employer had now become their bank!

The morale of this case study is manifold, but some things are especially worth pointing out. Firstly, while it is ultimately the government’s responsibility to make sure workers are treated fairly and get to live lives without financial stress, the employers will not be able to avoid having to help their workers deal with the new financial challenges of the 21st century for long. I imagine a big vacuum or gravitational pull that will irresistibly pull employers into being part of the solution, making sure their workers can have access to the new financial tools to help them.

Secondly, as increasingly more and more employers will find themselves in this situation, they may also realize that they do not have the resources of this big west coast technology company to develop and create all these solutions inhouse. Hence, they will look to the rapidly emerging fintech companies of today that are active in the HR-tech space to provide those solutions. Some of these companies such as Wagestream have come at this problem from an income streaming perspective, while others such as Ben have come at it from a benefits perspective, and yet others have come at it from a debt consolidation or credit perspective. In the end, the ultimate driver and impetus here will be the crucial day to day financial needs of the workers, so it is reasonable to expect a big convergence as the workplace bank emerges.

Of Tsunamis and Tech: How Wagestream Responded

Tsunamis are a series of waves caused by a large and sudden displacement of water that is triggered by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or underwater explosions. Rather than resembling ordinary sea waves that are caused by wind, tsunami waves resemble rapidly rising tides that can reach up to ten meters in height. The series of waves usually hit in periods ranging from minutes to hours, arriving in so called wave-trains. While at first they can appear as a big wave on the horizon, as people living in ocean basins can tell you, they are not to be taking lightly: The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was amongst the deadliest natural disasters in human history, with at least 230,000 people killed or missing.  

When I think of the Covid-19 pandemic that erupted in early 2020, I in many ways cannot help to think of a giant tsunami. I remember seeing it rise slowly but surely in the distant east, thinking it was scary but unlikely to have such an impact on our distant shores. But with the unrelenting force of nature it was upon us before long, and all that was left to do was to seek higher ground and respond in the best way one can. Whether the worst of it is now behind us, or whether what we have just been through in the last three months was just the initial installment in a longer series of powerful waves, one thing is clear – our society, in fact the entire world, is continuing to go through a trauma, and as the waves recede there will be much reckoning and rebuilding that will need to be done.

There will surely be a particular reckoning in the area of public healthcare, and whether a majority of Western societies were right in running their healthcare systems with a business minded “Just In Time Inventory” mindset borrowed from globally integrated and cost focused supply chains. These are complex questions, and rather than diving into them here, I’d like to focus on something more upbeat and optimistic, and something that is also much closer to what I do. How did the start-up world respond when the wave started hitting? I’d like to focus in particular on the companies where I serve on the board here in London and the first case study I’d like to bring up is Wagestream, on which I had also done a blog last year.

One of my friends used to say that when under stress and pressure, there is a very strong tendency in people to revert to their comfort zones. He had said this in the context of businesses and their leaders undergoing stress, so for example in a financially and quantitatively focused organization the tendency may be to open up the excel spreadsheet and start sharpening the pencil on costs, whereas a more sales and marketing focused one may be more focused on opening up PowerPoint to draft a new story, etc. Startups are by definition nimble and agile organizations, and hence it is no surprise that when under pressure they would rely on their tech, innovation, and product development skills to respond to the crisis.  

Wagestream’s response was in fact a prime example of such product innovation under pressure. One salient memory that will stay with me forever was the Friday before the lockdown was announced, in Wagestream’s Holborn head office. Life was by no means normal and we all had a sense that something big was happening, and the crowed sidewalks for High Holborn would not remain so for long. The cadence and intensity of bad news was rising sharply, and one could almost touch the fear spreading through all segments of society.

It was under these circumstances that Wagestream announced that they were to host their first ever companywide product innovation competition. Everybody was to be involved and were allocated to a number of smaller teams that would compete to come up with new product ideas with the winning ideas to shape not just the future of the company, but also their response to the Covid crisis. I was asked to join the jury for selecting the winners along with the cofounders, and the competition was on!

I have to say I was incredibly impressed with what the team had produced in a very short time! Every idea was amazing, and all of them had the same laser like focus: How can we use our strengths and positioning as an organization to better help our customers and their employees, many of which were incidentally key workers for the NHS, BUPA, and other organizations. I don’t like spoilers, so I will not give away the winning answers here, but you can check out the results yourself from Wagestream’s web page.

Karl celebrating his two year anniversary at Wagestream, just weeks before the product innovation competition. Photo courtesy of yours truly.

One anecdote that really stands out which I’d like to share was regarding one of the winning ideas that was submitted by Karl, one of the very first employees at Wagestream who had actually just recently celebrated his two year joining anniversary (he was the first one to celebrate this milestone at Wagestream). As we were announcing the winners, we asked Karl how long it would take him to implement it and bring it to life. It should incidentally be noted that the competition had only been announced twenty-four hours ago. His answer was a simple shrug of the shoulder, nonchalantly stating “I’ve already done it”. This is probably one of the most brilliant responses I’ve ever heard, and in that time of crisis it was a much-needed morale boost for the entire team.

There may yet be many more waves that come to hit us, but as David Deutsch says, problems are inevitable, but problems are also solvable. As I continue to work with amazing startups such as Wagestream I cannot help but believe that whatever the world throws at us, we can overcome it together.

Numerical Context on the Proposed Fiscal Stimulus

In my last blog I wrote about the immediate need for helicopter money and coordinated fiscal stimulus from governments around the world. Since then the US administration announced a $850bn stimulus package. I would like to share some numbers to put the figures being proposed by US political leaders into context.

The GDP of the United States was $21.4 trillion in 2019. This means that on average, the US produced a GDP of $1.8 trillion/month in 2019. Obviously, even with all the measures put in place in response to the coronavirus, we are very far from having shutdown the entire economy. But what percent of the economic output has been impacted by the partial shutdown and economic disruption?

To give us an idea, we can actually use the latest economic data shared by China yesterday. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, industrial output in China tumbled by 13.5% in the first two months of the year. As per the Financial Times, the same data also showed that retail sales plummeted 20.5 per cent year on year in January and February, and fixed asset investment fell 24.5 per cent. Services production also declined by 13 per cent in the first two months, and coupled with the industrial production figure, Capital Economics estimates that Chinese GDP contracted by 13 per cent during the first two months of the year. (Source: Financial Times, Chinese economy suffers record blow from coronavirus.)

However, while the data above suggests a 13 per cent drop over two months, it is important to note that China only went into full lockdown on January 23rd. Considering that February is a shorter month, the contraction primarily corresponds to a period of thirty-seven days. Putting this into monthly terms, a reasonable assumption is that China’s economy contracted by 10.5 per cent on a monthly basis during the lockdown period.

Taking this 10.5 per cent number and applying it to the US monthly GDP of 1.8 trillion, we see that the GDP impact of going into shutdown for one full month is about 190 billion dollars, or close to one percentage point of annual GDP each month the shutdown is in place. This sort of math is of course way too simplified, but it helps give a directional understanding, and it seems to imply that by proposing a $850bn stimulus package the current US administration is looking to make up for about three to four months of lost output from slowing down economic activity in response to the coronavirus.

What the numbers do not take into account is follow on disruptions that may be caused as people lose their jobs or companies have to go out of business permanently. It also does not take into account any disruptions from stress building up in the financial system such as the repo or commercial paper markets. Nonetheless, one can only hope that it will inject markets and people with a sense of stability. The delivery mechanisms will also be key, as the stimulus needs to reach the people and businesses that need it most in an expedient manner.

The most important thing to note here however is that the US is far from the only country impacted by the coronavirus. The GDP of the EU is close to $20 trillion, and their economic output have certainly been exposed to the same sorts of unprecedented shocks. Hence, it will be very important that other governments continue to take similar fiscal measures in the coming days, and do so in a coordinated manner.

It Is Time for Helicopter Money

We are living through unprecedented times. Never before has the global economy been this interconnected, and never before have the seven billion plus souls that inhibit this planet changed their collective behavior so suddenly and so dramatically.

The global wave of fear that the COVID-19 virus and the associated media coverage has unleashed has created a tsunami of reactions, with borders closing, factories shutting down, and both the demand and supply side of the economy going into what can best be described as shock.

The health and safety of the world’s citizens should be priority number one, and I would first and foremost like to express my eternal gratitude to the nurses, doctors and medical workers who are working on the frontlines of this pandemic to the point of utter exhaustion, putting their lives at risk on a daily basis to save ours. We are deeply grateful, and words are not enough to express the importance of the work that they do for all of our collective safety.

As for the global political response, I am neither a scientist nor an epidemiologist, so I will not get into the controversial topic of whether the response from the various national governments of the world has been an overreaction or an underreaction.  I would however like to point out that in times of crisis, coordination and solidarity is paramount, as is staying calm and levelheaded. Politicians globally face no easy choices in the coming weeks. It is the job of our leaders to make these incredibly difficult choices, always putting the good of society and the health of all the world’s citizens as the top priority. Sometimes the right choice might not be the most popular one, and it is the job of the leader to make that right choice in light of scientific knowledge and the long-term welfare of society. Open and honest communication that also prioritizes keeping the population as calm as possible will be key.

While nothing can be more important than preserving people’s physical health and wellbeing, I would like to focus here on the economic consequences of what we are going through. I will not go into the numbers here, but the analogy with regards to the global economy that comes to mind is a big airliner that has shut its engines in midflight. We now need to restart the engines and land the plane safely.

The Fed has announced that it has cut its rates to zero percent, so it is fair to say monetary policy is stretched to its maximum. However, while this will undoubtedly help, it will likely not be enough.

Given that the global economy faces an unprecedented challenge, global policy makers now need to focus on unprecedented economic responses. Given that the shock is driven by both the supply side (factories shutting down, supply chains breaking down) and demand side (consumers not spending money and postponing most purchase decisions), governments will have to take swift steps to address both sides.

The term helicopter money is derived from a thought experiment by Milton Friedman

One such step would be what is known as “helicopter money” a term attributed to a thought experiment performed by Milton Friedman, where a helicopter drops money that is directly picked up by the people. One key condition of his thought experiment is that everyone is convinced that this is a unique event that will never be repeated. This thought experiment has since been picked up by economists as an alternative (or supplement) to monetary policy including quantitative easing. Its proponents argue that it can be a very efficient way to increase aggregate demand, especially in what is known as the liquidity trap – or central banks reaching the zero lower bound on interest rates.

The proponents of this tool include Ben Bernanke, who has in the past stated that helicopter money should be on the table as an alternative of last resort.

In practice, there are clearly many ways in which helicopter money can be implemented. The spectrum can range from tax credits to individuals and small businesses (the mildest form) to actually transferring money directly into their bank accounts (basically a sort of temporary Universal Basic Income for the duration of this crisis).

Given the severity of our current crisis, I think policy makers need to immediately start assessing the various delivery mechanisms and preparing an action plan as soon as possible. The best option in today’s circumstances is likely to be one where small businesses and consumers get money put directly into their bank account. While the cost of this will undoubtedly be high (using a simple example, giving forty million people GBP 1,000 per month equates to a cost of forty billion pounds for each month that the policy is in place).

However, if the benefit is to prevent a total breakdown of the economy, the cost may be very worthwhile indeed. The delivery mechanisms will also be key, and alternatives that help small businesses stay solvent also need to be considered. This can take many forms including a forcing mechanism to direct the helicopter money to be spent immediately, or other direct assistance to small businesses, including payroll support where the money in effect gets delivered via business payroll. One big benefit of this would also be to give consumers one less thing to worry about. Everybody is clearly very worried about their physical health and wellbeing, and adding financial worries on top of this only increases the level of stress.

Finally, it is also important to point out that one big benefit of helicopter money is that it would create less inequality and would thus help maintain social stability and cohesion in trying times. Quantitative easing primarily gets delivered via the banking system and tends to flow towards house prices and stock prices, which then tend to leave behind people that cannot afford to own a home or buy stocks.

We need to remember that (God willing) this too shall pass, and once it does, we want to wake up to societies that have made it through these troubling times with their heads held high, in solidarity with their fellow people and neighbors, and without sacrificing the fundamental values on which we have built our civilization.

Your Money Does Not Exist (and Why Your Bank Needs a Babysitter)

In my last blog, I mentioned the slightly disquieting and amusing fact that your money does not exist. People usually have one of two reactions to this statement. If they are an economist or a student of the modern banking system, they say “Yes, so what?” whereas if they are part of the remaining of 99.9% of the population the reaction is usually a mixture of “What have you been smoking?” and general disbelief.

The easiest way to prove the point is to use a simple example, and here it goes. To illustrate that this is not directly related to the digitalization of money which is a separate issue (i.e. paper vs. digital money), let’s consider a bank in an economy that only uses paper banknotes.

In this paper money based economy, imagine Customer #1, who now goes to a bank to deposit her $1,000 in banknotes. The bank happily accepts her money and gives her a little paper ledger that shows an account balance of $1,000 (effectively the bank now owes her $1,000). Our trusting Customer #1 may be thinking of her banknotes living a comfortable existence deep down in a secure bank vault, the equivalent of money heaven.

However, in reality, the bank is much more than a simple safe or a vault for locking up banknotes. The bank needs to make money as well, and to do so, it takes the vast portion (let’s use 90% for illustrative purposes) of Customer #1’s money and lends it out to Customer #2.

Now, Customer #2, who we can imagine to be a bread maker, takes the $900 the bank lent him, and sets out to use his $900 to buy himself a new bread oven for his soon to be opened bakery. Hence, Customer #2 goes to Customer #3 (who happens to be a bread oven maker) and gives him the $900 in exchange for the latest model bread oven.

Customer #3 who sells bread ovens has no interest in putting his money under his pillow either. Hence, he takes his new $900 and goes back to the bank and deposits it. The bank gladly accepts the money and gives Customer #3 another paper ledger that shows his account balance with the $900 on it (so the bank now owes him $900).

Let’s take a little break here and consider how the situation and all the various ledgers look. The bank only has $1,000 in its safe, but Customer #1 has a ledger that tells her the bank owes her $1,000 while Customer #3 has a ledger that tells him the banks owes him $900. If they both were to go to the bank to withdraw all their funds (a total of $1,900) the bank would have to tell them that all the money is not there.

So what gives – where is the money? Of course, the short answer is that the bank has $1,000 in cash, while Customer #2 (the bread baker who took out a loan), owes the bank an additional $900 that he will pay back with the profits from his soon to be opened bakery shop.

Of course it does not stop there. Once Customer #3 (the guy who sold the bread maker the oven) puts his $900 into the bank, the bank once again lends out a big portion (let’s again use 90% as an example). Hence the bank takes $810 and lends it out to Customer #4 who uses the money to buy bricks to build herself a new house, etc.

I’ll spare you the math and the repetitive examples, but when all is said and done, the bank is left with $1,000 in capital (cash in the vault), while the sum total of all the money in the customer’s ledgers is actually $10,000. In other words, Customer #1, Customer #2, Customer #3, etc. all collectively think they have $10,000 of cash in the bank, whereas the bank in reality only has $1,000. Hence, the bank has created $9,000 of “imaginary cash” that does not exist, except as a collective belief. (My math here is only directionally correct, as the real-life computations are complicated by centuries of banking and accounting regulations and customs.)

A bank run from the 1930s

One implication of this this is that banks are vulnerable to “bank runs” that occur when people for whatever reason believe a bank is no longer trustworthy (this kind of panic can occur for any reason but usually involve rumors about the bank’s viability). This creates a self-reinforcing herd behavior where all the customers go to the bank to get their money out simultaneously. As even the healthiest of banks would not actually have all this money as we saw above, long ques form up in front of the bank which make the bank run worse, resulting in a vicious cycle that ends with the bank going bust, and the depositors losing their money.

Times may change, but bank runs don’t

It is for this reason that government support and the associated regulation is crucial for banks. To prevent bank runs (which otherwise would occur quite regularly), the government steps in and informs everybody that they guarantee everybody’s money up to a certain amount (the money still does not exist by the way, but the government has the power to print new money if push came to shove – this of course would create inflation but that is a whole other story). But at least the government guarantee inspires confidence and makes bank runs less likely.

So what is the relevance of all this for entrepreneurs and operators in the fintech space? One big implication, especially for those longing to one day become regulated banks, is to realize that they cannot become one without accepting the protective embrace of their respective governments and bank regulators. And that protective embrace can easily turn into a smoldering bear hug if the regulators think the bank is not being run as it should be. Hence, while becoming a bank may sound tempting, know that it comes with the full weight of history and banking regulation behind it.

After all, everything, even creating imaginary money, comes at a cost.

Dissecting a Bank and the Ghost of 2008

If capitalism were a religion, it would not be too far-fetched to think of banks as its temples, with the likes of Jamie Dimon, Ben Bernanke and Christine Lagarde the high priests and priestesses that guide the masses and interpret the will of the gods to deliver humanity peace and prosperity.

Thankfully, at least for now, nobody is making us go to banks on Sunday (except perhaps if you are an investment banking analyst working on Wall Street). However, banks still play a crucial role in our lives (whether we know it or not), and this makes it somewhat surprising that the average person doesn’t really have a good conception of how a bank actually works. One good example of this is that most people are blissfully unaware of the fact that the money they think the bank is safely keeping on their behalf in fact does not actually exist (more on that slightly disquieting but also amusing fact in my next blog).

Hence it is useful to provide a simple framework of how to think of a bank, and then use that to put the recent decade into context.

In its simplest form, banks exist on top of three fundamental foundations: trust and legitimacy, data and intelligence, and capital. Trust and legitimacy consists of the bank’s brand and public image (a bank must look secure and trustworthy, hence all the fancy suits and imposing buildings), and all its regulatory licenses. Data and intelligence used to be comprised of the bank’s employees and customer records, but in today’s world are rapidly being complemented (and sometimes replaced) by databases and algorithms. Finally, capital consists of all the funds that the bank is entrusted with from its customers, depositors and investors.

On top of these three foundations, banks build their products and services which they channel to their customers via a distribution network.

A simple framework to think about banks: Better frameworks exist, but this is the only one that looks like a combination of a bank and temple.

When we look at banks through this lens, we can easily see how fundamentally disruptive the events of the last decade and the crisis of 2008 has been for banks.

Let’s first consider the pillar of trust and legitimacy. With the onset of the 2008 financial crisis the trust and legitimacy pillar of the bank took a devastating one-two combo in the form of the trust and public image of banks being eroded severely as average citizens were being evicted from their homes, while the regulators also stepped in with new and restrictive regulations such as Dodd-Frank, not to mention multi-billion dollar fines.

As the pillar of trust and legitimacy was being shaken, there were meanwhile hitherto unprecedent changes taking place on the data & intelligence front. While in the past banks had relied on experienced loan officers and customer files with relatively straightforward data to make decisions, machines were increasingly stepping into the equation with powerful computers and complex algorithms creating an entirely new sort of decision science. And it was clearly not easy for banks to attract and nurture the kind of specialized talent needed to build those algorithms, especially given how scalable those technologies could be, and consequently how easy it could be to get funding from Silicon Valley for the top entrepreneurs and technologists.  

Finally, the capital pillar came under attack from multiple directions: regulatory fines, higher capital requirements, more stringent KYC (“Know Your Customer”) requirements that resulted in a ballooning back office headcount, not to mention big losses from loans underwritten prior to the financial crises all exposed considerable cracks in capital foundation of the mighty banks.

While this all sounds bad enough in its own right, 2008 also saw the advent of a development that would add to the malaise: the invention of the iPhone by Steve Jobs and the friendly folks at Apple. So while the big banking houses were having all three pillars of their core foundations shaken, the invention of the iPhone and mobile distribution saw the roof starting to leak as well. Whereas banks had relied mostly on their vast branch networks to distribute their products and services, the iPhone enabled millions of consumers to start conducting commerce on the go, all from the palm of their hand.

To illustrate the magnitude of this challenge for banks, just consider that one of the savviest and most envied tech companies of the time, Facebook, was itself caught off-guard by the advent of mobile and it took Zuckerberg & Company a year or two to fully appreciate and adapt to mobile distribution. If the folks behind the slogan “move fast and break things” took a year to get it right, just try to imagine how things looked from the perspective of a centuries old bank, in the midst of a crisis that was shaking its foundations, with regulators and media beating down its door.

A graphical illustration of a painful decade for banks

It is easy to see why the decade since the financial crisis has not been kind to banks. So, what should the banks have done? Or what can they do now? Obviously, there is a lot of firefighting happening to strengthen the foundation and fix the leaking roof, and thousands of bankers around the globe are keeping busy doing exactly that at this very moment. But to get out of the predicament banks find themselves in, there is one area that should provide a silver lining.

Banks need to get back to the core of why they exist, and that is to provide products and services to their customers. Products like credit cards were invented in a world where the nuclear families of the fifties and sixties were driving their ’57 Chevy to the newly built shopping mall to buy new and exciting consumer products such as washing machines. But the world has moved on since then. New problems exist, and new products need to be invented to solve these problems. Banks would be the obvious players to invent these products, and if they want to thrive in the aftermath of the perfect storm of 2008, this is undoubtedly what they should focus on.

The other risk is that, if banks do not create these products, somebody else will. Looking at some of the most exciting new companies in London, one can see new products being developed at a formidable speed. Income streaming (helping workers access their earned wages real-time, and thus avoiding predatory lenders – e.g. Wagestream), income sharing agreements (enabling people to borrow for school or vocational training, and only pay back if they get a bigger salary and better job which incentivizes universities to offer more relevant and employment-friendly degrees), companies that give consumers power over their data while enabling them to monetize this data (e.g. Fidel API), and companies that solve the problems faced by the elderly in a world where many people may spend more time in retirement than working (e.g. Rest Less) are just some examples.

In summary, the conclusion is simple: innovate, or find yourself relegated to history. Now is the perfect time!

Data Privacy and the Meaning of the Universe

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Deep Thought, the second greatest computer in the Universe of Time and Space is asked to answer The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. In the improbable event that you have not read the book, I will not give away the answer here. But it does turn out (as is usually the case), that the question is actually more important than the answer: once people receive the answer (which takes Deep Thought 7.5 million years to calculate) they are unable to make any sense of it. Hence a new computer, which would be the only computer in the Universe more powerful than Deep Thought has to be built to tell people what the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything actually is. That computer needs an additional 10 million years to calculate the question, but in an act of supreme irony it is destroyed by an intergalactic bureaucratic species called the Vogons five minutes before it is about to reveal the Ultimate Question.

Since the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics postulates the existence of myriads of parallel universes, I like to imagine that in one version of this same story, Deep Thought actually calculates the answer, but rather than revealing it, tells people that it is not able to share it because it would be in violation of the privacy laws of the Vogonian Union. After all, to calculate the answer, Deep Thought would need to be able to have access to all the personal data in the universe.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Volume One in a Trilogy of Five

Interestingly, this is not too far from the situation we find ourselves in today. The vast amount of data currently in existence is being regulated by laws such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which states that private data may not be shared without user consent, and the Payment Services Directive 2 (PSD2) which states that consumers can demand their data be shared with whomever they want. Bureaucracy can be confusing, (and in the case of the Vogons, quite lethal) and it is easy to see how one could easily think that GDPR and PSD2 very much contradict one another.

Being a humble, (and in the grander scheme of things quite insignificant) member of the body called the EU, I actually do not see a contradiction between GDPR and PSD2. On the contrary, I see intelligent design at work. The way to resolve the contradiction between GDPR (a law that prohibits companies to share personal data without user consent) and PSD2 (a law that forces companies to share personal data if people demand it) is quite simple. The data belongs to the people that generate it. If they want to keep it secret, they can, or if they want to share it, they can also do that. Data is the cyber-gold of our times, and it belongs to we the people!

So far, so good, and this is all quite empowering and exciting. However, there is a small catch: the amounts of data being generated is growing exponentially! According to one recent estimate, over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every single day, and by 2020 it is estimated that 1.7MB of data will be created every second for every person on earth. And now the EU is saying that all 7 billion of us on this planet (or at least the half billion living in the EU) will be controlling the 1.7MB of incremental data that is being generated for each of us every second. Sounds great, but how exactly do we do that?

Well, for starters, I see two options. Either we sign away the right given to us by the government by blindly clicking the “I accept” button every time we land on a new page on the internet, implicitly accepting the implications of being too busy to read five pages of small print. Or, perhaps somebody, (a fintech superhero?) comes along that has managed to standardize and productize the way in which we can share and control our data. Thanks to the API-fication of data I have written about before, the standardization element has become orders of magnitude easier, where vast amounts of data can be shared and controlled via a standardized protocol.

So, the technology to standardize the data that is now being created at a rate of 1.7MB per second per person has been solved by APIs yet creating a framework that lets people easily decide what to do with their own data remains the bigger challenge. The pipes for exchanging, controlling, and sharing the data is there with APIs, but how do I as a simple consumer decide which data I share versus keep private? This is where productization, and companies like QED’s recent investment Fidel API, come into the picture.

Fidel API founders Dev Subrata and Andre Elias: Helping people control their data

Fidel API enables consumers (we the people who like to buy things like a cup of tea) to share our data with organizations such as merchants and shopping malls (that sell us the tea) by connecting with payment networks and card issuers (the friendly folks that enable us to pay for said tea using a piece of plastic). Fidel enables these connections via its API, and the end result is that the millions of bytes of data per second that I generate is only shared if it is in my interest as a consumer. If the fact that I bought a sandwich at Heathrow Airport is going to trigger a discount at a tea shop in the same airport, only then is my data shared, and I instantly get a free cup of tea. And if you’re not giving me a free cup of tea with my sandwich, you are not getting my data. It’s all automatic, all programmatic, and all controlled by an API that follows my directions. After all, in a big and lonely universe, a nice cup of tea can be worth its weight in cyber-gold.

Dumb Pipes, Smart Plumbers and API-fication of data

Speaking to my friends that work for some of the big multinational banks, a comment that I have heard on more than one occasion is that they do not want to become the “dumb pipes” on which the financial system runs. For those of you outside of fintech and banking circles, the argument goes something like this: “Banks are getting bigger and increasingly more regulated, open banking is yet another regulation that forces us to give access to our customer data, enabling others to build products on top of our infrastructure while we become the pipes of the financial system, leaving banks to do the plumbing while fintechs steal our customers and capture all the riches and glory.”

While I cannot speak on behalf of big banks, looking back at history I am not sure that being the piping is such a bad thing. In fact, going back no further than the start of the last century, we can see that just like today’s headlines are dominated by the monopolistic power of big tech, the most pressing business issues in the early 1900s were around the dominance of the big “robber barons” that literally controlled the rails and piping of the emerging modern economy.

The first example that comes to mind is usually John D. Rockefeller, widely regarded as the wealthiest American of all time, (and possibly the richest person in human history) with his wealth worth nearly 2% of the US GDP at its peak. And while controlling 90% of the US oil and kerosene market in one of the most infamous monopolies of history was the key in paving his way to such riches, Rockefeller was equally focused on controlling the pipes through which this oil would flow. The first pipeline to carry oil was pioneered in 1863 by Samuel Van Sycle (the importance of this quickly became apparent to the Teamsters union who proceeded to try and destroy the pipeline which would take away their jobs) and it was not long after that in 1872 that Rockefeller had already bought United Pipe Lines, and by 1876 Rockefeller already controlled half of all the pipelines in the United States.

John D. Rockefeller: A smart plumber with a smart moustache.

So Rockefeller certainly did not think of pipes as being “dumb” and neither did some of the other robber barons of the gilded age. In fact, when Rockefeller moved to New York in 1884, his 54th street residence was next to the mansion of William Henry Vanderbilt, whose father Cornelius had built up a vast family fortune with their railroad empire (not quite at 2% of GDP, but close).  

There are clearly analogies here for our data driven economy almost two centuries later, and I am not just talking about the odd similarity between the oversized moustaches sported by the robber barons and Super Mario, the smart plumber of the digital age.  The twenty-first century economy runs on data, and those who control the rails and pipes on which data flows can exert huge profits and influence. Whereas oil was referred to as the “black gold” of the gilded age, data is now the “cyber gold” of the information age. The importance of this is very clear in everything from Angela Merkel’s focus on how Europe is lagging behind the US and China on data platforms, to the fact that Mark Zuckerberg is making increasingly frequent trips to Capitol Hill. It is worth noting that over the last couple of centuries Zuck seems to have replaced the moustache with a hoodie, but the lack of gender diversity has not changed as dramatically as fashion has in the top billionaire ranks.

So how does this relate to the world of fintech and banking? For one thing, if I were a bank, I would be much more worried about not being the pipes versus vice versa. And rather than worrying about customers controlling (and being able to grant access to) their bank data with fintechs building new and innovative products using that access, I would worry about big tech companies such as Google or Tencent becoming the new pipes that power financial transactions.

The other lesson that banks today can glean from Rockefeller’s playbook was that in addition to his focus on using the pipes to gain a competitive advantage, one of his other business strategies was to standardise the kerosene and oil that he sold. (He did not name his company Standard Oil for nothing!) In fact, the combination of owning the pipes and gaining huge economies of scale resulted in the price of kerosene dropping by nearly 80% over the life of his company, while the standardisation resulted in improving the quality of the kerosene.  

Standardisation has huge benefits, and just like the advent of containerisation dropped costs in logistics (moving the same amount of break-bulk freight in a container is about 20 times less expensive than conventional means), the advent of APIs today enables data to connect faster and orders of magnitude cheaper. In fact this sort of API-fication of data transmission is a leading driver of newly emerging fintech businesses such as Railsbank and Fidel API, both innovative companies founded in London with a global reach, and both very much happy to be the pipes that drive the innovation of other fintechs.

Bringing together banking and pipes in a final anecdote, I’d like to share a story that used to circulate in New York some years ago. In this story, a wealthy banker from Manhattan is organising a big party in his Hamptons weekend house, and hours before the guests are due to arrive, the plumbing in the house breaks down, flooding all the bathrooms. Desperate to get it fixed quickly, the banker calls a plumber who shows up immediately but gives him an astronomical quote to fix the pipes in short order. Shocked, the banker tells the plumber, “I am a banker and even I don’t make this kind of money!” To which the plumber replies, “I know, I used to work on Wall Street as well, but I decided to become a plumber.”  

Accountants vs. Robots: Fintech superheroes to the rescue

One does not have to browse for too long in today’s news headlines before encountering a story about how machines are replacing a lot of the jobs that used to be done by humans. These stories usually come with dramatic headlines, and for an avid reader of science fiction such as myself, it feels like the next step may actually be Isaac Asimov’s vision of humans starting to develop romantic relationships with robots, or robots taking over the task of raising and nurturing our children (arguably some parents have already started taking this leap with iPads).

While it is hard to predict when the first romantic relationship between a human being and a machine may occur (for the record, in a story that he wrote in 1953 Asimov predicted that the first self-driving car would be created in 2015, and romantic relationships were just a few decades behind – so watch out!) it is clear that machines have already started to take over a lot of the jobs that people took for granted, and this has clearly caused a profound level of stress in people that are being replaced by efficient (and more effective!) machines.

As an investor in technology driven companies, I have to admit that this triggers two conflicting emotions in me: On the one hand, it is impossible not to worry about all the disruption that society will be going through with this tsunami of technological change, while on the other hand one gets quite excited about all the new possibilities that the new technology enables.

So, will we ever be able to constructively deal with our own creations becoming better than us at what we do? In an attempt to gain some insight, I decided to read a book that I thought would be relevant in this context: “Deep Thinking” by Garry Kasparov, which is a first-hand account of how the then reigning world chess champion Kasparov came to terms with being beaten by a chess playing. With the whole world watching intently, Kasparov was decisively crushed by IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, and thus became one of the most well documented case studies of machines trumping humans.

Based on Kasparov’s public statements after the match, as well as the general media coverage back then, it would be all too easy to conclude that Kasparov did not take the defeat very well!

Kasparov on losing to Deep Blue: “I was really angry and I couldn’t help comparing [a particular move in game 2] with Maradona’s Hand of God”

However, with the benefit of twenty-two years of hindsight, it is amazing to see how Kasparov has come to terms with his loss. Everybody should certainly read his book to find out for themselves, but one key insight that stands out is that humans can actually partner with machines to beat computers at their own game. In his book, Kasparov has some rare tidbits, one of which includes Kasparov’s Rule: Weak Human + Computer + Strong Process is better than Strong Human + Computer + Weak Process. In other words, we as humans can beat just about anyone as long as we know how to employ data crunching computers on the one hand and smartly designed processes on the other hand.

So how does this all relate to the world of finance and fintech? While Kasparov was a very publicized example, it turns out he was merely the canary in the coal mine, as what happened to him soon started happening to others. Brokers, traders, accountants and all sorts of finance professionals started being impacted, not to mention other industries such as travel agencies and organized retailers. The accounting example in particular is interesting for us at QED, since we believe that there is great opportunity in the midst of all this disruption in an area we know particularly well: small business lending.

Just as Kasparov was able to see the silver lining for the world of chess in his defeat, cloud accounting software and bookkeeping automation has opened up new horizons for the accountants of the world. Rather than seeing a job being taken away, they can now see it as an opportunity to start focusing on how to devote their energies on advising their business clients on other important finance related questions beyond just balancing the books. Obviously, the most important such question is to how to grow their business, which in many cases relates to funding, something that is not always easily accessible for a small business.

Capitalise cofounders Paul Surtees and Ollie Maitland: Turning accountants into fintech superheroes.

One of our investments in particular, a London based fintech startup called Capitalise, has tackled this opportunity head-on, by creating a platform that connects the hundred thousand plus accountants in the UK with finance providers, hence enabling these accountants to do what community bank branch managers used to do fifty years ago – advise entrepreneurs how to fund and grow their business. And the timing could not have been better! As bookkeeping was being automated, thousands of bank branches were shutting down, leaving their small and medium sized business clients with nobody to talk to on important questions like what kind of funding solution to use to finance the future growth of their business.

Hence Capitalise takes the challenge created by what seems like a disruption and turns it into a win-win-win solution: Accountants can focus on providing higher value-added corporate finance advisory solutions while machines do the bookkeeping, the small businesses that had nobody to talk to about growth & funding (with neighborhood bank branches closing down) can now talk face to face with their trusted accountants, and all the alternative finance providers and banks that have less branches or a reduced physical presence can now access thousands of small businesses via trusted accountants that help create positively selected loans (i.e. much less risky loans – it turns out Capitalise accountants consistently create loans with much better credit quality). And while doing all this, Capitalise is certainly adhering to Kasparov’s Rule, utilizing smarter processes as mentioned above.

So here is yet another example of how one technology platform can help mitigate some of the disruption that other technologies are creating. While an automated bookkeeping software can only tell you how much money you spent exactly last month, a human accountant, supported by Capitalise’s platform, can actually help a business owner ask the right question: What kind of financing is right for my business?

To take a quote from Pablo Picasso that Kasparov also references in his book: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Only truly empathetic and intelligent beings know which ones are the right questions to ask.

Why QED Chose to Invest in London

This summer marked the second anniversary since I joined QED Investors to open up our London office. In those two years we have already created or invested in six UK companies that are all growing rapidly. Those of you on top of current events will have noticed that our decision must have been made after the by now infamous 2016 Brexit vote (and, yes, I was able to hold on until the third sentence of this article to mention the B-word).

So why did one of the leading fintech funds in the US and Lat Am, having invested in six out of the top ten fintech unicorns in America, choose to open an office in the UK in the midst of all the Brexit noise and drama? While answers to questions such as this are always subjective and open to interpretation, as the head of our UK office, my view is that there is a set of obvious answers to this question that are underpinned by more fundamental reasons.

In terms of the more obvious answers, first and foremost, London is geographically connected to the rest of the world in a unique manner. Sitting in London, one is simultaneously a manageable flight away from Mumbai, San Francisco, and Sao Paolo. More importantly, it is possible to have a video conference call with any of the aforementioned cities within the span of the same business day. This is the classic time zone advantage that is often attributed to London.

Moreover, London is also culturally connected: From sports (think football or tennis) to literature (Shakespeare!), the UK is connected to the rest of the world in a number of complex and subtle manners. One just has to walk the streets of Soho, Piccadilly, or Mayfair to witness this. On any given street corner, you can find people from Argentina to Zimbabwe talking to each other about and exchanging ideas in English, the Lingua Franca of the modern world.

Secondly, from a VC perspective, the crucial ingredients that a venture capital ecosystem needs are all present in London in spades: Access to ideas, capital, talent, and markets are all available more so than any other European capital. All these classic reasons that make London a natural destination is also supported by economic facts. More venture capital was deployed in the UK than in any other European country in 2018, London is the largest foreign exchange trading market in the world, etc.

However, beyond these more traditional answers there are more fundamental reasons that have catapulted London to the position it occupies today. After all, from the perspective of Marcus Aurelius close to two millennia ago, London would hardly have seemed a central and connected place as he was travelling from Rome to Cairo to meet Cleopatra. So, what are the reasons that made London so central to the modern world over the subsequent centuries, and how do they relate to venture capital?

While I am no historian, I did receive a masters degree from the University of Chicago, and in my own humble view, the first fundamental factor that set (and continues to set) the UK apart is the value it places on individual freedom and enterprise. This has resulted in a legal and regulatory system that is market friendly, while valuing intellectual property and innovation as well as free speech and thought. It is also closely intertwined with a long history of stability: The United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the world that have had continuous democratic governance over several centuries. 

The second, and equally important reason is tolerance. This is in part driven by the centuries of experience the UK has in successfully integrating diverse cultures and has yielded big dividends today in terms of diversity and a society that values mutual respect. While I have witnessed successful and well-educated expat friends of mine living in other European capitals facing difficulties renting accommodation on account of what appears to have been nothing other than their names (incidentally Shakespeare’s Juliet has an appropriate quote about this), the tolerance and acceptance of London has stood out in contrast. And tolerance in the UK extends to everyone, including the non-digitally native workers that feel frustrated at having been left behind a rapidly evolving world. The UK clearly realizes that to have a well-functioning society, the needs and constraints of everybody have to be represented and balanced, which is a complex and ongoing process.

Pictures from QED’s recent reception that took place in Soho, London

The third fundamental reason is that, the combination of tolerance and individual freedom has consequently resulted in the UK being able to attract and nurture creative communities in areas as diverse as technology, art, science, and media. Balancing creativity in areas as diverse as arts and Artificial Intelligence is not easy. And of course, it is this creativity that makes London and the UK fundamentally attractive for venture capital. It attracts the right kind of people and capital from across the globe, resulting a vibrant ecosystem.

While those are the reasons that have made London an attractive destination, last but certainly not least, one should also mention that the founder of QED, Nigel Morris is a Londoner (I know, I probably should have mentioned this at the beginning). While he moved to the US thirty-five years ago and co-founded Capital One which is now a top-ten publicly listed US bank, he still maintains a pied-a-terre in London as well as season tickets to Tottenham Hotspur (and he was willing to share said tickets with yours truly until I professed my support for a rival club in SW6). So I suppose in the end, determining why QED came to London is a classic example of historical analysis: big historical forces juxtaposed with the vision and values of individual actors. All I can say is that I am happy to be where I am, and excited about the future, both for London and the community of creators that call it home.