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Regulators speed up fintech plans as Covid spreads



Regulators around the world have reacted to the spread of coronavirus by speeding up the pace of fintech rulemaking, according to new research from the World Bank and the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance.

As people started to access more of their financial services digitally, regulators were forced to take a fresh look at their fintech plans.

The research looked at 118 authorities in 114 different jurisdictions. Almost three-quarters of them said they had accelerated or introduced new initiatives on digital infrastructure, while 58 per cent said they had accelerated or introduced new measures to support “RegTech” and supervisory technology, or “SupTech”.

Over half of officials surveyed in advanced economies said that fintech was now a high, or even higher, priority due to coronavirus. In emerging markets and developing economies, that proportion rose to almost two-thirds.

This response seems entirely correlated to the widespread adoption of new technologies to deliver financial services in lockdown.

Six out of 10 regulators reported strong increases in the use of digital payments and remittances, with most of this increase taking place in jurisdictions with “more stringent Covid-19 containment and closure measures”. A fifth of the regulators also reported strong increases in the use of digital banking services and digital savings platforms.

Caroline Freund, global director of trade, investment and competitiveness at the World Bank, noted that regulators had to move fast to enable these much needed services to be provided safely, for example by allowing testing in “sandbox” environments. “The findings show that Covid-19 has in many cases accelerated policies and programmes that support a shift to digital finance, such as innovation offices and regulatory sandboxes,” she explained.

Part of the reason, the study suggests, is that regulators have seen how fintech companies took part in Covid relief efforts. Their top five uses globally have been in digital disbursement of payments and remittances (reported by 38 per cent of regulators), delivery of governmental relief and stimulus funding (28 per cent), contact tracing (22 per cent), ensuring business continuity (17 per cent) and support for small businesses (12 per cent).

As a result, more than a third of national regulators have taken new measures to enable fintech activities — with those in developing economies the more likely to have acted.

In Kenya, for example, the central bank made emergency rule changes to more than double mobile money transactions and balance limits to KES 150,000 ($1,379) and KES 300,000 ($2,758) respectively. This immediately led to “increased usage at higher amounts and greater convenience”. The bank has also insisted on the whole or partial waiving of transaction fees by mobile money providers.

In Jordan, the central bank allowed the use of mobile wallets in distributing government aid and salary payments — reducing human contact and infection risk.

James Duddridge, the UK’s minister for Africa at the Foreign Office, said that the impact of Covid on all developing nations had created “unprecedented demand” for regulated ways to “transition to . . . inclusive digital finance”.

In advanced economies, the appetite for regulatory change was related to the strictness of government lockdowns.

In jurisdictions with “higher Covid-19 stringency measures”, 42 per cent of regulators were likely to have accelerated their regulatory sandbox initiatives, allowing new fintech apps to be tried out using real but anonymised customer data. In “lower stringency jurisdictions” it was only 33 per cent.

Not every finding was positive, though. More than three-quarters of regulators admitted that their increased action was due to rising Covid-related cyber security risks. Others mentioned concerns over consumer protection, fraud and scams. A majority admitted to challenges in performing proper inspections of fintech firms, while around a third struggled with stretched resources and coordinating with other agencies.

More worryingly, given they are the organisations designated to supervise fintechs, 80 per cent said they would benefit from skills development.

Quick Fire Q&A

Company name: PayKey

When founded: 2014

Where based: Tel Aviv and Singapore

CEO: Sheila Kagan

What do you sell, and who do you sell it to: A mobile keyboard system enabling banks to embed financial services into customers’ daily interactions in any social or messaging app.

How did you get started: We initially focused on millennials, helping banks better engage with this segment on social apps.

Amount of money raised so far: $16.4m

Valuation at latest fundraising: N/A

Major shareholders: SBI Group, Magma, Commerz Ventures, MizMaa, Mastercard, Santander and Siam Commercial Bank.

There are lots of fintechs out there — what makes you so special: We enable banks to bring financial services to the most valuable interface today: customers’ social environments where financial decisions happen.

Further fintech fascination

Stumbling blocks: Visa’s $5.3bn acquisition of fintech Plaid is facing scrutiny by the US Department of Justice, reports Reuters. The DoJ has asked a court to allow it access to more information about the business so that it can determine if the deal violates antitrust law. The deal was announced in January.

Trendwatch: Paris is targeting London’s position as a global hub for international tech talent, according to a Sifted interview with Cédric O, the French junior minister for digital affairs. Mr O sees Brexit as an opportunity to lure people to the French capital, and says that the financial sector is one area that Paris is targeting.

Follow the money: Tech-based motor insurer Root raised $664m in its IPO, which valued it at $6.7bn, says the Financial Times. The US company priced its shares at $27 each, which was above the $22-$25 range that it had set. The valuation is also well above the $3.6bn implied by Root’s previous equity fundraising in August last year.

Follow the money (2): The third quarter of 2020 was the most active quarter ever for insurtech fundraising, reports The Insurer, with $2.5bn raised across 104 deals. The data, produced by consultant Willis Towers Watson, show that there were six funding rounds of over $100m and also a resurgence in early stage deals.

AOB: Singapore’s largest bank, DBS, is working on the launch of a digital currency exchange, reports The Business Times; Swiss bank UBS is to invest $200m in fintech start-ups, says Bloomberg; Private equity firm AnaCap is in exclusive talks to buy a majority stake in Carrefour’s payment processing business, according to Finextra; FT Alphaville has taken a look at why challenger banks are struggling.

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ExxonMobil proposes carbon storage plan for Texas port




ExxonMobil is pitching a plan to capture and store carbon dioxide emitted by industrial facilities around Houston that it said could attract $100bn in investment if the Biden administration put a price on the greenhouse gas.

The oil supermajor is touting the scheme ahead of the US climate summit starting on Thursday, where President Joe Biden plans to announce more aggressive national emissions targets and hopes to spur world leaders to increase their own carbon-cutting goals.

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, “should be a key part of the US strategy for meeting its Paris goals and included as part of the administration’s upcoming Nationally Determined Contributions”, said Joe Blommaert, head of Exxon’s low-carbon focused business, referring to the targets that countries are required to submit under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Oil and gas producers have sought to highlight their commitments to tackle emissions ahead of this week’s climate talks, which promise to heap pressure on the fossil fuel industry. BP pledged to stop flaring natural gas in Texas’ Permian oilfields by 2025, while EQT, the country’s largest natural gas producer, said it backed federal methane regulations.

The International Energy Agency has called carbon capture and storage, which uses chemicals to strip carbon dioxide from industrial emissions, “critical for putting energy systems around the world on a sustainable path”.

But the technology has struggled to gain traction as costs have remained persistently high. The most recent setback in the US came last year with the mothballing of the Petra Nova project, the country’s largest, which captured carbon from a Texas coal-fired power plant.

Many environmental groups have been critical of the oil and gas industry’s focus on carbon capture, arguing it is used to justify continued investment in oil and gas production and is not economical, especially as the costs of zero-carbon wind and solar power have plummeted.

Exxon said that establishing a market price on carbon — which has been attempted by a handful of US states, Texas not among them — would be important. The US government should “implement policies to enable CCS to receive direct investment and incentives similar to those available to other efforts to reduce emissions”, Blommaert said.

Exxon declined to comment on the carbon price it thought was needed to justify the investment, but said its plan would generate $100bn of investment from companies and government in the Houston region.

The company’s plans call for a hub that would capture emissions from the 50 largest emitting industrial facilities along the Houston Ship Channel, such as oil refineries and petrochemical plants, and ship the carbon by pipeline to reservoirs for storage deep under the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

The project could capture and store about 100m tonnes of CO2 a year by 2040 if developed, Exxon said. That is 2 per cent of the roughly 4.6bn tonnes of US energy-related carbon emissions in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Exxon has been under intense pressure from investors, including a proxy fight with the activist hedge fund Engine No 1, to bolster its strategy for the transition to cleaner fuels. In February, it created a low-carbon business line that it said would spend about $3bn over the next five years.

Biden’s $2tn clean-energy focused infrastructure plan would expand carbon capture and storage tax credits. The administration said it would back 10 projects focused on capturing carbon from heavy industry, but it did not endorse a price on carbon.

Climate Capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here 

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European stocks hit record after strong US earnings and economic data




European equities hovered around record levels, the dollar dropped and government bonds nudged higher on Monday as markets continued to cheer strong economic data while also banking on continued support from the US Federal Reserve.

The regional Stoxx Europe 600 index gained 0.3 per cent during the morning to set a new record, before falling back to trade flat.

This follows a week of upbeat earnings from US banks as investors await results from big businesses including Coca-Cola and IBM later on Monday. Data released last week showed US homebuilding surged to a near 15-year high in March while retail sales increased by the most in 10 months.

The dollar, as measured against a basket of currencies, fell 0.4 per cent as bets on higher interest rates receded. The euro rose 0.4 per cent against the dollar to buy at $1.203. Sterling also gained 0.4 per cent to €1.389.

Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell told the Economic Club of Washington DC last week that the central bank would not taper its $120bn of monthly asset purchases until it saw “substantial further progress” towards full employment.

Haven assets such as government debt remained in demand. As prices ticked up, the yield on the benchmark 10-year US Treasury note fell 0.02 percentage points to 1.557 per cent, while the yield on the equivalent German Bund slid 0.01 percentage points to minus 0.271 per cent.

Investing convention assumes that US Treasuries and global equities move in opposite directions to cushion against falls in either asset class, but both have now rallied in tandem for an unusually sustained period.

The S&P 500, the blue-chip US stock index, has risen for four consecutive weeks to set new records. The yield on the 10-year Treasury has fallen from about 1.74 per cent at the end of March to just under 1.56 per cent on Monday as investors bought the debt. Treasuries and US stocks not have risen together for so long since 2008, according to Deutsche Bank.

Futures markets indicated the S&P would drift 0.2 per cent lower as Wall Street trading opens.

“I am not saying it’s a rational time in the markets,” said Yuko Takano, equity fund manager at Newton Investment Management. A reason for caution, she added, was signs of “bubbles” in alternative assets such as cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens. “There is really an abundance of liquidity. There will be a correction at some point but it is hard to time when it will come.”

“Markets may have become temporarily overbought,” strategists at Credit Suisse commented. “For now, we prefer to keep equity allocations at neutral” rather than buying more stocks, they said.

In Asia, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index closed up 0.5 per cent and Japan’s Topix slid 0.2 per cent.

Global oil benchmark Brent crude fell 0.3 per cent to $66.57 a barrel.

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EU split over delay to decision on classing gas as green investment




The European Commission is split over whether to postpone a decision on classifying gas generated from fossil fuels as green energy under its landmark classification system for investors.

Brussels had planned to publish an updated draft of a taxonomy for sustainable finance later this week. The document is designed to guide those who want to direct their money into environmentally friendly investments, and help stamp out the misreporting of companies’ environmental impact, known as greenwashing. 

The commission was forced to revamp its initial proposals earlier this year after the text was criticised by member states which want gas to be explicitly recognised as a low-emission technology that can help the EU meet its goal of becoming a net-zero polluter by 2050. 

Now the publication of the draft rules could be postponed again as the commission seeks to resolve the impasse. According to a draft of the text seen by the Financial Times, the commission proposed to delay the decision in order to carry out a separate assessment of how gas and nuclear “contribute to decarbonisation” to allow for a more “transparent” debate about the technologies.

But officials told the FT that some commissioners were pushing for gas to be awarded the green label now, rather than delaying the decision until later this year. 

“There are a sizeable number of voices in the commission who want gas to be included in the taxonomy,” said one official. A final decision on whether to approve the current text or delay it again for further redrafting is likely to be made on Monday.

The EU’s taxonomy is being closely watched by investors as the first big attempt by a leading regulatory body to create a labelling scheme that will help guide billions of euros of investment into green financial products.

But the process has proved divisive, as several EU governments have demanded recognition for lower-emissions energy sources such as gas. 

Coal-reliant countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania and others that are banking on gas to help reduce their emissions do not want the labelling system to discriminate against them. France and the Czech Republic, meanwhile, are also pushing for the recognition of nuclear as a “transitional” technology in the taxonomy.

A leaked legal text seen by the FT earlier this month paved the way for gas to be considered green in some limited circumstances. That has since been removed along with other sensitive topics such as how best to classify the agricultural sector, according to the latest draft the FT has seen.

EU governments and the European Parliament have the power to block the draft if they can muster a qualified majority of countries and MEPs against it. 

Environmental groups have hailed the exercise, and urged Brussels to stick to science-based criteria in defining the thresholds for sustainable economic activity.

Luca Bonaccorsi from the Transport & Environment NGO said delaying decisions on gas and nuclear risked allowing pro-nuclear countries like France and the Czech Republic to join up with pro-gas member states “to forge an alliance that will obtain the greening and inclusion of both energy sources”.

“Should they ally, it will be impossible to resist the greenwashing of these two unsustainable energy sources,” said Bonaccorsi. 

The delays in agreeing the taxonomy have forced Brussels to abandon an attempt to use it as the basis for EU green bonds that will be issued as part of the bloc’s €800bn recovery and resilience fund. About €250bn of debt will be issued in the form of sustainable bonds over the next few years, which will make the commission one of the world’s biggest issuers of sustainable debt.

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