Happy new year from FintechFT!
While many firms will be hoping the new year marks the start of a calmer period after a rollercoaster 2020, beneficiaries of the tumult are trying to consolidate their gains. Here are some of the key fintech stories FT reporters will be watching as we head into 2021.
Asian regulators crack down on online lending
There has been an explosion in online lending across Asia in recent years, but 2021 could be the year the proliferation of fintechs — some of which already have soaring non-performing loan rates — may be brought to heel by regulators.
The digital lending boom started in China with companies such as Ant Group, which used its data on small and medium-sized businesses and individuals to lend to those who did not have bank accounts. The trend expanded to China’s neighbours, including India and Indonesia, where millions of previously underbanked or unbanked people were adopting smartphones.
But the unbridled growth has increasingly drawn regulator scrutiny. Beijing has already cracked down, and last Friday Indonesian authorities announced steps to rein in payments systems. India is unlikely to be far behind. — Mercedes Ruehl in Singapore
Ant’s rollercoaster continues
Regulators and entrepreneurs in China’s heady fintech arena have long clashed. Crypto was targeted. Peer-to-peer lenders were snuffed out. Jack Ma’s Ant Group tried to avoid the same fate by transforming itself into a platform for others’ financial offerings.
With one candid speech critiquing the Chinese state, however, Mr Ma’s buoyant 2020 turned into a nightmare. Authorities pulled Ant’s $37bn IPO at the last minute and prepared stringent new rules to restrict its business.
“Ant knew financial services was sensitive so they tried to pivot to being a ‘techfin’ company rather than a ‘fintech’ company — they even changed their name,” said Kou Xiangtao, head of fintech think-tank ShowFin. “But regulators didn’t see it that way, [to them] they’re still in financial services.”
New rules will dent Ant’s lending business, which doles out one-tenth of Chinese consumer loans. A new “financial holding company” categorisation will bring Ant and other fintech empires like that of Tencent directly under the nose of a single regulator for the first time, indicating a tough year ahead. — Ryan McMorrow in Beijing
How far can the buy now, pay later boom go?
“Buy now pay later” was already booming at the start of 2020, but it was turbocharged when the coronavirus pandemic pushed more shoppers online than ever before. Led by Klarna in Europe, Affirm in the US and Afterpay in Australia, BNPL has brought old school point-of-sale credit products into the digital world.
Affirm will try to convince investors the trend is here to stay as it follows in the footsteps of Afterpay and smaller rival Laybuy by preparing for an initial public offering. As the sector gains more prominence, however, critics will be watching for any signs that firms are mistreating their young customers.
“The popularity of BNPL brings responsibility and scrutiny,” says Laybuy co-founder Gary Rohloff. “It is for us and the industry as a whole to demonstrate high standards of transparency.” — Nicholas Megaw in London
Will Europe’s digital banks reach sustainability?
The recent experience of Europe’s digital banks should be a warning to any over-enthusiastic BNPL evangelists about how quickly fortunes can change in fintech. After a 2019 marked by rapid growth and investor ebullience, neobanks were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Falling revenues forced a newfound focus on cutting costs and reaching profitability. Revolut and Starling became the first major players to declare they had broken even around the end of last year, but keeping it up over the long term will be a bigger challenge, particularly if they hope to revive international expansion plans when the virus recedes. — Nicholas Megaw in London
VCs hope to gain from IPO wave
Affirm is not the only high profile US start-up heading toward IPO. Cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase and no-fee broker Robinhood are also expected to go public soon, while online lender SoFi has struck a deal to list via a blank cheque company.
Depending on their reception, the listings could validate a generation of consumer fintech groups that blossomed in the wake of the financial crisis or throw cold water on the boom.
Venture funding for fintech companies dipped slightly in 2020, according to CB Insights data, though the number of “mega-rounds” of more than $100m hit new highs. Expect more of the same in 2021, as investors remain bullish on companies such as Stripe that underpin the rise of “embedded finance” — integrating finance into other products so practically any company becomes a potential financial services provider — Miles Kruppa in San Francisco
Quick Fire Q&A
Company name: Habito
When founded: April 2016
Where based: Aldgate East, London
CEO: Daniel Hegarty
What do you sell, and who do you sell it to: Habito is a homebuying and financing company. Our brokerage has submitted more than £5bn of mortgages for first-time buyers, remortgages, movers, and landlords.
How did you get started: By revolutionising mortgage advice. Our in-house brokers offer free, fully qualified mortgage advice via live chat, seven days a week.
Amount of money raised so far: £63m
Valuation at latest fundraising: N/A
Major shareholders: Augmentum Fintech, Atomico, Mosaic Ventures, Ribbit Capital, Regah Ventures, SBI Group and mojo.capital
There are lots of fintechs out there — what makes you so special: Our service, designed to make mortgages easier, and our new lending products and homebuying services which truly meet homebuyer’s needs.
Further Fintech Fascination
A bumper news round-up this week, including the best features you might have missed over the holidays.
Sunlit uplands: Brexit sparked concerns about the UK’s future as a fintech hub given firms’ reliance on access to the European single market and the fact that its workers come from across the continent. The FT has the scoop on what the government’s upcoming fintech review will recommend to help the industry cope with Brexit.
TransferWise turns 10: TransferWise will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its opening this month. Executives are feeling confident as the group gears up for its second decade, but it faces rising competition as it looks for further growth. Read more in this FT interview with Kristo Käärmann and Matt Briers.
Fresh questions about working culture at Revolut: Revolut has been working hard to move on from allegations about a poor working culture and complaints about frozen accounts. Former employees at its Polish branch, however, have drawn renewed attention to both issues, complaining about a pay dispute that contributed to a backlog of compliance checks. Read the full story from the FT here.
Mambu No. 6: A little bit of good news for Germany’s Mambu, which completed its sixth fundraising round this week at a $2bn valuation. Mambu, which develops back-end technology for banks, raised €110m in a deal led by US fund TCV. Sifted has more.
Payments firms caught up in US-China tensions: The Trump administration fired a series of parting shots at China last week, including a move to ban transactions with apps such as Ant Group’s Alipay. As the Wall Street Journal points out, however, the ban doesn’t kick in until next month, leaving President-elect Joe Biden with a potentially tricky decision to make about whether to enforce it.
Hedge fund manager Hohn pays himself $479m
Billionaire hedge fund manager Sir Christopher Hohn has paid himself a dividend of $479m, one of the largest-ever annual personal payouts in the UK, after profits at his firm more than doubled last year.
Hohn, who is founder of Mayfair-based TCI Fund Management and one of the UK’s biggest philanthropists, made the payment to a company he controls during the year to February 2020, according to regulatory filings.
TCI, which manages more than $45bn in assets and tends to bet on rising rather than falling prices, has been a big winner from the bull market of recent years. During 2019 it made $8.4bn worth of profits for investors, according to LCH Investments, profiting from gains in stocks including Alphabet, Charter Communications and Canadian Pacific Railway.
TCI Fund Management’s profits for the year to February 2020 jumped 108 per cent to $670.9m. The $479m dividend was then paid to a separate firm TCI Fund Management (UK). Both companies are controlled by Hohn.
TCI declined to comment. The payment was first reported by The Guardian.
While the payout beats the £323m paid to Bet365 boss Denise Coates in 2018, much of it has been reinvested in TCI funds, filings show. It is also far from the biggest-ever hedge fund payday, being dwarfed by sums such as the $3.7bn earned by US manager John Paulson in 2007 thanks to bets on the subprime crisis.
In 2014, during testimony in his divorce battle with estranged wife Jamie Cooper-Hohn, Hohn described himself as “an unbelievable moneymaker”. A High Court judge later awarded Cooper-Hohn a $530m divorce payout.
Hohn, who grew up in Surrey and is the son of a Jamaican car mechanic, is known as one of Europe’s most aggressive activist investors. A backer of climate group Extinction Rebellion, he has been vocal in recent years in pushing companies to improve their climate policy, for instance threatening to sue coal-financing banks and warning his fund will vote against directors whose companies do not improve pollution disclosure.
In October Spanish airports operator Aena bowed to pressure from Hohn’s fund, becoming the first company in the world to give shareholders an annual vote on its climate policy.
Through his charity The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, which in 2019 approved $386m of charitable payouts, he wrote to seven of the world’s biggest asset managers, urging them to put pressure on companies over climate policy.
Last year TCI was one of a number of funds looking to raise fresh assets from investors after suffering losses during the pandemic. It was also one of the big winners from betting against collapsed German payments group Wirecard, making as much as €193m in a week, according to data group Breakout Point.
Hohn’s fortune was estimated last year at £1.3bn by the Sunday Times Rich List.
FCA first alerted to concerns over Neil Woodford’s business in 2015
The Financial Conduct Authority was warned about problems within Neil Woodford’s investment business less than a year after it opened in 2014 but did not intervene for almost another two years, according to several people briefed on the process.
Woodford recently announced plans to relaunch his career at a time when the regulator faces pressure from politicians and campaigners critical of its oversight of the stockpicker’s failed business — and over how long it is taking to investigate his downfall.
The onetime star fund manager was forced to suspend his flagship £3.7bn investment fund in June 2019, trapping the savings of hundreds of thousands of investors in the biggest British investment scandal for a decade.
But concerns over its investment strategy were raised within the first year of its operation, when two of the company’s founding partners — chief operating officer Nick Hamilton and chief legal and compliance officer Gray Smith — resigned after falling out with Woodford and chief executive Craig Newman.
Given their senior roles in such a high-profile business, Smith and Gray were asked to discuss the reasons for their departures in exit interviews with the FCA in January 2015. The FCA did not act on the information they presented, according to those familiar with the regulator’s dealings with the company.
The four founders had clashed openly over the company’s compliance culture and the level of due diligence carried out on Woodford’s investments in private companies, according to former WIM staff members.
Hamilton and Smith were especially concerned with the amounts being committed to unlisted companies.
In response to FT questions over the exit interviews, the FCA said: “Where we receive information relating to concerns about firms or individuals we follow up and take action where appropriate. But we do not conduct our supervision of firms or individuals in public.”
Smith and Hamilton declined to comment. Several former staff at WIM said they were unable to talk publicly about their departure from the company.
A spokesman for Woodford said: “It is true that the FCA did not approach us after the interviews, and I am sure would have approached us had there been any concerns raised from the interviews.”
The spotlight falls on the FCA at a tricky time for the regulator as it seeks to draw a line under a spate of industry controversies during the tenure of its previous chief executive Andrew Bailey, now governor of the Bank of England.
A recent review of its handling of the £236m collapse of mini-bond issuer London Capital & Finance found repeated failures by the watchdog to act on external warnings. “The FCA’s handling of information from third parties . . . was wholly deficient,” the review concluded. “This was an egregious example of the FCA’s failure to fulfil its statutory objectives”.
Bailey took over as head of the FCA in 2016, after the contract of his predecessor Martin Wheatley was not renewed, and led it during both the Woodford and LCF collapses.
In February he told MPs on the Treasury select committee that when he joined the FCA it had “no system for extracting information” from warnings or tip-offs. “I’m not hiding things that went wrong,” Bailey said. “There should have been a mechanism to alert supervision and enforcement.”
Nikhil Rathi, the FCA’s current chief executive, and Charles Randell, its chairman, will be quizzed by the committee on Monday about its handling of LCF.
While giving evidence to parliament in June 2019, Bailey said the FCA’s first intervention with WIM was at the end of 2016 when the regulator spotted a conflict of interest in the business’s valuation process. By this point WIM managed almost £10bn and was the UK’s sixth best-selling fund manager.
The FCA has been dogged by questions over its oversight of WIM having approved the business to start trading just months after it found funds managed by Woodford at his former employer, Invesco Perpetual, exposed investors to higher levels of risk than they had been led to expect.
Invesco Perpetual was fined £18.6m for the breaches, which also involved several funds not managed by Woodford, in what was a record penalty imposed on a UK fund manager.
Woodford is still approved by the FCA to act as an executive director of an investment company, having updated his status in December 2019.
Ten days ago Mel Stride, chair of the Treasury select committee, called on the FCA to conclude its investigation into WIM’s implosion, saying: “As the FCA’s investigation still continues over 18 months after the fund was suspended, the reports of the new fund may understandably be of concern to investors who previously lost out.”
Owen Walker’s ‘Built on a Lie: The Rise and Fall of Neil Woodford and the Fate of Middle England’s Money’ will be published by Penguin on Thursday
Staying private: the booming market for shares in the hottest start-ups
In 2014, an Austrian entrepreneur offered investors a rare chance to purchase shares in Jumio, his fast-growing and profitable payments company. The deal was not a typical venture capital transaction. Instead of purchasing new shares, investors could buy out earlier shareholders, in what are known as private secondary transactions.
Daniel Mattes, who calls himself a “visionary” on his Instagram page and has been a judge on the Austrian version of Shark Tank, the American reality TV series for entrepreneurs, told at least one prospective buyer he had no plans to reduce his own stake in the business, according to a US Securities and Exchange Commission complaint filed in 2019. Mattes also signed off on documents that, according to the complaint, claimed Jumio made a small profit and revenues of more than $100m in 2013 — a significant sum for a three-year-old company.
Two years later, Jumio filed for bankruptcy, and the company’s shares became worthless. In reality, according to the SEC, Jumio had only made one-tenth of the revenues it claimed, and Mattes had bypassed his board of directors to sell about $14m of his own shares.
Jumio’s case highlighted the risks of an opaque but fast-growing corner of finance: the global market for shares in private start-ups such as TikTok owner ByteDance, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and payments company Stripe. In 2019, the market was estimated to host almost $40bn in lightly regulated trades, according to one participant, more than doubling its volume from 2014.
Recently, the market has been hotter than ever. Though private companies have largely tried to restrict trading, brokers say hedge funds, mutual funds and other institutional investors have begun pouring in, buying large blocks of existing shares in start-ups that are nearing initial public offerings or big acquisitions. Often, the investors receive scant rights to information on financial performance.
Technology upstarts and financial institutions including big banks have rushed to capitalise on the interest by brokering deals and forming trading venues, setting up a battle that could fundamentally alter the market’s structure and potentially allow companies to stay private indefinitely.
The boom reflects how cash-flush investors are clamouring for stakes in fast-growing businesses, with low interest rates pushing non-traditional funds deeper into private markets. To meet the demand, brokers now face two key challenges: increasing the supply of shares in desirable companies while preventing fraud and manipulation in a competitive market.
Until recently, private secondary markets resembled “that guy with a trenchcoat that’s selling you watches in Times Square”, says Inderpal Singh, who leads a private secondary market project at the start-up marketplace AngelList. “In the last year, there’s been a big shift.”
In addition to AngelList, JPMorgan and the software start-up Carta have begun facilitating trades in private companies. They compete with established players like Nasdaq and Forge Global, which purchased the rival marketplace SharesPost in a $160m deal last year, as well as scores of smaller independent brokers.
Carta and some other intermediaries have advocated that the SEC relax restrictions on who can purchase shares in private companies, potentially opening up the market to a broader swath of investors.
But some observers remain sceptical that the growing market can protect investors against bad actors. Mattes, who paid $17m to settle the charges, did not admit or deny the SEC’s allegations, though he resigned from Jumio in 2015 following an internal investigation. The entrepreneur did not respond to questions sent to his personal website.
The rush to expand trading could lead to fraud and manipulation, says Stephen Diamond, a professor of law at Santa Clara University who has studied private secondary transactions.
“All too often in Silicon Valley, people want to basically ignore the consequences of unhealthy market structures,” Diamond says.
The Facebook episode
The debates reflect a decade-long shift in capital markets as companies grow larger than ever in private — securing billion-dollar valuations and “unicorn” status while pushing back their public debuts. As a consequence, start-ups, investors and employees have accumulated trillions of dollars’ worth of shares that cannot easily be bought and sold, barring a public listing or acquisition.
Private secondary markets grew in importance in the lead-up to Facebook’s initial public offering in 2012. Investors rushed to buy the social media company’s shares, creating a frenzied market where independent brokers facilitated thousands of trades with little oversight from the company.
The trades created headaches. One Facebook executive left the company after he reportedly purchased stock ahead of a big funding announcement. Facebook sometimes lost track of who owned its shares, complicating preparations for its IPO.
Facebook’s struggles caused many start-ups to adopt strict clauses in their legal documents that prevented employees from trading shares without company approval. Some companies have gone even further, requiring sellers to receive approval from boards of directors months in advance of any transaction.
Though the restrictions have made trading difficult, brokers say the market has been busier than ever in the past 12 months, with big investors such as Tiger Global Management hunting for shares in start-ups that look like sure bets for blockbuster public listings.
Tiger Global has used secondary sales to gain stakes in companies such as China’s ByteDance and the software group Snowflake, according to fund documents and people familiar with the trades. Other hedge funds and mutual funds routinely purchase new stakes in companies worth tens of millions of dollars, brokers say.
On the other side of the trades, existing shareholders such as venture capitalists have sought to unload stakes in highly-valued companies as they delay public listings. The market can also be an important source of cash for start-up employees, who receive a large portion of their pay in stock options.
Several new entrants, such as Carta’s private stock exchange CartaX, now hope to formalise the market and capture trading fees that have been spread between dozens of independent brokers.
“There is now, in the past few years, not a push to go all the way back to the days of strict prohibitions on secondary trading, but a push to have more avenues for organised liquidity,” says Cameron Contizano, a partner at law firm Goodwin Procter who works on secondary transactions.
Meanwhile, investor demand has pushed up prices for companies such as ByteDance, SpaceX and Stripe. Barrett Cohn, chief executive of the private securities broker Scenic Advisement, says he advised companies on twice as many secondary transactions in 2020 compared with the previous year. Of the last dozen deals Scenic worked on in the past few quarters, only one resulted in shares being sold at a discount to a company’s most recent stock price, he says.
Competing for business
The rise in trading volumes and the rush to capture the market will shape the way private shares change hands. San Francisco-based Carta, a company best known for selling shareholder management software to start-ups, has become a lightning rod in debates about the market’s direction. Its 45-year-old chief executive, Henry Ward, has set out an ambitious goal to build the “private stock exchange” for tech start-ups.
Ward wants the CartaX marketplace to compete with the Nasdaq exchange, providing a listing venue where companies could potentially stay private indefinitely. The exchange uses an auction model that Ward says will result in superior prices for sellers.
But the project has already drawn strong responses from rivals and market participants. Some brokers and start-ups say CartaX amounted to an attempt to monopolise the market, and the company is naive to think it could unseat public exchanges. Scenic’s Cohn says Carta has made it increasingly difficult for its clients to export their shareholder data for use in other kinds of secondary transactions, such as tender offers.
“We’re not trying to make the New York Stock Exchange go away,” says Kelly Rodrigues, chief executive of the brokerage Forge, which has begun offering software that companies can use to manage secondary transactions. Forge also bills itself as the “stock market for private companies”.
Others say the most desirable start-ups would not want to use CartaX because few private companies want to subject their shares to monthly or quarterly auctions marketed by the exchange.
Eric Folkemer, head of Nasdaq Private Markets, says it has already set up a similar marketplace with price discovery tools for companies such as the workplace collaboration company Asana that want to facilitate trading in their shares before going public.
“We have it,” says Folkemer. “The question is, does the market want it?”
JPMorgan has put its money behind Zanbato, a private share trading system that is taking a different approach from Carta, acting as a central matchmaker for more than 100 banks and brokers executing orders on behalf of clients.
Nico Sand, chief executive of Zanbato, says the exchange has made a conscious choice to focus on trades between large, qualified buyers with more than $100m in assets, who regulators assume have high amounts of financial expertise and require less oversight.
Zanbato has applied for a patent for a trading system with “firm orders”, a legal contract that forces buyers and sellers to transact shares in a private company after they have submitted orders with desired prices and quantities, says Sand.
He says the concept, which is standard in public markets, is necessary for creating efficient trading in private shares. “At the end of the day, it comes down to formalising the market structure in a way it’s not currently formalised.”
‘The third configuration’
So far, Carta is the only company that is listed for trading on CartaX. This month, investors purchased almost $100m in shares following the company’s first auctions on the exchange, in trades that valued the company at $6.9bn — more than double the valuation it received from venture capitalists less than one year ago.
Marc Andreessen, the Netscape co-founder and Carta board member, said in a blog post that he would encourage start-ups backed by his venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz to consider listing on the exchange. He also said the firm would buy shares in companies on the exchange.
“The third configuration — beyond the false binary of simply private or public — is here,” Andreessen wrote.
But Ward has set targets for the exchange that some people familiar with its workings described as overly ambitious.
Ward told investors he expected CartaX to generate about $1.1bn in annual revenues by 2024, according to a presentation viewed by the Financial Times. Under the most optimistic scenario, the marketplace would bring in $3.9bn in revenues that year, the presentation said. Carta declined to comment for this article.
CartaX charges 1 per cent fees to both buyers and sellers, implying it would need to facilitate about $55bn in trades a year to reach Ward’s expectations.
Those volumes would require about 3 per cent of the shares in all billion-dollar start-ups to change hands every year, according to Financial Times analysis of data from CB Insights, which estimates that 546 “unicorns” hold a collective value of $1.8tn.
Platforms like CartaX may struggle to meet their targets if private companies remain selective about who owns their shares. SpaceX, one of the most active companies in secondary trading, already hosts an internal marketplace where employees and venture capitalists can sell stock to invited investors.
“They have a lot of demand from buyers,” says Hans Swildens, chief executive of Industry Ventures, which has invested in Carta. “The question, like all the other marketplaces, is supply.”
Venture capitalists say the new exchange could also face competition from an unlikely source — special purpose acquisition companies (Spacs), which have recently lured relatively young start-ups to public markets.
CartaX would force companies to share two years of financial statements prepared using generally accepted accounting principles, in order to comply with a securities exemption the exchange is using to allow participation from an unlimited number of accredited investors.
Lawyers and governance experts say the requirement could help solve inconsistencies in information disclosure in private markets. But others say it would be a burden for young companies, which often remain private to avoid sharing their financial information to a broad audience of investors, reflecting a central tension in the market as brokers and traders attempt to capitalise on the surge of interest in secondary transactions.
“The ‘move fast and break things’ culture of start-ups militates precisely against this,” says Diamond at Santa Clara University. “That, to me, is the fundamental paradox here.”
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