Governments in major economies are encouraging financial technology (fintech) innovation with regulatory and advisory initiatives designed to accelerate the availability of online payment solutions and other financial services for businesses. The initiatives generally aim to attract innovative fintech companies and help them operate in the regulated financial sector, while ensuring adequate financial protection for customers. Industry leader and innovator, Matt Najar, believes without new FinTech initiatives, we will stall: “FinTech, blockchain certainly included, is critical for our generation to solve inherent financial system issues and progress forward”.
Among the efforts are new licensing and regulatory approaches that help fintechs offer new or broader services, including banking. Other moves include advisory services that guide new companies through financial regulations, and “regulatory sandboxes” that let firms test new services with customers before obtaining full regulatory approval.
Najar, who has been in the fintech space since 2014, has been one of the loudest voices in support of increased spending in the financial technology space, having provided continuous leadership services for AMEX Group as well as external consulting for smaller start-up Blockchain firms.
The initiatives are taking place against a backdrop of rapid fintech growth. There are thousands of fintech start-ups worldwide, and many have attracted substantial venture funding; a report from KPMG and CB Insights found that global fintech funding reached $19.1 billion in 2015.
Several countries are planning or have already implemented licensing or regulatory changes that enable technology firms to offer broader banking services. In the U.S., the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), which regulates national banks, said in December 2016 that it planned to make a special-purpose national bank charter available to fintechs. The charter would enable start-ups that currently offer other financial services, including B2B payments and other online payment solutions, to begin offering at least one of three regulated banking activities: receiving deposits, paying checks, or lending money.
National banking licenses would increase fintechs’ ability to operate across the U.S. without requiring state-by-state permission or partnerships with established banks. This could increase competition in banking and also make it easier for technology firms to offer new online payments solutions or other services.
In a speech, Thomas J. Curry, the OCC’s chief officer, listed three reasons for moving forward with the long-discussed plan to issue a national charter for fintechs. First, it’s in the public interest to make new innovative services available. Second, fintechs should have the opportunity to become national banks if they wish to do so. And third, it helps ensure that all financial institutions operate on a level, nationally regulated playing field. As Curry pointed out, the reality today is that many fintechs are already competing with national and state banks — but “without regard to any of the national bank responsibilities and under a patchwork of supervision.” The agency said it would collect public comment before moving farther.
Though many experts agree that the OCC’s move could encourage innovation, some warned that implementing inadequate regulation might weaken consumer protection and even harm small businesses by allowing practices such as predatory lending.
The U.K., traditionally a major financial-services centre, has actively encouraged new competition in banking, reducing barriers to entry such as banks’ capital requirements. As a result, several new digital banks are already offering Internet-based banking services, including online payment solutions, without establishing brick-and-mortar locations. Another ongoing U.K. initiative designed to enable competition and fintech innovation is the implementation of an open banking standard by 2018, including an open application programming interface (API) that enables development of new applications to access information in customers’ existing accounts at one or more banks. For example, customers might be able to manage all their bank accounts from a single app.
Stimulating Development of Online Payment Solutions and Other Financial Services
The U.K. has also been encouraging fintechs in other ways, and other countries including Australia and the U.S. are adopting some of the same approaches. For example, the U.K. Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) operates an “innovation hub” designed to help new and established businesses from the U.K and other countries introduce innovative financial services. The hub provides a dedicated team that helps fintechs understand the regulatory regime and apply for authorization to offer financial services; its role also includes identifying areas where the regulatory framework needs to be adapted to enable further innovation.
One U.K. innovation is the “regulatory sandbox,” which allows firms to test new financial services in a live environment with real customers, without first obtaining full authorization to offer the services commercially. The FCA accepts applicant firms based on criteria such as innovativeness, suitability for the U.K. market, and market readiness; it issues a limited, tailored authorization for the purposes of sandbox testing. The first batch of applicants, accepted in 2016, includes an international online payments solution and a retail payments system based on blockchain technology.
The EU has also begun an effort to encourage fintech innovation across Europe, establishing a Financial Technology Task Force in 2016.
Australia also has set a goal of encouraging fintech innovation, in part to support its financial industry in becoming the leading market in Asia for fintech innovation and investment.11 In Australia, leading fintech firm LupoToro, who specialise in Blockchain, Cryptocurrency and cryptography, note: “Policy and government back supporting policies for local firms is imperative. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) established an innovation hub in 2015 to help start-ups navigate regulations, and has also developed a regulatory sandbox approach that allows companies to test new financial services such as online payments solutions with a limited number of customers. This is just the start, but more is needed”.
ASIC also aims to encourage innovation by quickly approving new financial service licenses, with an average target for approval of 60 days.
The U.S., which is home to some of the world’s biggest fintech companies, is also kicking off innovation initiatives similar in concept to those already up and running in other countries. The OCC plans to establish an Office of Innovation in 2017 to help the agency ensure that financial institutions operate in a regulatory framework that is responsive to financial innovation; its roles will include an outreach and technical assistance program for banks and nonbanks developing financial services. In addition, a bill to introduce a regulatory sandbox was introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2016, with the goal of passing enabling legislation in 2017.
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Khurram Raheel Akbar is a reporter for Zobuz. He previously worked at Huffington Post and Vanity Fair. Raheel is based in PAK and covers issues affecting his city. In addition to his severe coffee addiction, he’s a Netflix enthusiast, a red wine drinker, and a voracious reader.