Yesterday was a significant day for FinTech in the UK. Having previously made it clear that the government wants to make London the leading location for the FinTech and digital currencies sectors, the Chancellor, George Osborne, used the Budget to lay out more details of how the government intends to achieve that.
The Government Office of Science also released its Blackett review into FinTech, and HM Treasury published both their response to the call for information on digital currencies that they launched last November, and a policy paper outlining the government’s strategy for delivering competition and choice banking.
I highlight some of the key announcements from the Budget below.
Promoting competition is one of the FCA’s three objectives (the other two are protecting consumers and protecting financial markets) and, fortunately, its leadership fully recognises both the role that innovation can play in driving competition, and the fact that regulation can be a significant barrier to innovation. Project Innovate is an initiative launched last August to help innovator companies navigate regulatory hurdles and bring new products and services to market.
One of the key challenges is that existing regulations often don’t cover emerging business models. Even when they do, startups often lack the resources to achieve full compliance. Hopefully, the FCA will be able to come up with a sandbox model that allows innovators to pilot new products, services and business models that they would otherwise struggle to bring to market.
Just as technology is transforming the way financial services are delivered to customers, it has the potential to transform the way regulation is delivered and reduce regulatory costs. By taking the lead in this area, the FCA and PRA can make the UK a more attractive regulatory regime and provide a fertile environment for UK companies to develop ‘RegTech’ products and expertise that can be exported overseas.
In Germany, the widespread adoption of the HBCI/FinTS banking API has helped foster a strong FinTech sector, spawning startups like Fidor Bank, Figo, Number26 and Avuba, as well as the Open Bank Project. If the UK banking sector can be persuaded to adopt a similar API, it can only be a positive development for UK FinTech.
The Bank of England has taken a keen interest in digital currencies and blockchain technology, and even raised the question of “Why might central banks issue digital currencies?” in a recent discussion paper. HM Treasury launched a call for information on digital currencies last November, and released adetailed response to the feedback alongside the Budget yesterday. The paragraphs below (with numbers in red) are taken from the latter document.
The government clearly perceives a significant opportunity in this space but the key challenge is to ensure consumer protection and prevent the use of digital currencies for criminal purposes (including money laundering and terrorist financing) without stifling innovation.
There’s little doubt that here in the UK, lack of regulation has hampered the digital currencies sector. Banks, having been hit with punitive fines in the past for failing to do enough to prevent money-laundering, refuse to touch anything Bitcoin-related with a 10-foot bargepole, meaning that UK companies in this space are typically forced to bank overseas (e.g. Bitstamp, Coinfloor and CEX.IO bank in Slovenia, Poland and Latvia, respectively, despite being based in the UK). Applying AML regulation to exchanges should remove this barrier to banking services and help make the UK a more attractive regulatory regime.
The next Parliament will begin in May so, with luck, we will see the result of this consultation by the end of the year.
The new Payment Systems Regulator may also have a role to play in ensuring that that digital currency businesses are not excluded from payments networks by UK banks.
BSI is the UK’s national standards body. As well as safety standards for things like crash helmets and seatbelts, it pioneered the quality assurance and information security standards which formed the basis of theISO 9000 and ISO/IEC 27000 series, respectively.
The digital currency sector has seen its fair share of fraud, ponzi schemes and fiduciary failures, so it’s interesting to see the UK government opting against prescriptive regulation to protect consumers, in favour of giving the sector the opportunity to self-regulate. It’s very much a pro-innovation stance, and stands in marked contrast to the approach taken by the New York Department of Financial Services – it’s possible that the UK government, having seen the negative reaction to the New York Department of Financial Services first BitLicense draft, saw an opportunity to steal a march on New York (which vies with London for the title of the world’s leading financial capital).
It’s worth bearing in mind that “self-regulation” has a decidedly mixed track record in the UK, so there’s a question-mark over whether this approach will engender enough consumer confidence to support mainstream adoption. Also, the use of the phrase “at this stage” is significant.
The £10m in funding for research is a relatively small but significant indication that the government is willing to put its money where its mouth is. The Research Councils are the primary source of funding for research in the UK. The Alan Turing Institute is a newly-formed organisation intended to support research in Big Data and algorithms. Digital Catapult is an Innovate UK initiative intended to help commercialise data innovation.
Concentration of talent plays a key role in the formation of industry clusters. If the UK can attract talent to conduct research, and provide a fertile environment for commercialising the fruits of that research, it stands a very good chance of establishing a strong digital currency cluster.