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Double, Double Toil & Trouble; Private Valuations & Fintech Bubble

Double, Double Toil & Trouble; Private Valuations & Fintech Bubble

Every couple of months an article or two regarding the ‘fintech bubble’ floats onto the pages of online and print media.

“Are we in a bubble? Will it burst?” fret the writers of such articles. “Are valuations based on real worth or mere chatter? Could fintech be the next Dot-Com?”

Reading these, it can seem a little like the sector is just waiting for a disaster to happen. Like all the hype is a brave face belying a fragile body.

However, questions like these should come as little surprise. Despite a sizzling market, it’s smart to stay a little wary and acknowledge that just because entrepreneurs and investors are excited doesn’t mean everything is smooth sailing. After all, startups fail. That’s a thing that happens. And with the massive explosion of new businesses, it’s indubitable many – if not most – will fail.

Does this mean there’s a bubble?

Let’s have a look.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 23.55.56

2015 was a big year for the tech sector. Huge even. According to the capital’s promotional company London & Partners, a record $3.65bn (£2.5bn) was invested in private UK tech companies in 2015, equating to around a 70% rise in funding for startups compared to 2014. Around a quarter of this funding went to the financial services sector. This escorted a coming of age for fintech as it entered mainstream consciousness through new mobile payment options, the rise of companies like Transferwise, and some headline grabbing statistics as unicorn after unicorn raised their highly valued horns.

But Q4 also saw the beginning of something of a slow down in tech investment. After hitting dot-com funding levels in Q3, things began cooling off.

According to research from CB Insights, venture capital funding fell by 30% during the second half of 2015, with far fewer ‘mega-rounds’ of investment in Q4 in particular.

To make the situation sound even more dubious, the unicorns are beginning to look a lot like horses dowsed in glitter – at least if the latest tech IPOs are anything to go by. Square (and Match) received a decidedly chilly welcome as their shares sold for under the projected offering range, suggesting retail investors are more sceptical than expected when it comes to private tech valuations.

Cue: mild concern followed by sensational headlines about bubbles and what happens when one bursts.

However, take a step back and a deep breath and it’s fairly clear beyond the fluff pieces and general buzz of big ideas there’s some actual substance. There’s a different kind of cycle happening in financial technology compared to just ‘bubble and burst’.

For one, whilst the ‘coming-of-age’ may have been the growth cycle of the last two years, fintech has been around for a lot longer than that. As Bruce Wallace pointed out in Finextra:

What’s different now? The new fintech technology startups are now mostly selling their solutions directly to consumers and businesses instead of selling to the traditional FI channel. The increased efficiencies are changing customer expectations and shaping the future of financial services.

This shift is important. It’s a maturation of an established industry. Indicative of the changing mentality within the larger financial sector.

Furthermore, it conveys why disruptors have had such success in the last two years and why now there might be a cooling as money begins to flow into ‘enablers’ instead. Fintech has largely revealed the potential – or indeed the necessity – of its products. Payments companies and alternative lenders like Zopa, Funding Circle, and WorldRemit comprise the majority of the 35 unicorns in the sector. And part of the reason for this is because the landscape they are entering has remained stagnant for so long that a real need exists to innovate. By innovating they’re taking part of the market share away from the incumbents. By innovating they’re reforming.

As Chris Skinner said, “That’s why there’s no Fintech bubble bursting.  Just a re-architecting of finance through technology that, until it finishes, will see us moving through waves of innovation and change.”

This is why banks are ‘getting serious’ about fintech as well. Why they are pouring in their own money to digitise, to gamify, to tap into all the things that disruptors have emphasised and monetised in the last few years.

Of course, acknowledging a change in mentality doesn’t alter the fact that there has been a drop in deals.

But to play devil’s advocate, according to research by Erin Griffith’s for Fortune there’s also a distinction to be made between late-stage investors and early-stage investors regarding the slowdown reported by CB Insights.

According to the late-stage investors, there is a new element of caution. ‘Market dynamics are setting the bar much higher’ than before. They don’t want to keep funding businesses reliant on private money without turning a profit. On the other hand, early-stage investors are pretty much continuing the same as ever.

Why the disparity?

In part it’s because the prices are simply too high to tempt many professional VCs. They’re willing to wait to see the weaker business models shaken out by failures and takeovers. However, it also seems to relate to investors simply not wanting to feel the burn of another popped tech bubble and acute awareness of the swathe of ‘down-rounds’ where fintech companies have IPOed. Essentially, early stage investors have been paying too high prices and need to adjust expectation, which can be done with future investments. Everyone is thus left thinking maybe they should be wary, maybe they should keep on the side of realism instead of being succored in by mythical beasts, maybe they should stick to the usual methods of valuing a company like cash flow and profit.

At the end of the day it’s not being negative to accept that many of our startups will die. And it’s not foolish to consider that just maybe there is “too much money chasing too few assets” as Damien Lane, partner at Episode 1, told The Times. It’s simply pragmatic. And what’s falling in London’s favour is that VCs have largely maintained their pragmatism in the face of a booming sector. Especially when compared to New York and Silicon Valley.

There is no doubt that 2016 will be a pivotal year for fintech. As recent and upcoming exits play out we’ll really begin to see which business are worthy of the hype and which are not. But as yet the bubble is as close to unreal as many billion-dollar valuations.

 

Fintech Week, Fintech Year: What to Expect in 2016

Every year more and more events focused on the fintech industry are appearing.

In 2015 alone there have been umpteen showcase occasions focused around finance, innovation and the technological challenge to the banking industry.

From Finnovate Europe in early February and Finnovate Spring in May, to the whirligig of Fintech Week in September and the upcoming Fintechtonic Awards in December, the landscape has become busier than ever.

It’s exciting.

It’s loud.

And there’s no sign yet that fintech’s rise is slowing down.

Fintech week, The PHA Group

‘Image courtesy of ING Group on Flickr’

In fact, the sector looks to be increasing across the world. Whilst London may have reached record highs for fintech investment, securing around 75% of the $2.2bn raised by UK firms since January. According to Accenture’s new report investments in financial technology in Asia Pacific are set to quadruple in 2015. This estimate comes from the fact fintech investment has hit $3.5bn, up from $880m throughout 2014. The report also revealed that 40% of these investments were in payment innovations, and 25% in lending.

The monumental surge of interest, development and use of fintech is evident. Consider Money 20/20, the annual financial services conference held in Las Vegas in October: numbers of attendees have soared from 2300 to 10,000 in just four years, from 85 showcasing companies to 506 across a range of industries from mobile to fintech.

So with no signs of stopping and all evidence pointing to 2016 as yet another year of exponential innovation and accomplishment, what can we expect as we move through the winter and into the new year?

Expect more new entrants

The industry will be all too aware of the increase in new entrants. Primed for technological innovation, traditional financial services face a continued rise of new businesses and products with their own agendas and ability to disrupt. Generating further competition, it’s likely banking services will feel the impact more keenly in the next twelve months. This is particularly true given the focus on the ‘Uberisation of Payments’ – startups aiming to revolutionise financial services to become efficient, effective, and inclusive.

Blurring disruption and innovation

In the 7th Annual Innovation in Retail Banking Report from Efma and Infosys Finacle, banks considered new disruptors the second highest threat (41%) after big tech companies like Apple and Google (45%). However, as banks accept they can’t stop the startups, more are likely to follow the trend set by banks like Barclays who finance them. Responding to the perceived threat by increasing investment and harnessing their innovations for themselves, this could help to improve the overall customer experience at banks.

Moreover, the regulatory landscape that has enabled so many fintech startups in the UK to thrive is becoming tougher. New developments now need to integrate more successfully, to have flexible and agile IT systems capable of responding to demands from entities like the FCA. Smaller entrants may therefore need extra support due to limited resources if they’re to build robust systems. The relationship might thereforesee a shift from challenger to partner.

Bitcoin vs. Blockchain

Cryptocurrencies are beginning to shake off their dubious reputations. Part of this is because of the underlying blockchain technology. Fact is, Bitcoin might have started the conversation, but now it’s being sidelined as household names have hopped on board the blockchain bandwagon in order to better their businesses through its technology. These include UBS, Citi Group and NASDAQ, all of whom seem to agree that blockchain will fundamentally alter the infrastructure supporting the finance landscape. There’s even the first Blockchain-inspired bank in the pipeline – Secco Bank, founded by Chris Gledhill.

Millennials & harnessing fintech for good

With COP21 only weeks away, businesses that are not ready for a world where they can balance principles and profit are likely to be left in the dust. Part of the reason for this is the rise of the millennials, those 18 to 34 year olds, in particular, the older HENRYs (High Earners Not Rich Yet) that comprise the top consumers of fintech. However, beyond their dissatisfaction with traditional banks and their love of frictionless payments, they’re also much more socially conscious when it comes to business. As Bill Roth wrote, ‘their combined experiences have made them fiscally conservative, socially tolerant, environmentally aware and urgently engaged’.

This is not to say older generations don’t want to manage their assets and bank accounts from their armchairs, but millennials are the thread stitching together the desire for change with the ability to use technology. They view the sharing economy as an efficient utilisation of their money. They seek transparency, appreciate brands engaged with causes, and are more invested in harnessing business for good. We can already see it in the popularity of blockchain and fintech’s ‘Robin Hood’ narrative (see Transferwise and Lend Invest). They also seek financial inclusion, revealing yet another reason for the popularity of mobile payments and uberisation.

The problem of data and cyber-security

The digitisation of services has obviously created its own set of problems. Just look at all the different hacks over the past twelve months – from Sony to TalkTalk, the risk of data theft has become of utmost priority to consumers as well as their financial providers. Threats from malware and hackers demonstrate the need for vast cyber-security investment in the finance space, and nimble fintech companies could be more adept at this than traditional, cumbersome institutions.

Fintech becoming mainstream

As fintech influencer Oliver Bussman argued, technology is changing the dynamics in the financial services industry. This may seem obvious, but as fintech continues its climb, more people will become aware of its potential and more customers will start using it. Fintech is moving beyond revealing and disputing antiquated practices, providing opportunities for competition, and overhauling the experience for everyday consumers. It’s generating positive change. It could even be argued that technology is making finance trendy as the likes of Apple Pay bring fintech into mainstream consciousness.

And, ultimately, it is this shift of financial awareness, innovation and technology into today’s zeitgeist that makes fintech 2015 and 2016 potentially so exciting.