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Friday, 21 September 2012

Government to Challenge Financial Red Tape

The UK government has announced proposals to clear the path for the growth of peer-to-peer finance platforms (also known as 'crowdfunding'). 

The latest government response to the Red Tape Challenge shows a determination to make it easier to innovate in ways that deliver lower cost, transparent financial services to consumers and small businesses. 

The government is sensitive to concerns that any regulation in this area should be proportionate and not raise barriers to entry or further innovation. As a result, the government wishes to encourage continued self-regulatory efforts by the Peer-to-Peer Finance Association to address common operational risks, and to engage with policy-makers and regulators. 

Critically, the government will also create a cross-departmental working group comprising representatives of all the relevant bodies it considers ought to be engaged in the development of peer-to-peer finance. Specifically, that working group will "monitor the appropriateness of the current regulatory regime for peer-to-peer platforms" and take the lead in engaging with the peer-to-peer finance industry. 

The composition of this working group is testimony to the broad policy implications and opportunities posed by this new form of financial model. The list of members includes the Office of Fair Trading, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, HM Treasury, the Financial Services Authority and the Cabinet Office. However, it is known that the Department for Culture Media and Sport is also very interested in the potential for peer-to-peer finance to fund the development of the arts and entertainment industry. 

Peer-to-peer industry concerns were also backed by Mark Littlewood, Director-General of the Institute of Economic Affairs, in his response as Sector Champion for this aspect of the Red Tape Challenge. His report offers various additional solutions as an alternative to regulation. However, he does recommend certain exemptions be introduced to the financial regulatory framework to enable 'crowd-investing' for shares in start-up companies. 

Interestingly, Mark Littlewood has also suggested a means of 'future-proofing' regulation. He suggests regulators should be open to engage with new entrants at an early stage of their development to provide them with enough certainty to get started quickly. Officials should support appropriate self-regulation in the early phases, for example, through accreditation with the UK Accreditation Service (who presumably would also need to be similarly approachable and flexible).

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Response to Midata Consultation

As part of its 'midata' initiative to empower consumers, the department of Business Innovation and Skills has been consulting on a proposal to give the Secretary of State a general power that "might be exercised broadly or in a more targeted way" to compel suppliers to supply transaction data at a consumer’s request. In the interests of transparency, I've summarised below my response to the consultation. As previously explained, I should mention that I've been involved in the midata Interoperability Board from its inception in 2011.

General Comments:

'Midata' scenarios involve consumers' transaction data being returned to them in a way that enables them to use it to improve their purchasing decisions. This reflects an existing, yet evolving commercial trend that is developing positively. Many businesses provide customers with their personal transaction history through ‘my account’ functionality which enables downloads. In addition to price comparison sites, other intermediaries are evolving to help consumers identify where data is stored, as well as to gather, share and analyse it.

It is acknowledged that there are certain operational risks involved in the widespread sharing of such data and various suppliers, intermediaries, officials and consumer representatives are co-operating to address these. One example is the work done by the World Economic Forum ‘tiger-teams’ on “Rethinking Personal Data” (here's my note of the London session). Government is also playing a very helpful role in fostering an environment in which suppliers can evolve best practice in the management of operational risks, as illustrated by the Midata initiative. Official guidance in the area includes the UK Information Commissioner’s guidance on data sharing.

These initiatives are sufficiently flexible and adaptable to support innovation rather than to stifle it. There is no evidence that these approaches are failing to adequately address the operational issues identified.

Regulation, on the other hand, is more rigid and often has unintended consequences that are hard to rectify in a timely fashion, particularly where it is general in nature and not evidence-based. As a general principle, prior to granting powers there should be clarity concerning the basis for their exercise, applicable exemptions, sanctions and other checks and balances.

Risks or undesirable consequences from exercising a power to require certain data to be released electronically could also include:
  • undermining the cooperative approach to addressing operational risks and the evolution of best practice described; 
  • reducing the flexibility and adaptability of risk management measures and stifle innovation; 
  • paralysing development until market participants are clear on the basis for the exercise of powers, applicable exemptions, sanctions and avenues of review or appeal. 

So, while it is worth exploring whether a power of the kind proposed might encourage industry participants to act appropriately, it is difficult to support it in the circumstances described above. Rather, in my view, the government should continue to foster (and participate in) an environment in which best practice can evolve rapidly and flexibly; survey the rate of take-up of appropriate services and the adequacy of operational risk management; and issue guidance where appropriate. This would enable an evidence-based approach to regulation in due course if necessary.

Obligations for Specific Sectors or Data Types?

While all suppliers with consumer or micro-businesses as customers should be encouraged to participate in the 'midata' trend, I would be concerned that a regulatory obligation to provide transaction data to such customers may cause some businesses to withdraw from those markets.

This trend should also naturally pick up useful data that is not currently in digital format. However, I would be concerned that any mandatory obligation that is focused only on data held electronically will discourage businesses who would ‘digitised’ offline data from doing so.

Impact of the Proposed Mandatory Approach

My concern is that the proposed regulatory approach would be too narrow in its focus and effect. The WEF process has established that Midata scenarios require a holistic approach to the various challenges inherent in returning data to customers electronically. The value and utility of personal data is a hugely complex dynamic that varies by:
  • the context or the activity we are engaged in, 
  • which persona we are using at that moment, 
  • the actual data being used or provided, 
  • the permissions given, 
  • the rights that flow from those permissions, and 
  • the various parties involved. 
We need a global set of rules that are flexible enough to address all these variables, with the protection of a person's rights at the centre. Such rules must be capable of being simplified at the customer level, understood in terms of specific rights and obligations at the legal and regulatory level, and ‘coded’ to ensure that computers handle the data consistently with these rules.

The legal aspect of this breaks down into a set of rights and duties from which liability and accountability can flow in a way that does not make it impracticable for any necessary participant in the overall process. Those rights and duties will obviously vary according to whether you are the individual data subject, the provider of a personal data store/service, a business customer relying on data about the individual or acting in a governance role. They must be compatible with public law, yet fill in many gaps where rights and duties are missing or unclear.

By way of example, the current ambition of the WEF is to agree a 'simple' set of common licences or sets of permissions which any individual can nominate to govern the use of their data in a given context (like the creative commons copyright system ). The technological solution is a 'personal data mark-up language' that will enable anyone holding the consumer's data to 'mark-up' items of data in their existing databases to correspond to the permissions they've been given.

Who Should Be Able to Request Data?

Consumers and businesses employing fewer than 10 people ("micro-businesses", most of which are owned and operated by individuals) should be entitled to request a supplier to provide their own transactional data, either to the customer or to a specified third party. Alternatively, a third party who is duly authorised by the customer should be able to seek the customer’s data in electronic format directly from the supplier.

The terms and conditions and other information that are required to be made available to the consumer under applicable law (e.g. Distance Selling Regulations) should be included with the transactional data related to the goods or services covered by those terms and conditions.

Formats and Response Times

The government should not mandate formats, since internet-based technology allows for the development of 'mark-up languages' that allow sharing of data in different formats, as described above. 

Appropriate response times will be contextual. Guidance should encourage standing ‘my account’ functionality accessible by the individual logging-in, rather than a request-and-response model. However, where a request-and-response model is adopted, the response should be ‘prompt’. 

Should Suppliers Be Able to Charge for Releasing 'midata'? 

Suppliers should not be prohibited from charging specifically for releasing transactional data, but be encouraged not to. In effect, however, ‘my account’ functionality is not really ‘free’ in any event since there is a price to the related goods or services. 

It's conceivable that some suppliers might wish to be transparent about the price of goods versus the price of supporting services. In cases where few consumers access their data, it may not be appropriate that all consumers may end up paying for the functionality. However, it is important that any directly applicable charges should be reasonably proportionate to the cost of making the data available, including a reasonable profit margin (e.g. 20%). There are similar regulatory requirements in relation to certain fees in the financial services industry, for example. 

Enforcement and Supervisory Bodies 

It is likely that access to personal transaction data will be included as a right and/or obligation in customer terms and conditions, and customers should be free to enforce these in the same manner as any other provision in that contract, including through the courts or alternative dispute resolution as necessary. 

In the event regulation  is required, any enforement activity in this area could be handled in the context of personal data regulation, general consumer regulation, or regulation related to dealing with consumers in specific sectors.  Accordingly, appropriate enforcement bodies would include those listed below, with the Information Commissioner's Office taking the lead: 
  • Information Commissioner’s Office 
  • Office of Fair Trading 
  • Trading Standards Institute 
  • Citizens Advice 
  • Key sector regulators, e.g.: 
  • Financial Services Authority
  • Ofgem
  • Ofcom
Prior to the advent of regulation, these bodies could participate in fostering an environment in which suppliers, intermediaries, officials and consumer representatives can evolve best practice in the management of those risks.

Under any necessary regulation, the enforcement bodies could be empowered to order disclosure and/or fine suppliers, intermediaries, etc for failing to disclose, security breaches and so on. 

As this trend develops, one could expect to see a decline in data subject access requests under the Data Protection Act 1998, and any related enforcement activity by the ICO. 

I'm interested in your thoughts.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

FSA Note On Crowd Investing

In response to various comments and queries, I've reviewed the FSA's recent note to consumers on 'crowdfunding'. The FSA's note is actually quite a positive sign, although it's worth clarifying a few aspects discussed below. These relate to terminology and the policy context, the wider audience, opportunities for everyone to diversify, the potential for secondary markets and another means of protecting customer funds.

Here one has to sympathise with the FSA. Alternative finance platforms are springing up all over the country and the FSA no doubt feels obliged to say something helpful about those closest to its remit. Yet it is only empowered to supervise the current regulatory framework, which is ill-suited to the sort of innovation that crowd investing represents. The Treasury, which is responsible for producing the regulation that governs the FSA's remit, has been dragging its heels somewhat on this front. Even the US has beaten us to the punch by cutting a swathe through its byzantine securities legislation to provide a more proportionate regime to support crowd investing.

So in these respects the FSA's note is also helpful in illustrating the need for proportionate regulation that the alternative finance industry has been calling for to enable the responsible growth of non-bank retail financial services. The note is also perhaps a sign that the FSA acknowledges the need to look beyond the regulated markets when considering whether there is adequate innovation and competition within them.

Terminology and The Policy Context

I've previously discussed the various meanings of the term 'crowdfunding' and the policy context here. The FSA's note initially states that "crowdfunding involves a large group of people contributing money to support a business, individual or campaign." But that would encompass a wide array of situations that surely aren't in scope, including ordinary donations to charities, buying shares on a stock exchange and perhaps even retail sales. Accordingly, later in its note the FSA qualifies the statement by adding that crowdfunding investors will usually receive shares in the business or project they contribute to..." pre-purchase goods to be produced or "...receive a reward like a t-shirt or mug". I read this to mean that the FSA is referring to both 'crowd-investing' as well as the original form of 'rewards-based' crowdfunding that I've discussed previously. But that's not to say these activities are necessarily regulated by the FSA - indeed the FSA later points out that "almost all crowdfunds are not authorsed by [it]" - though it can be a complex undertaking to determine what is in or out of scope.

What is perhaps missing, however, is the primary point of distinction between crowd investing and traditional forms of investment. Crowd investing involves a marketplace comprising a crowd of consumers and/or small businesses on both sides, whose direct interaction is faciliated by a neutral platform operator. In other words, members of the crowd are engaging with each other on the same platform, rather than a single financial institution offering its own products to its customers. This phenomenon partly reflects the 'Web 2.0' or 'social media' trend that has also 'democratised' the retail, entertainment and other consumer-facing industries. In the investment context, it most often involves contributing relatively small sums of money you would be prepared to lose, in order to finance the activities of people and businesses whose success might benefit you, your community or society generally, but on terms that could also give you a financial return in that success. Other key differences between various types of crowdfunding models (in the broader sense) and traditional financial services are explained in Annex 1 to this note on regulatory reform.

Wider Audience

The FSA's note is primarily an explanation for consumers acting as investors, rather than an explanatory note to the people or businesses who see crowd investing as a way to raise funds, or to the platform operators who facilitate the interaction between the two. Again, this perhaps misses the point that crowd investing comprises a marketplace with a crowd of consumers and/or small businesses on both the investing side and the receiving side.

But the note does helpfully point out that "for businesses, crowdfunding can be a useful way to gain direct access to investors and finance that more traditional investors, venture capitalist or lenders are not prepared to offer."

That's putting it politely, as you might expect. Aside from the Web 2.0 trend, another reason for the growth in peer-to-peer finance models is that banks, pension funds and other traditional investors whom the FSA does regulate are continuing to conserve capital or offer finance on terms that are unduly onerous, while charging savers and investors high fees and/or failing to offer a decent return. This intransigence suggests that it's down to entrepreneurs and private investors to connect the dots between low returns on savings and the opportunity to fill the SME funding gap of £26bn - £52bn over the next 5 years, or the annual social sector finance gap of £0.9bn - £1.7bn.

Opportunities To Diversify

The FSA says that "crowdfunding could make up part of a diversified portfolio, especially for sophisticated investors." I do not read this to necessarily mean "sophisticated investors" in a regulatory sense (e.g. under the Financial Promotions Order). Even so, this begs the question why only 'sophisticated investors' should enjoy the benefits of the reduced investment risk that goes with maintaining a diversified portfolio beyond "mainstream investment products". People seen as 'ordinary' investors are proportionately suffering much more from a lack of opportunities to diversify than those who are more wealthy or finance professionals (if that's any proxy for 'sophisticated'). ISA and pension rules incentivise the concentration of funds into assets that are providing little return and generate high fees for institutions. Ironically, in rejecting calls by the Breedon Taskforce for broadening the ISA scheme the government highlighted the problem by confirming that 45% of the adult population is herding into the same narrow range of asset classes.

That's not to say that any old asset should necessarily qualify for ISAs and pensions, and I agree that the risks in such investments should be clearly explained to investors, along with the benefits. As I've said repeatedly, simplicity and transparency as to both the benefits and the extent to which you risk losing money are critical to the process of making financial services more consumable, but we need a more facilitative approach to that process. Policy-makers must recognise that crowd investing has its genesis in the trend towards greater transparency and consumer control, not less. Operators are trying to simplify financial services and make them more transparent and accessible to all. Legacy financial regulation is one of very few hurdles in the way of that trend, yet entrepreneurs are responsibly calling for more proportionate regulation rather than some kind of unregulated free-for-all.

Secondary Markets?

Interestingly, the FSA points to the inability to sell many crowd investments as a risk associated with crowd investing (which perhaps misses the point of crowd investing in the first place, as discussed above). Yet, ironically, current regulation renders the development of such secondary markets impracticable. So the fact that the FSA has called this out as a risk suggests that efficient means of secondary trading on crowd investing platforms may be permitted as a benefit to consumers in future.

Protection of Customer Funds

The FSA says you should "find out how your money is protected if the business, project or even the crowdfunding platform collapses - in particular check whether the business has appropriate cash reserves or even insurance supporting if it fails." This is true. While the very nature of 'investment' is that you may lose your money if a company or project you invest in does not succeed, it should also be made clear to you from the outset. But when considering what happens to your uninvested funds if an unregulated crowd investment platform collapses, it's worth mentioning that the platform operator might legitimately choose to hold funds received from customers in trust in a separate bank account, designated as holding customers' funds with the bank's acknowledgement, so that those funds do not form part of the operator's assets and would not be available to the operator's creditors if the operator were to fail. The operator may also make arrangements for the ongoing administration of investments in the event that it ceases to operate.

At the end of its note the FSA adds that "We are also concerned that some firms involved in crowdfunding may be handling client money without our permission or authorisation, and therefore may not have adequate protection in place for investors." However, its important to clarify that 'handling client money' is not a regulated activity in its own right. The FSA's client money rules only apply where the provider is both authorised by the FSA and subject to the FSA's own client money rules. So this does not mean that firms who are legitimately operating outside the FSA's remit (or who are FSA-regulated but not subject to the FSA's client money rules), cannot choose the other ways of protecting their customers' funds described above.

Finally, it's worth clarifying that even FSA-authorised firms may fail to follow the right procedures to protect customer funds, thereby potentially undermine the protective effect of the arrangements (as alleged in the case of Lehman Brothers and MF Global). In January 2011, the FSA also fined Barclays Capital £1.12 million for "failing to protect and segregate on an intra-day basis client money held in sterling money market deposits" over an eight year period.

The point is that even the most intense regulation will not remove investment risk entirely.

Image from Lattice Capital.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Unpacking The Term "Crowdfunding"

The term "crowdfunding" is being used a lot in legal circles these days, but it can mean a number of different things to different people - from many people buying shares in a single company to any form of peer-to-peer financing or donations. So for the sake of clarity I thought I'd explain my own understanding of the different types, as well as the overall policy context.  


In its broadest sense, 'crowdfunding' describes a key impact of Web 2.0 on financial services (as discussed over on Pragmatist, and in print here). It's one aspect of the same trend towards greater consumer control that has swept through retailing, entertainment and so on. The critical point of distinction between the various forms of crowdfunding and 'traditional' forms of finance is that crowdfunding involves a finance marketplace comprising consumers and/or small businesses on both sides, whose direct interaction is facilitated by a neutral platform operator, rather than a single financial institution offering its products to its customers. Other key characteristics are set out in Annex 1 to this note. But when the term 'crowdfunding' is used in this broad sense, one should bear in mind that it actually encompasses a range of very different models, involving very different legal instruments, with very different legal and regulatory outcomes, as discussed below.

'Crowdfunding' first gained currency to describe 'rewards-based' peer-to-peer platforms like ArtistShare and, which were designed to raise money from many people to fund many small budget projects via the internet without infringing US laws that control the offer of 'securities' to the public. On those web sites, eligible people are enabled to post 'pitches' seeking funding for a project (e.g. to start a monthly magazine) in return for a 'reward' of some kind (e.g. a monthly copy of the magazine for a period). There is a range of similar platforms in the UK (e.g., Crowdfunder and those mentioned here).

Independently of rewards-based crowdfunding, peer-to-peer platforms have also emerged in the markets for personal loans and small business loans. This activity was first called 'social lending', then 'person-to-person lending', 'peer-to-peer lending', 'P2P lending' and more recently 'crowd lending'. Examples include Zopa, Ratesetter and Funding Circle in the UK and, say, Comunitae in Spain. The peer-to-peer lending model has also been adapted to enable many people to fund numerous small businesses in developing countries, which is referred to as 'micro-finance' (e.g. Kiva, MyC4). When applied in the domestic not-for-profit or charity sector, the peer-to-peer lending model tends to be referred to as 'social finance' (e.g. Buzzbnk).

However, the term 'crowdfunding' has acquired a more formal regulatory meaning over the past year or so, as a result of the successful campaign in the US to introduce the JOBS Act to allow the crowdfunding model to be used in situations where 'securities' are the reward (Title III of  the JOBS Act is called the Crowdfund Act). This is apt to cause confusion outside the US, because the US Securities Exchange Commission has a broader interpretation of what constitutes a 'security', and narrower exemptions from the scope of its securities laws, than the UK and many other jurisdictions.

Prior to the JOBS Act, the SEC required an individual or small business borrower to comply with the same formal registration requirements for entering into a simple loan contract via a public web site that a major corporation must follow when offering its shares, bonds or debentures to the public. So US-based peer-to-peer lending programmes have had to be registered with the SEC at great expense and require a financial institution to act as an intermediary (e.g. Lending Club, Prosper).

But in the UK and many other jurisdictions such heavyweight requirements are applied to more complex debt instruments (bonds and debentures) and shares ('equities'). As a result, peer-to-peer lending (or 'crowd lending') using simple loan contracts has been established outside the scope of securities or investment regulation in the UK since Zopa launched in 2005 (later joined by Ratesetter and Funding Circle).

However, peer-to-peer models that involve shares and debentures ('crowd investing') have proved a lot more awkward to implement, given that traditional financial regulation is more intense in connection with those instruments. Exemptions have been more liberal than in the US (at least pre-JOBS Act), although fiendishly complex and expensive in time and money to interpret. As a result, there is a growing political consensus that the UK would also benefit from a US-style regulatory overhaul in this area. And it is in the context of this policy debate that use of the term 'crowdfunding' is most at risk of generating confusion between 'crowd investing' and other forms of  'crowdfunding' in the broader sense.

Policy Context

While 'crowd investing' is perhaps most under the regulatory spotlight currently, there are some common issues and operational risks across all types of 'crowdfunding' in the broadest sense (though less so with rewards-based crowdfunding). All types of plaforms involve a similar technological and operational 'architecture of participation'. And they all meet some difficulty under traditional regulation - and the more intense that regulation is, the more complex it is to innovate, launch, operate and grow. Small changes can trigger significant regulatory requirements, increase costs and inhibit marketing. Tax incentives favour products offered by traditional institutions and inhibit the ability of ordinary savers and investors to diversify.

As a result, the operators of both peer-to-peer lending and crowd investing platforms have been calling for proportionate regulation at the platform-level to enable rapid, responsible development, regardless of the type of instrument available on the platform. This process began when the leading UK peer-to-peer lenders launched the Peer-to-Peer Finance Association in July 2011, proposing a set of Operating Principles to address typical operational risks. They and several crowd investment operators have also participated in various government and private sector forums. The social finance sector has since added its support, with leading charity lawyers Bates Wells & Braithwaite citing the development of these types of platform as a necessary step in the development of social investment (which was also endorsed by the government-funded Community Shares Unit). And a meeting of wide variety of European industry participants took place in June 2012 to discuss the need for EU regulation. 

In the meantime, economic reality has also increased the pressure for clear and proportionate regulation to enable alternative finance. Banks and other traditional investors continue to conserve capital or offer finance on terms that are unduly onerous, while charging savers and investors high fees and/or failing to offer a decent return. There is a dawning recognition that it's down to entrepreneurs and private investors to connect the dots between low returns on savings and the fact that SMEs face a funding gap of £26bn - £52bn over the next 5 years, or that social sector organisations face an annual finance gap of £0.9bn  - £1.7bn

Against this backdrop, there have been numerous UK government reports and recommendations on the need to encourage the creation and development of both peer-to-peer lending and crowd-investing, with the weight of emphasis depending on the focus of the relevant initiative. These include the Cabinet Office's Red Tape Challenge on disruptive business models; NESTA's "Beyond the Banks" report; the Breedon Taskforce report (which the government largely accepted); Andrew Haldane's speech on forging a common financial language; and Lord Young's report to the Prime Minister on the start-up and development of small business. 

However, there has been little concrete action from the UK Treasury, prompting the debate of various amendments to the Financial Services Bill in the House of Lords. In essence, these amendments seek both greater engagement by the authorities in encouraging innovation generally, as well as specific regulation to encourage the growth of peer-to-peer models for a range of different instruments.

By way of comparison, it's interesting to note that the JOBS Act was the product of a US Presidential initiative in January 2011 which received bi-partisan support in the US Congress, and the new law was signed by the President on 5 April 2012.

Image from Lattice Capital.