recent deal amongst MEPs, it looks like the Merchant Interchange Fees (MIF) Regulation will sail through the EU Parliamentary process in early 2015.
Monday, 22 December 2014
I'm still digesting last week's ESMA opinion on crowd-investing and the advice on how to regulate it, which is to be followed by the European Banking Authority's view on the regulation of P2P lending.
It's too early to expect anything conclusive - both ESMA and the EBA say they are merely supporting the Commission in its broader efforts to embed crowdfunding in a range of policy areas - but it's good to see official recognition of the benefits of crowdfunding, as well as the risks, and some sunlight on the highly technical challenges to accommodating the new business models. Let's hope they consider how any changes will impact customer experience, marketability and the need to scale these platforms quite quickly.
In addition to regulatory reform, it would be great if the EU agenda could evolve to include realigning traditional tax incentives to boost personal investment in new asset classes.
More on the detail soon!
Saturday, 13 December 2014
ECN Crowdfunding convention in Paris this week discussing the development of crowdfunding across the EU. The main focus was on regulation, since that is perceived as being the key difference from country to country. But of course there are other factors involved and these were also covered in the presentations. In particular, crowdfunding is a huge marketing challenge, given the vast advertising budgets of mainstream financial services providers and customer inertia. There are also many perverse incentives and implicit subsidies favouring the traditional financial models. I helped explain such problems in a recent submission The Finance Innovation Lab to the Competition and Markets Authority on retail/SME banking, for example.
A European twist on the scale and nature of the competitive problems was emphasised by an early presentation from our hosts, BpiFrance, a state financial institution targeting traditional funding at SMEs. It has 2000 staff in 37 offices and arranged funding of €10bn for 3500 French SMEs in 2012 alone. So not only do French crowdfunding platforms face a banking monopoly, but they must also compete against direct public programmes. With that kind of competition, it's little wonder the French crowdfunding market is only a twentieth the size of the UK! Thankfully, Bpi appears to have switched to supporting the development of many new private platforms, rather than trying fund plug the French SME funding gap all by itself - rather like the strategy adopted by the British Business Bank.
Of course, the SME funding gap is not exclusive to France. Christian Katz, CEO of SIX, the Swiss stock exchange, explained that the EU's 23 million companies face a funding gap of 2 trillion over the next 5 years. Yet only 11500 have access to the public markets. Currently, SMEs are creating 1 job for every 5 that big companies are eliminating. In other words, the companies that create the jobs are starved of access to working capital.
This kind of problem is not simply financial, and Joachim Schwerin, Policy Officer, DG Industry & Enterprise gave an excellent presentation on Friday explained how Crowdfunding features in five of the EC's key policies for stimulating economic growth:
- Improving access to finance, especially for SMEs;
- Financing projects that have found it hard to obtain traditional finance
- Boosting the digital economy
- Increasing the level of entrepreneurship, which is completely lacking in many EU countries; and
- Enhancing democracy, by enabling people to mobilise their savings to produce financial returns, rather than always having to trust their funds to banks and other traditional intermediaries that may not actually have their interests at heart.
Joachim outlined plans for extensive guidance to SMEs on types of crowdfunding via the EC's "Access to finance for SMEs" portal, highlighting the opportunities for SMEs rather than just focusing on the risks to investors. So watch that space during early 2015.
Many delegates were pressing Joachim to outline an EU regulatory timetable, but he was right to point out that this is premature. He confirmed that the EC is still in listening mode, which is as refreshing to hear now as it was in October. Regulation does not create markets, as the EC has discovered in its regulation of consumer credit and contract law. Indeed, it is plain from the recent French law and German proposals that regulating without an understanding of the market could kill them altogether.
For instance, the French authorities have limited participation in P2P lending to individuals who may only lend up to €1,000 per project/borrower. The authorities say this is necessary to ensure that lenders diversify the total amount they lend. This seems harmless enough until you realise the marketing challenge faced by someone starting a brand new P2P platform who cannot rely on a few large lenders to fund the bulk of early loans, or to step in where liquidity is scarce from time to time. Yet in more developed markets there is no evidence that lenders fail to diversify. In the latest UK market study Nesta has found that 88% of lenders say they engage in P2P business lending because they think diversification is important, which is supported by the figures:
"The average P2P business lending loan size is £73,222 and it takes approximately 796 transactions from individual lenders to the business borrower to fund a listed loan, with the average loan being just £91.95. P2P business lenders have, on average, a sizeable lending portfolio of £8,137 spread over a median of 52 business loans."
As a result, project-by-project caps are not a feature of the regulation of P2P lending in the UK, nor the rules allowing wider retail participation in crowd-investment. These regulations only took effect in April 2014, well after these markets were firmly established, well understood, and were able to benefit from the credibility that proportionate regulation can bring without being strangled by red tape.
Finally, it was interesting to hear Christian Katz's recommendations to help ensure the success of crowdfunding in the EU, based on how stock exchanges have developed:
- Clear, common terminology;
- Code of conduct - especially promoting transparency - e.g. disclose the details underpinning credit ratings;
- Platform stability/availability;
- Fund recovery - safeguarding customer funds and how to get money out;
- Cross-border - don't ignore potential that the Internet brings;
- Positioning crowdfunding - e.g. as a source of pre-IPO funding (under €5m).
While it is possible that specific enabling regulation may be necessary in some countries to initiate the ability to establish dedicated crowdfunding platforms (e.g. allowing normal loans to be concluded on such platforms, rather than only participation loans, or lifting the €100,000 limit on equity crowd-investment in Germany, for example), the EC's approach of allowing platforms to develop in line with self-regulation seems the wiser than rushing to regulate in detail.
Tuesday, 2 December 2014
The latest attempt at a fait accompli is the revised proposal for a new Payment Services Directive (PSD2), which is designed to shape the EU's payment systems for the decade to come. Having published several drafts previously with some attempt to mark-up the changes from previous meetings of member state representatives, a rapid-fire draft (dated 21 November) was suddenly published on 24 November, the same day it was due to be debated.
Today, as a result of the 24 November negotiations, a further draft (dated 1 December) was published without any changes marked, along with a recommendation that it be used as the basis for negotiations with the EU Parliament. Never mind that alternative service providers and other stakeholders with minimal lobbying power are attempting to understand and warn of the impact of seismic changes to the payments regulatory framework.
This is no way to approach the regulation of the EU financial system - if you have any interest at all in bringing the market along with you. But it's a perfect way to leave control of the market to the major banks and card schemes who have lobbyists plugged into the process.
Rant ends. I'll be trying to update my article on the changes to the proposals in the coming week.
Though it's hard to see the point.