A neobank stack

Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time building lending and banking stacks. What used to require vast resources only 10 years ago, is today a much simpler and more inexpensive job, thanks to the enormous number of financial infrastructure businesses born in the last decade.

The goals of the following 2 posts are: to highlight which are the key functional components of these stacks, to point at who are the main providers around and, more in general, to share what are some of the key learnings I gathered working hands-on on their development.

An overview

The core assumption behind this architecture is that a retail bank is not in the business of making mobile apps, nor it is in the business of issuing debit/credit cards. A bank operates in 2 problem spaces:

  •  the business of trust (liability side) – a bank is an institution selling trusted repositories where users can store their value. It must convince people that it is a trustworthy institution.
  •  the business of selling liquidity (asset side) – a bank must make a profit out of the funds it gathered, correctly setting the price of the liquidity, based on the risk profile of its clients – on the asset side

The average banking product is simply an interface optimised for the current state of the technology: today it is a smartphone application, in the past it was a branch, in the future it will likely be a different interface. What won’t change are the fundamental problems that a bank will solve, as shown in the architecture designed below.

Banking channels

This module includes multiple elements: from domestic payments to branches, from ATMs to cryptos. These apparently very different pieces have one core characteristic in common: they enable the movement of money inside and outside of the user account. Each one is a different touchpoint which covers different use cases for different demographics, but they all ultimately enable money movement.  

I believe this module is probably the most affected by the modern banking evolution, putting together today things that were completely different in the past, such as Cards and Branches. Take branches, for example. As the retail banking space evolved, the branch-centric approach has been totally surpassed and branches pushed to the margins of the banking architecture. 

Branches today are to banks what CDs are to songs: once the physical embodiment of the service, now they are nothing more than a nice accessory, interesting to some, but definitely not a central component of the related business model.

In the banking channel alone, there are literally hundreds of companies trying to build more modern API-based experiences which requires minimal effort to integrate with and guarantees adequate support.

Payments space: Adyen, Stripe, Marqeta, coinbase

Fincrime

The Fincrime module is in charge of filtering out potential fraudsters and money-launderers from the flow of total movements. It is logically a clear extension of the banking channels component, because it operates on top of those transactions.

It is a fairly recent innovation which became necessary when banking lost its personal touch and became a machine-first, more than a person-first, business.

Fincrime is one of the spaces where artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques are seriously delivering value: it would be inconceivable for a modern bank to manually or semi-manually scan all the transactions.  

Products engine

The product engine is probably the flagship element of modern core banking platforms. It is a product configurator where a bank can easily configure standardized products like overdraft, checking account or loans and immediately distribute them to its customer base.

It is usually bundled together with other modules in a wider core banking offering (ledger).

NB. In my abstraction, the product engine does contain the creation of the loan, credit line and overdraft products, but doesn’t include the decision lending stack, which I’ll present in a future post.

Ledger

Ledger technologies have been the foundation of any banking businesses since the northern Italian city states invented banking just after the Middle Ages. A ledger is nothing more than a glorified database, and it represents the ultimate source of truth on the account balance and, in general, on any banking activity within the company. 

A ledger must be extremely reliable, secure, easy to integrate with and easy to query. 

Startups in the core banking space: 10x, Mambu, Railsbank, ncino, ThoughtMachine

Being blockchain a ledgering technology, this domain is constantly mentioned as being a domain ripe for innovation. My opinion is that blockchains, before being ledgers, are primarily systems to align incentives and I’m very skeptical about the real benefits of permissioned chains. For this reason I believe that DLT doesn’t really make sense today as a ledgering technology for a bank, especially in a permissioned context and without a proper ecosystem built around it.

API Aggregator

API aggregators are new-comers to banking. Before open banking took off, this element wasn’t even a theoretical concept in banking ecosystem. 

Today, almost every bank is integrated to at least one banking information aggregator which shares data about customers gathered from other financial institutions.

The role of API aggregators is still in its infancy but, being banking a business of information, I believe that their role will become more prominent over the next years.

Financial aggregators: Plaid, Quovo, TrueLayer, Tink

Identity hub

I decided to aggregate Onboarding, KYC and CRM because they represent to me different phases of the same user’s lifecycle, as they all build different aspects of the identity of the user in the bank’s eyes.

As user onboarding moved from a branch-based approach to remote, KYC providers acquired an enormous space and there are a lot of companies doing KYC cheaply and very reliably in the vast majority of geographies.

KYC providers: jumio, alloy, onfido, veriff

Identity is surely a banks’ key asset but its value still remains largely untapped, as no bank built a business on top of the constellation of information gathered on the users, nor on facilitating dedicated identity services to other providers.

Treasury

Putting the capital gathered in its deposits to a more productive use is one of the key activities of a bank. This is a crucial activity for bank profitability, but this also requires skills completely different from the ones typically available in a consumer-focused neobank. All the recently funded neobanks tend to be very user-centric and customer-service focused: they are 21st century technology companies more than traditional financial companies, therefore scaling up this function can be extremely defocusing in the growth phase, when the goal of the bank is to create a solid customer base of depositors.

In this scenario, many of these companies can outsource their treasury investing/activities to some of the many investment vehicles around or can, more traditionally, use softwares to internally manage their liability side.

RegTech

The financial industry is one of the most regulated industries in every country and a tremendous amount of resources is spent on this activity. Lots of companies are working in this space. 

Conclusions

In this brief post I wanted to present some high level modules that I believe are essential elements in building a modern bank. 

All the brands and companies mentioned are only a small subset of the incredible number of good solutions in circulation and most of them cover more than one aspect, but this is not factored in in my architecture.

In my next post you will find a similar exercise for the other crucial stack of a bank: the credit decision stack. Stay tuned.

Bank runs in the 21th century

We live in very special times, from many points of view. Essentially any aspect of our life is being disrupted and this wave of unusuality is impacting banks as well: banks are seeing their deposits going up, they are getting a lot of money, but, for once, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The usual way: bank runs

Usually people put their money in banks confident that they are safely stored, easily accessible and ideally producing some sort of returns. In the large majority of cases, things go well. 

Unfortunately, sometimes they don’t: banks can collapse. Every time that a bank is even rumored to be in bad waters, a large number of depositors immediately ran out and queue up outside bank branches hoping to withdraw their money and secure them before a possible collapse. 

This run to the branches would then cause even more troubles to the bank, ultimately resulting in the actual collapse of the institution.

northern rock bank run in 2007

This phenomenon is defined as a bank run, and it has been a fairly common occurrence in banking history. Wikipedia provides a very interesting page with the list of the most significant bank runs

The covid-way: reverse bank runs

In 2020, after Covid-19 hit, things are going differently. Many banks are today suffering from the exact opposite problem: they have too much cash and are reluctant to accept more deposits.

Today depositors are keeping their money in bank accounts. This is due to various reasons: less opportunity to spend money, a desire to save for uncertain times, but also the lack of profitable investment opportunities around. The latter applies especially to financial institutions themselves, as interest rates at central banks are exceptionally low and COVID-19 has increased the risk of lending to most of the companies. Therefore all these fresh deposits end up being stashed as bank reserves.

This phenomenon is especially true for neo-banks like N26, Monzo or Revolut, because their loan-book is pretty thin, if non-existant at all, and thus the cash of their users is ultimately not reinvested in loans, ending up in the neo-banks’ accounts in central banks. 

Usually, this extra reserve wouldn’t be a big deal: yes, there is a sort of ‘ethical’ issue because banks should channel capital from households to investments to put it at more productive use; but, to be honest, it is also very hard to find productive use for all the capital that is around today. 

Besides this, the extra capital wouldn’t be a big problem if banks were not regulated by the Basel III framework. But they are. Basel III actually introduced a new non-credit risk ratio, the leverage ratio.

Leverage-ratio = Tier1 Capital/Total Asset > 3%

In simple terms, the leverage ratio wants to make sure that the leverage of the bank is not too high, so that the activities of the bank are not overly funded by debt positions.

This ratio is highly impacted by the reverse bank runs, because the bank capital that was optimized for a lower deposit base before the pandemic, is likely insufficient to guarantee a much larger asset base post-pandemic.

How are banks reacting?

There are essentially two ways to solve this problem: add extra capital or optimize the Asset side – shrink it and make sure you don’t get other reserves.

Adding extra capital would be seamless to the depositors, but it’s not easy to ask your shareholders to put extra capital in a banking venture that is extremely cyclical, on the verge of a global recession caused by the pandemic. Therefore, the only feasible alternative for many banks is balance sheet optimisation, which concretely means stopping the creation of new accounts (as Goldman Sachs did in the UK with Marcus’ accounts) or, even more radically, disincentivizing extra deposits.

In the end, banks don’t want people’s money anymore, at least for now. What a time to be alive.


Resources

The backbone of cross border transactions: correspondent banking

A few weeks ago, while preparing my 10k analysis for Adyen, I came across a very interesting McKinsey report on Payments and stumbled into the following table on cross-border transfer flows and revenues:   

What really surprised me, even more than the huge revenue chuck of the B2B segment, was the disproportion between consumer and business segments and, at the same time, the opposite trend in startups. Here is why, I thought, I see so many startups trying to build in the C2C payments space, even though in B2B there is a 5x bigger opportunity. Trying to get to the bottom of this, I started investigating, together with some fellow guilders of the Fintech Product guild, on the fundamental piece of infrastructure that powers these transactions: correspondent banking.

The goal of this post is to go through the process of sending money through correspondent banking corridors and to look at how new technologies might change it all.

What is correspondent banking?

Correspondent banking is defined as “an arrangement under which one bank (correspondent) holds deposits owned by other banks (respondents) and provides payment and other services to them. 

In order to fully get the concept and the implications of this banking model, it is very useful to contextualize it in the wider bank transfer ecosystem.

Sending money through your bank to somebody else is a fairly standardized process nowadays: based on the recipient destination you might have to fill in in your app few or less fields – but ultimately the complexity is totally abstracted away from the bank user. In reality, sending money to somebody with an account in your bank or in your country (economic area) or in the rest of the world, it’s a very different process.

If your recipient is in your bank – the money will be transferred in a matter of seconds, it’s just a change in the liability side for your bank.

If your recipient is in your same country or economic area – the transfer will take some more time but it will essentially be guaranteed by a ‘national’ payment scheme (SEPA).

If your recipient is in another part of the world, things get trickier: unless there is a specific agreement between your bank and the recipient bank, there is no common scheme that is connecting them, because a common global scheme that connects all the banks in the world doesn’t really exist. To send your money to your destination, your bank will have to be part of a global network that regulates correspondent banking (the SWIFT network) and a correspondent bank will have to act as an intermediary.

As shown in my example, It is possible that more than one correspondent bank will be necessary to get to the destination, but due to the hierarchical structure of the SWIFT network, the delivery of the payment to the counterpart is essentially guaranteed.

PS: Just to be clear, the financial mechanics of this transaction are more complex than a simple money transfer, because the correspondent bank will also provide currency exchange service, thus it will have to hedge the currency transaction in some form, but this complexity is external to the pure corresponding banking process and thus I will not explore it in this post.

SWIFT, the most critical telecommunication company in the world

As briefly anticipated above, the core of the correspondent banking model is represented by SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication.

SWIFT was created in the 1970s by a consortium of banks, that still owns the company, to facilitate cross-border banking interactions. Since the 70s, SWIFT has been the essential monopolist in cross-border payment infrastructure.

As suggested by the name, SWIFT is a telecommunication company that supports financial applications: it essentially delivers billions of messages every year to make the cross-border monetary flow happen. An important thing to note is that SWIFT is a pure telecommunication company: it can deliver your messages to anyone fast and securely, however, it doesn’t provide the legal framework for settlement that banks often establish on 121 basis. 

The volume of transactions processed is staggering:

SWIFT Annual Review 2019

The data around the monetary volumes of these transactions is not clearly presented but numerous sources reports around multiple hundreds of $ trillion per day.

Going back to the example presented above, how does SWIFT concretely work to move money?

SWIFT doesn’t physically move money, and the transactions are not settled at SWIFT level or on SWIFT balance sheet. SWIFT is a telecommunication company that propagates messages containing financial transactions’ details between origination and destination. This is done essentially through two methods: serial or cover.

The Serial method is simply a chain of single transactions between each bank in the chain with each bank having an account at the other bank. The payment information and the settlement instruction travel together in the MT 103 message (the most common SWIFT standard).

Correspondent banking – Serial method [Source: BIS]

The Cover method decouples the settlement from the payment information. On one side, the MT 103 with the payment information is sent directly through the SWIFT network from the originating bank to the receiving bank; whereas the settlement instruction (the cover payment) is sent via intermediary banks through the path of direct correspondent banking relationships – through an MT 202 message.

Correspondent banking – Cover method [Source: BIS]

The cover method is theoretically cheaper, because banks do not take any additional fees from processing an MT 202 message, while they do it for an MT 103. In reality there are other cost elements involved in the equation to be factored in.

The cover method is also faster because the destination bank is aware of the incoming message and can investigate if the payment is stuck somewhere upstream, something that isn’t possible for the serial method, where the destination bank becomes aware of incoming transactions only when they are at destination.  

The next step in correspondent banking 

Over the last decades multiple attempts of disintermediating have taken place: multiple players have attacked one by one multiple use cases that were once served by SWIFT, but the Brussels-based consortium remains the core infrastructure of the vast majority of the cross-border payment volumes.

The latest attack is mainly coming from Ripple, a company that built a blockchain based technology which claims to be cheaper and more efficient than SWIFT. 

Due to the nature of the problem, I believe that blockchain technology can be extremely promising in the B2B cross border space, but due to various reasons, network effect being the first one, so far nobody has not cracked the SWIFT domination.

Anyhow, the future of SWIFT and correspondent banking is a very fascinating but also very articulated topic and it definitely deserves a stand-alone post. Stay tuned.

Thanks to my friend (and former SWIFT employee) Alex Eliseev for his kind and extremely valuable review of this post.


Resources

Shopify, e-commerce eats finance

The last session of the Fintech Product Guild `10k-a-month club` was centered around one the most interesting companies in circulation: Shopify.

Shopify was established with the goal of making e-commerce very simple for anybody: the company provides a set of tools to bootstrap an online shop and essentially remove a lot of technical hurdles from the setup of an e-commerce, letting entrepreneurs focus on the commercial side of the venture.

Recently, they started adding a comprehensive set of financial features to their product, embodying the paradigm of embedded finance that I already touched in one of my previous posts.

The goal of this post is to deep-dive into these features and analyse their strategic impact.

Financials analysis

Income statement

Shopify grew massively in the last 12 months, reaching over 1 million merchants on the platform and a GMV (Gross Merchandise Volume) of more than $60bn. 

This is obviously an insane number, but it’s still less than a third of what Amazon generates through its Marketplace business, and less than 20% of Amazon’s entire GMV .

Shopify vs Amazon GMV – Source: MarketplacePulse

That GMV translates into $ 1.5 B revenues split between subscription and merchant solutions.

The subscription product is essentially the access to the e-commerce platform and was crucial to jumpstart the company, but the merchant solution is where the company is investing more and where they probably expect to build a moat.

Shopify Income Statement common size analysis

Merchant solutions now accounts for 59% of Shopify’s revenues, and counting. This line includes a constellation of extra services that support the merchant in many non-commercial activities, such as:

  • Shopify Payments 
  • Shopify Shipping and Fulfillment
  • Shopify Capital

Balance Sheet

Shopify’s balance sheet is really a fortress with minimal leverage and a lot of cash available.

Shopify Balance Sheet common size analysis

Statement of Cash Flows

Shopify’s statement of Cash flows is very insightful, as it really shows a company in its growth phase: the financing flow started to go down but is still very strong, the operating flow starts to take off and the investing one is diminishing but still deeply negative.

Shopify statement of cash flow, in the company-stage SCF curve

Leveraging the platform: embedding finance

The last Shopify Reunite saw a number of announcements with Money and Financial features at the centre of the stage. Many of their products pose a direct threat to many incumbents and pure Fintech startups:

FeatureThreat to:
Shopify balance: A business banking account and loans for merchants. No fees or minimum balances. This will include a Shopify customized virtual and/or physical debit card and cash-back cardsRetail banks, neobanks for SME. Any new e-commerce will probably use either Shopify or Amazon. They will easily be acquired also on the banking side.
Shopify Capital: The company expanded their lending infrastructure. Lent $1 billion to merchants so far, in ticket sizes ranging from $200 to $1 million.Retail banks, SME lenders.
See above, only for lending (with better underwriting opportunities).

They also announced some customer-facing features that want to rival with more customer facing brands:

  • Installment payments via Shop Pay, with the option for users to break purchases into 4 even payments at 0% interest.
  • Shop App: Less fintech and more Amazon competitor, with better merchant features and 16 million users so far.

To be honest, I’m very skeptical about this consumer-facing twist: first, building a consumer brand that rivals Amazon or even Facebook is extremely complex and defocusing for a platform company; second, and more important, this also introduces a mismatch of incentives between Shopify and its customer base: the merchants. 

One of the perceived value of Shopify over Amazon, is the fact that Shopify is considered a tech partner that doesn’t want to screw you up because it doesn’t consider your margin its opportunity. This partnership narrative may be at risk in a more prominent D2C role.

Looking ahead

Shopify is an extremely solid company, with a great outlook for the future. They are placing themselves at the center of the future of commerce, providing a comprehensive infrastructure that makes the life of the merchants much easier, and let the company focus on serving customers better and with minimal financial and logistic hussle.

Their focus on financial features is the nth signal that embedded finance is a key trend that also other platforms are embracing (see Amazon partnership with Goldman Sachs). 

In this world, incumbents and pure fintech startups have to find a way to clearly define themselves, but I’ve already tackled this point 🙂 .


Resources

The banking system, a giant settlement infrastructure

A few weeks ago I noticed a tweet from one of the most interesting accounts I follow on Twitter, that of Holger Zschaepitz

As I didn’t fully understand the impact of the fact highlighted in the tweet, I decided to research more into Target2 balances and generally on how the banking system works, ultimately as a giant settlement system.

This post is the product of my investigation and aims to give a clear explanation of the journey an interbank payment goes through in its lifecycle.

Central banks as a settlement infrastructure

Even though today we see banks as huge organisations, diversified into a number of business lines and products, one of the original and key functions of a bank is to enable fluid payments between agents (companies and people).

This somewhat low-profile function actually shapes a lot of the bank’s activities and behaviours.

Let’s use a simple example of domestic payments: a customer A  who wants to pay a firm B in the same country.

During the day the National Central Bank will simply log the payments flow and facilitate the exchange of money (Intraday credit). At the end of the day, Bank A and Bank B will have a net position with the NCB. Assuming, for simplicity, that there was only one payment that day, A will have a liability with the NCB (A owes money to the NCB) and B will have a claim (NCB owes money to the Bank B). At that point A will have to settle its liability, either paying directly with its reserves or borrowing money in the money market (Settlement of credit).

The following day the game starts again, in the same way.

The type of settlement previously described is net and not in real time:

  • Net: transactions are aggregated over a certain time window and only the net value is settled
  • Not in real time: the settlement is done once a day, not as soon as the transaction happens

Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS)

Over the last decades a new type of settlement infrastructure has become the standard in banking: Real Time Gross Settlement.

This new system essentially settles transactions immediately and at a gross level: every transaction is settled on a one-by-one basis as it reaches the platform, so there is no end-of-day net to settle.

Some famous examples of RTGS are Fedwire in the US, CHAPS in the UK and, the object of my investigation, Target2 in the Eurozone.

Trans-European Automated Real-time Gross Settlement Express Transfer System (or Target2) is a payment system that enables the speedy and final settlement of national and cross-border payments in central bank money. 

An average of around 350,000 payments with a value of about € 1.7 trillion is processed using Target2 each working day. In one year, TARGET2 settles about 90 million payments with a value of about € 430 trillion.

What is a Target 2 balance?

Going back to the tweet, I couldn’t really understand why a real time settlement scheme has balances: if any agent always settles real time its claims, why is the concept of balance even present?

The devil is always in the details and, even though Target2 is a European centralized RTGS, legally speaking, it is made up of multiple component systems operated by the national central banks (NCBs) and the European Central Bank (ECB). And the real time settlement is widely applied to the agents of the system but not to anybody, in particular NCBs don’t really settle their liabilities and claims with the ECB.

Let’s use another concrete example: let’s say an Italian customer wants to pay a firm in Germany.

In this system every agent settles real time except for the National Central Bank claims and liabilities that stay unsettled: those unsettled claims and liabilities are called Target2 Balances.

Therefore, Target2 balances are cumulated cross-border transactions, executed through the Target2 system and facilitated by the ECB, that provided liquidity to the National Central Banks to make those transactions happen, but not settled yet.

This is the latest update of the Target balances:

The reason behind this huge imbalance between core and periphery of the Eurozone is a very long and complex discussion that would easily end up in politics so outside the remit to my investigation. 

Wrapping up

Finally, this analysis really revealed how central is the payment function to the banking system and how the omni-present principles of elasticity and disciplines are ingrained at every level of the payment infrastructure. Interestingly, in my opinion this is something that applies to any type of monetary system, including that of cryptocurrency, as I discussed in my previous post on Bitcoin and the hierarchy of prices.


Resources

Settlement systems:

Target 2 imbalances:

Fintech 2.0, how to survive when your product becomes a feature

The most important narrative in the fintech ecosystem nowadays is arguably that of fintech-everywhere, more formally known as embedded finance.

The essence of the embedded finance concept is that, over the next few years, a significant part of the consumer financial services available today will not be distributed anymore by financial institutions; they will instead be natively embedded in other non-financial products and simply become an extra feature to the product. In other words, financial services will become features of other macro-products. To give an example, Uber may offer a checking account or a credit card to its drivers who, consequently, may not need a Barclays account anymore.

A lot has been written on the topic and you can find some useful links in the Resources at the end of the post. In this post, I want to reflect on where fintech consumer startups will sit in this new world, and what is a viable strategy for them when their products are being transformed in a feature.

The new unbundling: embedded finance

Gentlemen, there’s only two ways I know of to make money: bundling and unbundling.

Jim Barksdale

The current fintech ecosystem was born in the last decade through the unbundling of the financial industry: every startup focused on one specific problem and solved it orders of magnitude better than existing institutions, mainly banks, would.

ING-DiBa, N26, revolut: fairly good incumbents and FinTech re ...

At the end of this first round, some clear winners emerged in each vertical: N26, Monzo, Revolut, Transferwise, Lending Club, Funding Circle, SoFi, Robinhood.

Over the last few years a different process, of rebundling, took place: many startups started to rebundle other financial products on top of the original core proposition, mainly attracted by easier upselling and revenues expansion. Neobanks like N26 or Monzo added lending products, a lender like SoFi added a savings account, Revolut expanded to trading, and so on.

The recent embedded finance trend looks to me like a new iteration of the eternal bundling and unbundling cycle. This time financial services are not unbundled by a new or younger financial institution, but rather decomposed into atomised features that are added to existing products by large consumer brands and technology giants.

How to survive when fintech is everywhere

Most of the fintech startups who succeeded so far did it essentially by using the same recipe: building a better and more modern user experience on a new distribution channel (smartphones) for an extremely focused product. This has been the real value brought by most fintech unicorns.

In a world of embedded finance, a better native mobile UX won’t be enough for them to survive, simply because that UX won’t be the best in class anymore.

In a world where Uber offers a bank account natively integrated in the app to its drivers, a shiny banking app with a fantastic user experience will inevitably be less competitive because it adds friction to the overall user journey.

First, the user will have to switch apps and remember how to navigate that app, with an obvious additional cognitive load. Second, and even more important, Uber will definitely have more margin to offer competitive pricing than any fintech startup, because the acquisition cost of that bank account will be much lower than that of a startup and also because the financial feature can be used as a loss/leader to subsidise the core product.

In this new world, I believe there are 2 possible moves for most of the existing fintech consumer companies:

  • Move down the stack – become an infrastructure provider
  • Move up the stack – become an aggregator

Move down the stack: Infrastructure provider

The financial infrastructure wave is exploding at the moment. “We are building a new piece of financial infrastructure” or “We are the Stripe of X” is the new “We are the Uber of Y”, and definitely one of the most powerful pitches to raise funds today.

In this scenario, startups will have to move down the stack, building a B2B product that will allow consumer facing brands to offer financial products with a trivial integration and with minimal resources. They would essentially expand the Stripe or Adyen model to other categories (more here on Adyen).

The assumption here is that essentially anybody who has a direct relation with the user will monetise also through a financial product, but won’t change its core business to refocus on finance. They will use a payment-as-a-service or banking-as-a-service provider to power these financial features (more here).

In this hypothesis, a plethora of B2B fintech companies will battle to enable the creation of financial services for more customer facing brands.

I believe this is the way forward for extremely specialised, mono-feature companies with low-frequency interactions product: firstly challenger lenders like Lending Club or Funding circle, or even an hyper focused product like Transferwise.

In low frequency interaction products, it will be very hard to compete with companies that interact with users on a daily basis, so they will probably have more chance of growth switching to become full stack service providers for more customer facing products.

They will have the experience in vertical (lending, cross-border money transfer, etc..), they are modern enough to be API first and they are young enough to adapt to mutated market conditions.

Move up the stack: Aggregator

For more customer-facing startups it will be extremely hard to battle only with the current approach, but I believe they can reposition themselves upper in the stack.

If people will directly take loans or create accounts through other large consumer products, then an emerging need will arise for the re-aggregation of these constellations of accounts and products under one single umbrella. Somebody will necessarily become the single financial touchpoint of the user: the aggregator of a fragmented experience.

To win this aggregator role, it would be essential to actually provide an extra value to the user, beyond the simple aggregation of multiple accounts: probably autonomous money and ecosystem creation will be crucial. A first flavour of this model is what Credit Karma started to build on Autonomous finance (more on CK vision on autonomous money here).

I imagine essentially all the neobanks will fall in these categories, as ultimately consumer businesses and for which a pivot to an infrastructure product would be technically, but even more, culturally, too complex.

Moving forward

The new shift in consumer behaviour is not very visible yet, but a number of new initiatives (Shopify ReUnite being only the most recent one) will only accelerate this trend. It is crucial for any company competing in the space to start moving down or up the stack now, as in a few years the first winners will start to emerge and it will probably be too late.


Resources

Bundling/Unbundling:

Embedded finance/Fintech everywhere:

Autonomous Finance

Adyen, payments made easy

As my fellow Product Peon taught me a long time ago, the best way to learn quickly how a specific company works, is to analyse its 10k. For this reason, in the Fintech Product Guild, we decided to start a ’10k-a-month’ club. This month we analyzed Adyen, a payment company.

What does Adyen do?

Adyen was founded around 15 years ago to facilitate the adoption for merchants of electronic payments. At that time, the payment chain was extremely fragmented with multiple players coordinating different pieces of the chain: gateway, processing, risk management, acquiring (more on the evolution of the payment industry here). Adyen approached the problem from a different perspective: they built a merchant centric product, a payment-as-a-service infrastructure which essentially made the process of accepting a payment much easier for their merchants.

The venture went very well, they secured a lot of fundings and went public in 2018. Today Adyen is a public company which offers a payment platform to support the growth of its merchant through various ways:

  • a wide range of payment methods accepted
  • quick plug and play scalability in new countries
  • user-centric checkout solutions to improve merchant conversion rates
  • fraud prevention

Financials analysis

Income statement

Over the last 3 years Adyen saw a sustained growth, with its total payment volume growing 1.5x from from 2017 to 2019 that directly transacted into a 2.5x growth of the net revenues.

Adyen total payment volume and net revenues

Their revenue model is based on four elements:

  • Settlement fee: % of the value for acquiring services (to be netted of interchange fees)
  • Processing fee: fixed fees (10 € cents) paid when a transaction is initiated via the Adyen payment platform
  • Sales of POS (Point of Sales)
  • Other services: exchange service fees, 3rd party commision

From a gross revenue perspective, the settlement pillar appears as the dominant component of their business, with a contribution of more than 85% to the total revenues.

Adyen revenues split

Anyhoo, the situation looks different when we consider the net revenues component.

Adyen revenues split with common size analysis over net revenues

In reality, considering their holistic approach to payments, it is obvious how each component of their product self reinforce the others: they offer a single package which aims at solving every problem of the payment cycle and each business line should be analysed with these lenses – losing a few millions on the POS business is a no brainer, when this will lock in the merchant and guarantee extra Billions of € of transactions on the platform.

Adyen income statement with common size analysis (over net revenues)

Overall, they show a pretty solid growth of revenues and a very strong operating margin (over net revenues), which sits around 51%. This is a very healthy margin, especially when compared to other competitors in the space.

Main payment providers operating margin

Adyen’s growth over the last years has been impressive, but this must be contextualized in a favorable trend for the entire payment industry. The revenues of the global industry more than doubled in the last decade and the expectation, based on McKinsey Global Payment Report, is that they will grow even further in the next 3 years.

In this already positive wider environment, Adyen benefitted even more from the shift away from cash towards electronic payments – with a total number of non-cash transactions almost doubling in the last 5 years.

Balance sheet

The biggest insight deducible from the BS is that, not surprisingly, payments is such a liquid business! 67% of Adyen assets are in cash or cash equivalents, and 19% are Receivables for a total 86% of current assets.

Adyen balance sheet with common size analysis

Looking at the common size analysis, the sheet shows a strong continuity with the previous year. Most of the items didn’t significantly change from 2018, with a clear organic expansion of the BS.

Statement of Cash Flows

The SCF is in line with the growth story told by the Income Statement and Balance Sheet. Adyen presents a positive operating cash flow which grew steadily in parallel with the net profit, with minimal net financing and investing flows.

If we abstract that trend and represent it in the typical cash flow curve, we identify a company in its late growth/maturity phase: a company which is producing strong operating cash flow, it’s not highly negative on investing anymore but it is also not distributing back to investors yet.

Looking ahead

Adyen’s financials describe a company in great shape and ready to scale its business further very quickly. Even though it is playing in a crowded industry, the Dutch company is in perfect position to become the go-to payment platform in particular for enterprise customers who want a modern, digital-first payment infrastructure – less so for SMEs who would probably look at more self-serve platforms like Stripe.

The recent pandemic will probably only accelerate their growth, due to the obvious shift to digital products of many users, a segment where Adyen is much better positioned than many incumbents in the space.

Overall, Adyen is definitely a solid company with a very scalable business model and a promising future.


Resources

Adyen:

Payment industry maps:

Pricing:

Bitcoin and the hierarchy of money

Over this quarantine, I’ve decided to invest some time in a renowned Coursera course on Banking. The course is great and one of the core concepts of the class is the Hierarchy of Money. Being myself very interested in cryptocurrency, I’d like to explore in this post where Bitcoin sits in this hierarchy.

First of all, what is the hierarchy of money?

Even though every dollar looks the same, not every dollar has the same value. To fully understand this we have to first clarify a core concept: every dollar is essentially a promise to pay from somebody, an IOU. The more this debtor is trustworthy, the more your dollar has value.

Thus the hierarchy of money can be thought of as a multi-tiered pyramid where the tiers represent IOUs (promises) with differing degrees of acceptability.

Considering the Balance sheet of the institutions involved, the underlying pattern is fairly straightforward: any entry in the system is ultimately a promise to pay from somebody else, except for the central bank reserves, that represent the single trustless element in the system.

This interconnected system creates a pyramid of money and institutions which differ both qualitatively and quantitatively.

It is usually possible to move from one layer to the other paying a discount (exchange rate, par rate, interest rate). Actually, in periods of boom, credit is perceived as valuable as dollars and this discount goes to zero. But during a crisis, the situation changes brutally, and it might be even impossible to move up in the hierarchy (if nobody wants to buy my credit, I can’t convert it in any more liquid form of money).

The international hierarchy of money | Download Scientific Diagram

A fundamental property of the hierarchical system is that, as currency demand goes up and down, supply can be adjusted elastically through these layers without losing a component of discipline (at the end of the day, you have to settle your obligations).

This is probably the most important feature of our monetary system: it allows us to manage the systemic fluctuation of the money market without constant crisis. This is not a trivial property because, as Allyn Young clearly explains in this paper, before the creation of the FED, the system was totally inelastic and systemic liquidity crises were ordinary.

Where does the Bitcoin sit?

Bitcoin is a crypto currency who runs on a decentralised ledger technology and which presents one core property: it is artificially scarce, a total number of bitcoin has been planned and no other Bitcoin will be issued in the future. This scarcity is widely considered by the BTC dogmatist as the ‘killer application’ of the product, the real competitive advantage over the concurrent monetary systems.

With these concepts in mind, a few hypotheses can be made on the position of BTC in the hierarchy.

Hypothesis 1 – bitcoin is not part of the monetary system, it is an asset

Bitcoin is not really an ultimate reserve of value, it is an asset. It is traded in the lower rank of the pyramid as any other security, but it doesn’t constitute the foundation of a new system.

In this scenario, BTC is not very different from other commodities: it can be seen as a safe haven, but it doesn’t ultimately represent a risk-free asset, its value depends on the market made around it.

Hypothesis 2 – bitcoin as the top of a new pyramid

This is what is mainly believed by Bitcoin dogmatists and activist investors. In this world BTC is essentially the ultimate safe haven, if there is a crisis anybody wants it because it is the most valuable asset, being at the top of a brand new monetary standard. This is a more fascinating scenario, but I believe it is very far from reality today.

Ignoring the obvious scalability issues (today around 7 transactions per seconds are guaranteed by the Bitcoin chain, orders of magnitude less than what would be needed in this eventual new world) if BTC has to become the cornerstone of a new monetary standard, this standard lacks probably the most important feature of any monetary systems: elasticity.

We find elasticity in every layer of the current monetary system: we find it in the intraday liquidity operations for settlement, we find it in the overnight repo market, we find it in the ultimate ability of a central bank to act as lender of last resort.

All the features mentioned above are very nice properties that allow the global monetary system to act as a giant settlement infrastructure, smoothly enabling transactions between agents. The same transactions wouldn’t eventually be all possible in a BTC monetary system, because that system has a cap in amount of currency available and if the demand would eventually exceed the supply, some transactions would necessarily be stopped, with consequent liquidity crises.

Conclusion

I believe that Bitcoin today is obviously an asset and it’s very hard to see it as the new foundation of a future monetary system, simply because there isn’t any system built around it: there isn’t a central bank which can introduce an elasticity component through credit and there aren’t transmission channels of this elasticity to the wider economy.

On the other side, there is a strong discipline embedded in the BTC design which I believe, if complemented with credit – the other crucial pillar of a sound monetary system – could represent a promising start for a new global monetary system that goes beyond the existing global dollar standard.