Tag Archives: financial innovation

Pimping the Peers (Part 1)

Fintech is a much hyped term currently that covers an array of new financial technologies. It includes technology providers of financial services, new payment technologies, mobile money and currencies like bitcoin, robo-advisers, crowd funding and peer to peer (P2P) lending. Blockchain is another technology that is being hyped with multiple potential uses. I posted briefly on the growth in P2P lending and crowd-funding before (here and here) and it’s the former that is primarily the focus of this post.

Citigroup recently released an interesting report on the digital disruption impact of fintech on banking which covers many of the topics above. The report claims that $19 billion has been invested in fintech firms in 2015, with the majority focussed in the payments area. In terms of the new entrants into the provision of credit space, the report highlights that over 70% of fintech investments to date have being in the personal and SME business segments.

In the US, Lending Club and Prosper are two of the oldest and more established firms in the marketplace lending sector with a focus on consumer lending. Although each are growing rapidly and have originated loans in the multiple of billions in 2015, the firms have been having a rough time of late with rates being increased to counter poor credit trends. Public firms have suffered from the overall negative sentiment on banks in this low/negative interest rate environment. Lending Club, which went public in late 2014, is down about 70% since then whilst Prosper went for institutional investment instead of an IPO last year. In fact, the P2P element of the model has been usurped as most of the investors are now institutional yield seekers such as hedge funds, insurers and increasingly traditional banks. JP Morgan invested heavily in another US firm called OnDeck, an online lending platform for small businesses, late in 2015. As a result, marketplace lending is now the preferred term for the P2P lenders as the “peer” element has faded.

Just like other disruptive models in the technology age, eBay and Airbnb are examples, initially these models promised a future different from the past, the so called democratization of technology impact, but have now started to resemble new technology enabled distribution platforms with capital provided by already established players in their sectors. Time and time again, digital disruption has eroded distribution costs across many industries. The graphic from the Citi report below on digital disruption impact of different industries is interesting.

click to enlargeDigital Disruption

Marketplace lending is still small relative to traditional banking and only accounts for less than 1% of loans outstanding in the UK and the US (and even in China where its growth has been the most impressive at approx 3% of retail loans). Despite its tiny size, as with any new financial innovation, concerns are ever-present about the consequences of change for traditional markets.

Prosper had to radically change its underwriting process after a shaky start. One of their executives is recently quoted as saying that they “will soon be on our sixth risk model”. Marrying new technology with quality credit underwriting expertise (ignoring the differing cultures of each discipline) is a key challenge for these fledging upstarts. An executive in Kreditech, a German start-up, claimed that they are “a tech company who happens to be doing lending”. Critics point to the development of the sector in a benign default environment with low interest rates where borrowers can easily refinance and the churning of loans is prevalent. Adair Turner, the ex FSA regulator, recently stirred up the new industry with the widely reported comment that “the losses which will emerge from peer-to-peer lending over the next five to 10 years will make the bankers look like lending geniuses”. A split of the 2014 loan portfolio of Lending Club in the Citi report as below illustrates the concern.

click to enlargeLending Club Loan By Type

Another executive from the US firm SoFi, focused on student loans, claims that the industry is well aware of the limitations that credit underwriting solely driven by technology imbues with the comment that “my daughter could come up with an underwriting model based upon which band you like and it would work fine right now”.  Some of the newer technology firms make grand claims involving superior analytics which, combined with technologies like behavioural economics and machine learning, they contend will be able to sniff out superior credit risks.

The real disruptive impact that may occur is that these newer technology driven firms will, as Antony Jenkins the former CEO of Barclays commented, “compel banks to significantly automate their business”. The Citigroup report has interesting statistics on the traditional banking model, as per the graphs below. 60% to 70% of employees in retail banking, the largest profit segment for European and US banks, are supposedly doing manual processing which can be replaced by automation.

click to enlargeBanking Sector Forecasts Citi GPS

Another factor driving the need to automate the banks is the cyber security weaknesses in patching multiple legacy systems together. According to the Citigroup report, “the US banks on average appear to be about 5 years behind Europe who are in turn about a decade behind Nordic banks”. Within Europe, it is interesting to look at the trends in bank employee figures in the largest markets, as per the graph below. France in particular looks to be out of step with other countries.

click to enlargeEuropean Bank Employees

Regulators are also starting to pay attention. Just this week, after a number of scams involving online lenders, the Chinese central bank has instigated a crack down and constituted a multi-agency task force. In the US, there could be a case heard by the Supreme Court which may create significant issues for many online lenders. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency recently issued a white paper to solicit industry views on how such new business models should be regulated. John Williams of the San Francisco Federal Reserve recently gave a speech at a recent marketplace lending conference which included the lucid point that “as a matter of principle, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it should be regulated like a duck”.

In the UK, regulators have taken a gentler approach whereby the new lending business models apply for Financial Conduct Authority authorisation under the 36H regulations, which are less stringent than the regimes which apply to more established activities, such as collective investment schemes. The FCA also launched “Project Innovate” last year where new businesses work together with the FCA on their products in a sandbox environment.

Back in 2013, I asked the question whether financial innovation always ended in lower risk premia in this post. In the reinsurance sector, the answer to that question is yes in relation to insurance linked securities (ILS) as this recent post on current pricing shows. It has occurred to me that the new collateralised ILS structures are not dissimilar in methodology to the 100% reserve banks, under the so-called Chicago plan, which economists such as Irving Fisher, Henry Simons and Milton Friedman proposed in the 1930s and 1940s. I have previously posted on my difficulty in understanding how the fully collaterised insurance model can possibly accept lower risk premia than the traditional “fractional” business models of traditional insurers (as per this post). The reduced costs of the ILS model or the uncorrelated diversification for investors cannot fully compensate for the higher capital required, in my view. I suspect that the reason is hiding behind a dilution of underwriting standards and/or leverage being used by investors to juice their returns. ILS capital is now estimated to make up 12% of overall reinsurance capital and its influence on pricing across the sector has been considerable. In Part 2 of this post, I will look into some of the newer marketplace insurance models being developed (it also needs a slick acronym – InsurTech).

Marketplace lending is based upon the same fully capitalized idea as ILS and 100% reserve banks. As can be seen by the Citigroup exhibits, there is plenty of room to compete with the existing banks on costs although nobody, not yet anyway, is claiming that such models have a lower cost of capital than the fractional reserve banks. It is important not to over exaggerate the impact of new models like marketplace lending on the banking sector given its current immaterial size. The impact of technology on distribution channels and on credit underwriting is likely to be of greater significance.

The indirect impact of financial innovation on underwriting standards prior to the crisis is a lesson that we must learn. To paraphrase an old underwriting adage, we should not let the sweet smell of shiny new technology distract us from the stink of risk, particularly where such risk involves irrational human behaviour. The now infamous IMF report in 2006 which stated that financial innovation had “increased the resilience of the financial system” cannot be forgotten.

I am currently reading a book called “Between Debt and the Devil” by the aforementioned Adair Turner where he argues that private credit creation, if left solely to the free market under our existing frameworks, will overfund secured lending on existing real estate (which my its nature is finite), creating unproductive volatility and financial instability as oversupply meets physical constraints. Turner’s book covers many of the same topics and themes as Martin Wolf’s book (see this post). Turner concludes that we need to embrace policies which actively encourage a less credit intensive economy.

It is interesting to see that the contribution of the financial sector has not reduced significantly since the crisis, as the graph on US GDP mix below illustrates. The financialization of modern society does not seem to have abated much since the crisis. Indeed, the contribution to the value of the S&P500 from the financials has not decreased materially since the crisis either (as can be seen in the graph in this post).

click to enlargeUS GDP Breakdown 1947 to 2014

Innovation which makes business more efficient is a feature of the creative destruction capitalist system which has increased productivity and wealth across generations. However, financial innovation which results in changes to the structure of markets, particularly concerning banking and credit creation, has to be carefully considered and monitored. John Kay in a recent FT piece articulated the dangers of our interconnected financial world elegantly, as follow:

Vertical chains of intermediation, which channel funds directly from savers to the uses of capital, can break without inflicting much collateral damage. When intermediation is predominantly horizontal, with intermediaries mostly trading with each other, any failure cascades through the system.

When trying to understand the potential impacts of innovations like new technology driven underwriting, I like to go back to an exhibit I created a few years ago trying to illustrate how  financial systems have been impacted at times of supposed innovation in the past.

click to enlargeQuote Money Train

Change is inevitable and advances in technology cannot, nor should they, be restrained. Human behaviour, unfortunately, doesn’t change all that much and therefore how technological advances in the financial sector could impact stability needs to be ever present in our thoughts. That is particularly important today where global economies face such transformational questions over the future of the credit creation and money.

Tails of VaR

In an opinion piece in the FT in 2008, Alan Greenspan stated that any risk model is “an abstraction from the full detail of the real world”. He talked about never being able to anticipate discontinuities in financial markets, unknown unknowns if you like. It is therefore depressing to see articles talk about the “VaR shock” that resulted in the Swissie from the decision of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) to lift the cap on its FX rate on the 15th of January (examples here from the Economist and here in the FTAlphaVille). If traders and banks are parameterising their models from periods of unrepresentative low volatility or from periods when artificial central bank caps are in place, then I worry that they are not even adequately considering known unknowns, let alone unknown unknowns. Have we learned nothing?

Of course, anybody with a brain knows (that excludes traders and bankers then!) of the weaknesses in the value-at-risk measure so beloved in modern risk management (see Nassim Taleb and Barry Schachter quotes from the mid 1990s on Quotes page). I tend to agree with David Einhorn when, in 2008, he compared the metric as being like “an airbag that works all the time, except when you have a car accident“.  A piece in the New York Times by Joe Nocera from 2009 is worth a read to remind oneself of the sad topic.

This brings me to the insurance sector. European insurance regulation is moving rapidly towards risk based capital with VaR and T-VaR at its heart. Solvency II calibrates capital at 99.5% VaR whilst the Swiss Solvency Test is at 99% T-VaR (which is approximately equal to 99.5%VaR). The specialty insurance and reinsurance sector is currently going through a frenzy of deals due to pricing and over-capitalisation pressures. The recently announced Partner/AXIS deal follows hot on the heels of XL/Catlin and RenRe/Platinum merger announcements. Indeed, it’s beginning to look like the closing hours of a swinger’s party with a grab for the bowl of keys! Despite the trend being unattractive to investors, it highlights the need to take out capacity and overhead expenses for the sector.

I have posted previously on the impact of reduced pricing on risk profiles, shifting and fattening distributions. The graphic below is the result of an exercise in trying to reflect where I think the market is going for some businesses in the market today. Taking previously published distributions (as per this post), I estimated a “base” profile (I prefer them with profits and losses left to right) of a phantom specialty re/insurer. To illustrate the impact of the current market conditions, I then fattened the tail to account for the dilution of terms and conditions (effectively reducing risk adjusted premia further without having a visible impact on profits in a low loss environment). I also added risks outside of the 99.5%VaR/99%T-VaR regulatory levels whilst increasing the profit profile to reflect an increase in risk appetite to reflect pressures to maintain target profits. This resulted in a decrease in expected profit of approx. 20% and an increase in the 99.5%VaR and 99.5%T-VaR of 45% and 50% respectively. The impact on ROEs (being expected profit divided by capital at 99.5%VaR or T-VaR) shows that a headline 15% can quickly deteriorate to a 7-8% due to loosening of T&Cs and the addition of some tail risk.

click to enlargeTails of VaR

For what it is worth, T-VaR (despite its shortfalls) is my preferred metric over VaR given its relative superior measurement of tail risk and the 99.5%T-VaR is where I would prefer to analyse firms to take account of accumulating downside risks.

The above exercise reflects where I suspect the market is headed through 2015 and into 2016 (more risky profiles, lower operating ROEs). As Solvency II will come in from 2016, introducing the deeply flawed VaR metric at this stage in the market may prove to be inappropriate timing, especially if too much reliance is placed upon VaR models by investors and regulators. The “full detail of the real world” today and in the future is where the focus of such stakeholders should be, with much less emphasis on what the models, calibrated on what came before, say.

Does financial innovation always end in reduced risk premia?

Quarterly reports from Willis Re and Aon Benfield highlight the impact on US catastrophe pricing from the new capital flowing into the insurance sector through insurance linked securities (ILS) and collaterised covers. Aon Benfield stated that “clients renewing significant capacity in the ILS market saw their risk adjusted pricing decrease by 25 to 70 percent for peak U.S. hurricane and earthquake exposed transactions” and that “if the financial management of severe catastrophe outcomes can be attained at multiple year terms well inside the cost of equity capital, then at the extreme, primary property growth in active zones could resume for companies previously restricting supply”.

This represents a worrying shift in the sector. Previously, ILS capacity was provided at rates at least equal to and often higher than that offered by the traditional market. The rationale for a higher price made sense as the cover provided was fully collaterized and offered insurers large slices of non-concentrated capacity on higher layers in their reinsurance programmes. The source of the shift is significant new capacity being provided by yield seeking investors lured in by uncorrelated returns. The Economist’s Buttonwood had an article recently entitled “Desperately seeking yield” highlighting that spreads on US investment grade corporate bonds have halved in the past 5 years to about 300bps currently. Buttonwood’s article included Bill Gross’s comment that “corporate credit and high-yield bonds are somewhat exuberantly and irrationally priced”. As a result, money managers are searching for asset classes with higher yields and, by magic, ILS offers a non-correlating asset class with superior yield.  Returns as per those from Eurekahedge on the artemis.bm website in the exhibit below highlight the attraction.

ILS Returns EurekahedgeSuch returns have been achieved on a limited capacity base with rationale CAT risk pricing. The influx of new capital means a larger base, now estimated at $35 billion of capacity up from approximately $5 billion in 2005, which is contributing to the downward risk pricing pressures under way. The impact is particularly been felt in US CAT risks as these are the exposures offering the highest rate on lines (ROL) globally and essential risks for any new ILS fund to own if returns in excess of 500 bps are to be achieved. The short term beneficiaries of the new capacity are firms like Citizens and Allstate who are getting collaterised cover at a reduced risk premium.

The irony in this situation is that these same money managers have in recent years shunned traditional wholesale insurers, including professional CAT focussed firms such as Montpelier Re, which traded at or below tangible book value. The increase in ILS capacity and the resulting reduction of risk premia will have a destabilising impact upon the risk diversification and therefore the risk profile of traditional insurers. Money managers, particularly pension funds, may have to pay for this new higher yielding uncorrelated asset class by taking a hit on their insurance equities down the road!

Financial innovation, yet again, may not result in an increase in the size of the pie, as originally envisaged, but rather mean more people chasing a smaller “mispriced” pie. Sound familiar? When thinking of the vast under-pricing of risk that the theoretical maths driven securitisation innovations led to in the mortgage market, the wise words of the Buffet come to mind – “If you have bad mortgages….they do not become better by repackaging them”. Hopefully the insurance sector will avoid those mistakes!