contact us

Use the form on the right to contact us.

Washington, DC
United States

(575) 737-8602

Jo Ann Barefoot explores how to create fair and inclusive consumer financial services through innovative ideas for industry and regulators

2012-01-05  New Mexico-031.jpg


Filtering by Tag: Video Series

Second Teaser to my New Video Series : The Five Tech Trends

Jo Ann Barefoot

Regulation Innovation / Briefing 1: The Five Tech Trends

The first thing to understand about fintech is that it is far more about “tech” than “fin.” Financial people tend to underestimate the size and speed of the coming change, simply because the forces driving it are mostly developing outside their field of vision -- in the technology world, not in finance. These massive innovations are essentially traveling through the financial realm, creating and altering financial products and channels in the process. Like all technology change, moreover, these shifts are global.

Their technology roots have many implications, including that regulatory responses will be shaped heavily by regulators other than the ones overseeing banking and finance.

The second thing to understand about these trends is that each is an enormous force in itself, but still looks deceptively small because the technologies are also converging. Most innovators are already leveraging several of them (which is one reason some fintech is radically breaking old molds). As they continue to merge, they will spark explosive change.

Regulation Innovation, accordingly, starts with examining the Five Tech Trends.

Trend 1: Big Data

Big data is the proliferating information being generated by our modern digitized lives. For consumers, it includes information gleaned about our buying habits, entertainment preferences, and social media activities. It also includes geolocation data gathered by location-aware devices like our phones and cars.

Another source is information gathered by the expanding use of cameras, large and small that use facial recognition technology. These can identify who and where we are and can assess our reaction to what we’re hearing or seeing – such as whether we frown or smile as we look at merchandise in a store. Here’s more on facial recognition.

Another enormous category is the burgeoning Internet of Things, or IOT – the interconnections between all the little computers embedded in devices surrounding us. These range from smart thermostats and baby monitors to electronic keys and cameras, to electronic scales and fitness trackers. We will soon have smart refrigerators and washing machines that automatically order resupplies when, say, the milk or detergent is running low. These devices have the ability to map intricate and voluminous data about our tastes, movements, associations and lifestyles.

In addition, government is contributing to the big data revolution by digitizing records. In finance, examples are the CFPB’s databases on consumer complaints and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. These have been designed to use “application program interface”, or API, capability, to make it easy for third parties to acquire and work with the data. While data like HMDA information is old, it can now be combined with other proliferating and detailed big data, boosting the power of all of it. The same trend is underway at all levels of government, from accessibility of property titles to records of birth, death, marriage and divorce. The Obama Administration views federal records as a national resource that should be available for public use to the extent consistent with protecting privacy. Such steps are creating explosive growth in the amounts and types of available data.

As discussed below, big data is driving toward financial inclusion by making it possible to know more about individual consumers and thereby fine-tune risk assessment and underwriting.

Still, big data is problematic simply because it’s so big. That brings us to the second trend.

Trend 2: Artificial Intelligence

Big data differs fundamentally from the information traditionally collected by financial companies. Unlike credit scores, verified customer information, or a bank’s own information on its customers, big data sources are massive and messy. Information is often inaccurate – it’s typically collected for reasons that don’t require accuracy at the individual level. Furthermore, the information is lodged in databases that don’t easily connect.

However, we are learning to put this new data to work through artificial intelligence, or AI. The terms“machine learning,” “deep learning,” and “neural networks” all refer to the ability of computers not only to amass and process information efficiently, but actually to learn -- to think. Today’s machines solve complex problems through rapid, powerful trial and error and pattern recognition. Some have the capacity to search, quickly, all the digitized information in the world (which, as noted above, is skyrocketing in volume).  Here is an excellent Wired Magazine article on how machine learning is changing our lives.

For example, we now have computers that not only can diagnose cancer by accurately reading radiology reports, but that have also noticed attributes of tissue outside the malignancies they were analyzing and pointed out important patterns that scientists had not even asked them to look for. In finance, an example is Goldman Sachs’ Kensho, which can answer thousands of complex “what if?” questions from investors and brokers, in simple text, in seconds (for instance, what would happen to homebuilding stocks if a category 5 hurricane hit the U.S. mainland?).

For a quick, fascinating look at AI, see these images of Google’s photo-search computers “dreaming.” After the engineers stopped feeding information to them, they continued to “think” about what they had “seen,” and this is what was on their minds….

The use of new data analysis in financial services raises complex public policy challenges. Again, these trends are a massive force driving toward more financial inclusion, because alternative data and analytics can assess the risk profiles of consumers who have thin or no credit files or complex credit situations. These applicants are typically rejected in today’s systems, but may in fact be creditworthy. In some ways, new technology offers a 21st century, high-tech version of the kind of traditional banking where the banker personally knows a customer well enough to make a sound loan despite problematic circumstances. That system works well on a small scale and for borrowers fortunate enough to have such a banking relationship -- which, of course, many people do not. More data and better data analysis can open up a semblance of such nuanced evaluation on a larger scale.

On the other hand, regulators of course worry about new models that have not yet been tested through an economic downturn, especially given the failure of credit risk modeling in the financial crisis. Policymakers also have concerns about fair lending issues arising from new data uses, including disparate impact risk. In addition, new collection and uses of data raise concerns about privacy and cybersecurity.

Most banks do not yet employ these techniques, partly due to the regulatory uncertainties around them. However, many fintech companies do. As new data methods become refined, they may tend to give a competitive edge to innovators using them over companies that don’t, simply by enabling more sound and profitable lending decisions. For community banks seeking to grow, alternative data could make broader markets reachable. We may also reach a point where financial companies will be penalized for not using big data analytics, if it in fact proves to be both highly inclusive and predictive. Future videos and briefings will explore all these issues at the intersection of regulation and innovation.

 AI carries profound questions for the future. Many dramatic predictions about it have not yet proven out, but it seems clear that big change is coming and accelerating, and could profoundly change the human experience. One scenario is depicted in the movie Her, about a human-like, voice-only operating system -- with its startling final plot twist. This year Microsoft withdrew a new AI-basedchatbot (talk robot) named Tay after one day, because she had “learned” abhorrent views through her online conversations. People also worry about (or hope for) the evolution of trans-human technology like enhanced eyesight (watch for author Brett King’s upcoming book, Augmented). The growth of AI could reach a point that Vernor Vinge in 1993 called the singularity, in which computers with superhuman intelligence could create change as significant as the rise of human life itself. Ray Kurzweil, who received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1999, has written The Singularity Is Near, predicting that humans will eventually transcend the limitations imposed by our physical bodies and brains.

Here is one of my favorite Ted Talks, by Jeremy Howard, on “the wonderful and terrible implications of computers that can learn.” He shows how computers can “see” and “listen;” can learn to recognize pictures and words; can “write;” and can collaborate with humans. He gives insights into how Google search can find information for us so instantly and accurately. He also addresses the daunting implications of all this for society. It’s my top background link for this briefing.

Natural Voice Technology

I believe voice technology will close the last mile of financial access for millions of people who have difficulty using today’s standard product forms and channels. Many people don’t understand (or are frankly bored by) financial information as normally presented. Voice tools can change that.

We already have sophisticated voice technology. Products like Dragon Dictation can instantly translate voice to text and vice versa, while other tools can translate one language to another, even mimicking the voice of each speaker. If you didn’t watch the Jeremy Howard TedTalk above, watch it now. At about 4:30, he demonstrates machine learning translating his own talk into Chinese. And watch this wonderful demonstration of schoolchildren using Microsoft Translator to communicate.

Many of us already use Siri, Apple’s voice assistant on our IPhones, to dial phone calls, make restaurant reservations, report the weather, or set up reminders and shopping lists. You can ask Siri fact questions. If you ask, “who is Bill Gates?” she’ll send a Wikipedia article to your phone and ask if you want her to read it to you. You can say, “Find pictures of polar bears,” and she’ll find them.

The same is true of Microsoft’s Cortana. I was in a hotel room last fall and she suddenly activated on my laptop. I said, “Cortana, what are you doing?” She said, “I’m working out the mechanics of a virtual fist bump.”

Here’s a blog post I wrote about my wonky week of getting Cortana, Google Photo, and an Apple Watch all within a few days, and being amazed as they all began doing things for me, often at their own initiative (technology taking the initiative is another theme we’ll explore, as is fintech’s playful use of humor). It was especially impressive that they sometimes cooperated – even though they come from three different companies.

And now, we have the Echo – Alexa -- Amazon’s new voice-only personal assistant. As I write this, she is sitting on my kitchen island where she does things like reports the weather, adjusts the lights or thermostat, and reads me the news. I’m going to say, now, “Alexa, tell me a joke.”

Here’s her answer: “What did one flag say to the other? Nothing, it just waved.”

An important thing about Alexa is that it has no way to interface with us, except voice. There’s no keyboard, no screen to touch. This Wired Magazine article is thought-provoking about the importance of this. It discusses the potential for voice interface to mirror the power that Steve Jobs recognized when he first saw the graphical user interface, or GUI, and knew that touchscreens would be the future of computers. The article predicts that the voice interface will bring technology to millions of people currently at or outside the margins of access (including the twenty million people in the U.S. who cannot see).

Importantly, voice technology “unlayers” information and brings it instantly to the top. Suppose you need your bank routing number. Instead of looking it up, you can have your voice assistant simply read it to you. Alexa is new, but Capital One has already created a banking app for it.

For a mindboggling demonstration of what voice interaction can already do, watch this demonstration of Soundhound’s Hound (be sure to stay for the financial questions near the end).

The power of voice will magnify as it converges with big data, AI and, as discussed below in Trend 5, mobile. It will put a personalized, smart, interactive, helpful financial coach, equipped with a supercomputer, in all of our phones.

Trend 4: Digital Currency and Blockchain

The blockchain was created by the anonymous inventor of Bitcoin. Also called “distributed ledger technology,” or DLT, it is a record of a chain of transactions, posted on the internet in a manner that’s transparent, unbreakable, and unfakeable. Because it’s on the internet, the information moves almost instantly and at nearly no cost.

The initial driver for its creation was a desire to make Bitcoin an alternative currency. Given Bitcoin’s colorful early scandals involving drug trafficking and fraud, the mainstream financial world originally tended to dismiss it. However, the ingenious design of the distributed ledger is now inspiring a profusion of innovation aimed at using it to transform many systems and to change our lives.

Given its roots in Bitcoin, blockchain technology has focused initially on changing finance. Innovators are applying it to models that range from being a “currency” -- “digital currency” or “crypto-currency” -- to an investment, to a new or enhanced payments infrastructure. Hundreds of innovators are putting it to use in payments -- seeking to wring nearly all the expense and delay out of them and essentially do for money what the internet did for information by making it instant, free, and shareable with anyone. (We’ll discuss some of these emerging models in the next briefing, Meet the Innovators.)

In addition, central banks in the U.S. and throughout the world are exploring the possible benefits, and risks, of creating government-issued digital currency. Governments and payments clearinghouse systems are also evaluating ways to streamline and accelerate central payments systems.

Beyond finance, blockchain solutions for other use cases arise almost daily – thousands of companies are working on them. These include recording legal titles and contracts, redesigning stock markets, and organizing complex flows of operations to strip out complexity, cost and delay from activities like large bank information and processing systems.

The U.K. Office for Science has produced an especially interesting report on the potential for distributed ledgers and the regulatory opportunities and issues arising from them. It begins by saying:

The progress of mankind is marked by the rise of new technologies and the human ingenuity they unlock…(We may be) witnessing one of those potential explosions of creative potential that catalyse exceptional levels of innovation. The technology could prove to have the capacity to deliver a new kind of trust to a wide range of services. As we have seen open data revolutionise the citizen’s relationship with the state, so may the visibility in these technologies reform our financial markets, supply chains, consumer and business-to-business services, and publicly-held registers.

The same report says, “(Distributed ledger technologies) have the potential to disrupt the whole economy, and society.”


The report’s reference to trust is critical, as blockchains make it possible to engage confidently in transactions with people we don’t know, without the help of mutually trusted intermediaries and without traditional contracts. The trust is built, efficiently, into the technology itself.

The blockchain is yet another technology that drives toward financial inclusion. Digital financial access is rising worldwide, especially in the developing world where (as discussed below) cell phones will soon be ubiquitous. The low cost of executing financial transactions on the internet is likely to disrupt the remittance industry. This efficiency, combined with the fact that digital currencies are almost infinitely divisible, will also make it economically viable to process micro-payments. People will be able to send and receive a few cents, opening up enterprise in the developing world and generating whole new business models everywhere.

In addition, real-time settlement of financial transactions can remove one of the factors that drives consumers into high-priced cash and payday lending services, namely the inability, today, to know when a check or electronic payment will clear.

Here is my blog post on the consumer benefits of Bitcoin.

This area, like the others, will raise enormous regulatory challenges that we’ll explore in later briefings.

Trend 5: Online & Mobile

Financial services have been online for years – a majority of banking is now done there. What’s new, today, is the successful advent of innovative business models delivering services entirely or mostly online, capturing enormous efficiencies compared with traditional branch-based infrastructure. Many also use very sophisticated data analytics and offer a markedly superior online user experience, or UX -- typically because they’ve been designed by technology people, rather than financial people. Some of these companies hope to change finance in the same way Amazon changed bookstores and retailing.

Among the online players, there is particular interest in “marketplace” lending (formerly called peer-to-peer lending) that matches borrowers and investors online. We’ll explore more about this in the next briefing on “Meet the Innovators.”

Even more innovative than online services, though, is mobile technology – it may, in fact, be the most revolutionary of all the five trends.

Financial people tend to think of mobile as being about payments, but finance is a tiny fraction of the change underway. We are seeing a fundamental reshaping of how we live, a shift potentially on the scale of the invention of money itself, or agriculture, or electricity or the internal combustion engine.

The smart phone has become a layer, an interface, between the individual and nearly everything in the world. It mediates what comes in to us, and what goes out. It is reshaping communication, relationships, social norms, information, education, entertainment, work, commerce, shopping, buying, selling, creativity, health and fitness, time-management and nearly everything else. People use the phone for self-expression, to share music, to share humor. They use it to seek advice. They use it to compare prices. They use it to track calories and monitor exercise. There is almost no realm of human life not being altered by it – people even use it to guide prayer. When the phone is converted to a watch or other wearable, it takes on additional capabilities.

This has huge implication for finance. One is mobile payments -- a topic we’ll explore extensively in the series. Beyond that, the phone will leverage all the five technology trends to become a single, powerful financial tool. It will consolidate all our financial information in one place; use that automatically and painlessly to build budgets; organize and handle payments; use behavioral economics to nudge us toward goals and away from financially damaging temptation; enable effortless saving and reinforce it by entertaining us with amusing text messages; block out dangerous products; and become our financial coach – eventually by voice.

Again, all the new technologies are converging in the phone. Since it knows where we are, it can alert us as we walk toward Starbucks if our budget can’t afford a latte today. It can remind a hurried mom with fidgety children to hold spending at the grocery story to hold to the $75 she can afford. If we overspend, it can recalculate and help us monitor a reduced daily budget. It can find the best choice of a credit card or car loan or mortgage and explain why. It also take the initiative to help – for instance, offering to talk about a retirement plan, for someone who doesn’t know how to start or where to turn.

It will also address the widespread failure of financial literacy education. Josh Reich, founder of Simple, points that when the automobile was invented, people couldn’t drive without understanding how it worked. Then we got automatic transmissions, and now most people can operate a car with no idea of what’s under the hood. (And now we’re even going to have driverless cars). Finance will go through the same transformation. After a century of U.S. federal policy fostering “financial literacy,” only a tiny percentage of people understand finance. Today’s technology, though, can help people build healthy financial lives without sophisticated knowledge, by using tools that deliver helpful information, right when it’s needed. The phone education can be customized, and can be made interesting and even enjoyable.

Smart phones will also put financial comparison tools in everyone’s pockets. These have already emerged, but big data and AI will massively enhance them and build them conveniently into the phone, synthesizing fast-growing data on consumer reviews and complaint scores, as with Yelp, Open Table or Trip Advisor. (Amazon already lets customers rate its credit card on the product page, just like a TV or a pair of socks.)

Even more profoundly, the financial coach in the phone can eventually flat-out prevent poor decisions by screening out products with hidden adverse terms, whether the person fully understands them, or not. This mimics the medical concept of a “smart membrane,” letting in the good and blocking out the bad.

Think about it this way: the new technology means that businesses will know everything about us, and we will also know everything about them.

Most importantly, cell phones are the most democratizing force in the history of finance. They can deliver services to almost everyone, everywhere, at very low cost. In the United States, they are disproportionately highly used by lower-income and minority consumers, including for financial tasks (partly because many of these households never adopted more expensive PC-based banking.) A 2015 Federal Reserve study found:

Mobile phones are prevalent among unbanked and underbanked consumers. —The share of consumers who are unbanked is 13 percent, and the share who are underbanked is 14 percent. —Sixty-seven percent of the unbanked have access to a mobile phone, 65 percent of which are smartphones. —Ninety percent of the underbanked have access to a mobile phone, 73 percent of which are smartphones. —Forty-eight percent of underbanked consumers had used mobile banking in the 12 months prior to the survey.

People have phones. They know how to use them. They already use them for financial tasks. As more financial tools come into the phone, people’s lives will be transformed.

Outside the United States, cell phones are even more ubiquitous, because many parts of the world never had landlines and so adopted mobile earlier. More people in the world have access to cell phones than to toilets. Governments, NGO’s and businesses worldwide are rapidly building a global population that has full access to digital financial services. The relative American slowness on mobile is creating disadvantages for the U.S. in ways we will explore in the series.

One more note on demographics. Millennials are now the largest generation in the history of the world, in the U.S. and worldwide. In 2015 they surpassed the Baby Boomers, who will henceforth decline sharply as a percentage of population. Just as the boomers did when their numbers surged, the millennials are already exerting an outsized influence on the culture and the economy. Their preferences, including for mobile services and fast, easy transactions, will reshape finance.

Those are the five tech trends driving financial innovation: 1) big data, 2) artificial intelligence, 3) natural voice technology, 4) the blockchain, and 5) online and, especially, mobile. Again, each is huge, but they are also converging. (Check out my bonus video, Why Does Jo Ann Barefoot Have An Xbox (since she’s never played a videogame in her entire life?  It explains that four of the five tech trends have already converged in my own living room, in my Xbox.)

Nodes of innovation in each of these trends will increasingly connect with the others. Most innovators are already leveraging several of these technologies at once, and will add more. When big data combines with machine learning, and creates services delivered through voice-based consumer help, modernized by the blockchain, and delivered through the smart phone, everything changes.

Each of these trends, and all of them in combination, will raise enormous regulatory challenges – most of which will cause permanent uncertainty about regulatory standards and expectations. We will examine these in Video 3, Meet the Regulators and discuss how to integrate them into a strategy for regulation innovation.

Suggested Action Steps:

  • Have your innovation team assess your company’s use of alternative data and analytics
  • Have it assess your company’s strategy for mobile services, and especially how it rates with millennial customers (hint: ask your young employees)
  • Register innovation team members for a tech-focused conference like Emerge, Money 20/20, LendIt, Finnovate, or SXSW – SouthBySouthwest(I’ll be speaking at many of them)
  • Subscribe to Barefoot Innovation, my free podcasts
  • Watch for the next video and briefing, where we will Meet the Innovators who are leveraging all this technology to transform finance

And of course - SUBSCRIBE HERE

First Teaser to my New Video Series

Jo Ann Barefoot

Welcome to my video briefing series, Regulation Innovation -- Thriving on disruption.

Each video comes with a fuller written briefing that includes background resources. The series is designed to build over time, as a journey. You can start anywhere, but watch them all. 

Please share the videos in meetings, and circulate the briefings throughout your organization. And I hope you enjoy the little bonus videos offering my light-hearted take on some of these issues.

Here is my briefing on the introduction to the series.

Why fintech matters:  What is it, and why is it so disruptive?

Before exploring precisely why regulation and innovation are two sides of the same challenge, let’s look quickly at what’s happening (later briefings will go in depth on these topics).

Fintech is innovation that applies new technologies to financial services and channels to make them faster, cheaper, clearer, more manageable, more user-friendly and/or more engaging and fun (yes, fun). It includes online and marketplace lendingdigital currencyand real-time payments; efforts to “uberbize” payments by making them disappear into the consumer experience; “robo-investing;” emerging “insure-tech;” and a vast array of personal financial management, or “PFM” solutions (usually mobile apps). The latter do things like smooth out financial volatility, make savings easy, organize bill-paying, and enable bill-sharing. The term sometimes also includes “reg-tech” that seeks to simplify compliance. 

They all leverage some combination of emerging technologies (usually several at once), including big data, powerful data analytics, natural voice technology, the blockchain, and the smart mobile phone, all of which we’ll explore in the series.

Broadly speaking, fintech innovators are trying to do these things:

  • Identify everything that bothers people about traditional finance, and fix it
  • Find additional things people don’t even realize bother them about today’s financial markets, and fix those too (just as Uber has solved problems we didn’t know we had until Uber removed them, like having to pay at the end of a taxi ride)
  • Wring every possible cost out of delivering financial services, through mobile channels, new uses of data, blockchain technology, and leveraging the newcomers’ clean-slate edge over banks’ old legacy IT systems.
  • Find broader markets and make financial services more inclusive, again, using mobile delivery and alternative data.
  • Usually, make products simpler and more transparent
  • Help consumers manage their own financial lives better, with easier and more powerful tools and by more actively engaging consumers through use of behavioral science and nontraditional methods like playfulness.

Their thinking reflects “blue ocean strategy” – growing not by competing with incumbents in a zero-sum “red ocean” game, but rather creating whole new markets through innovation that will simultaneously raise value to customers and cut costs for providers.

The new technologies, themselves, are neither “good” nor “bad.” They’re just powerful -- often mold-breaking. Similarly, innovators’ motives may or may not be “good” – they range from idealism to straightforward profit goals. In general, though, the innovators believe they can sharply improve on traditional financial offerings. Some hope to do so by replacing parts of today’s financial industries. Some hope to sell to today’s incumbents. Many hope to partner with them.

These changes are highly disruptive. The Financial Times reports the Bank of England’s Andrew Haldane as saying (“astonishingly”) that the unit cost of US financial intermediation seems to be unaltered over a century. Innovators plan to change that, and a great deal more, through technology, in the same pattern seen in so many other sectors.

More than any other sector, however, financial services are pervasively regulated. This means inevitably that the impacts will disrupt not only the industry, but its regulatory framework as well.

As a result, the technology changes ahead will create enormous regulatory shifts. The industry will have to create entirely new ways to manage both the innovation and the regulation, together.

How are regulation and innovation intertwined?

The top two existential challenges facing nearly every financial company today are, first, regulation, and second, disruptive innovation. Most people view regulation and innovation as very different topics – like oil and water – but they actually are intricately intertwined. Neither can be gotten right unless they are addressed together. Here’s why.

First, regulators and disruptive innovators are often attacking the same things about traditional consumer finance. They’re both finding every place where the industry’s current business models benefit (knowingly or not) from customer confusion or inertia about complex products and pricing, and where old delivery channels and legacy IT create high costs, errors, or lack of access. Obviously regulators and innovators have different motives and tools, but they have locked in on the same vulnerabilities. For traditional companies, it’s a pincer attack. 

An example is bank overdraft protection fees. Most banks know the CFPB plans to issue new rules on these.  Many don’t realize, though, that innovators are meanwhile inventing products to keep consumers from needing to overdraw. Attracted by the revenue potential in the estimated $30 billion consumers pay in annual overdraft fees, they are aiming to create affordable and convenient alternatives (watch for Briefing 2 in our series, Meet the Innovators.) Similar dual assaults target payday lending and many other areas.

Second, regulation and innovation have both pushed financial services into a state of permanent uncertainty, impossible to manage with traditional tools. 

For innovation, the permanent uncertainty arises from the fast pace of change and the mold-breaking nature of new technology (which we’ll explore extensively in the series).
For consumer protection regulation, the uncertainty is fueled by a huge shift from rules-based to principles-based oversight. Most financial companies sense this but have not grasped its profound ramifications, maybe because the regulators have not formally articulated it.

One driver for the regulatory transition is that the financial crisis revealed massive failures in our traditional federal policy of using prescriptive rules and disclosures to protect consumers. While detailed rules will still loom large, they are already a shrinking share of regulatory risk, overshadowed by a rapidly rising focus on broad principles. Regulators have massive discretionary powers to punish unfair, deceptive and abusive practices (UDAAP), and credit discrimination, including unintentional patterns of statistical “disparate impact.” These are the tools they will increasingly rely upon, as innovation undermines policymakers’ ability to keep technical rules up to date. 
Principles-based regulation is inherently subjective, and therefore uncertain. While the post-crisis industry has established compliance programs for UDAAP, few have infused all decision-making with robust thinking about the emerging principles dominating regulatory risk. Companies must move beyond compliance models geared to reactive implementation of rules, and create new ones that work proactively in the absence of clear regulatory guidance. 

This means financial companies must learn to think for themselves about these principles, in order to predict and plan for unknowable regulatory reactions as technology changes the industry. They must also learn to predict coming innovation trends, and build compliance systems able to accommodate them efficiently and effectively. 

Rapid change will make this difficult. Here are “9 Dangerous Words” reflecting the challenge.

Third, regulation and innovation continuously reshape each other. Innovators introduce new products and channels; regulators respond with rules and principles and with oversight and enforcement; then innovators respond to those; and the spiral goes on – ever-accelerating and permanently interlocked.

Fourth, the high costs of regulation and innovation can only be optimized together.Companies that don’t invest enough in either area face enormous risks. Banks are spending 70-80% of their IT budgets on compliance, leaving scant resources for technology innovation. Fortunately, though, approaching the two challenges holistically can cut their combined costs. Updating legacy IT systems will solve tremendous problems in both realms, as will using new and better data and data analytics. Similarly, “reg-tech” solutions are emerging to make regulation easier, but again, only for institutions that connect both sets of challenges. Future videos in the series will explore how to do so.

Fifth, the path to innovation will be easier for companies that win regulators’ “trust.”Again, disruption of the industry will disrupt the regulatory system too. Agencies will face rapid and unmanageable change and critical decisions about what innovations to permit, and by whom.

Those decisions will be difficult, since the innovation underway will inevitably create risks to both consumers and the financial system, even as it generates benefits. Regulatory challenges will include protecting privacy and data security, assuring “fairness” in new uses of data, and updating disclosures for mobile and voice-based services. Consumers will be exposed to harm from well-meant but unfamiliar technology. And while most innovators are trying to create pro-consumer options, some will channels these new technologies into manipulative or predatory uses. Our fractured and bank-centric regulatory framework will also be mismatched with the industry’s changing competitive structure, especially regarding nonbanks. 

All these issues will be discussed in Video 3: Meet the Regulators. Their combined impact will be to give an edge to companies that regulators can trust to have both compliance strength and committed innovation strategies aligned with the regulatory principles of customer fairness and business soundness. The banks that are best at this will have an advantage in pursuing new ways to both partner and compete with innovators. Banks with weak and rules-based compliance systems will discover these have become a strategic barrier to competitiveness.

Here’s the good news: the interconnectedness of regulation and innovation will enablecompanies to reduce risks in both realms together. For most banks, vulnerabilities on regulation and innovation are lodged in the very same places – in legacy IT systems, old ways of using data, and outdated profit and compensation models and cultures. This means that fixing one, can help fix the other -- equipping companies to thrive on disruption.

Exponential change

Tackling the twin challenges of regulation and innovation is urgent, because the industry is evolving so fast. Accenture reports that global investment in fintech increased 75% in 2015, reaching $22.3 billion. After a late-year lull, it surged 67% in the first quarter of 2016. The U.S. saw 667 fintech investment deals in 2015, up 16%, while North American investment rose 44%, to $14.8 billion. A McKinsey study finds over 12,000 fintech firms invading every aspect of bank activity and predicts that the innovators could win up to 60% of traditional bank revenues in the next decade.

The change underway is exponential, driven by the phenomenon that Gordon Moore accurately predicted in the 1970’s, called “Moore’s Law” --  that computing power will double every two years. 

By its nature, exponential change masks the magnitude of what’s ahead because the transformation will hit quickly. Imagine, for example, that someone has a pond on which lily pads start to spread at a rate that doubles every day. Suppose that, on day 30, the owner realizes the water is half covered and starts pondering how to respond. 

The next day, this owner will find the pond completely covered. What took 30 days to reach fifty percent, takes only one day to reach one hundred.

Moore’s Law means that in five years, computing power will be 32 times more advanced. In ten years, it will be a thousand times more advanced. In twenty years, a million times. In fifty years, a quadrillion times. As computing power grows, technology change will accelerate with it, transforming every aspect of life. Here’s just one example:  imagine a world in which computing capacity is not finite and costly, but rather limitless and cheap – for everyone. The possibilities are breathtaking.
We’re living now on the steep part of this curve, using brains and institutions wired for linear change. The challenges we feel today will only intensify.

I highly recommend reading this thought-provoking post by Niv Dror on exponential change.

Reading before the next video:

  • Here’s an article I wrote for Forbes on how fintech will disrupt finance and financial regulation.
  • Here is a Q&A discussion I developed for Women in Housing & Finance’s 2016 fintech symposium, which teases out many of the keys to understanding it. 

Suggested Action Steps:

  • Share this article with your team
  • Form an innovation task force that deeply integrates innovation and regulation (include & empower young employees as part of it)
  • Begin to educate the team on fintech innovation and assess the challenges likely to arise
  • Come back next time for Briefing 1: “The Five Tech Trends,” to understand the five huge, converging technologies that are driving disruption.

Which is not like the others? 
Legislation, litigation, regulation…innovation



Launching My Video Series

Jo Ann Barefoot

Eighteen months ago, someone made a suggestion to me. Why not take the consulting advice I give to my advisory clients and package it in a form that's affordable and widely accessible - as videos? Instead of reaching the few clients that can pay to fly me around and meet in person, why not use technology to share my thinking with everyone who's interested?

I loved the idea. It turned out to take a lot of work, but I'm excited to say that I'm finally, today, launching the series.

I'm calling it Regulation Innovation.

Is that an odd name?

Here's a question:  Which of these is not like the others?

Regulation, legislation, litigation, innovation....

Obviously innovation doesn't belong on that list. does.

These two drivers - regulation and technology innovation -- are the two transformative forces that are disrupting consumer finance.  They are the top challenges facing virtually every company, both in cost and risk.

The industry handles them as if they are unconnected - even opposite, incompatible, like oil and water. In reality, they are tightly linked:

They have the same targets. Regulators and disruptive innovators are attacking the same consumer problems -- especially lack of product clarity and high product costs.

Both therefore threaten the same profit centers -- it's a pincer assault.

They mostly have the same causes, especially outdated technologies, cultures and structures.

This means they have overlapping solutions. Fixing one can efficiently fix the other.

They are disrupting each other. Finance is so highly regulated that disrupting the industry disrupts the regulatory process too, and vice versa.

They are creating a new state of permanent uncertainty, driving change that's too fast, fluid and unforgiving to manage by traditional means.

They will break and remake companies and industries

Leaders in the financial world need to understand these two forces, and understand how to thrive on - not struggle through - disruption.

Regulation Innovation is my video guide for these leaders.

  • It's for both regulatory and business people at all levels, and for traditional companies and innovators of all sizes.
  • It's practical -- short videos, maximum insight, concrete advice.

 It's a training tool

The initial videos cover:

  • Welcome to the journey: Quick overview of the series
  • The 5 tech trends: The key technology trends disrupting consumer finance and regulation, and why financial people are underestimating them
  • Meet the innovators: Understanding the disruptors. Who are they, how do they think, what are they trying to do, how do they relate to the traditional industry?
  • Meet the new regulators:  Understanding the daunting shifts facing regulators and policy-makers, and how they plan to meet them
  • The 6 challenges:  the top challenges facing every financial provider
  • The 7 strategies: Strategic approaches for each of the six, and overall

Click here to see the introductory video.

And also watch our bonus video that answers the burning question, "Why does Jo Ann Barefoot have an Xbox -- since she's never played a videogame in her entire life -- and what the heck does it have to do with regulation and innovation"

Like any innovator, we're launching with an MVP (minimum viable product) which will evolve based on feedback. Please sign up, share the site with your colleagues and friends, and I'll look forward to everyone joining me on the journey!