In 2009 a US company called Kickstarter launched and successfully continues today to promote and facilitate funding of creative ideas and products. The idea is to pre-sell some product that a creative team pledge to develop or mass produce and deliver to its backers. The practice had no clear legal foundation back when it started. It was only three years later, in 2012, the US law was amended to regulate the new practice of easier access to small capital ﬁnancing, by adopting Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act 1https://www.sec.gov/spotlight/jobs-act.shtml.
Similarly, ICO phenomenon sprung up from the burgeoning crypto community. The ﬁrst ICO is widely accepted to be the Mastercoin blockchain project in 2013. It set itself apart as the ﬁrst crypto crowdfunding case. The idea was to presell a blockchain coin/token as a service that the team pledged to develop in future. To purchase interest in the project, one was able to pay in bitcoin cryptocurrency. All of a sudden, a new practice was born.
A new use case for cryptocurrencies was forged and started to unfold rapidly. By 2017, not only many new cryptocurrencies emerged, but there were hundreds of ICO projects,
pre-selling their services, often, but not exclusively blockchain-based business applications. Indeed, raising funding in less restrictive way was the prime goal of the practice. Selling a token as interest in the project that had some utility or representation. Hence the new expression – utility token.
By deﬁnition, investing in a nebulous utility token (typically Ethereum EIP-20, also known as ERC-20 compliant) had very loose legal obligations, only those pledged by the issuing entity. The investment was not an equity purchase, nor it was a loan, rather – a voluntary contribution. The attraction was an almost immediate liquidity of the newly minted token. After the initial offering, a bubbling secondary market developed and offered easy entry and exit to all participants. Selling a token was selling a promise of a non-existent yet service, not dissimilar to the age of discoveries of long sea voyage ventures.
Similarly, the beginning of 17th century introduced the ﬁrst permanent joint stock form, where the investment into shares did not need to be returned, but could be traded on a stock exchange. 2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_India_Company
The crypto investment practice unfolded into a wave of ICO projects, culminating in 2017. Thus many startups and mostly white paper ideas got funded. Most were real projects. Some were bad apples. But the most attractive aspect of the ICO were the returns on investments. According to one source, the ROI yielded in excess of 10x, even if you had invested in both the winners and losers alike over the 2017 year. The whole industry was on a steep upwards pressure, with strong interest from the institutional sector. Such returns are unprecedented in the normal trading environment. Fortunes were made and lost.
The year 2017-2018 went down in history as the ICO hype unfolded. It culminated with several major events that occurred at the same time. One was Bitcoin blockchain forking and the subsequent nose dive of most cryptocurrency value. There were other notable events that coincided and contributed to the overall price fall.
From peak to trough the crypto asset market value was at times suddenly and later gradually reduced from over USD800B to little over USD100B. The so called crypto winter had set in. The bittersweet mass interest receded and an immediate ﬂight away from all things crypto ensued. See chart below. 3https://coinmarketcap.com/charts/
IEO – initial exchange offering
Similarly as with Slack and Spotify exchange listing, there are some ICOs that have listed directly on token exchanges. This way projects can leverage token trading venue client base to showcase their projects directly, without active promotion of the offering through other, often ineffective, marketing channels. This has prompted many token trading venues to start issuing utility token IEOs on behalf of token issuing start-ups.
For the contributors, exchange listing adds trustworthiness, security and vetting, knowing that a reputable exchange, such as Binance will have done certain due diligence before listing an unknown project. Indeed, for utility tokens IEO may prove to be a safe, if not cheap way to gain community trust. It is yet to be seen, however, if the initial listings continue to persist over a longer stretch of time, and what regulatory requirements may be imposed as to listing requirements. This also is a piece of history in the making.
This is part 3 of a 5 part series.
Reinventing Wealth Management: How Technology is Shaping The Way We Manage Investments
Traditionally, wealth management has been a human-based professional service that provides financial and investment advice to clients of high-net-worth and ultra-net-worth category. Since the wealth management industry is made lucrative due to its one set fee charged to clients; despite the implementation of innovative technology, investment advice is largely still available to the wealthy and closed off to others. However, assets available to the well-off are becoming more accessible to non-wealthy clients, too.
Wealth management meets technology
The entire financial services industry has been shaken by the technological revolution, which in turn, has shaped the world. Wealth management in 2020 is no exception to this trend. Fintech has reinvented the landscape of investment management by incorporating Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to optimise portfolios, mitigate risks and evaluate investment opportunities.
Fintech companies have become adaptive and attentive to the needs of the new generation of investors. Millennials demand, on the whole, easy, precise and flexible access to information on all aspects of their lives. It’s been found that affluent millennials are becoming increasingly comfortable using technology to manage their money. Mobile apps, Robo-advisers and AI tools provide a greater degree of control than traditional financial management methods.
Technology in action: Managing investments with intelligence
The emergence of fintech has revolutionised, improved and automated the delivery of financial services. Global investments in financial technology businesses have surpassed $100 billion over the past decade.
The proliferation of artificial intelligence has transformed the way financial advisors interact with their clients. The industry has long since been anticipating the disruption of the financial advisor model. The 80s and 90s gave way to online trading and the 21st century brings us Robo-advisers – i.e. the computer-generated investment platform that provide augmented, algorithm-driven financial planning services with little human input. Global assets under management by Robo-investors as of 2020 were nearly $1.1 trillion – and are expected to grow at an annual rate of 25.6% (Statista).
Typically, a Robo-adviser collects financial data from individuals through some form of survey and uses the information to offer advice and automatically invest client assets. The best of these automated services offer easy account setups, goal planning, portfolio management, security features, and of course, low fees.
Wealth management apps
Mobile portfolio management apps can provide information and the necessary tools to manage your investments from workplace pensions to ISA’s and personal capital. Many apps can sync with your existing accounts – completely free.
ARQ, for example, uses AI to connect investments and generate data to provide users with actionable insights into how their portfolios are performing. They’re dedicated to transparency by providing scores on what’s actually considered to be a good annual performance and whether the fees their users are paying are too high. Unbiased analytics display a number of metrics to show the value of investments relative to others.
Wealthsimple, founded in 2017, offers an unambiguous three-tier investment strategy depending on a user’s ‘risk profile’- conservative, balanced or growth. The premise behind Wealthsimple is to invest your money across the entire stock market; as opposed to a sole company’s stock, to induce a long-term practical investment strategy.
Setting up your Wealthsimple account on the app is simple. Fill in the form, select your risk and add the amount you’d like to invest. The algorithm processes your data and you’ll be presented with a portfolio and personalised dashboard illustrating how stocks are performing in real-time.
For the more visual investor, Personal Capital is an app that lets you track your budget and investments by displaying graphs by asset class or investment account – making them easy to read, track and manage your portfolio. The interface is incredibly intuitive and the visuals reactive on laptop, tablet, desktop and mobile.
Whilst there is more to say about the budgeting functions of other apps, Personal Capital serves primarily as a financial aggregator – bringing together all of your accounts on a single platform. The tool starts by determining your risk tolerance, goals and timeframe and generates a portfolio by investing across multiple asset classes for diversification. It should be said that the high fees of 0.89% are offset by Personal Capitals close-to-human investment management service.
Wealth management firms embrace technology
The wealth management firms who actively embrace financial technology tools – whilst maintaining their human input in helping investors navigate the increasingly complex financial infrastructure – have been found to be more likely to grow.
45% of wealth managers said that financial information from technology and data analysis using AI help them refine the advice they give to clients (PwC). 36% agreed that their clients will be able to see their investments clearly with AI.
B2B platform Cred, embraces AI to change the way financial institutions acquire and engage clients in investment advisory. The Barclay-based company helps financial institutions increase conversion rates, engagement and Assets Under Management. Wealth management firms using Cred’s data platform helps them utilise their client data to build relationships and offer the right financial products at the right time – increasing efficiencies for the firm and individual clients.
AdviceRobo is a software developed to assist wealth managers by providing predictive risk services using AI to generate behavioural data.
They help financial institutions by providing psychographic credit scores measuring financial attitudes, motivations and behaviour of people through online interviews. Detailed reports give wealth managers deeper insight into their client’s financial health – allowing them to optimise their client’s portfolios.
The accumulation of Big Data means that the pool of client information available to wealth managers is constantly increasing – meaning there is always room for optimising advice.
Morgan Stanley Online allows client accounts to be accessed via CRM which can be seamlessly fed into multiple financial planning software – which can be viewed by advisors and clients alike.
Technology has warmly welcomed the evaluation of ‘what-if’ scenarios. High net worth individuals can easily use Morgan Stanley Online to see the direct impact of or feasibility of spending – without consultation. A user’s spending and investment decisions are connected to their advisor – who will be alerted when a client is making an inquiry.
8 out of 10 wealth management executives have regarded technology as a significant factor in gaining market share (Deloitte). The future of investment management is largely reliant on the development of technology. Innovations in fintech have freed advisors from mundane tasks so they can spend more time providing specific insights based on individual customers.
Technology clearly has a role to play in the communication processes between clients and advisers, the way investors manage and track their portfolios, as well as the way data, is both collected and used. All of which continues to shape the way we manage investments.
Solving the Liquidity Puzzle for Security Tokens – Thought Leaders
There is a wide consensus in the financial industry that blockchain technology is going to disrupt the securities market. However, despite the claims, there is no double-digit annual growth of securities on blockchain, which would be expected from a disruptive technology. The reason for that are regulatory roadblocks that don’t allow delivering the biggest promise of digital securities – liquidity for previously illiquid securities. In this article we break down this problem and present a solution.
What are security tokens/digital securities?
From a legal perspective, security tokens are common securities and are subject to the same regulations. The difference is that records about securities ownership are stored on blockchain instead of paper-based or other forms of records. That’s why they are often called digital securities.
Innovative technology significantly improves operations with securities, making them digital and automated. In particular, transfer of digital securities is much easier and may happen in minutes or seconds instead of weeks, spent on signing physical contracts, doing compliance checks and updating government registers.
Why liquidity is so important for security tokens
Liquidity of an asset defines how easy it can be sold. For example, publicly listed securities are highly liquid, while real estate and startup equity are highly illiquid. Although security tokens have multiple advantages, greater liquidity is a principal one. For this reason, they often represent ownership in traditionally illiquid assets.
Mass adoption of security tokens first and foremost requires interest from investors, which will create incentives for businesses to issue digital securities instead of traditional ones. For investors, lack of liquidity is the biggest problem of securities that are not listed on exchanges as it makes investments in them riskier and makes investors wait for decades until they pay off. Therefore, unlocking liquidity of security tokens is crucial for their mass adoption.
Why is liquidity in the conventional meaning of the word is out of reach for security tokens
In the narrow sense of the world, securities are considered liquid if they are traded on a stock exchange. For this reason, lack of regulated secondary markets is considered the main limitation. However, this ignores the fact that there are already operating exchanges for security tokens: tZERO, Open Finance, MERJ, GSX – but very few tokens are listed there. Furthermore, Open Finance is on the edge of delisting all security tokens because their trading does not generate enough fees to support operations.
Therefore, the problem is not in the lack of marketplaces. It is in fact that listing on an exchange is overly complicated. It requires registering the offering at competent authorities, having minimum trading volume, minimum market cap, being under increased reporting requirements, which often include annual audit. Basically, it requires becoming a public company. These requirements will arise not only in the case of listing on a classical exchange but any kind of regulated market. This means that listing on a regulated trading venue is not feasible for most security token issuers.
Such a flawed understanding of the problem stems from crypto origins of security tokens. They were seen as a regulated continuation of utility tokens and cryptocurrencies, for which listing on exchange is much easier, so it became a synonym for liquidity. This myth should be debunked in order for the market to move to more realistic sources of liquidity.
How is liquidity for security tokens possible?
To answer this question, we need to go back to an original definition of liquidity, which is the ability to quickly sell assets at any moment. It has two main components: complexity of conducting the transaction and how easy it is to find a counterparty.
The former problem is solved by blockchain technology. Its main benefit for private securities is that it vastly simplifies conducting the securities transaction, making it possible to do everything online in a few minutes. Conventionally, transfer of securities would require signing physical agreements, reporting changes to the government register, settling a transaction via a wire transfer, and doing manual compliance checks on individuals engaged into the transaction.
Complexity of the transfer also impacts the number of potential counterparties. When the transfer is complicated and expensive, it becomes not feasible to transact small amounts. This cuts off smaller traders and investors from the market, making it even harder to find a counterparty.
The problem of finding a counterparty is traditionally solved by an order matching mechanism of exchanges, which for security tokens is not feasible. Therefore, the key to unlocking liquidity is in creating an efficient way to find counterparties for transactions that would not be considered a regulated market.
This way is already known. It is a bulletin board for P2P transactions. As these transactions are private and do not involve an intermediary, they don’t require regulation. However, there are a number of nuances and requirements for such a venue not to be regulated, which will be covered in a separate article.
To the author’s knowledge, at the time of writing there is no venue that enables legally compliant and efficient P2P liquidity for security tokens.
What impact unlocking the liquidity of security tokens will have on capital markets?
Currently, venture investors may sell their shares only if businesses they invest into go public or are acquired. This has two implications, which both lead to money being used inefficiently and slow down the economic growth.
Firstly, it means that only businesses with the potential for IPO are worth investing. Businesses that can offer a solid yield but don’t offer “disruption” and outsized returns are deprived of funding. These are often businesses with a need for high capital investments – manufacturing, agriculture, physical infrastructure etc. The problem with a lack of capital investment is covered in a widely discussed article in Andreessen Horowitz blog “It’s time to build”.
Secondly, illiquidity makes VCs prioritize growth over profitability because when most investments don’t pay off even a 10x exit from successful ones may be not enough. It creates incentives to scale even when the business model is not tested enough, leading to extremely large companies, such as WeWork or Uber, struggling to deliver a profit.
The plague of private markets has impacts on public markets as well. It leads to the emergence of the IPO bubble, when more than 80% of newly public companies are not profitable. It is problematic because public securities are considered less risky, and thus fit into portfolios of retail funds and pension schemes, harming them by being overpriced.
Thus, solving the liquidity problem will have a drastic impact not only on the VC industry but on the entire economy.
HODL Your Hoopla Over SEC Changes For Exempt Offerings – Thought Leaders
Last week the The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission released a proposal – that has yet to become regulation – to simplify how exempt offerings are done. Shortly thereafter, a flurry of articles and newsletters made their way through the digital asset industry – many of which suggested their platforms were already being modified to fit the new rules. While the SEC has proposed changes, time will tell whether the proposal is adopted – and if so, whether there will be changes to the final draft that will be published to the Federal Register.
The US exempt offering framework includes tools such as Reg D, Reg A, crowdfunding (a.k.a. Reg CF) – essentially everything that is not a public or retail offering. This framework has seen little in the way of changes or modernization since the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. There has been significant public criticism of the current rules for exempt offerings, largely because they reserve access for only the wealthiest Americans to invest in private funds, companies, and other offerings.
If passed, the proposed changes could allow for the average person to invest in earlier stage deals – such as Uber or WeWork – before they reach their lofty valuations and dumped into the public markets. Enabling SPV (special purpose vehicles) and harmonized reporting (ie combing Reg D and Reg CF into one, not two reports), and increasing the total amount that can be raised would help streamline compliance for issuing firms. Additionally, the changes could also enable crowdfunding to become a viable capital formation tool for investing in such asset classes as real estate.
Currently, US offering exemptions such as Regulation CF (crowdfunding) are quite restrictive, limiting the total amount you can raise to $1.07M USD per 12 month period and includes significant restrictions per investor. The US SEC appears to be following the lead of other jurisdictions such as Canada where regulators proposed similar changes, or Europe where regulations were updated last year, increasing the limits for the EGP (European Growth Prospectus) to €8M EUR, a little over $9M USD. According to the new proposal, companies would be able to raise up to $5M USD. While $5M is still a relatively small amount of capital, it does allow early stage companies to build their tribe with a broader investor base.
The SEC proposed similar changes to Reg A, increasing the upper limit to $75M USD. This could make Reg A viable for many later stage companies where larger Series B, C, or even D rounds demand more capital than what is currently available in Reg A.. This also opens up these investment opportunities to the retail investor, previously these deals were only available to the wealthiest corporate venture firms, private equity shops, and high net worth individuals.
Further changes include allowing accredited investors to participate in crowdfunding. Previously, if you used a crowdfunding exemption, you could not accept funds from accredited investors and would actually have to use another exemption, such as Reg D, simultaneously. This typically forces companies into more paperwork, legal fees, and an increased risk of getting something wrong – which could result in regulatory or civil actions. The proposed changes would enable companies to combine accredited and retail investors into one offering.
Aside from accredited investors, the changes also open the doors to institutional and corporate investors, including the SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle).
An SPV is a corporate entity created for a specific purpose – usually for reasons such as limiting liability, tax efficiency, investment, or capital formation. For example: In order to tokenize a piece of real estate, you might form an SPV, and transfer the deed to the real estate into this company. The purpose of that company/vehicle is to hold the deed of this real estate and maintain a accurate record of who the owners are, SPVs are commonly used for investment funds as well.
Combined, SPVs, corporate investors, accredited investors, and major institutional investors can move large amounts of capital. However, they weren’t able to invest in crowdfunding offerings in the US. This created an interesting paradox for companies raising capital, if you could get the big fish interested, you would avoid the crowd – but, if your offering didn’t look good enough for professional investors, your last resort may be crowdfunding. The crowdfunding industry as a whole has faced a lot of criticism from professional investors for low returns and low deal quality, this is likely to change when retail investors have access to the same deals as larger institutions.
Finally, the new crowdfunding regulations propose several major changes to how much each investor can put into any one offering. Currently, investors who do not meet the accreditation thresholds were limited on how much they could invest based on the lower of their income or net worth. The new regulations would change this to the greater of those two. These changes are expected to not only fuel innovation, they are likely to bring in a lot of smart money as well.
For example, an investor with a net worth of $750,000 and an income of $150,000 couldn’t qualify as an accredited investor. This person has a Phd in bioscience and finds a startup with a revolutionary innovation in the field of bioscience – they are not qualified as an accredited investor and barred from investing. Ironically, they can be an advisor to any institutional investor on why this particular startup is so hot – but under the current rules, they are not qualified to risk their own money.
While these changes are welcomed by most market participants, they are not a sure thing. This proposal for a new exempt offering framework is not yet regulation, it still has to make it’s way through the government and be entered into the Federal Register. Looking back at the proposals for crowdfunding in the US we can see how different a proposal can be from the regulation – and there are still a lot of lobbying dollars that want to see the status quo maintained. It is important to not make important business decisions based on this proposal – rather, look at these changes as a larger trend among securities regulators globally.
We’re seeing securities regulators trying to make easier for distributed capital formation. Crowdsales and crowdfunding are actually becoming something that the regulators across around the world are working together to harmonize their frameworks. By combining the crowdfunding regulations from jurisdictions around the world, early stage companies would be able to access global capital and build a global investor base, without being forced to break the rules like most of the ICO and STO issuers are doing today.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the SEC’s proposed changes is how they demonstrate a very coordinated effort among securities commissions globally. As this new era of capital formation emerges, businesses will be able to combine and leverage the regulatory frameworks of multiple countries. That being said, for US based offerings, we still have to wait for the new regulations before knowing what they will look like, or their impact on the digital securities industry.