The emergence of reg tech: what you need to know

By Sarah Gill | 7 July 2016

In an industry prone to hype and hyperbole, ‘reg-tech’ is one of the hottest new buzzwords on the block. Referring to technology that is designed to help banks and other financial institutions (FIs) comply with the increasingly complex regulation of their sector, reg-tech is now gathering momentum in its own right.

But what is it, who needs it and where’s it going next? Here, we take a look at the rise of this new category of technology businesses and the key trends emerging in this space.

Rise of reg tech

Like its close cousin ‘fintech’, reg-tech has been around for some time in different shapes and flavours, but a number of contributing factors is now creating the perfect storm for this technology segment to thrive, including:

> Intensification of financial regulation globally post-2008 financial crash  
> Massive uptick in demand on data reporting
> Challenges for FIs to capture, store, analyse data in-house
> Evolution of technologies like cloud, big data analysis
> New sources of data create opportunities for new approaches to risk

“Compliance is becoming more complex and potentially costly and so scalable and efficient platforms and automated services to reduce costs are increasingly important,” says Peter Howitt, founder and director of Ramparts EU law firm, Peter Howitt. “In addition, the wealth of electronic information available on people and companies continues to increase and represents an opportunity to change our approach to things such as credit profiling, KYC, age verification and so on.”

What is reg-tech?

Like any catchy umbrella term, ‘reg tech’ actually incorporates a myriad of different services. In a report from Deloitte that described reg-tech as “the new fintech”, some of the themes emerging in this sector were identified as the following: One is legislation and regulation gap analysis tools: helping FIs to identify the areas of their business that are not compliant. Related to that are the health check tools: keeping track across the multiple systems inside an FI on a regular basis, while others include regulatory reporting tools, activity monitoring tools and risk data warehouses. As these examples highlight, a lot of the need that reg-tech answers is related to automation and crunching/storing/capturing and processing data that these FIs need to be able to produce.

While the opportunity is clear, however innovation in this space is not easy. In an interview with bobsguide, the president of Canadian identity verification firm Trulioo Jon Jones explains that the constantly-evolving global regulatory landscape makes it challenging to innovate.

“There are 7bn people in this world who can benefit from access to fintech services, however, there are hundreds of legislations, jurisdictions and regulators across the globe that make it difficult for companies to navigate,” says Jones. “Innovation is never free from risk, but there are ways to mitigate with reasonable and appropriate policies and procedures.

“The lack of harmonisation of in-country data privacy hinders development of a global compliance program, especially for companies transacting and expanding across borders. Secure access to data combined with cutting-edge technology helps facilitate innovation for fintech products and services.”

Levelling the field

Reg tech has been around for a while, but it feels like everyone is suddenly talking about reg tech at the moment – why now? Jones points to the fact that reg tech is helping to level the playing field for established and new entrants in the financial services industry, something that's been a long time coming in the competition-starved financial services industry and that technology promises to help deliver.

Fintech has taken off largely due to these companies seeing opportunities that incumbents haven’t seen or can’t address. With huge consumer demand for fintech products, reg tech offers a level playing field for all players, including traditional banks, challenger banks and new fintech entrants.

Not only does reg-tech seek to address the multiplying compliance obligations in a cost efficient manner, but it is nurtured and supported by governments. The UK is a great example of where this is happening. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) provided clarifications on the steps regtech companies must take to comply with UK regulations and have collaborated with firms through partnerships with financial institutions, accelerators and academics.”

Democratising access to reg-tech is something that Suade, a Microsoft Ventures startup is trying to do. The firm wants to help big and small banks alike adapt constantly to changes in regulation and become more cost effective. While new regulations are designed to bring transparency and stabilty to the financial sector, the practical cost and logistics FIs need to invest in understanding them is massive. Suade wants to help take care of that, leaving banks to focus on serving their clients. 

“A lot of people are yearning for a benchmark that is necessary to prevent the next financial crisis,” said CEO Diana Paredes, speaking at a demo. “What we’re trying to is democratise regulation, not from compliance side so much as prudential side.”

“Lehman Brothers was a hard thing to forget – it affected everyone in the world, not just the bankers.  Trust was broken between the banks and the people in the streets – everyone wanted their money back. If people stop believing in banks the economy is in real trouble. The ethos of our company is that we’re trying to prevent the next financial crisis. Banks have understood that the only way to do it is through regulation – and it’s about embracing that.”

UK regulation in the time of Brexit

The growing emphasis on financial regulation is a global phenomenon. But the idiosyncrasies of regulation that vary between jurisdictions makes this a necessarily local issue too. The UK is looked to by fintech players around the world with envy for the progressive and supportive attitude of its regulator: the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). Just last month the FCA opened its regulatory sandbox to provide a “safe place” for fintech companies to test services and business models before being offered to the consumer without having to worry about regulation.

The thinking behind the sandbox is that fintech startups should have the opportunity to test new ideas, even if what they’re trying to build does not fit within existing rules, which FCA director of strategy and competition Christopher Woolard says often pre-date smartphones, let alone emerging technologies like biometric authentication. The very nature of disruption and innovation means this is likely to be the case with what startups are trying to build and not just in finance. While Airbnb or Uber’s approach of ‘asking forgiveness, not permission’ seems to have worked in the rental and transport spaces, fintech startups typically can’t afford to take such big risks with the law.

It's things like this that have enticed many fintech companies to the UK, with EU rules meaning that a company headquarted and licensed in London can 'passport' its business to other EU states. That is likely to change in the wake of the Brexit vote - though the impact of the UK leaving the EU is as yet totally unknown, throwing up a million unanswered questions about what this means for the financial industry and what impact it will have on regulation. Howitt says it’s too early to tell what happens next.

“We have had a Brexit vote and not a Brexit,” Howitt tells bobsguide. “We do not know if the UK will leave the EU nor, if it does, what it will be part of - for example a EEA or Swiss-style bilateral arrangements for some sectors and freedom. I think that if the UK does leave the EU then we may expect more red-tape within the EU as the UK is a moderating influence that seeks pragmatic approaches to legislation and compliance. One would expect that even if the UK leaves the EU and the EEA much of the future EU law would still be followed in the UK in order to ensure continued access to the common market.”

Could Brexit serve as a boost to reg tech? Howitt says it could help give it an additional spur since it will increase further the potential complexity and costs of doing business across border and it will also force UK providers to internationalise their offerings much more quickly.

That chimes with what Ashley Finch, SVP business development at Ireland's Silverfinch, a firm that helps asset managers and insurers meet the requirements of Solvency II directive, says:

"In the short term, volatility has been the immediate impact but over time as that volatility normalises somewhat, the crucial aspects will be maintaining balance and a productive regulatory environment for all markets and participants and not becoming even more buried in red tape."

"Reg- tech was well established before Brexit but in times of uncertainty opportunity often arises so I am sure that they level of innovation currently and the speed of advancement within the reg-tech space, it will be well placed to capture opportunities as they arise."

Trends to watch

So what’s next for this space? We asked Trulioo's Jon Jones what he sees as the key drivers for change in this sector and he talked about the growing role of mobile in identity verification.

“The breadth of data available for organisations to leverage for identity verification is made possible by mobile technology,” says Jones. “There are over 5bn mobile phone users in the world today who have created a digital footprint through these devices. Information about each mobile user is being captured electronically and this information can be used by third parties to verify the user’s identity so that they can access products and services they want. Data is meaningless unless it is organised in a way that enables people to understand it, analyse it, manage it, and enable access by third parties.”

Howitt also talked about the evolution of know your customer (KYC) and the potential for emerging technology like blockchain and social media data.

“I see real developments being made regarding the use of online social network and e-commerce platform information for KYC and identity verification purposes,” says Howitt. “I also thing that we may soon see federated KYC using blockchain technology and that would be a very big change in approaches to how to own and share our identification information, financial information.”

Another trend is that reg tech become more forward-looking, helping FIs leverage data to make decisions around risk management and anticipate issues rather than fix them afterward - especially in the trading and asset management spaces.

"The burden of regulation is bringing some innovative and cohesive thinking that is almost self-defining a new discipline within the industry," says Silverfinch's Smith. "An increasingly regulatory driven environment has required much more alignment between market participants, particularly asset managers and their investors, which has created a swathe of new demands on all their businesses."

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