【英语财经】信息科技能否颠覆金融业? Good news — fintech could disrupt finance

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2016-3-11 23:19

小艾摘要: Information technology has disrupted the entertainment, media and retail businesses and, most recently, the supply of hotel rooms and taxis. Is it going to do the same to finance? My first response is ...
Good news — fintech could disrupt finance
Information technology has disrupted the entertainment, media and retail businesses and, most recently, the supply of hotel rooms and taxis. Is it going to do the same to finance? My first response is: please. My second response is: yes. As Bill Gates has said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.” This advice applies to people in the business itself, but also to policymakers.

Finance is an information business. Indeed it already spends a higher share of its revenues on information technology than any other. It seems ripe for disruption by information technologies. Consider its three essential functions: payment; intermediation between savings and investment; and insurance. All these activities are information-intensive. People need to know accounts have been settled. They need to understand how their wealth is being employed and to know that their risks are covered. Not least, the intermediaries need to understand what they are doing.

Today, banks and insurance companies are the core financial institutions. Banks manage payments systems, create most of the economy’s money, are responsible for a large proportion of financial intermediation, are creators of financial instruments and act as market-makers and agents. Similarly, insurance companies play the central role in assessing and managing risks.

Why might one hope that new financial technology, or “Fintech” as it is known, will transform these businesses? The answer, especially for banking, is that they are currently not done very well. Banking seems inefficient, costly, riddled with conflicts of interest, prone to unethical behaviour, and, not least, able to generate huge crises.

In a recent speech on the possibilities for a financial revolution, Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England notes that, astonishingly, the unit cost of US financial intermediation seems to be unchanged over a century (see chart). Moreover, income from finance simply rises and falls with the value of assets. That suggests a huge amount of rent-extraction. Additionally, 10m US households and 1.5m UK adults still have no bank accounts. Worldwide, banks generate a staggering $1.7tn in revenue, 40 per cent of the total, from the job of making payments. In the computer age, settlement can still take hours or days.

On behaviour, as John Kay has written, “parts of the financial sector today?.?.?.?demonstrate the lowest ethical standards of any legal industry”. The payment of vast fines seems to be viewed as just a cost of doing business. Finally, the post-2007 banking crises were as big as any in the past. That their economic impact was not still worse than earlier was due to the willingness of governments to bail banks out.

New technology might help change this in at least two ways. First, it might transform payments. One possibility is real-time settlement via distributed ledgers. The advantages of instantaneous settlement are evident. The advantage of distributed ledgers, an element in bitcoin’s “blockchain” technology, is an improvement in the robustness of record-keeping. Instead of centralised accounts, the database would be shared across a network of sites, all of which would hold an identical copy. Such technologies might revolutionise domestic and foreign payments. Many businesses are already pursuing this possibility.

A second transformation might be via peer-to-peer lending, in which new platforms disintermediate the traditional businesses in matching savers with investments. Such lending is growing rapidly (see chart). The theory here is that computerised information might allow savers to dispense with the (costly) services of bankers altogether.

Optimists imagine a future in which payments, the creation of money (unquestionably liquid and safe assets), and intermediation would be separated. In this case, the capacity of the banking sector to create havoc would be reduced and so would the perils created by the state’s backstop to private institutions. It is, however, far too early to be confident of such benefits. Indeed it is easy to see that new record-keeping and payments systems would create huge security issues. Similarly, opportunities for malfeasance also exist on peer-to-peer platforms. Indeed, these are inevitable with transactions that rest on promises against an inherently uncertain future.

A further potential source of transformation is via “big data”. That might transform the quality of lending, for example, which would be a good thing. But the most striking effects are likely to be in insurance. With new monitoring devices, insurers might gain direct knowledge of the quality of driving or of the state of their clients’ health. Such information might be used to motivate improvements in behaviour. But it is also possible to imagine improvements in information so profound that risk pools — the basic building blocks of insurance — disappear. If, for example, the insurer knew with a high level of certainty that some customers would get a given disease, that person might become uninsurable. In insurance, some ignorance is bliss. At the least, the way in which knowledge is obtained and used could create huge social questions.

On balance, the opportunities afforded by the application of information technologies to our financial system seem large. The difficulty might rather be to ensure that the benefits accrue this time to the public rather than to a small number of incumbents or even to their more dynamic replacements. Finance, particularly banking, does need a revolution. But this is one area where policymakers cannot just assume things will work out well. It is because finance is so important that a revolution is needed. But for that very reason the revolution also requires careful watching.

信息技术已经颠覆了娱乐、媒体和零售业,最近还颠覆了酒店客房和出租车的供应。信息技术是否也会颠覆金融业呢?我的第一反应是:那就太好了。我接下来的反应是:是的。正如比尔?盖茨(Bill Gates)所说的,“我们总是高估接下来2年将要发生的改变,低估接下来10年将要发生的改变。不要麻痹大意,以为不用采取行动。”这个建议既适用于业内人士,也适用于政策制定者。

金融业是一个信息产业。事实上,金融业对信息科技的投入占其收入的比重已经高过任何其他行业。信息科技颠覆金融业的时机似乎业已成熟。想一想金融业的三大基本功能:支付、连接储蓄与投资的中介、保险。这些活动都是信息密集型的。人们需要了解账务已经结清,需要了解他们的财富用到了何处,还需要了解他们的风险已经得到保障。尤其是,中介机构需要明白它们自己在做什么。

今天,银行和保险公司是核心金融机构。银行管理着支付系统,创造经济中的大部分货币,承担了一大部分金融中介职责,是金融工具的创造者,还扮演着做市商和代理人的角色。类似的,保险公司在风险的评估和管理中发挥着核心作用。

人们为什么希望新的金融科技(即“Fintech”)会改变这些行业呢?尤其是对银行业而言,答案是这些行业目前的经营方式不是很好。眼下银行业似乎效率低下、成本高昂,充斥着利益冲突,容易滋生不道德行为,特别是还能够产生巨大的危机。

最近英国央行(BoE)的安德鲁?霍尔丹(Andrew Haldane)在一次关于金融革命可能性的演讲中指出,美国的金融中介单位成本一百多年来似乎都没有变化(见图一),这令人震惊。并且,金融业的收入只不过随着资产价值的变化而增减。这表明了金融业从经手的资金中捞取了大量油水。此外,有1000万美国家庭和150万英国成年人依然没有银行账户。世界范围内,银行从支付服务中获得的收入达到令人咋舌的1.7万亿美元,占银行业总收入的40%。我们已经进入计算机时代,结算却依然可能要花上数小时乃至数天时间。

图一

正如约翰?凯(John Kay)所写的,就行为而言,“当今金融业部分领域……表现出的道德水准是所有合法行业中最低的”。巨额罚款支出似乎被视为只不过是一项经营成本。最后一点,2007年后的银行业危机不比过去任何一场危机小。它们对经济的冲击之所以不如以往严重,是因为政府愿意为银行纾困。

新科技在至少两个方面或许有助于改变这种状况。首先,新科技可能会改变支付。一种可能性是通过分布式台账进行实时结算。即时结算的优点很明显。分布式台账是比特币“区块链”(blockchain)技术的一部分,其优点是能让簿记更加健全。和集中式台账不同,分布式台账的数据库将在网络内的各个站点中共享,所有站点都拥有相同的副本。这类技术可能会使境内和境外支付发生革命。许多企业已经在寻求实现这一可能性。

另一种改变可能会借由“个人对个人”(P2P)借贷来实现。在P2P借贷中,新的平台使得传统行业不再充当将储户和投资匹配起来的中介。这类借贷正在快速增长(见图二)。理论上,这种计算机化的信息可能会让储户得以彻底摒弃(成本高昂的)银行业服务。

图二

在乐观主义者设想的未来中,支付、货币(绝对高流动性且安全的资产)创造、以及中介功能会分开。在这种情况下,银行业造成危害的能力,以及国家支援私营机构所带来的危险都将降低。然而,确信这些好处还为时过早。事实上,不难看出,新的簿记和支付系统将带来巨大的安全问题。类似的,不法行为在P2P平台上也有空子可钻。事实上,未来本质上是不确定的,对于依赖对未来的承诺的交易,这些问题是不可避免的。

还有一种可能的改变源于“大数据”。比如,大数据可能改变借贷质量,这将是一件好事。但保险业可能会受到最为显著的影响。通过新的监控设备,保险公司或许能够直接掌握有关客户的驾驶质量或健康状况的信息。这类信息或许能被用于激励人们改善行为。但也有可能想象,人们能够获知的信息会出现如此深刻的改善,以至于作为保险业基石的风险池消失了。比如,如果保险公司能够比较确定地知道某位客户将罹患某种疾病,这个人可能就上不了保险了。在保险业中,一定程度的无知是好事。至少,信息的获取和使用方式可能造成巨大的社会问题。

总的来说,将信息技术应用于我们的金融体系似乎能带来很大的机会。困难可能在于,如何确保这一次信息技术带来的好处能惠及大众,而不是只惠及少数既得利益者,乃至它们更活跃的替代者。金融业,尤其是银行业,的确需要一场革命。但金融业关系重大,政策制定者不能就这么想当然地认为事情会顺利进行。金融业之所以需要一场革命,正是因为它如此重要。但也正是因为金融业如此重要,这场革命才需要我们小心对待、密切关注。

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