The Three Big Transitions Reshaping Finance
Three phenomena have exploded since COVID: digital assets, Robinhood, and SPACs.
Three phenomena have exploded since COVID: digital assets, Robinhood, and SPACs.
Ever since Covid disrupted our lives, two themes have emerged. First, a feeling that we are living in an antechamber to a new and still-undefined era. And second, a pattern of hybrids, from homes converted into hybrid spaces of living/working/schooling, to expectations of a new office hybrid that will mix virtual and in-person meetings.
But what about the world of finance and securities markets? There, too, we can find patterns of transition and hybrids. Consider three phenomena that began before Covid but have exploded in growth since then: digital assets, Robinhood, and SPACs.
Start with the rise of cryptocurrencies, digital tokens and other such assets, which remain very much in a transitory stage (like the “Wild West,” SEC Chairman Gary Gensler recently observed). Even as the crypto asset class has grown to an estimated $1.6 trillion, basic questions remain unanswered. Are digital tokens securities or commodities? Are decentralized finance platforms really securities exchanges? Are data miners and other digital service providers really broker-dealers? Should the SEC permit Bitcoin ETFs? And who should regulate these products, services and entities—the SEC, the CFTC, or banking regulators?
Gensler has called on Congress to give the SEC “additional authorities to prevent transactions, products, and platforms from falling between regulatory cracks.” Specifically, he wants “additional plenary authority to write rules for and attach guardrails to crypto trading and lending.” And the U.S. House has passed a bill (H.R. 1602, the Eliminate Barriers to Innovation Act of 2021), which would require the SEC and CFTC to establish a working group on digital assets.
Some of what passes as crypto innovations pretty clearly seems to be old-fashioned investment products dressed up in digital garb. That would include any stablecoins that function like money market funds and those tokens that fall within the definition of a security. Nonetheless, there is no denying that crypto mixes digital technology with traditional forms of finance in a hybrid of innovation.
Second, consider Robinhood, which has exploded into view along with Redditor-fueled moonshot trades in meme stocks. Its proclaimed mission “to democratise finance for all” may invite skepticism, but the company can make a strong claim to having attracted a surge of first-time retail investors, representing a younger and more ethnically diverse customer base. Powering that success is Robinhood’s sleek mobile app—and its arsenal of gamification tools to entice and engage customers. But do the nudges and gamification tools cross the line into the realm of investment advice?
“Once individuals become customers, Robinhood relentlessly bombards them with a number of strategies designed to encourage and incentivize continuous and repeated engagement with this application,” the Massachusetts state securities regulator alleges in a lawsuit against Robinhood. The complaint points to several such techniques, from celebrating customer trades with confetti (a practice Robinhood has since abandoned) to plying customers with lists of most-traded and most-popular securities on its platform.
Should practices like these be subject to the fiduciary standard of an investment adviser? Or to the new Best Interest standard for broker-dealers? Robinhood has called the regulator elitist and says it isn’t making recommendations. Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, these gamification techniques make Robinhood appear different in kind from the (boring?) practices of traditional broker-dealers that merely execute customers’ trades. The gamification of mobile trading apps may represent a hybrid between standard broker-dealer practices and full-fledged investment advice.
Third, consider SPACs, which have been around since 2003 but have exploded in popularity in the Covid era. In a hugely successful marketing campaign, SPACs have presented themselves as a kind of poor man’s private equity. If true, that would make SPACs a hybrid between private investment opportunities and public markets.
The deSPAC merger—the key event in the life of a SPAC—is also a hybrid. This is when the SPAC merges with a private operating company, allowing the target to become a public company without going through an IPO. Or is the merger itself really an IPO?
That’s precisely the question raised by John Coates, a Harvard Law professor who has become a top SEC official. In a provocative speech on April 8, Coates argued that the deSPAC merger is an initial public offering, because it is the first time the private operating company is introduced to the public. One speech, however, does not make SEC policy. And Coates’ theory remains untested in court. Nonetheless, it suggests how the deSPAC merger can be considered a hybrid between traditional forms of IPO and merger transactions.
At a House Financial Services subcommittee hearing on May 24, Michael San Nicolas, Guam’s delegate, asked how a SPAC differed from a closed-end equity (mutual) fund. The question may have seemed arcane at the time, but in retrospect it appears to have foreshadowed a series of blockbuster lawsuits against SPACs. Former SEC Commissioner Robert J. Jackson, Jr. and Yale Law Professor John Morley have joined in a lawsuit against Bill Ackman’s SPAC, Pershing Square Tontine Holdings Ltd. (ticker: PSTH), which raised $4 billion to become the single largest SPAC, and followed up with suits against two other SPACs, GO Acquisition Corp. and E.Merge Technology. The suits allege that the SPACs are really investment companies, like mutual funds and ETFs, because they invest in securities while searching for a merger partner.
“Under the [Investment Company Act of 1940], an Investment Company is an entity whose primary business is investing in securities,” the lawsuit against PSTH argues. “And investing in securities is basically the only thing that PSTH has ever done.”
Ackman says the suit against his SPAC is meritless, but warns, “Because the basic issues raised here apply to every SPAC, a successful claim would imply that every SPAC may also be an illegal investment company.” The suit suggests one more way that SPACs could be considered a hybrid—a cross between an investment company (like a mutual fund) and a publicly traded company.
One wonders how we will look back on these market developments a decade from now. Will SPACs, cryptoassets, and mobile trading apps be seen as hybrids that emerged in the antechamber we are living in now?
Reprinted by permission of Barron’s. Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: September 2, 2021.
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Investors are taming impulsive money moves by adding a little friction to financial transactions
To break the day-trading habit that cost him friendships and sleep, crypto fund manager Thomas Meenink first tried meditation and cycling. They proved no substitute for the high he got scrolling through investing forums, he said.
Instead, he took a digital breath. He installed software that imposed a 20-second delay whenever he tried to open CoinStats or Coinbase.
Twenty seconds might not seem like much, but feels excruciating in smartphone time, he said. As a result, he checks his accounts 60% less.
“I have to consciously make an effort to go look at stuff that I actually want to know instead of scrolling through feeds and endless conversations about stuff that is actually not very useful,” he said.
More people are adding friction to curb all types of impulsive behaviour. App-limiting services such as One Sec and Opal were originally designed to help users cut back on social-media scrolling.
Now, they are being put to personal-finance use by individuals and some banking and investing platforms. On One Sec, the number of customers using the app to add a delay to trading or banking apps more than quintupled between 2021 and 2022. Opal says roughly 5% of its 100,000 active users rely on the app to help spend less time on finance apps, and 22% use it to block shopping apps such as Amazon.com Inc.
Economic researchers and psychologists say introducing friction into more apps can help people act in their own best interests. Whether we are trading or scrolling social media, the impulsive, automatic decision-making parts of our brains tend to win out over our more measured critical thinking when we use our smartphones, said Ankit Kalda, a finance professor at Indiana University who has studied the impact of mobile trading apps on investor behaviour.
His 2021 study tracked the behaviour of investors on different platforms over seven years and found that experienced day traders made more frequent, riskier bets and generated worse returns when using a smartphone than when using a desktop trading tool.
Most financial-technology innovation over the past decade focused on reducing the friction of moving money around to enable faster and more seamless transactions. Apps such as Venmo made it easier to pay the babysitter or split a bill with friends, and digital brokerages such as Robinhood streamlined mobile trading of stocks and crypto.
These innovations often lead customers to trade or buy more to the benefit of investing and finance platforms. But now, some customers are finding ways to slow the process. Meanwhile, some companies are experimenting with ways to create speed bumps to protect users from their own worst instincts.
When investing app Stash launched retirement accounts for customers in 2017, its customer-service representatives were flooded with calls from panicked customers who moved quickly to open up IRAs without understanding there would be penalties for early withdrawals. Stash funded the accounts in milliseconds once a customer opted in, said co-founder Ed Robinson.
So to reduce the number of IRAs funded on impulse, the company added a fake loading page with additional education screens to extend the product’s onboarding process to about 20 seconds. The change led to lower call-centre volume and a higher rate of customers deciding to keep the accounts funded.
“It’s still relatively quick,” Mr. Robinson said, but those extra steps “allow your brain to catch up.”
Some big financial decisions such as applying for a mortgage or saving for retirement can benefit from these speed bumps, according to ReD Associates, a consulting firm that specialises in using anthropological research to inform design of financial products and other services. More companies are starting to realise they can actually improve customer experiences by slowing things down, said Mikkel Krenchel, a partner at the firm.
“This idea of looking for sustainable behaviour, as opposed to just maximal behaviour is probably the mind-set that firms will try to adopt,” he said.
Slowing down processing times can help build trust, said Chianoo Adrian, a managing director at Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America. When the money manager launched its online retirement checkup tool last year, customers were initially unsettled by how fast the website estimated their projected lifetime incomes.
“We got some feedback during our testing that individuals would say ‘Well, how did you know that already? Are you sure you took in all my responses?’ ” she said. The company found that the delay increased credibility with customers, she added.
For others, a delay might not be enough to break undesirable habits.
More people have been seeking treatment for day-trading addictions in recent years, said Lin Sternlicht, co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist, who has seen an increase in cases since the start of the pandemic.
“By the time individuals seek out professional help they are usually experiencing a crisis, and there is often pressure to seek help from a loved one,” she said.
She recommends people who believe they might have a day-trading problem unsubscribe from notifications and emails from related companies and change the color scheme on the trading apps to grayscale, which has been found to make devices less addictive. In extreme cases, people might want to consider deleting apps entirely.
For Perjan Duro, an app developer in Berlin, a 20-second delay wasn’t enough. A few months after he installed One Sec, he went a step further and deleted the app for his retirement account.
“If you don’t have it on your phone, [that] helps you avoid that bad decision,” he said.
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