By Michael Feldwick, Head of UK and Ireland, Tinubu Square
In the banking sector blockchain technology is powering patents and platforms at leading international banks, with new announcements being made on a daily basis. Innovations range from blockchain systems to help asset managers create and manage legally compliant tokenised funds through to distributed ledger solutions for over-the-counter structured products. Such is the influence of blockchain, recent research amongst 1520 executives at financial services firms has found that 47% expect blockchain to improve data management, 46% to improve transparency and 40% to improve risk management.
Anyone working in banking or financial services knows that transactions of any kind come with a degree of risk, and even the slightest tip in the wrong direction can be reputationally dangerous and financially costly. However, despite the apparent benefits of blockchain in managing risk, there are some working in the sector who are sceptical about the new technology kid on the block.
Often described as a digital ledger, blockchain first emerged as the architecture that underpins cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. It is a distributed database without a centralised server, that adds new data in the form of blocks to a shared electronic ledger. These blocks can be added by different parties in a transaction and include contracts, payments, legal documents, etc, but what sets this ‘database’ apart is that blockchain records cannot be altered or amended easily or without detection.
There are some obvious advantages. The inexorable rise in cyberwarfare with incidents of hacking and ransomware occurring more and more frequently, are a constant threat to financial organisations. Blockchain is able to withstand malicious attacks more effectively than traditional platforms. In addition, the permanent nature of the technology means that records, transactions, policies and evidence are verifiable in the future in exactly the same condition as the day they were written. The paperwork involved in creating insurance certificates, for example, will be a thing of the past because the transaction is permanently written to the blockchain.
These benefits aside, the arrival of blockchainhas caused some disquiet. Insurance companies are questioning whether their policies provide the necessary protection for clients that maintain blockchain assets. Companies offering financial services whooperate overseas are considering how they remain within regulatory guidelines whilst benefiting from blockchain technology. Credit managers wonder if they still have a role to play if the structure of the technology provides all the security needed for credit transactions, and accountants and financial department heads are concerned about disruptions to the traditional accounting methods of invoicing, payment processing and contracts.
The banking, credit, insurance and accountancy industries do have valid questions, but they are already immersed in considerable change processes, which may be colouring their views. The credit insurance sector, for example, is looking at how it can re-shape the services it offers to customers and maximise opportunities afforded by emerging markets. Accountancy is undergoing a shift as companies move their clients and their practices onto the cloud for the ‘Making Tax Digital’ initiative. And banks not only have to contend with massive digital developments, but also meet the rapidly changing attitudes and expectations of their customers. Given all of this, it is understandable thatthere is resistance to breaking yet more established conventions, which is why blockchain is being treated with caution.
The fact is, however, that the adoption of blockchain is likely to take on its own momentum. It is widely predicted to be the year in which it makes its mark on individuals looking to take back control of their online transactions.Financial services companies will need to put aside their fears as they will be expected not just to follow suit, but to lead the way.
In the recent Berne Union Yearbook, a report written by the International Union of Credit and Investment Insurers, blockchain technology was analysed and discussed repeatedly. Senior industry spokespeople agreed that this technology,alongside other digital developments, represents the shape of the industry to come.
The financial services sector, both at a B2B and B2C level, has to compete on a new stage, and develop strategies to engage clients more meaningfully. Industry trends indicate that greater integration, greater transparency, greater dialogue and greater outreach will be the priorities of the coming years. Bespoke or specialised services from banks, insurance companies, accountancy practices and the like, must address individual needs in different geographical territories and industries. This means communicating more effectively and delivering real-time information about risk and opportunity.
Technology is an essential element of this. It allows finance companies to make informed decisions based on accurate information, it speeds up processes, it enhances client relationships, and it stores data securely. Even payments, which may continue for some time to be transferred in the traditional way, will eventually move onto blockchain-basedplatforms.
Whilst caution is advisable, sceptical credit managers, accountants and insurance professionals must realise that blockchain digitalisation technology is strategically vital. Of course, the biggest challenge to its rapid and widespread disemmination comes from detractors who resist collaboration with technology leaders, but ultimately, the opportunities that blockchain affords must be realised so that the industry can benefit and not be left behind in the digital race.
IMF lifts global growth forecast for 2021, still sees ‘exceptional uncertainty’
By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday raised its forecast for global economic growth in 2021 and said the coronavirus-triggered downturn in 2020 would be nearly a full percentage point less severe than expected.
It said multiple vaccine approvals and the launch of vaccinations in some countries in December had boosted hopes of an eventual end to the pandemic that has now infected nearly 100 million people and claimed the lives of over 2.1 million globally.
But it warned that the world economy continued to face “exceptional uncertainty” and new waves of COVID-19 infections and variants posed risks, and global activity would remain well below pre-COVID projections made one year ago.
Close to 90 million people are likely to fall below the extreme poverty threshold during 2020-2021, with the pandemic wiping out progress made in reducing poverty over the past two decades. Large numbers of people remained unemployed and underemployed in many countries, including the United States.
In its latest World Economic Outlook, the IMF forecast a 2020 global contraction of 3.5%, an improvement of 0.9 percentage points from the 4.4% slump predicted in October, reflecting stronger-than-expected momentum in the second half of 2020.
It predicted global growth of 5.5% in 2021, an increase of 0.3 percentage points from the October forecast, citing expectations of a vaccine-powered uptick later in the year and added policy support in the United States, Japan and a few other large economies.
It said the U.S. economy – the largest in the world – was expected to grow by 5.1% in 2021, an upward revision of 2 percentage points attributed to carryover from strong momentum in the second half of 2020 and the benefit accruing from $900 billion in additional fiscal support approved in December.
The forecast would likely rise further if the U.S. Congress passes a $1.9 trillion relief package proposed by newly inaugurated President Joe Biden, economists say.
China’s economy is expected to expand by 8.1% in 2021 and 5.6% in 2022, compared with its October forecasts of 8.2% and 5.8%, respectively, while India’s economy is seen growing 11.5% in 2021, up 2.7 percentage points from the October forecast after a stronger-than-expected recovering in 2020.
The Fund said countries should continue to support their economies until activity normalized to limit persistent damage from the deep recession of the past year.
Low-income countries would need continued support through grants, low-interest loans and debt relief, and some countries may require debt restructuring, the IMF said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)
Leon Black step downs as Apollo CEO after review of Epstein ties
By Mike Spector and Chibuike Oguh
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Leon Black said on Monday he would step down as chief executive at Apollo Global Management Inc, following an independent review of his ties to the late financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
While Black, whose net worth is pegged by Forbes at $8.2 billion, will remain Apollo’s chairman, his decision to step down illustrates how doing business with Epstein weighed on the reputation of one of Wall Street’s most prominent investment firms. Black co-founded Apollo 31 years ago.
Apollo said it plans to change its corporate governance structure, doing away with shares with special voting rights that currently give Black and other co-founders effective control of the firm.
The independent review, conducted by law firm Dechert LLP, found Black was not involved in any way with Epstein’s criminal activities. Black paid Epstein $158 million for advice on tax and estate planning and related services between 2012 and 2017, according to the review.
Black, 69, said that although the review confirmed he did not engage in any wrongdoing, he “deeply” regretted his involvement with Epstein.
“I hope that the results of the review, and related enhancements … will reaffirm to you that Apollo is dedicated to the highest levels of transparency and governance,” Black wrote in a note to Apollo fund investors. He will step down as CEO no later than July 31.
Apollo co-founder Marc Rowan, 58, will take over as CEO.
Rowan has often kept a low-key profile compared with Apollo’s other co-founder, Joshua Harris, 56, and spearheaded many initiatives that turned Apollo into a credit investment giant, including the permanent capital base the firm enjoys through its ties to reinsurer Athene Holding Ltd.
The revelations of Black’s ties to Epstein took a toll on Apollo, which Black turned into one of the world’s largest private equity groups. Apollo executives had warned in October that some investors had paused their commitments to the buyout firm’s funds as they awaited the review’s findings.
Apollo shares are down 1% since the New York Times reported on Oct. 12 that Black paid at least $50 million to Epstein for advice and services, when most of his clients had deserted him.
Over the same period, shares of peers Blackstone Group Inc, KKR & Co Inc and Carlyle Group Inc are up 19%, 10% and 23%, respectively.
“We think a large number of (Apollo fund investors) took a ‘pause’, and we believe the outcome (of the review) and changes today will cause most of them to return to allocating to future Apollo funds,” Credit Suisse analysts wrote in a research note.
Apollo shares jumped 4% to $47.65 in after-hours trading on Monday.
“We continue to follow these events closely and will evaluate how Apollo addresses its issues,” the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, one of the largest U.S. public pension funds and an Apollo investor, said in a statement.
Epstein was found dead at age 66 in August 2019 in a Manhattan jail, while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges for allegedly abusing dozens of underage girls in Manhattan and Florida from 2002 to 2005. New York City’s chief medical examiner ruled that the cause of death was suicide by hanging.
Black previously said he had paid millions of dollars to Epstein, but the exact size of his payments was revealed for the first time on Monday. Beyond the $158 million in payments, Black made two loans to Epstein totaling $30.5 million in early 2017.
Dechert said in its report that Black’s social ties with Epstein, who built his fortune by endearing himself to powerful figures in high society, went back to the mid-1990s.
Epstein won Black’s trust by resolving an estate tax issue for him in 2012 potentially worth at least $500 million, the report said. He ended up advising Black on various aspects of his personal financial affairs, from his family office and airplane to his yacht and artwork.
Black believed that Epstein provided advice over the years that conferred between $1 billion and $2 billion in value to him, according to the Dechert report. Black said in his note to investors that he had paid Epstein a fee equivalent to 5% of the value he generated on an after-tax basis, and not tied to hourly rates.
Black and Epstein’s relationship deteriorated after Epstein failed to repay $20 million of the loans and Black refused to pay tens of millions of dollars in fees that Epstein demanded, according to the Dechert report.
They severed ties in October 2018, according to the report. Black knew Epstein had been convicted in Florida a decade earlier for soliciting prostitution from a minor, the Dechert report said, but there was no evidence suggesting Black had knowledge of the other alleged crimes before they were publicly reported in late 2018, culminating in Epstein’s July 2019 arrest.
On Monday, Black pledged $200 million toward “initiatives that seek to achieve gender equality and protect and empower women,” as well as helping survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.
Apollo said it would pursue a “one share, one vote” corporate governance structure that would do away with shares with special voting rights. It said the move could qualify it for listing on the S&P Global indices.
Apollo also said it would seek to give its board more authority to oversee its business, eroding the power of its executive committee led by Black.
The board will be expanded to include four new independent directors, including Avid Partners founder Pamela Joyner and physician and scientist Siddhartha Mukherjee, Apollo said. Apollo co-Presidents Scott Kleinman and James Zelter will join the board and take on increased responsibility running day-to-day operations.
Apollo had about $433 billion in assets under management as of the end of September.
(Reporting by Mike Spector and Chibuike Oguh; Additional reporting by Lawrence Delevigne and Jessica DiNapoli in New York; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Leslie Adler and Kim Coghill)
EU sees no cliff-edge ending for COVID fiscal stimulus
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European governments will not need to abruptly end fiscal support for their economies after the pandemic, top officials said on Monday, noting that any withdrawal of stimulus would be carried out gradually and only once the economy has recovered.
Euro zone public debt rose sharply during 2020 and is likely to exceed 100% of GDP this year as governments borrow to help individuals and businesses survive lockdowns.
The higher debt raises concern about how to deal with it down the road and when to start cutting it again, since the EU last year suspended its rules limiting budget deficits and debt, known as the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP).
EU finance ministers are to discuss when to reintroduce any borrowing limits in the second quarter of this year.
“I believe it important that finance ministers debate and reach a common understanding on the appropriate fiscal stance by the summer. This can then serve as guidance for the preparation of their draft budgetary plans for 2022,” the chairman of the euro zone’s group of finance ministers, Paschal Donohoe, said on Monday.
“To avoid any misunderstanding, let me stress that this is not about an imminent withdrawal of fiscal stimulus,” he told the economic committee of the European Parliament.
“We all agree that our immediate priority is to shield our citizens, in particular younger cohorts and those most exposed to the crisis. There must be no cliff-edges,” he said.
Joao Leao, the finance minister of Portugal which holds the rotating presidency of the EU and therefore sets the agenda for EU finance ministers’ work until June, was equally cautious.
“We should not withdraw stimulus too early. We need to make sure the suspension clause for the SGP remains in force at least until we return to pre-crisis economic figures,” he told the committee. “We need to make sure jobs are maintained as well as the production capacity of companies.”
He said first cash from the EU’s 750 billion euro post-COVID economic recovery programme should reach the economy in the first half of the year.
“Real funding should be getting to the economy before the summer or in early part of the summer,” he said.
(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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