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December 3, 2018


Building Blocks for the Sandbox

I just returned from a leave of absence to welcome my third child to this world. As I catch up on payments news, one theme emerging is the large number of state and federal regulatory bodies launching their own fintech sandboxes. Typically, these testing grounds allow businesses to experiment with various "building blocks" while they innovate. Some businesses are even allowed regulatory relief as they work out the kinks. As I've researched, I've found myself daydreaming about how my new little human also needs to work with the right building blocks, or core principles, to ensure he develops properly and "plays nice" in the sandbox.

But—back to work. What guidance do fintechs have available to them to grow and prosper?.

On July 31 of this year, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released a report suggesting regulatory reform to promote financial technology and innovation among both traditional financial institutions and nonbanks. The report in its entirety is worth a review, but I'll highlight some of it here.

The blueprint for a unified regulatory sandbox is still up for discussion, but the Treasury suggests a hierarchical structure, either overseen by a single regulator or by an entirely new regulator. The Treasury suggests that Congress will likely have to assist by passing legislation with the necessary preemptions to grant authority to the newly created agency or a newly named authoritative agency.

The report outlines these core principles of a unified regulatory sandbox:

  • Promote the adoption and growth of innovation and technological transformation in financial services.
  • Provide equal access to companies in various stages of the business lifecycle (e.g., startups and incumbents). [The regulator should define when a business could or should participate.]
  • Delineate clear and public processes and procedures, including a process by which firms enter and exit.
  • Provide targeted relief across multiple regulatory frameworks.
  • Offer the ability to achieve international regulatory cooperation or appropriate deference where applicable.
  • Maintain financial integrity, consumer protections, and investor protections commensurate with the scope of the project, not be based on the organization type (whether it's a bank or nonbank).
  • Increase the timeliness of regulator feedback offered throughout the product or service development lifecycle. [Slow regulator feedback is typically a deterrent for start-up participation.]

Clearly, the overarching intent of these principles is to help align guidance, standards, and regulation to meet the needs of a diverse group of participants. Should entities offering the same financial services be regulated similarly? More importantly, is such a mission readily achievable?

People have long recognized the fragmentation of the U.S. financial regulatory system. The number of agencies at the federal and state levels with a hand in financial services oversight creates inconsistencies and overlaps of powers. Fintech innovations even sometimes invite attention from regulators outside of the financial umbrella, regulators like the Federal Communications Commission or the Federal Trade Commission.

In the domain of financial services are kingdoms of industry. Take the payments kingdom, for example. Payments are interstate, global, and multi-schemed (each scheme with its own rules framework). And let's be honest, in the big picture of financial services innovations and in the minds of fintechs, payments are an afterthought, and they aren't front and center in business plans. Consumers want products or services; payments connect the dots. (In fact, the concept of invisible payments is only growing stronger.)

What is more, a fintech, even though it may have a payments component in its technology, might not identify itself as a fintech. And a business that doesn't see itself as a fintech is not going to get in line for a unified financial services regulator sandbox (though it might want to play in a payments regulator sandbox).

When regulatory restructuring takes place, I hope it will build a dedicated infrastructure to nurture the payments piece of fintech, so that all can play nice in the payments sandbox. (Insert crying baby.)

Photo of Jessica Washington By Jessica Washington, AAP, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

December 3, 2018 in bank supervision , emerging payments , financial services , fintech , innovation , regulations , regulators | Permalink

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