Wrap of Week #16: Blockchain Bitcoin & Crypto, Digital Gold, Retirement, Tradeplus24, Millenial Mortgages

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Millennial Mortgages – Can AI deliver a human touch to home lending?

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Every year $25 Trillion in new mortgages are issued. Mortgage is perhaps the biggest investment decision consumers make in their lifetime. However, the mortgage process is inefficient, highly intermediated with many pain points and remained has so without too many disruptions for decades.  Low interest rates and squeezed margins define the current state of the incumbent mortgage lenders, who can hardly think of a better way of doing business. Two startups Habito in the UK and Better in the US are using AI to add efficiencies to different parts of the Mortgage processes.

Habito is a UK based startup that is the first to use Chatbots to address the Mortgage advisory/broker space. Habito’s Digital Mortgage Advisor (DMA) looks up details of a customer’s financial life (e.g. employment, salary and personal life plans) with real-time market mortgage rates to calculate an indicative monthly payment. The DMA explains the impact the customer’s decision will have on the mortgage numbers as a traditional mortgage broker would, but in a fraction of the time (average 10 minutes). Habito is founded by Daniel Hegarty, who was Wonga’s head of Product, and is backed by angels including Transferwise CEO Taavet Hinrikus, Funding Circle’s founder Samir Desai and Yuri Milner.

Better, a startup based out of New York led by Vishal Garg, have managed to address the broader mortgage process, right from advising them on the right mortgage option, using AI ofcourse, to funding the mortgage. They have hired the CTO of Spotify to help them with AI capabilities that would personalise the mortgages to the customer’s financial profile. Since their launch in 2014 they have managed to fund over $500 Million in Loans. Earlier this year Better raised $15 Million from Kleiner Penkins and Goldman Sachs that valued them at $220 Million.

"I'm sorry if some of the 'affordability' questions we're require to ask may seem inappropriate."

A JD Power survey earlier this year, found that 62 per cent of people under 35 who bought a home this year said they would use a mobile app for a mortgage application, if their lender provided it. The home buying process, which is meant to be a happy phase in life, often turns out to be traumatic, filled with uncertainties. We have seen some startup activity in the real estate/proptech space (Purple bricks in the UK), real estate transaction management (on Blockchain), and real estate valuations using IoT data monitoring. However, the major pain points in the mortgage process have been broadly overlooked.

Mortgage Pain

Better and Habito have managed to look at the Mortgage lending process and improved it through clever technology, processes and business model changes. Let’s look at a few example pain points within the traditional mortgage process.

Inefficiency #1: Customers looking to buy a property typically need to factor in a few weeks to get a letter of verification (called Agreement in Principle in the UK). This letter states how much the customer can borrow, at what rates and what the monthly payments would be. So if by chance a customer found a property that he would like to move quick on, he would generally be disadvantaged. Cash only customers always have an advantage in real estate transactions.

The Millenial Way: Better have approached this as a two stage process. The first stage where they get information from the customer, and tell them what products are available for them. This is done by proprietory AI algorithms similar to Spotify’s algorithms to provide personalized music. At the end of this process customers would have a verified pre-approval letter reviewed by an underwriter. Better claim this letter would be available in 24 hours from the time the customer has made the request. The second stage kicks in after the customer has found a property, where the mortgage economics revolves around the property.

Inefficiency #2: The process of choosing the lender involves a lot of variables, however, customers generally go with the lowest overall cost of the mortgage (including various fees, upfront monies and Monthly EMIs) for the best period. They often lack visibility and guidance on what would be better for them, a larger upfront deposit or a larger monthly EMI.

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The Millenial way: Better provide complete transparency in terms of what is good for a particular customer – a higher upfront payment, or higher monthly EMI. This would depend on how long the customer intends to live in the property chosen, which in turn would decide if the break even would occur within that period.

Habito takes an unbiased and a personalised approach to choosing mortgages depending on the customers profile. The AI behind it ensures that customers are at the heart of the mortgage recommendations.

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Inefficiency #3: Mortgages often come with various costs attached to them, which is primarily because there is a person behind the scene trying to sell and close the deal for the lender, and this person needs to get paid. Also, mortgage brokers often sell products that get them better commissions

The Millenial Way: Better mortgage has no hidden costs, and it is completely free of admin charges. Better employs staff who will unblock the mortgage process, and help people through it, rather than sales staff to close deals. Their loan officers never get paid commissions. That’s a much needed change.

Habito charges equivalent fees across all mortgages as AI algorithms don’t have vested interest (yet). This ensures the customer gets the best product suited for his needs, everytime.

Inefficiency #4: Mortgage lenders offer a rate, but very often during or just before the process of the application increase the rates. I know a few friends and colleagues affected by this completely unacceptable approach by Mortgage lenders.

The Millenial Way: Better mortgages offer full transparency throughout the mortgage process. The use of technology to hold all mortgage information centrally, and loan officers who are not incentivised to mis-sell products helps too.

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As a Better customer, you can stay on the mortgage process 24 X 7, all 365 days. If a customer wanted to progress quickly on a property over a weekend (day or night), unlike high street banks, they would be able to get the required approval letters. That truly feels like a Millenial way to Mortgages!!

AI is no human

These are some interesting stories of efficiencies being added to the Mortgage process and business model, through intelligent AI algorithms. However, I firmly believe AI cannot completely replace a human on a Mortgage or an Insurance conversation. If I were going through a home buying process, or an insurance claim for a car accident, I prefer to talk to a human who understands the emotions of the process and treats it with empathy. However, I believe AI can add efficiencies, make the process unbiased, and provide personalised insights through thousands of data points that the human brain can’t cope with. The human in this process will just need to be – humane.

The US mortgage industry is $8.4 Trillion in size, and the top four fintech firms offering mortgages do just about $1 Billion in funding. There is still a long way for these firms to go, but a ground up approach to mortgages, cool technologies, and of course a human touch throughout the process can definitely proivde a happier home buying experience for customers.

Arunkumar Krishnakumar is a Fintech thought-leader and an investor. 

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Tradeplus24 CHF100m Fintech raise in Switzerland signals Insurance move into SME Lending 

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Note: the deal was done in CHF which is about parity with USD, so you can read that as $100m.

When I first started looking at the Swiss Fintech scene in 2014, my post was called: Zurich Fintech fans look jealously to London (I did point out that while London might have more VC, the Swiss trains and mountains were better).

A lot has changed in that time. A more updated view of a much more vibrant Swiss Fintech scene was captured here two years later:

In the two years between those two posts, four things happened:

  1. Swiss regulators drafted perhaps the most progressive Fintech License anywhere. That took almost everybody surprise. A prediction along these lines would have got only cynical laughter in 2014.
  2. Bitcoin became respectable because it is legal tender and can be bought at any train station and used to pay taxes and other government bills. The legality was known for a long time thanks to the strange history of the WIR (as we reported in March 2015) and that legality led to respectability and both are prerequisites for mainstream adoption.
  3. London suffered Brexit (what soccer fans call an “own goal”) making other places in geographic Europe more attractive.
  4. Some potentially great ventures are starting to emerge from Crypto Valley. Lykke is one to watch in our view – a proven entrepreneur using disruptive technology to execute on an ambitious vision.

A $100m Fintech raise in Switzerland in 2014 would have been inconceivable. In 2017 it is noteworthy as another sign of a rapidly maturing Fintech community in Switzerland.

The Tradeplus24 news has a big number to get our attention. However, it is the innovation behind that number which gets our scrutiny today.

I could only find the Tradeplus24 news on German language sites, so if that is an issue for you, here are the key facts:

– they raised CHF100m debt

– The debt is for lending to Swiss SME (note: they refer to KMU which translates to SME). This makes them a balance sheet lender, like Avant, not a marketplace lender like Lending Club. This means they have assured capital to offer rather than simply matching on a best efforts basis (our take is the latter is the better model long term but that you need balance sheet based lending to get a market going).

– The lender is a boutique investment firm called OceanoOne that connects lenders to what they describe as “sourcing engines” (which is how they categorize Tradeplus24). Lending platforms consistently tell us that the demand from lenders far outstrips the supply of good quality borrowers. Lenders are hungry for high quality debt with a good interest rate. OceanoOne’s proposition is having relationships with the sourcing engines that deliver that high quality debt (what OceanoOne calls “short duration, secured working capital finance”).

– Kessler & Co AG, a Swiss Insurance broker, is listed as a partner

– AIG, the global Insurance carrier that got into trouble in the Global Financial Crisis is also listed as a partner.

It is the role of the last two that is interesting. This is Insurance getting into SME Lending and that could be game-changing.

A Credit Rating for SME?

Classic Supply Chain Finance (see this interview with Orbian for an example) works very well if the buyer is a credit agency rated corporate. That gets something like 150 bp spread over LIBOR.

That is great for an SME who is at the final stage in the supply chain that supplies to a credit agency rated corporate. What about an SME that is further down the supply chain or that only sells to other SMEs?

The rest of the SMEs currently rely on one of two types of solution:

–      Receivables Financing, Factoring, Invoice Discounting. Whatever you call it, the credit rating is based on the seller not the buyer and the APR % compared to Supply Chain Finance is massive.

–      Credit approval based on bank processes. Lots of ventures have made this process more efficient by digitizing it, but it still relies on the data that banks have traditionally asked for such as tax returns and audited financial statements which are at best one input to a credit model. That can work in America and Europe where that data is easily accessible in digital format, but it is not game changing. It is far harder in the Rest of the world.

All of this goes away if SMEs can get a credit rating as easily as a corporate.

In the interview with Dianrong, we see an approach to this problem in China.

The Tradeplus24 approach is different. It brings Insurance into the mix. AsOceanoOne put it “An insurance or equal protection of investment grade quality against credit loss and fraud is in place for all pre-financed receivables. The purchase of the receivables occurs only when a credit insurance or an equal protection is in place and confirmed by the relevant protection provider.”

The role of AIG is critical. We cannot see the details yet, but credit market work with Insurance. Think of the Credit Default Swaps (CDS) that are credited with the Global Financial Crisis and in which AIG played a much criticized role. A cynical knee jerk reaction might be “here we go again, this must end badly”. Our take is that there is nothing wrong per se with securitization or the insurance of securitized debt. Both can lead to more efficiency and lower cost financing. The issue is data transparency and now, nearly 10 years after the GFC, we have had the Big Data revolution and that transparency is now possible. If that makes financing cheaper for millions of SMEs we can all cheer.

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Bernard Lunn is a Fintech thought-leader, investor and deal-maker. 

Get fresh daily insights from an amazing team of Fintech thought leaders around the world. Ride the Fintech wave by reading us daily in your email.

 

Why an inflexible retirement awaits those in the ‘flexible’ gig economy

In Australia, mandatory payments by an employer of 9.5 percent of a staff member’s salary into a retirement fund has become so accepted by the vast majority of Australian workers, that many pay the scheme cursory, if any real attention at all. As a result of this steady flow of payments into the industry’s 500 or so funds, by the end of 2016, regulatory bodies claimed $2.2 trillion in superannuation assets had been accumulated, up 7.4 percent since the previous year.

Today the superannuation balance for those currently retiring is estimated to be $292,500 for men and $138,150 for women. While still considered inadequate for a comfortable retirement, as the system continues to mature then those retiring decades from today are expected to see their average balance lift considerably.

Or will they? They changing nature of work and the rise of the gig economy has many worried that the resulting shift away from permanent employment to contracting and freelancing arrangements is putting significant pressure on this stalwart of Australia’s retirement framework.

While a small number of people engage in the gig economy full time today, the number is growing. In 2015 the Grattan Institute estimated around 80,000 Australians found short-term employment via online peer-to-peer platforms. And while this number is still relatively inconsequential, the freelance economy is booming. According to a study by Upwork, an estimated 4.1 million Australians, roughly one third of the workforce, have done freelance work in the past year.

And while gig economy workers may complement their weekend odd-jobs with a 9-5 during the week, freelancers tend to rely more heavily on contract work. They are also responsible for making their own superannuation contributions – something that tends to come last in the list of financial priorities. And while some freelancers may be in a position to negotiate super contributions, for many this is not the case.

Freelancers, for the most part, can be considered self employed. And superannuation stats for self-employed workers are dire, with roughly half the amount available at retirement compared to corporate employees. The same fate seems to be awaiting those in the growing gig economy.

Regulators and industry bodies are taking note. Reports of exploitation of workers in this space are on the rise, with companies like Deliveroo and Uber under attack in a number of jurisdictions for creating contract like employment structures that remove the need for benefits, like superannuation, to be paid. With more and more younger workers moving into these ‘flexible’ roles, and with more and more traditional businesses copying gig economy models, the long term effect on retirement savings is shaping up to be profound.

These macro-economic forces present opportunities for financial product providers to solve real problems. Default retirement planning – which by and large has been successful in its current state in Australia for a workforce made up of permanent employees – will need to undergo a radical transformation. The good news is governments are starting to take notice of the changing workforce dynamics, and the impact this will have on their future budgets. As a fintech startup, being ahead of this curve ever so slightly and leveraging this national interest approach could be a powerful position to occupy. In the US, Intuit, who forecast 7.6 million American workers will operate in the on-demand economy by 2020, has done exactly this by anticipating this shift and adjusting its product to suit. There is no question other financial startups could ride this wave as well.

Daily Fintech Advisers provides strategic consulting to organizations with business and investment interests in Fintech. Jessica Ellerm is a thought leader specializing in Small Business.

The wave of Gold trading technology is a game changer coming from the West

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Have you ever thought how much credit Betterment and Wealthfront merit, for the growth in passive investing, for pushing financial inclusion, for reducing costs? Do you realize how much Robos have changed the flow of funds into ETF vehicles?

Now take a minute to look at the early signs of how Blockchain is changing Gold markets. These past few weeks, there has been a series of noteworthy announcements around Gold trading technology.

Who cares?

We are already culturally trusting Gold and therefore, anything that improves Gold’s prospects as a store of value or as a means for exchange, is significant. Gold remains a candidate for a reserve currency and can also be used as trade collateral. Gold inherently has desirable features (e.g. limited supply, fungibility, ease of exchange). However, Gold markets are surprisingly old fashioned.

Did you realize that Gold prices were fixed twice a day via a conference all, up until 2015? Did you realize that only in 2015, Gold trading switched to an electronic pricing system? However, most trading of physical buillion still occurs in the OTC market and pricing is still fixed twice daily via the futures markets.

Did you realize that there is still no reliable real time system tracking the supply-side of Gold?

Did you realize that most physical gold is centrally stored with either government entities (like the Royal Mints) or banks?

There is a lot of room for improvement in the Gold trading market. Anything that can improve price discovery, settlement, counterparty risk, verification of the underlying deliverable, tracking of the supply in the market; is significant.

Any new possibilities to replace “paper gold” with solid backing of physical gold, is also a great improvement in the Gold trading.

Paper gold includes Gold certificates issued by banks and mints that give you exposure to gold, futures accounts, ETFs ect. All these are risky in a flash crash kind of scenario, in which there is not enough physical gold to back Paper Gold.

A small taste of the complex issues from the “paper gold” market:

Owners of gold exchange traded funds (ETFs) would be surprised and worried to discover that certain banks might be lending out gold that they have bought and believe that they own.

The leading gold ETF, GLD has been criticized by many analysts for its extremely complex structure and prospectus. Critics have also pointed out the possible conflict of interest in its relationships with HSBC and JPMorgan Chase which are believed to have large short positions in gold and overall lack of transparency. 

If as has been suggested, European banks are lending gold into the market that has come from exchange traded funds then this would validate the many concerns raised about the gold ETF market. Questions would again be asked as to whether many of the ETFs are fully backed by the gold that they claim to own in trust on behalf of clients.Source

What is the Gold tech innovation?

Towards the end of last year there were a dozen PR press releases about the Royal mint of Canada and the UK Royal Mint experimenting with blockchain technology to essentially digitize the gold they keep stored in their vaults. Bear in mind that is a predominantly institutional market but of course, there is some value in promoting the trustworthiness of a country as a trusted big player in the Gold market.

Right now, it seems that the UK Royal Mint is a front runner as they announced just before Easter that they are live testing trading on a CME platform of a Digital Asset – The Royal Mint Gold (RMG).

This is a partnership project amongst The UK Royal Mint (TRM), CME, Alpha Point and BitGo.

CME, the largest gold futures exchange, is offering the trading platform. TRM has agreed to digitized 1 billion worth of gold that is stored in its vaults. Alpha Point, a blockchain startup, has assisted in issuing a Token (issuer is TRM) representing a piece of the gold that TRM has agreed to digitize. Alpha Point has designed the permissioned private blockchain on which the RMG token can trade. BitGo, has designed the digital wallet that can store these tokens following a multi-signature procedure.

There are others participants that have also launched similar projects (making less noise in the press). Both the Euroclear exchange and the IEX exchange have similar projects announced last Fall.  Euroclear is also experimenting with the digitization of oil. They are collaborating on the digitization of the two commodities with Paxos, a Fintech whose proprietary ledger solution focused on post-trade settlement, is Bankchain. IEX has revelaed less about their moves. They have spun off a separate entity, TradeWind Markets, that is focused on digitizating commodities for their exchange.

Alpha Point is a blockchain tech company that offers a variety of blockchain solutions (more than 20 ledgers and fabrics, ETH, R3, Hyperledger etc plus its own proprietary ledger) with a focus on solutions to digitize, trade, and manage assets with blockchain technology. You can listen to a recent interview on Futuretech Podcast of Igor Telyatnikov, the President & the COO of Alpha Point who explains AlphaPoint’s secure, scalable, and fully customizable platform that can process nearly 1 million transactions per second (recall that bitcoin blcokchains can process 7 transations per second)

RMG is the first token from a government owned entity (issued by the TRM and representing ownership of gold in their vault). We will be seeing, probably by the end of 2017, multiple issuers and multiple tokens trading on various blockchains. Most of them seem to be permissioned and private (I have partial info about this).

There are other tokens issued from private companies, when buying physical gold from them – Digix GlobalCodeTract, and DinarDirham. Digix Global, for example, issues a Digix Gold Token (DGX) that represents the specific gold bullion bought through them and kept in a special, securitized vault. CodeTract’s Gold Token (GCT) or DinarDirham’s Dinarcoin (DNC) are the Digital Gold tokens if when buys gold through them respectively.

Where do we stand?

  • Does such kind of digitization of Gold reduce storage costs and therefore, allow to pass through these savings to investors? I think Not.
  • Does such kind of digitization of Gold reduce the counterparty risk associated with the entity offering the vault services? I think Not.
  • Does such kind of digitization of Gold improve price discovery and eventually lead to the elimination of the price fixing? I vote Yes keeping in mind that it is early stage of such a process.
  • What are the main benefits of the digitization of Gold with multiple issuers-tokens?  Immediate settlement of trades, secure verification of the quality underlying deliverable, tracking of the supply in the market! Replacement of “paper gold” (i.e. certificates or ETFs) by digital gold, which would mean elimination of the inherent risks associated with these derivatives in case of a bear market panic.
  • What is missing? Clearly, gold miners need to get involved in this process so that the digitization starts from there and not from the vaults. Clearly, the current choice of private chains creates interoperability issues.

And before wrapping up this post, I have to draw your attention to China which is testing the “waters” with Micro-Gold platforms. This is Not digitizisation of gold. This is actually growing the “paper gold” market online or via the Internet of Finance.

Tencent issued a new feature on WeChat for Valentine’s day, that allows you to send your loved ones not chocolate, not flowers, but Virtual Gold packets. This is similar to the Red envelope Wechat feature (i.e. digital money).

This feature is through a collaboration with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Essentially users can easily buy and sell gold as an investment from ICBC through the messaging platform.

The minimum amount of gold that can be bought is 0.001 grams – which on February 13 was sold at 28 fen. The maximum transaction limit to buy the gold is 100,000 yuan, which can get gift givers 364.856 grams of gold at current prices. So far, the feature is only available in China.

Once the gold is bought, they can then give out up to 100 gold packets at a time, with not more than 1 gram of gold per gold packet. But for Valentine’s Day, Tencent will increase the limit to 1.314 grams per gold packet, as the numbers 1314 in Chinese sounds similar to the Chinese saying “for the rest of my life”. Source

Efi Pylarinou is a Fintech thought-leader and an investor. 

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Blockchain Bitcoin & Crypto Weekly CXO Briefing Week 2

The Blockchain Bitcoin & Crypto Weekly CXO Briefing is all you need to know, each week, jargon free for CXO level business leaders and investors who will use this technology to change the world. Each week we select the 3 news items that matter and explain why and offer one expert opinion.

For the introduction and index to weekly posts please go here.

News Item 1: Bitcoin Pool ViaBTC says no to Segwit

News Decrypted: Last week we reported that a major Bitcoin miner (Bitmain) who has been backing the breakaway group (called Bitcoin Unlimited) has filed for a patent to a technology called ASICBOOST that would be harmed if Bitcoin used a technology called SegWit. For explanations/glossary please go to last week’s post. Our take on last week’s news was that this signaled the last bloody battle in the Bitcoin Civil War and that Bitcoin Core was winning.

The news this week is that another Bitcoin miner is saying no to Segwit.

Our Take: This week’s news seems to indicate the opposite of what we reported last week, but we hold to our conviction. Our take this week is that there are always skirmishes after a war is over. You could also say “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings” and that there is always some risk, but that does not invalidate that there is more upside than downside. If you read this week’s news item below the headline, it is more “not yet” than a no, despite the headline. You often get “headline negotiations” ie making a tough public statement followed by private negotiations.

News Item 2: Billionaire investor holds 10 percent of his life savings in bitcoin predicts price to hit 2000

News: Billionaire hedge fund investor Mike Novogratz, who made it into the Forbes billionaire list in 2008, revealed that he holds 10 percent of his net worth in Bitcoin and Ethereum.

Decrypted: Bitcoin price continues to rise and so we get forecasts that it will continue to rise. There are many more stories like this that are along the lines of “follow the brilliant investor leader”. Novogratz also invested in Ether. Another high profile investor making bullish statements is Tim Draper.

Our take: These investors are talking their book and they bought when the price was much lower, but that does not invalidate what they are saying. With the Bitcoin Civil War nearly over, there is more upside than downside, but nothing goes up in a straight line. A major Bitcoin hacking story is likely in 2017 and that will be a buying opportunity. It depends on your time horizon. If you view buying Bitcoin like a 10 year bet on a startup, these fluctuations are irrelevant.

News Item 3: Criminals who deal in bitcoins in Florida could soon be busted for money laundering.

News: Just because you use bitcoin to do something illegal, does not give you a defense.

Decrypted: This is only relevant as it drives mainstream sentiment and regulation. If the headline was “Criminals who deal in dollar bills in Florida could soon be busted for money laundering” it would not be significant.

Our Take: Regulators are in a quandary. On the one hand, bitcoin should be like cash – it is irrelevant as a defense for illegal activity. That is what this week’s news is about. On the other hand, banks and governments want to have control over cash and so don’t want bitcoin to be a legal currency and tax authorities prefer to see it like a commodity and to tax based on capital gains. The last sentence in the news article is interesting “But critics say the law could deliver a chilling effect on the bitcoin, which can be valuable in promoting commerce between Florida and countries such as Venezuela, where traditional banking systems have gone awry.” In short, money laundering out is bad, but money laundering in is good.

Opinion: Bitcoin continues to struggle ethereum looks strong

Why it is worth listening to: Ethereum is the only crypto currency with a market cap even comparable to Bitcoin and Ethereum is building the world’s first decentralized operating system.

Our take: Ether, like all Altcoins, have done well price-wise during the Bitcoin Civil War. If that is over, bitcoin price will rise and much of that will come from people converting Altcoins to Bitcoin. Ethereum could be the one exception to that. However, as a reality check it worth noting that few mainstream people have heard of Ethereum – this is reserved for crypto true believers . Also, the news last week was more about traction for Sidechains, which takes away some of the programmability benefits of Ethereum and to have a major differentiator, Ethereum needs to prove Proof Of Stake as an alternative to Proof Of Work and there is still real technical risk in that. If you love the idea of the world’s first decentralized operating system (I do), you may want to buy the Ether currency. As an investor, Ether at current price has a lot more risk than Bitcoin.

Bernard Lunn is a Fintech thought-leader and deal-maker. 

Get fresh daily insights from an amazing team of Fintech thought leaders around the world. Ride the Fintech wave by reading us daily in your email.

 

 

Wrap of Week #16: Blockchain Bitcoin & Crypto, Clear Bank, Goldfields, Instarem, Religare, Payments

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The Fintech Genome platform

Join any of the conversations on the Fintech Genome. The global community is sharing insights, creating great conversations, and business is starting to happen.

Check the latest topics that include Lending, bitcoin & blockchain, Web 3.0, API, ICOs etc.

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