Analysis

Could the Coronavirus Be a Catalyst for Fintech?

Could the coronavirus outbreak potentially act as a boon for fintech companies who can act efficiently and thoughtfully?

It seems that this week was the week that the world truly began to take the spread of the coronavirus seriously. With more than 138,580 cases worldwide and more than 5,000 deaths, societies around the world are scrambling to find ways to slow the spread.

Indeed, statements of ‘not if, but when’ have been made by global health officials in weeks prior, the economic cliff dive that took place on Monday forced some of the world’s more reluctant powers to own up to the fact that the impact of the virus will be–and already is–severe.

Indeed, financial markets have plummeted throughout the week. At press time, the S&P500 was down more than 9.5% in the last 24 hours, and down nearly 500 points for the week; Brent Crude, which is largely regarded as the international price standard for crude oil, remained more than 32 percent below where it fell from at the beginning of the week.

The price of Bitcoin, which some analysts had slated to rise during an event like a global pandemic, had–at one point, earlier today–down 33 percent in the last 24 hours. The value of BTC has fallen nearly 50 percent during the last week–last Friday, Bitcoin was trading around $9,100; today, that figure has dropped to $5100 and isn’t showing any signs of stopping.

 

However, the chaotic effects of the virus aren’t limited to impersonal financial markets–the virus has also affected business operations across every sector.

The most obvious, of course, is healthcare, where doctors and nurses have been forced to work overtime as their colleagues become infected with the virus, and must take time to recover; in sports and entertainment industries, events have been canceled, leaving athletes and entertainers out of work–and, sometimes, without pay. In the travel and hospitality industries, self- or government-induced quarantines are keeping individuals off of planes, out of hotels, and out of restaurants.

How is the spread of the coronavirus impacting the fintech industry?

Will coronavirus damage fintech, or does the industry have the possibility to grow as a result of the outbreak?

On the surface, it may seem as though fintech is suffering just as much as many other sectors seem to be suffering.

After all, a number of news outlets have reported for weeks that because of travel disruptions or risk of infection, a number of the industry’s major events have been canceled, postponed, or moved online; news of layoffs across other sectors may have also caused anxiety among employees of fintech companies.

However, fintech–like other parts of the tech industry–is a highly globalized sector: therefore, it faces a rather unique set of challenges; however, it may also be less susceptible to the spread of the coronavirus than other industries; some might argue that, if swift and effective changes are made, the industry could even grow as a result of the spread of the coronavirus.

In fact, Doug Christensen, EVP of strategy at Tier1 Financial Solutions, told Finance Magnates that his company’s clients “are looking to potentially do more with technology, not less, as they think about the impact of servicing and managing their client needs and mitigating risk.”

Doug Christensen, EVP of strategy at Tier1 Financial Solutions.

Indeed, “as our clients put their Business Continuity Plans to test we expect to see more dependency on software solutions to stay informed and connected to service their end clients.”

Therefore, “as we look ahead–whether its Coronavirus drove change or some other market-moving consideration–we see a greater need for fintech solutions,” he said. “[…]Increased usage and reliance on technology is inevitable to remain competitive.”

This view was also espoused by technologist Chris Skinner, who told the Irish Times that “everyone is talking about this being a moment to switch to a cashless, cardless society.”

As such, the coronavirus could be a catalyst for fintech: “what we really need is for the world to move to mobile payments and facial recognition, like the payment services being rolled out in China,” Skinner said. “With Alipay today, I can just Smile-to-Pay. That’s not a concept. It’s a reality. We need that to be the future, and get rid of touch pads and dirty paper.”

Re-creating company infrastructure for a world stricken by an outbreak

The fintech industry may also be particularly well-suited to deal with the logistical challenges and health risks posed by the spread of the coronaviruses because of the relatively large number of remote workers in the sector.

After all, developers, consultants, project managers, and other employees of fintech companies are very often located across different cities, or even different countries–occasionally meeting in person, but keeping most of their operations online.

Therefore, depending on how a fintech company is structured, this could present a serious advantage, both in the sense that operations can continue as normal, and that employees face lower risks of infecting one another.

Still, the direct impact of the coronavirus may be more or less severe. Aaron Kaplan, chief executive officer of blockchain capital market infrastructure firm Prometheum, told Finance Magnates that “the impact of coronavirus depends on the company, their subsector within Fintech, and how they are organized.”

Aaron Kaplan, chief executive officer of blockchain capital market infrastructure firm Prometheum.

For example, “companies in the blockchain space often have developers and personnel located around the world, are more distributed, and therefore should transition more easily to this new reality,” he said. “Companies that have a centralized office environment, on the other hand, will have a much harder time adjusting.”

Therefore, Kaplan believes that “smaller fintech players are probably better prepared to mitigate business disruption” because they are more likely to have more flexible structures that include more remote workers.”

And even if companies don’t already have the infrastructure in place to allow employees to work from home, it seems that a number of companies are making quick moves to build this infrastructure: the Financial Times reported earlier this week that “companies in Europe have started stockpiling laptops as they prepare for large numbers of employees to work from home during the coronavirus outbreak.”

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As such, computer suppliers have been overrun with requests: an Italian supplier told the publication that “I sold more yesterday than I sold in the previous month. If I had 10 times more I could have sold them all immediately.”

“In the situation we find ourselves in now, mobility and flexibility across fintech and, more specifically, relationship management solutions, will be the difference-maker.”

If successfully deployed, these kinds of infrastructural solutions could effectively mitigate the chaotic effects of the coronavirus on a company.

And of course, fewer disruptions internally generally signals fewer disruptions on the level of the end-user, a factor that is important for businesses intent on maintaining–or even improving–their reputations during the coronavirus crisis.

Doug Christensen told Finance Magnates that his company’s goals include keeping operations as close to normal as possible: “as a technology provider, we need to ensure that our technology is accessible and available without restrictions,” he said.

The structure of his company is conducive to this goal: “as a cloud-based company, we offer not only on-premise capabilities but off-premise solutions,” he said.

However, even if this wasn’t the case, Christensen said that “firms’ inability to be on-location should not lead to an inability to service their customers and in order for them to do so, they must be able to communicate and access customer data from a remote location just as they would from their desktop.”

“At Tier1, the dynamic between the buy and sell-side has been evolving to where the buy-side is assuming more responsibility in generating meetings with corporates so our solutions have reflected that,” he added. “In the situation we find ourselves in now, mobility and flexibility across fintech and, more specifically, relationship management solutions, will be the difference-maker.”

Offering flexibility, education, and reassurance to employees may be important to maintaining a company’s cultural hygiene

However, companies must explicitly offer their employees the option of flexibility when it comes to working from home or working in-office in order to keep operations running–which, unlike many other industries, is a privilege that most of the fintech sector has.

Claire Kart, head of marketing at O(1)Labs, which is the team behind the Coda Protocol, told Finance Magnates that “at our office, we are making sure employees know that we support a flexible work culture, and most importantly, want our team members to feel safe during this time of uncertainty.”

Claire Kart, head of marketing at O(1)Labs.

This is because “the O(1) Labs headquarters are based in San Francisco, a highly cosmopolitan and high-density city with close business ties to China,” Kart said. Because a relatively high number of people have “tested positive for the virus in the state of California, people are justifiably frightened.”

Therefore, “we are offering employees the opportunity to self-quarantine through our Work-From-Home
Policy.”

The company has also taken steps to educate its workforce about the health risks that the coronavirus poses.

“During a group meeting, we shared the CDC’s recommendations on preparedness and safety, which includes staying home if you are feeling unwell and paying attention to travel advisories,” Kart explained. “We’re also having managers meet to prepare a contingency plan in case the city of San Francisco implements a city-wide quarantine.”

Michelle Chuang, chief operating officer at blockchain firm Asensys, told Finance Magnates that making efforts to educate employees and to make them feel safe is extremely important to the long-term success of the companies.

“Now that over three-thousand lives have been lost to coronavirus around the world, companies and businesses should take steps to protect employees and reduce panic,” Chaung said to Finance Magnates.

“[…] In the wake of layoffs and disruptions to industry events, we have also assured our employees that their jobs are secure,” she said.

Michelle Chuang, chief operating officer of Asensys.

As such, Chuang says that “emphasizing company values and the importance of each individual’s role in the project are other mindful communication strategies that can be used. In such times of growing uncertainty like we are experiencing with the coronavirus today, all of us will need to be adaptable, resilient, and supportive.”

Philanthropy is also an opportunity for the fintech community

Some fintech companies are also using the spread of the coronavirus as an opportunity to help communities affected by the virus, a strategy that could help them to establish positive relationships with those communities over the long-term.

For example, Skrill, the online payments company behind Skrill Money Transfer, announced earlier this week that it was dropping all fees and foreign exchange charges for anyone using Skrill Money Transfer to send money to Italy, one of the countries that the coronavirus has hit the worst.

Cryptocurrency exchange Binance’s charity arm has also announced a “Binance for Wuhan” initiative, which has provided at least six new batches of medical supplies to 130 hospitals, medical teams, and disease control command centers in Wuhan.

CoinTelegraph also reported that a number of smaller companies–particularly within the blockchain and cryptocurrency space–have put their efforts toward developing platforms that could be used to help combat the spread of the virus.

These include tech startup FUZAMEI, which launched a blockchain-based platform slated to improve the transparency and efficiency of charity and medical data sharing; Krypital, another blockchain firm, launched a donation initiative to buy medical supplies for coronavirus victims in Wuhan.

Hyperchain, another blockchain firm based in China, has also announced the development of a blockchain platform geared to transparency and traceability of donations related to the coronavirus epidemic.

It seems that each of these companies sees the outbreak as an opportunity to perform public services, and perhaps also as a chance to increase their name recognition and recognized viability for the future.

Therefore, fintech companies face a number of important choices at this moment–invest the resources in adapting to the risks that the virus poses, or try to ride out the storm? Make an effort to reach out to affected communities, or hunker down and cut expenses until the outbreak is over?

What do you think the best course of action is? Let us know in the comments below. Finance Magnates wishes good health to the families of every one of our readers. 

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