AI in Financial Services: embracing the new reality

For more than a decade, the use of innovative technologies has been dramatically reshaping the financial services sector that we know. Use of online banking apps, chat-bots and innovative payment solutions has become a new normal for consumers around the globe and some more advanced technological breakthroughs like crypto-assets are becoming ever less strange area for a great number of people as well. In the background, financial institutions have been leveraging the use of new technologies for the more efficient provision of financial services, from cloud computing, algorithmic and high frequency trading systems all the way to the distributed ledger technology (DLT).

Aiming to achieve better cost and time efficiency as well as better customer experience and investment outcome, financial institutions are competing with each other in a continuous race all looking to get the answer to the same question: what is going to be “the next big thing”?

End of last year, the wider public was for the first time able to see the capabilities of generative artificial intelligence (AI) based systems following the release of the chat-bot called „ChatGPT”. This sent the shockwaves throughout the world as well as the clear signal to big enterprises, including the financial institutions, that investment in AI shall be put (back) on the top of their agenda in the years to come.

It is no secret anymore that businesses and governments around the world are increasingly focusing on AI since according to some estimations, it is expected that AI could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy in 2030 by increasing productivity across various sectors.

In our latest publication, our experts Dr. Verena Ritter Döring (Partner, Banking & Finance Regulatory) and Miroslav Đurić (Associate, Banking & Finance Regulatory) analyse legal and regulatory aspects of the use of AI based systems in the financial services sector, by focusing on the existing challenges and upcoming regulatory developments in this space.

FCA re-confirms temporary permission regime for inbound passporting EEA firms in case of a hard Brexit – the EU stays strict for now

Brexit will have an impact on the European and the UK financial market. Cross-border services will still be possible but the legal set-up will change and will get more complicated than the current passporting regime. Anyone who provides banking business or financial services in Germany without the appropriate license is committing a criminal offence. If charged, the person committing the criminal offence can become subject to a prison sentence (up to 5 years in case of intention and up to 3 years in case of negligence) or a monetary fine.

Outbound from the UK

If there is no implementation period when the UK withdraws from the EU, the UK will become a ‘third-country’ in relation to the EU and the current passporting regime will no longer cover the provision of financial services, payment services or the management and distribution of funds on a cross-border basis between the UK and continental Europe. Any UK person then providing any such business in Germany without the appropriate license, i.e., without a licensed set-up in Europe, will commit a criminal offence on a personal level.

The current political will in Europe does – at least at this stage – not cater for any easing of the strict criminal regime once the passporting rights of UK firms end due to Brexit.

Inbound to the UK

The FCA (backed by the UK Government) on the other hand just confirmed on October 10, 2018 that they are willing to protect the UK market by offering a transition period in case of a hard Brexit without a transition period. This will allow inbound EEA firms to continue operating in the UK within the scope of their current permissions for a limited period after the exit day, while seeking full UK authorisation. It will also allow funds with a passport to continue temporarily marketing in the UK while seeking UK recognition to continue to market in the UK.

The FCA expects the temporary permissions regime to come into force when the UK leaves the EU on March 29, 2019 and expects the regime to be in place for a maximum of three years, within which time, firms and funds will be required to obtain authorisation or recognition in the UK.

The FCA is currently consulting details of the rules they propose should apply to firms and funds during the temporary permissions regime.

What to do?

Firms will need to notify the FCA that they wish to use the temporary permissions regime.  This will be an online process and the FCA expects to open the notification window in early January 2019.  The notification window will close prior to exit day. Once the notification window has closed, firms that have not submitted a notification will not be able to use the temporary permissions regime. The FCA will then allocate firms a period (‘landing slot’) within which they will need to submit their application for UK authorisation.  After exit day, the FCA will confirm firms’ landing slots so they can start to prepare their applications. The first landing slot will be from October to December 2019 and the last will be from January to March 2021.

The regime will work in a similar way for EEA investment funds with fund managers notifying the FCA of the funds they want to continue to market in the UK.  As with firms, the FCA expects to start accepting notifications in early January 2019 and the notification window will close prior to exit day. Once the notification window has closed, fund managers that have not submitted a notification for a fund will be unable to use the temporary permissions regime for this fund and will not be able to continue marketing the fund in the UK.

It needs to be seen if the EU will align its supervisory authorities to a similar practice to ease disruption of the financial markets, should no deal be reached, and the UK will leave the EU on March 29, 2019.

FinTech Action Plan and EBA Road Map: Part 2

Part 2: Further Guidance through EBA’s FinTech Roadmap

On 15 March 2018 EBA published its FinTech Roadmap which bridges the dichotomy between consumer protection and stability of the financial system through cybersecurity on the one hand and the support for financial innovation on the other hand. It becomes clear that EBA recognises the benefits of the innovative developments for the Single Market, which include enhancing consumer experience, cost efficiency for consumers and service providers and the need to support growth.

A harmonised regulatory framework for new technologies in the financial markets is needed. A provider of an innovative idea using new financial technologies might want to test his idea in the market. He will face different challenges in countries with regulatory sandboxes compared to countries where a inflexible regulatory regime applies. A regulatory sandbox would allow the provider to offer his idea to a certain amount of potential clients for a limited period of time without the application of the whole compliance, license and capital requirements. During this time he can assess if his innovative approach is worth the investment of full regulatory compliance. In countries where the regulatory regime applies from day one when the first client is approached and on boarded, the investment of the provider is much higher. This might in turn prevent financial innovations since the hurdle to become a (regulated) market player is quite high.

EBA did not provide a practical briefing for establishing consistent regulatory sandboxes in its Roadmap. It only announced that further analysis of already established sandboxes (as e.g. in the UK, in Singapore and in Australia) will be undertaken. EBA figures that by the end of 2018 best practice guidelines for regulatory sandboxes will be issued.

Until then the German regulator BaFin will impose the classical regulatory regime drafted for traditional players on the innovative developers of the financial markets, paired with a warning to consumers regarding the risk of buying virtual currency due to a lack of statutory consumer protection. So far BaFin published some generic guidance on its regulatory assessment of ICOs, but emphasised that a case-by-case evaluation will be inevitable. For other financial innovations such as for example crowd-funding platforms, it took more than two years until regulation on a national level complemented by BaFin’s administrative practice was established.

A comprehensive and harmonised regulatory framework which leaves room for innovation is essential for a growing and competitive Single Market. Hopefully, EBA’s planned FinTech Knowledge Hub, which will facilitate the exchange of information between regulators, innovators and technology providers, will add to this understanding. Up to now EBA did not provide concrete guidance for new market players. To be fair on the national regulators, without any leeway by the legislators there is not much room to ease the burden of the current regulation for new technologies through an administrative practice alone. Throughout 2018 at least, FinTechs will thrive in countries with a flexible regulatory approach that is backed by the relevant regulator.

FinTech Action Plan and EBA Road Map: Part 1

Part 1: The European Commission’s Action Plan on FinTech

Currently, supervisors in the EU member states take different approaches in dealing with FinTech Start-ups and apply non-harmonised regulatory rules regarding authorisation or registration regimes and compliance. The European Commission’s newest political statement on financial innovation aims at a harmonised market.

On 8 March 2018 the European Commission published its Action Plan on FinTech and laid out its support of innovative business models and new technologies in the financial sector. In addition to ensuring a high level of consumer and investor protection and increasing cybersecurity, the Action Plan also proposes a regulatory framework throughout the Single Market.

Given that new and innovative financial services do not always easily fit under the existing EU regulatory framework, the Action Plan sketches the outlines of a comprehensive European passporting regime for European investment-based and lending-based crowdfunding service providers (ECSP). It also promotes the idea of regulatory sandboxes as a controlled space to test innovative FinTech solutions for a limited period of time and on a limited scale in coordination with the competent authority.

The Commission will host an EU FinTech Lab in Q2 this year where regulators can learn and understand from technology solution providers in a non-commercial space how their new technologies are applied to the financial sector and what regulatory concerns may exist. This is a sensible idea to ensure the regulators’ understanding and the market applicability of new technology in a neutral, constructive setting.

The Action Plan gives some hope that the EU will be a market where innovative FinTech business models can develop on a harmonised basis overcoming diverging regulatory burdens. Yet, it remains to be seen if the awaited guidance of the European authorities thereon will transfer the political vision into a practical and innovation supportive approach.