World  Business and Economic Analysis 


Jelena McWilliams (right) Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation during a conference on fintech

An increasing number of fintech companies are applying for US banking licences, potentially turning former partners into competitors
Will the banks be able to keep up in this rapidly changing landscape? The exploding popularity of fintech applications continues to transform the finance industry, a sector of the economy previously dominated by traditional-minded institutions. One notable development in the increasingly widespread use of fintech apps is the merging of banking and fintech that we are beginning to see. Fintech companies are rushing to apply for banking licences, and quite a few have already been approved. The first to lead this trend was fintech giant Square, which was able to obtain approval to create an industrial bank from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

Since then, other fintech companies such as Varo Money, LendingClub, SoFi, Figure and Oportun either have been approved to create their own banks or have applications pending. These developments are important because it will create competition for existing banks and also affect the partnerships between the two entities in the future.

Certainly it is alarming for banks to realise that their current partner may soon become a competitor, armed with the benefit of a deep understanding of their operations borne from their work together. However, this change in status will also subjugate fintech companies with an increased amount of regulation and oversight. As fintech continues to create easy, convenient, quick and low-cost methods of serving the financial needs of individuals as businesses, banks must move to develop their own mobile banking technology to stay competitive.


Changing fintech landscape
In a select few US states, industrial banking charters are offered to companies who want to offer banking services and loans to small businesses without the burden of oversight by the Federal Reserve. Industrial banking charters are controversial, with many raising issues with a licence that allows non-financial companies to offer banking services. Because of this, an industrial banking charter has not been approved in 10 years – at least not until Square had theirs approved in March of 2020.

Certainly, this is an interesting development for the financial services sector. It could be a very positive change for small businesses, who may find that they have more options in terms of obtaining loans.

    Servicing the small business market brings ample opportunities for fintech, as this historically has been ignored by traditional financial institutions

Square’s focus has always been on helping small businesses, which has never been more important, since the coronavirus pandemic has hurt profits for so many of them. In fact, one other interesting trend that has been seen among fintechs in the midst of the pandemic is the opportunity presented to them to serve small businesses under the Paycheck Protection Programme (PPP).

Fears that fintech will completely supplant the existing financial services sectors have been reignited. The birth of fintech originally scared banks for this same reason, and most of the traditional financial institutions reacted by agreeing to partnerships with fintech companies in the hope of riding their wave of success. The ability of fintech companies to offer new solutions, face challenges and adapt to a rapidly changing tech landscape has forced banks to reform their technology and adapt to better suit customers’ needs.

In fact, servicing the small business market brings ample opportunities for fintech, as this historically has been ignored by traditional financial institutions. This is a problem, with only 27.5 percent of small businesses, on average, being approved for business loans by banks. The pandemic has devastated small businesses, yet all signs point to the beginning of a recovery for the economy as a whole. It could be the perfect time for fintech applications to start offering banking services to help revive small businesses around the world.


Bypassing barriers
However, the process of applying for a banking charter can be lengthy. For example, it took Varo Money three years to be approved for theirs. Some fintech companies have found clever ways to bypass this governmental barrier, however, by acquiring digital banks in their portfolio. LendingClub was able to acquire Radius Bank in February, which may have saved them the steep fees involved in a banking charter application.

Both Radius Bank, LendingClub and Varo Money have focused more on individual consumers rather than small businesses, although this could change. The democratisation of stock reading, cryptocurrency investing and online banking has broadened access to financial services typically reserved for the middle or upper classes.

The financial services market has become so rife for innovation, and so potentially lucrative, that many industries are trying to get a piece of the pie. There has been a new term coined for technology companies who have recently begun offering financial services: techfin. However, traditional financial services point out that without the necessary knowledge, the ease with which everyday people can invest money via fintech apps can become dangerous. With fintech apps moving into the banking sector as well, there is a concern that these companies will encourage their users to invest their money rather than keep them in savings accounts.


Banking with fintech apps
So, what is behind this trend of fintech companies moving to get involved in the banking sector, rather than sticking with their partnerships with well-established financial institutions? By expanding their services to include those most commonly found in the banking sector, fintech apps can expand their clientele and gain access to a larger market. The profit is undoubtedly larger, as fintech companies can then cut out the middleman and deal directly with their customers, building relationships in the process.


Will we see more fintechs in banking?
There is a lot for fintechs to gain by applying for a banking charter. However, as we mentioned previously, the application process can be lengthy and expensive. There are also a lot of government regulations and obstacles that need to be overcome before an application is approved. Robinhood learned this lesson when they pulled their national banking charter application.

Previously, there was discussion from the Office of the Comptroller of Currency (OCC) of a special banking charter for fintech companies that would fast track the application. However, this was shut down in October 2019 after a New York federal judge ruled that the OCC, the regulator issuing the charters, did not have the authority to create this special type of charter. However, it is a significant development to have seen three fintech companies get approved with their banking charters (Square, Grasshopper and LendingClub). There have only been nine banking charters granted nationwide since 2008, and none at all in the past 10 years.


The benefits of a banking charter
It’s a fact that the traditional financing institutions have underserved small businesses, especially minority-owned small businesses. It’s also true that many of these same small businesses were hit hard by the pandemic and forced to close their doors because of lack of funding.

There is a huge need for financial services for small and mid-sized businesses as well as individuals who are just getting their financial lives started. There are undoubtedly hurdles to obtaining a national banking charter, but the rewards are astronomical. Fintech businesses with banking charters can work with Automated Clearing House (ACH), a standard payment rail. They can operate in any state in the US without having to deal with different state laws and jurisdictions and offer their customers FDIC insurance.

Fintech companies may be shaking up the financial sector, but that might be a good thing. Despite negative PR about the risks involved with new fintech investing apps and the value of cryptocurrency, clearly these companies are leaning towards accepting more federal regulations in return for access to broader market segments. The approval of so many fintech applications for national banking charters will serve to further legitimise many of these new fintech apps, and possibly become stiff competition for their former banking partners in the process.



By: Hassan Hosseini

Phd in Finance

Investment& Finance Advisor 

An investment consulting firm plays a key role in the investment process, which requires participants to make accurate and well-calculated decisions.

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Investment consulting is important in making the right financial decisions, optimizing portfolios, and safeguarding the well-being of clients by offering expert guidance in a complex and dynamic investment landscape.

In this article we explore the world of modern investment consulting firms, shedding light on their role in investment process, strategies, and client-centric approaches.

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Understanding an investment consulting firm
Investing in modern financial landscape requires a deep understanding of market dynamics, risk management, and a well-thought-out strategy.

Many individuals and businesses turn to investment consulting firms to navigate this terrain. Professional advisors play an increasingly important role in investment process, offering a wide range of services that cater to the unique needs of their clients.

The investment process involves several key participants, each playing a distinct role. This circle includes brokers, banks, regulators, rating agencies and so on At the core are the investors, who seek to grow their wealth or achieve another goals. Investment consulting firms occupy a prominent place in this process as trusted advisors, providing expert guidance and tailored strategies.

A consulting firm in the context of investment process is a specialized advisory organization that offers expert guidance and strategic counsel to individuals, businesses, and institutions looking to make informed and optimized investment decisions.

The term "investment consulting firm" emerged in the 20th century as the investment landscape grew increasingly complex. The origin of investment consulting can be traced back to the need for institutional investors, such as pension funds and endowments, to navigate the intricacies of managing their assets. These organizations required specialized advice to make investment decisions, manage risks, and meet their financial obligations.

The industry began to formalize in the mid-20th century with entities like A.G. Becker and Callan Associates. These pioneering firms provided a range of consulting services to institutional investors, offering assistance in creating investment policies, conducting manager searches, and crafting diversified portfolios to increase the efficiency of the investment process.

The role of consulting firms has evolved in tandem with changes in global investment landscape. Early investment consultants primarily provided advice on asset allocation and manager selection.

However, their role has expanded significantly over the time:

• Broadened service offerings: Investment consulting firms have diversified their services to include risk management, performance monitoring, and compliance. They now offer holistic solutions that encompass the entire investment process.

• Advanced client demographics: Initially serving institutional clients, consulting firms now cater to a broader client base, including individuals, family offices, and smaller institutions. This expansion has necessitated more personalized and flexible approaches.

• Technology integration: The adoption of sophisticated technologies, such as data analytics and portfolio optimization tools, has transformed the way consulting firms operate. They can now provide more data-driven and efficient solutions.

Three huge milestones have marked the development of the investment consulting industry:

1. 1950s-1960s. Pioneering firms were founded, offering investment consulting services to institutional clients. These firms played a vital role in shaping the industry.

2. 1970s-1990s. Investment consulting services across the world continued to expand its influence as pension funds and endowments increasingly relied on consultants to guide their investment decisions. Technical and methodological innovations like the introduction of the Morningstar Style Box (1992) helped in the manager selection process.

3. 2000s and beyond. The 21st century saw investment consulting firms adapting to a rapidly changing financial landscape. They began offering specialized advice on emerging areas like environmental, social, and governance investing (ESG) and alternative investments.

Investment consulting firms have experienced significant growth over the decades.

Today, they serve a broad clientele, including pension funds, foundations, high-net-worth individuals, and more. Currently, the list of largest consultants includes numerous prominent brands worldwide, such as BlackRock, Vanguard Group, Morgan Stanley, Fidelity and JPMorgan Chase.

Investment consultants exert significant influence on the strategies and choices of large institutional investors. Their professional recommendations drive decisions about asset allocation, investment manager selection, and risk management, impacting the financial health of pension funds and endowments. Many of these firms have expanded their services to include not only traditional investment consulting but also advice on environmental, social and governance investing, risk management, and alternative investments.

Investment consulting firms are currently operating at the intersection of financial theory and practical application, providing clients with advice and strategies that are theoretically sound and tailored to their unique financial goals and circumstances.

The role of consulting firms in the investment process includes, but is not limited to:

• Investment strategy development
• Risk assessment and management
• Due diligence and investment selection
• Performance monitoring and reporting
• Adaptation to market changes
• Education and empowerment

Generally, consulting firms offer the flexibility to adapt to changing market environment and empower clients with the knowledge they need to make informed financial decisions. In a world where financial markets are ever-evolving and full of uncertainties, consulting firms play a pivotal role in helping investors achieve their financial goals and secure their financial future.
Key financial theories guiding investment consulting
Investment consulting is actually based on several fundamental financial theories and concepts.

They provide the analytical framework and principles upon which investment consultants base their new recommendations. Understanding these theories is essential to appreciate the foundation of investment consulting and how they guide decision-making.
Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT)
Modern portfolio theory, developed by Harry Markowitz in 1950s, is a cornerstone of investment consulting. It posits that investors seek to maximize returns for a given level of risk or, conversely, minimize risk for a given level of return.

Investment consultants use MPT to construct diversified portfolios that combine assets with different risk-return profiles. This diversification is based on the principle that risk can be reduced by spreading investments across different asset classes. Consultants aim to identify the optimal mix of assets that will provide the highest expected return for a specified level of risk.
Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH)
EMH, formulated by Eugene Fama in 1960s, asserts that financial markets are informationally efficient. In other words, asset prices reflect all available information, making it nearly impossible for investors to outperform the market.

Investment consultants consider EMH when advising clients on the choice between active and passive investment strategies. Efficient market hypothesis suggests that, in an efficient market, it is challenging to beat the market through active stock picking or market-timing. Consultants may recommend low-cost, passive investment strategies, such as index funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs), that seek to match market returns.
Risk management concepts
Risk is an inherent aspect of investing, and investment consultants must effectively manage it. Consultants consider various types of risk, including market risk, credit risk, liquidity risk, and operational risk. This is directly related to the success of the investment process.

Theoretical models and risk management concepts inform the strategies employed by investment consultants to assess and mitigate risk.

For instance, consultants use available operational historical data, volatility measures, and Monte Carlo simulations to estimate potential portfolio losses and ensure they align with clients' risk tolerance. Consultants also design risk management strategies, such as diversification, asset allocation, and hedging, to protect portfolios.
Behavioral finance concepts
Behavioral finance is a wide field that explores how psychological biases and emotions influence investment decisions. It challenges the assumption of rationality in traditional finance theory and recognizes that investors often act irrationally.

Investment consulting firms draw from insights in behavioral finance to guide clients in making rational, long-term investment decisions. They help clients identify and avoid common behavioral pitfalls, such as emotional reactions to market volatility or overconfidence in investment choices. Consultants use these insights to promote discipline and adherence to a well-thought-out strategy.

These theoretical frameworks shape the core strategies and advice offered by consulting firms:

• Asset allocation: MPT guides the selection of assets in a portfolio, aiming to create a mix that balances risk and return, aligning with the client's risk tolerance and objectives.

• Investment strategy: EMH informs the choice between active and passive investment strategies, and it influences whether a consultant recommends actively managed funds or passive index-based funds.

• Risk management: The principles of risk management derived from theoretical models help investment consultants assess and mitigate various risks in client portfolios, ensuring they remain in line with the client's risk appetite.

• Behavioral coaching: Insights from behavioral finance assist consultants in guiding clients to make rational, long-term investment decisions, avoiding behavioral biases and pitfalls.

In essence, these financial theories provide the theoretical underpinning that supports the strategies and advice given by consulting firms during the investment process. By integrating these concepts, consultants aim to optimize investment portfolios, manage risk, and help clients achieve their goals.

Main tasks of modern investment consulting firms
Main tasks of modern investment consulting firms
Investment consulting firms are primarily engaged in the business of providing expert guidance and support to individuals and organizations seeking to navigate the world of international finance and investment.

Their core responsibilities revolve around designing and managing investment strategies that are tailored to clients' financial objectives. These companies employ a range of financial instruments and models to perform these tasks effectively.

The list of maim tasks of consulting firms in the investment process includes the following.
Client assessment and goal setting
Professional investment consultants start by comprehensively understanding the client's financial situation, objectives, risk tolerance, and investment time horizon. This step is crucial for tailoring investment strategies to meet the client's needs. A survey by CFA Institute found that 55% of clients cited goal-based planning as a significant value-added service offered by investment firms.
Asset allocation and strategy development
Investment consulting firms use the client's financial information to determine the best possible mix of asset classes, such as stocks, bonds, real estate, and cash, to achieve specific financial goals. This strategy outlines the framework for the client's investment portfolio. According to a study by Vanguard, proper asset allocation can account for 88% of the variation in a portfolio's returns.
Market research and due diligence
Investment consultants and consulting companies perform thorough market research to identify promising investment opportunities. They conduct due diligence to assess the potential risks and returns associated with each investment option. Professional consultants often have access to proprietary research and insights, giving clients a competitive edge.
Risk assessment and management
Investment consulting firms evaluate various types of risk, including market risk, credit risk, and liquidity risk. They develop various risk management strategies to mitigate these risks, aligning the portfolio with the particular client's risk tolerance. A study published in the Financial Analysts Journal showed that professional risk management can lead to improved risk-adjusted returns.
Investment selection
Consultants use their financial knowledge and expertise to choose specific investment vehicles, such as mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETF), individual stocks, or alternative investments, that best fit the client's strategy and risk profile. Well-known consulting firms with wide business networks often provide access to a wide range of investment vehicles, including alternative investments, that may not be readily available to individual investors.
Performance monitoring and reporting
Investment consulting firms continuously track the performance of the client's portfolio, comparing it to predetermined benchmarks. Regular reports are generated to provide the client with insight into portfolio performance. A report by PwC found that 93% of institutional investors rely on performance reporting to make investment decisions.
Effective cost management
Cost management refers to the process of evaluating, minimizing, and optimizing the various costs associated with investments in a client's portfolio. This includes explicit and implicit costs, such as management fees, trading commissions, taxes, and transaction costs. Consulting companies assess the fees and costs associated with various investment options and recommend strategies to minimize expenses. Reducing costs can improve overall investment returns.
Advising on tax efficiency
Consultants recommend strategies that optimize after-tax returns. This includes tax-efficient investment vehicles, asset location strategies, and tax-loss harvesting. Tax-efficient investing potentially adds 1-2% to annual returns, according to the research by Envestnet PMC.
Behavioral coaching
Consulting firms offer guidance to help clients make rational, long-term investment decisions. They help clients avoid common behavioral pitfalls, such as panic selling during sharp market downturns. Another interesting study found that poor investor behavior led to an average annual underperformance of 4.35% over 30 years.
Adaptation to market changes
Investment consulting companies provide timely recommendations for adapting the investment strategy to changing market conditions. This may involve rebalancing portfolios, altering asset allocations, or seizing emerging opportunities. During the 2008 financial crisis, consulting firms played a critical role in helping their clients navigate turbulent markets.
Regulatory compliance
Professional consulting teams ensure that investment strategies and decisions adhere to relevant regulations, maintaining legal and / or ethical compliance. Regulatory compliance is crucial in the financial industry, with potential legal and financial consequences for non-compliance.
Education and empowerment
Finally, consulting companies educate and empower clients with the knowledge and resources to make informed financial decisions. This includes explaining investment concepts, strategies, and the rationale behind recommendations. According to another survey by Fidelity, 92% of financial advisors believe that investor education is important for successful investment process.

Investment consulting firms bring these main theoretical tasks to life by leveraging their expertise, experience, and industry knowledge. The specifics of each task may vary depending on the client's circumstances and financial goals, but collectively, they contribute to successful investment outcomes and the client's financial well-being.
Client-centric approach in action
Consulting firms distinguish themselves by their ability to customize their services. In the highly competitive world of financial services, this approach is fundamental to providing effective advice.

The term "client-centric approach" refers to a business strategy that prioritizes the needs, preferences, and well-being of the client above all else. In practice, it means that consulting firms take more time to understand the unique circumstances, goals, and preferences of each client. They then design a tailored strategy that reflects these individual needs. This personalized service is what sets investment consulting companies apart and enables clients to achieve their financial objectives.


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