I was very pleased to be invited by Michael Chojnacki of Closir to co-author this article, which originally appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of The IR Society’s Informed magazine. ICOs, a key subject in this article, are a topic I will write on very soon – do let me know if you have a particular question you would like to see addressed.
Dear clients, colleagues and friends
The value of assets managed by the global investment management industry and the amount of assets that sit within global mandates continue to rise year on year. Research from PwC predicts that global assets under management will rise to $101.7 trillion by 2020, from roughly $70 trillion today. This will be primarily driven by pension funds, high net worth individuals and sovereign wealth funds, all of whom have been steadily increasing the global component of their investment portfolios.
Tapping into this capital efficiently, however, is far from straightforward for global issuers. As a result there has been a surge of interest in alternative funding methods and new technologies, which aim to boost speed, efficiency and transparency throughout the capital markets. Where exactly is the impact likely to be largest for investor relations teams?
First, we can expect to see improvements in how companies target investors. Currently the tools for efficiently understanding who is interested – and to what level – in a given investment story, whether on a deal or non-deal basis, do not exist today. Technology drives the matchmaking process across a multitude of industries. The finance industry has arguably been one of the slowest to embrace its potential to improve the process for the 40,000-odd listed companies and more than 100,000 institutional investors. Potential benefits include increased accuracy of targeting, a greater degree of access and control, reduced cost and a more diversified range of options.
Peer-to-peer funding platforms for listed companies
Second, we can expect improvements in how companies reach and engage new pockets of liquidity, especially within the retail investor segment. Investment-based “crowdfunding” (or market place investing— both equity and debt) has existed in limited forms for several years through online sites that allow investors to invest in specific projects predominantly for private companies. This model allows companies to raise capital to fund new ideas and more importantly, cultivate new clients who now feel they are participating in the growth of their businesses.
These new marketplaces may work in tandem with existing processes. The crowdfunding platform SyndicateRoom has revealed a tie-up with the London Stock Exchange that will allow ‘crowdfunding investors’ to participate in initial public offerings and placings on the main market of the LSE and AIM.
Third, we can expect vast improvements in efficiency and transparency in a variety of shapes and forms. One such form will be Blockchain technology applications within the equity and debt capital markets, which aim to tackle the vast inefficiencies which adversely affect the industry today through a centralised, digital ledger.
The scope of Blockchain’s pilot projects in this area has grown exponentially over the last three years. While these projects have so far generated more hype than tangible applications, the benefits that ‘distributed ledger’ technology can bring to the broader industry seem appealing enough to continue with its funding and development. The prize on offer, as one consultancy recently put it, is a new architecture, where all capital market participants work from common datasets, on an almost real-time basis, and where supporting operations are either streamlined or made redundant.
To take one example of what is already being done, BNP Paribas has designed a pilot scheme permitting private companies to issue securities on a primary market with e-certificates, developing a ‘live’ share register and access to a secondary market all via blockchain technology. We should expect similar progress in the near term in public markets, with increased accuracy in the identification and recording of shareholder movements and interactions.
Initial Coin Offerings and fundraising
Lastly, in niche areas, we can expect new blockchain based applications to support the fundraising process. Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) are a fundraising exercise for cryptocurrency tokens such as Bitcoin or Ethereum, and have received a lot of press in recent months. Speculators continue to chase this new asset class. While these might at face value seem like attractive fundraising structures, they are ultimately of limited interest in a corporate context.
The recent moves by the SEC (stating in July that cryptocurrency tokens can be securities) and China (banning fundraising through ICOs in early September), mean that an ICO is unlikely for the time being to work in an established corporate outside of a new tech startup scenario.
For IR officers, there are nevertheless some newly emerging areas of interest which are raised by the cryptocurrency experience.
- ICOs have turned the traditional fundraising process on its head, marketing for a long time then fundraising in a matter of hours. The co-founder of Ethereum said “We managed to grow our base of ambassadors by attending meetups around the world, targeting groups and leaders in certain communities. Once they got on board… about 9,000 people participated in the crowdsale”. Might traditional equity capital raising follow this in certain circumstances, for instance where the fundraising is well flagged? For instance, a company with a well-prepared public market-style equity story can spend time educating potential target investors for up to two years pre-IPO. The public phase of the IPO could then be significantly cut.
- The rise of cryptocurrency as a liquid means of exchange, irrespective of the underlying use-case, suggests that corporates could treat cryptocurrency as one of the currency options for the fundraising. In August this year, Fisco used a 200 bitcoin 3-year bond (worth $860,000 at the time) for an internal M&A transaction, as a test case with Japan’s approval of bitcoin as legal tender.
- Primary transaction processes are slow, and investors who are not existing clients of the banks managing the deal are usually not able to participate. Blockchain authentication of the investors’ know-your-customer (KYC) status would broaden the addressable investor base. And this is just one application. In July this year, Daimler used a private version of Ethereum in a test case to issue a €100m 1-year bond. This used Blockchain to manage the whole transaction cycle from origination, distribution, allocation and execution of the loan agreement, to the confirmation of repayment and of interest payments.
The journey from today’s system to a new paradigm for our industry will take time. The obstacles to be overcome along the way may be significant, and it is far from clear what will ultimately emerge. However there is little doubt that technology will eventually transform our industry faster than we think. We can take clues as to how this may happen from examining just how communications, music, transportation, or even video rental industries have been transformed in the last 5 years alone. As in those industries, the finance industry will come face to face with huge opportunities, the beginnings of which we can see today.
As always, if you have any questions, The Deal Team is here to help.