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Regulatory innovation advances in the face of Covid-19

Regulatory innovation advances in the face of Covid-19

While Covid-19 may have wreaked havoc across financial services, according to a recent report the pandemic has driven the urgency to prioritise and actively deploy fintech initiatives by regulators.

The joint report from the World Bank and Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, ‘2020 Global COVID-19 Fintech Regulatory Rapid Assessment Study’ outlines a sweeping view of the impact the pandemic has borne on the regulation of fintech and regulatory innovation initiatives.

Surveying 118 regulatory authorities across 114 jurisdictions, the comprehensive study overwhelming found that Covid-19 has only served to push fintech up the agenda for regulators across the world.

Philip Rowan, co-author and lead in regulatory innovation, Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance (CCAF) comments that while an enthusiastic push for innovation can easily be marketed, “it’s one thing to say that fintech has become a higher priority and quite another to see it practised in reality.”

In a year riddled with buzzwords of ‘financial adaptability’, ‘mobility’, ‘resilience’, to see tangible impacts being made not only by the private sector but by the typically slower moving regulatory supervisors and infrastructure providers is refreshing.
Rowan explains that the report sought to achieve 4 core objectives:

  1. To understand the impact Covid-19 bore on regulators and fintech around the world
  2. The regulatory response to Covid-19 within the fintech sector
  3. The impact of Covid-19 on regulatory innovation initiatives (such as taxonomy, how regulators have been innovating, sandboxes etc)
  4. To better understand the lessons learned from regulators’ response to Covid-19 and potential implications this will have on the sector into the future.

A fundamental internal challenge faced by one out of two regulatory respondents, Rowan says, was that of working from home. “If you’re a company supervisor, site visits to particular companies have become very difficult if not impossible in locations where there are strict containment enclosure/travel restriction measures.”

On top of this 29% of respondents flagged a lack of access to data and insights as a significant obstacle.

“Regulators want to understand the impact Covid-19 is having on the markets, industries and sectors they regulate,” Rowan adds.

“They simply don’t have access to good data to make informed decisions within the context of Covid-19.”

Notably, communication and coordination were also raised as hindrances to the planning and implementation of regulatory initiatives. 39% of respondents noted challenges regarding difficulty with external communications and coordination with other domestic agencies, while the prioritisation of funding and resources and speed of delivery also beleaguered initiative projects. 28% of respondents also cited that restricted access to and availability to necessary technology was proving to be prohibitive.

Despite these challenges, the pressure of the pandemic has sparked a surge in pace and progress for existing and new regulatory initiatives. Rowan furthers that “the report found up to 80% of regulatory innovation initiatives have been impacted in some way by Covid-19. Typically, but not always, resulting in the acceleration of these initiatives.”

For instance, around one in three respondents say that Covid-19 has accelerated their regulatory sandbox initiatives.

“We’ve seen some public examples of this too - the Central Bank of Jordan has a Covid-19 specific cohort for their regulatory sandbox and they’ve said they will welcome applications that seek to address challenges related to Covid-19,” Rowan says.

“Similarly, we’ve seen a number of innovation office initiatives that have accelerated or modified their offerings throughout this period of Covid-19, to adapt to virtual regulatory clarification services.”

Rowan also highlights an increase in the use of technology by regulators themselves specifically regtech and suptech. He adds that this was clearly observed in developing markets where the importance of digital infrastructure around delivery of financial services remains key for those living in remote or rural areas.

“We’re seeing regulators and other authorities accelerate initiatives to put things like digital identity initiatives or permitting electronic onboarding processes for customers.”

Despite the challenges detailed above, Rowan illustrates that the clear momentum that has been witnessed will likely be here to stay, “especially as some of the key sectors - particularly in digital payments, savings and lending - will have a lasting impact and will likely keep digital services front of mind for regulators.

“Particularly if Covid-19 continues we’re going to see perhaps a continued trend of measures and action, because regulators on the whole broadly perceive fintech as being positive for their objectives.”

Looking forward, Rowan highlights two key takeaways as considerations which would assist regulators into the future - the continuous demand and need for skills development and the provision of technical support within regulatory bodies.

“This reflects fintech moving up the agenda and regulators clearly feel they should get up to speed in understanding the technologies, business models, products and services behind fintech in order to be able to more effectively regulate and supervise it. The development of regtech and suptech roadmaps for regulators were themes frequently raised and may assist regulators with their request for greater technical support.”

Commenting on the release of the report, Caroline Freund, World Bank’s global director for finance, competitiveness and innovation says: “Many regulators in jurisdictions that had gaps in the legal or regulatory framework for DFS have taken steps to support digital finance and close these gaps […] We believe that it will help stakeholders in both the private and public sectors advance digital financial inclusion, speed recovery and support a more resilient economic system.”

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