Video: Trust vs Innovation – Finding the regulatory balance for a stronger Money Transfer sector August 16, 2021
Continuing our recent discussions exploring some of the challenges and opportunities being faced by the remittance sector in these uncertain times, RemitONE hosted a webinar on the 24th of June 2021 regarding trust vs innovation in the money transfer sector and finding a strong regulatory balance. The panel was made up of experts from both RemitONE and our friends and partners in other global companies. In case you missed the webinar, here is a summary of the key insights.
Aamer Abedi, CMO, RemitONE
- Ibrahim Muhammad, Payments Consultant, RemitONE
- Kathy Tomasofsky, Executive Director, MSBA
- Farook Al-Jibouri, Founder and Executive Director, Cyber Code Technologies
The financial services sector has always been one of the most heavily regulated industries but what are the key compliance regulations and challenges that we commonly see across all jurisdictions?
Kathy Tomasofsky: I would say that one of the most important things we see across all jurisdictions is rules concerning your customer (KYC). They may vary in different areas in terms of the level of detail, but all of the regulations ask for the companies to know their customers to prevent money laundering. The second area is risk management. As you enter into the business, understanding your customer profile, understanding the risks, and setting up the appropriate controls in order to effectively do business.
Ibrahim Muhammad: In terms of the ongoing situation; the pandemic had led to a lot of changes and this has pushed regulatory bodies into leaning more towards digital. However, in some markets, people might not have been able to adapt due to lack of infrastructure, so there have certainly been challenges. Broadly speaking, in terms of common regulations we can put it into two baskets: One is the AML (Anti-Money Laundering) and the other is the compacting of terrorist financing. In both these instances and in all jurisdictions, it always comes down to KYC, transaction monitoring and sanction screening.
Farook Al-Jibouri: Particularly when it comes to the Middle East, we do share the same difficulties globally but there are other unfortunate issues and circumstances unique to the region. What I see after the pandemic is a greater diversity when it comes to the Middle East and the level of maturity in the adoption of transformative financial services like Fintech. Some countries have been eager to jump on board but others are still living a hundred years in the past. Still, it’s a cash market where regulators have minimal impact when it comes to controlling the environment. This is what’s driving different regulators in the region to adopt more of a regional approach. The Middle East is ultimately a hot spot when it comes to AML and anti-terrorism. In fact, we are very much leading the way in those areas. The challenge, however, is in how you control different regions and balance them equivalently when there is such disparity in terms of digital adoption.
Is it fair to say that regulators are all for innovation in the Middle East? And is it also fair to say they are taking a lot of inspiration from UK and European regulators?
Farook Al-Jibouri: That’s a complicated question that I couldn’t really give one straight answer to. As I already said, the level of diversity in the Middle East is enormous. There is, however, global pressure from other regulators to bring all of the countries up to the same level and in some cases, those local regulators are simply not doing their jobs. Political complications are slowing the adoption of digital in some situations too. Again, it depends on the specific region. In Saudi Arabia, for example, it was announced recently that the first completely digital bank has been officially licensed by regulators.
Aamer Abedi: I know that when it comes to supporting Fintech start-ups, there is a lot of government support for these businesses in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Is it fair to say that regulators from the UAE and Saudi Arabia are helping to lead the way in terms of pushing innovation? Perhaps. I believe they are also taking a lot of inspiration from European and UK regulators.
Kathy Tomasofsky: While the Middle East may have different regions that are working at different levels, here in the United States we have forty-nine different entities within a federal regulation and it’s very difficult to navigate. It’s a complex structure and it varies from state to state. For example, the state of Wyoming is very friendly to blockchain and virtual currency but you’re not going to see that in every state.
How far are we from the ubiquitous federal money service license like you have in Europe in the US or the Middle East?
Kathy Tomasofsky: As far as the US is concerned, I’ll answer that question in two parts: The first part is that over the last two years, there have been some movements towards harmonising on a single license. There are currently twenty-nine states that have bonded together. So, if you’re a start-up company and you come into the states, you can have what’s called your level one documents; your financial statements and business plan. These will then be reviewed by a particular assigned state and the twenty-nine other states will say “Okay, we’ll accept these” and it’s as simple as that. Also, we’ve been working with other regulators on harmonising the money transmission law. We expect to have a draft of that sometime this summer, so perhaps beginning in 2023, 2024, we may see a more uniform law.
Farook Al-Jibouri: In the Middle East it can go in different directions. In some countries, opening a bank is extremely easy and in others, you simply can’t do it because the number of banks versus the market has already been defined by regulations. If there is any kind of new license or sub-license, it would be given to the established banks. In other countries though, we are starting to see the licensing of newer digital banks.
How are we doing in terms of open banking in the UK, US and the Middle East?
Ibrahim Muhammad: It’s interesting to see how the US market operates across states. Now, with the UK of course, we’re following the PSD2 standard, and from there we now have open banking. We are enjoying the benefits of PSD2 and though we don’t have passporting rights in the EU we can still redo the applications since they follow the same regulations. So that makes it easier for companies in the UK who would like to expand into EU markets.
Kathy Tomasofsky: In the US, I would honestly say we’re not there yet. There are indirect discussions coming through but we’re not in those open banking discussions like the UK has at this point.
Do you feel that the money transfer industry always plays second fiddle to the payments industry?
Kathy Tomasofsky: I think the introduction of digital and Fintech has made the government more supportive of the whole idea of global payments, whether it’s consumer to consumer or business to business. The fact that remittances fall under that umbrella gives us that support. In general, though, I think it’s more that the banking industry is less inclined to be supportive. It’s very challenging for a company to get a bank account here. There are some things that passed this past January with regard to the strengthening of AML programs and some items there that may help as far as de-risking is concerned, but that remains our pain point here. During the pandemic, these remittance businesses really were a lifeline for many US constituents, and I think that that helped to strengthen the profile of the companies as well.
Post-Brexit, has the government’s stance changes towards the MSB sector? Are they viewing us differently now?
Ibrahim Muhammad: Not exactly, in fact, the FCA has been quite open to supporting innovation in this space and that’s why they were opening up to a lot of Fintechs and new players establishing themselves in the UK. So for the UK specifically I’d say the government has actually been quite supportive.
The concerns that regulators cite can often be addressed by technology. What areas of technology are there in the industry that ensure we meet compliance?
Ibrahim Muhammad: They look into different areas when it comes to transparency; they look into the complaint handling process, incident reporting and the overall system checks and controls you have in place. Of course, AML is one component, so when they do company assessments, they cover all those areas. This assures them of how transparent that entity is towards its customers.
Farook Al-Jibouri: In the past six to nine months there has been a wide deployment of technological systems all across the Middle East but one of the problems is the lack of data. Certain countries probably have a full database but others do not and when you don’t have that database you have to rebuild it. As far as compliance tool deployment is concerned, in some countries, AML is being deployed and pushed by certain regulators but with a specific mandate rather than certain standards. Adopting these systems is definitely going to help in reducing the bureaucracy in the process. Because using certain technologies such as AI and blockchain we can see compliance happening on the fly through automation, rather than being checked manually or via a certain bureaucratic process.
In terms of technology, the US is the most powerful nation on Earth. But when it comes to our payments industry, the US arguably can’t compare with Europe. Why is this the case?
Kathy Tomasofsky: In the US, each state has its own perspective on what’s the best way to serve the consumer. Also, in defense of the regulators, there are so many new kinds of companies and technologies they have to keep learning how to regulate properly. If you look at Bitcoin, for example, some states are regulating virtual currency and have specific laws on their books while others are covering it under general money transmission and some haven’t even taken a pass at it yet. Ultimately, we have lots of interesting products that are being developed and the regulators need to understand what they are, how they work, where is the money going, who holds it, and how to protect the consumers. Then there’s the fact that, at a big-tech level, both sides of the administration are sceptical of companies like Facebook and Google and what they will bring to the US.
Aamer Abedi: It’s not just scepticism at a government level, it’s the big banks too. I know Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase is very anti-Bitcoin. You can see these large investment banks being very anti-crypto, but I heard that some of these investment banks have already started preparing proposals for their own cryptocurrencies.
Facebook applied for a money transfer license in Spain a few years ago so you can now use WhatsApp to send money. You have companies like Apple and Google that have money transfer licenses and they’re operating under some sort of regulation. So, should our industry be worried?
Ibrahim Muhammad: The tech giants are definitely jumping into the remittance space and from what I see in the UK and the EU they will have a fight on their hands with the established players. Now, it depends on the approach the big techs take. They might acquire one of the large players and then enter into a partnership or it could be that they establish their own remittance identity since they have a huge customer base to draw from.
Kathy Tomasofsky: In the US I do think that, to some degree, we will see some of the smaller MTOs either disappear or merge with others due to the cost of compliance and licensing. But we’ve also seen in our market research that the selection by a consumer for a particular MTO is often done out of loyalty and is not just price based. I think we’ll see that with age, the younger consumer who’s grown up with technology will be that consumer who is more inclined to go to an Apple or Google Pay transmitter because they will feel a certain loyalty. Even here in the US, in traditional banking, we’re seeing that generation not having traditional bank accounts.
Farook Al-Jibouri: When it comes to the payments industry, what’s happening with the gigantic tech firms is very noticeable and not only in the US. If you look towards China, for example, WeChat predominantly controls the exchange of money over an instant message application and I do think that Facebook took the approach they did because of the success of WeChat. In the Middle East, we don’t have tech firms, but we do have telecom operators who know the technology, and those operators are actually very forward-thinking in terms of bringing those digital wallets and instant money transfers to their customers, particularly in parts of the region where they can get around regulations.
What do you think are the top compliance priorities in the post-pandemic age for any MSB?
Kathy Tomasofsky: In the post-pandemic age, we have seen such an increase here in the US in the remote work area. So security is a big compliance priority for us. We’ve seen specific states here in the US; New York and California, for example; where companies are required as part of their AML program to define what their security requirements are. We’ve seen an abundance of new phishing scams and email fraud here too, so that whole concept is important.
Ibrahim Muhammad: The top priority would be to keep things running steadily despite all the disruption. Because the pandemic has really given rise to something unprecedented. We all know has it has accelerated digital adoption. So, from a compliance perspective, I would say we need to keep pace and adapt to the latest technologies while ensuring that we cater to the needs of the people.
How do we build trust in the industry now, given where we are?
Farook Al-Jibouri: One of the things the ecosystem needs to be ready to build consistently in a post-pandemic world is communication. We all realise now that physical communication is not really there anymore. For example, here in the UAE, we’ve been working with financial companies located a few blocks from here that we’ve never met face-to-face. So, modern communication will be key in re-establishing that flow of data between the technology provider from one side and the receiver from the other side. Also, post-pandemic, you have to be agile with whatever challenges the financial system throws at your feet.
Ibrahim Muhammad: Trust and innovation shouldn’t be competing; they have to go hand-in-hand. Regulatory bodies need to understand what innovation actually brings to the table and how they can ensure that this innovation does not cause any sort of issues with the consumers or stakeholders. It has to be a balanced approach and they have to work in a very collaborative manner. Regulatory bodies need to be more aware of what’s happening in the innovation space, and they should really understand the needs and then set up the regulations accordingly.
Kathy Tomasofsky: I think you have to build trust and communication but I would also add education into the mix, and that goes back to my earlier point – the regulators have so much coming at them that they need someone to help facilitate it all. At MSBA, we represent the services of eighty different companies; from companies that sell prepaid cards to small MTOs. Being able to present such a diverse group to regulators helps to accelerate that communication and education, and helps to build trust.
Our thanks to Kathy, Ibrahim, and Farook for their words and their time.
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