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监管沙盒:看似无害,其实不然

专栏国际资讯监管与政策

监管沙盒:看似无害,其实不然

自巴林、阿布扎比和亚利桑那州(今年年初成为美国第一个建立沙盒的地方)之后,上周科威特也宣布将为金融科技公司建立监管沙盒。

监管沙盒有点像普通的沙盒,只是没有沙子、没有孩子、也没有明显的乐趣。相反,它本质上是一个计划,通常运行几个月,让早期的金融科技初创企业无需获得完全许可,即可在有限的市场环境中测试他们的产品,并由监管机构对此进行监管。

这可能听起来很无害,但事实却并非如此。监管机构的主要目的是保护消费者和维护金融稳定性,比较讽刺的是,监管机构通常正是要保护消费者免受沙盒中公司所提供的"金融创新"的伤害。监管机构的工作并不是为初创企业提供免费营销或任何形式的批准,但这正却恰恰成为了他们经常被利用的地方(下文会详细介绍)。

创新机制变身公关策略?

值得注意的是,全球监管机构现在似乎开始竞相建立最"轻松"的体系,以便吸引初创企业落户自己的辖区,而并不关注这些初创企业是否向消费者和投资者提供任何有用的东西。沙盒正是吸引初创企业的措施之一。

今年9月,我们曾接到过一封来自亚利桑那州监管沙盒的电子邮件,邮件的标题是“亚利桑那州为英国公司提供无监管通道”。(如果这就是他们发给记者的内容,他们向业界发了些什么?)

"无监管通道"!有什么问题吗?到目前为止,亚利桑那州监管沙盒只有3家登记在册的企业,而其中一家企业在沙盒官方网站上被列为"实施一系列新奇[原文]技术的金融服务平台"。

有人天生伟大,有人成就伟大,也有人获准进入金融科技沙盒。

沙盒的想法最初来自英国前首席科学顾问Sir Mark Walport,他建议金融服务行业能够建立与健康和制药行业临床试验类似的机制,并认为这个机制能够让整个行业从中受益。金融行为监管局(FCA),具体来说是监管局下属的项目创新部门萌生了这个想法,并于2016年建立了第一个金融科技沙盒。沙盒自2016年成立以来已经接纳了89家公司,刚刚完成第五组的申请。

在最新一组入选的29家公司中,有近乎一半的商业模式都是基于加密或区块链的。TokenCard就是其中之一,这家公司最骄傲的战绩就是在去年五月份一次ICO中,"仅仅几分钟"就筹集了1670万美元。筹款时,TokenCard提出了一些古怪的主张,但在Alphaville开始调查后就立即进行了调整。

FCA表示,在产品进入大众市场之前,沙盒有助于FCA了解新技术以及任何相关风险,并且有助于初创企业在早期为消费者建立保障措施。FCA还表示,它认为创新在推动英国金融服务市场更有效竞争方面发挥着重要作用。

但FCA并没有提到,公司希望进入沙盒的最大原因之一是沙盒带来的公关价值。

我们经常收到金融科技初创企业的新闻稿,声称他们已被"接纳"进入沙盒,或者他们在沙盒监管监督下测试了一个产品,就好像这是一种认可。

最近,德勤对FCA沙盒当前和过去参与者进行了一项调查,调查发现,大多数公司将沙盒视为"荣誉徽章",并认为获准进入沙盒提高了他们在客户和投资者中的信誉。

FCA项目创新负责人Anna Wallace告诉我们:

监管沙盒并不代表批准,从想法刚萌芽开始,我们就非常清楚这一点,这是一个让企业在安全环境中展开测试的地方。

然而她还告诉我们,沙盒能够帮助年轻公司吸引投资,进入沙盒的初创企业中,大约40%在计划期间或之后获得了投资。在我们看来,这确实是很好的公关宣传。

为什么FCA不提供机密指导呢?不要在每次宣布新群组时发布新闻稿,这样沙盒就不会被用作公关。

Wallace告诉我们:

作为监管机构,我们对于所有FCA授权的企业都要进行透明登记。因此,我们没有理由对监管沙盒采取不同的方法。

新想法并不总是好想法

首先,监管沙盒并没有帮助FCA理解任何技术。通过限制初创企业的客户和资金数量,监管机构如何能了解这是否会对整个系统的稳定性造成的潜在风险?

其次,初创企业认为他们入选沙盒就意味着更合法了,而事实可能的确如此。我们已经看到了那些加密的"颠覆性技术",特别是ICO市场可能导致的问题,但这只是开始。金融创新即使开始的意图良好,也常常会导致灾难。

正如循证管理中心银行和金融主管Martin Walker指出的,近年来一些影响最大的金融创新包括(PPI、NINJA抵押贷款和CDO2)就是如此。

第三,并非所有监管机构都一样。FCA可能正在自己的沙盒中进行严格的测试,但这并不意味着其他监管机构也在这样做。目前已实施或宣布建立金融科技沙盒的管辖区包括俄罗斯、印度尼西亚、泽西岛和塞拉利昂等多个国家和地区。

Walker警告称,如果一些较为声名狼藉的离岸金融中心或监管机构将这一概念应用于更传统的管辖区,这一概念将变得非常危险。

特立独行的美国监管机构

到目前为止,美国似乎是唯一一个在各方面都有阻碍的地方。美国联邦消费者金融保护局(CFPB)宣布在今年夏天建立金融科技沙盒之后,一个由50个公共利益集团组成的联盟向该局写了一封信,称这种计划可能会使消费者面临风险。信件内容摘录如下:

与金融科技"沙盒"的其他一些建议一样,宣称现有法规或不确定性对创新和行业有好处,这种模糊承诺并不能证明为受青睐的公司或行业提供特殊待遇或放弃消费者保护规则是恰当的。

联盟集团之一的全国消费者法律中心补充道:

CFPB已经超出其创建依据法律所规定的权限,其"披露沙盒"政策将会开创一个危险的先例。该政策宣称要授予公司披露规则的豁免权,允许公司以"金融创新"的名义模糊或消除重要信息,无需对可以提高消费者理解的模式进行有限的细致试验,这种做法通常用于保护抵押贷款操作,并最终导致了2008年的金融危机。

确实。监管机构需要确保他们正在保护消费者,而不是迷失在"金融创新"的浪潮中。

 

Last week Kuwait became the latest sandy territory to announce it was setting up a regulatory "sandbox" for fintech companies (following in the footsteps of similarly arenaceous Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and Arizona, which earlier this year became the first place in the US to set one up).

A regulatory sandbox is a bit like a regular sandbox, except with no sand, no children, and no discernible fun. Instead, it is essentially a programme — normally running for several months — that allows early-stage fintech start-ups to test out their offerings in a limited market environment, under regulatory supervision, but without having to be fully licensed.

That might sound pretty harmless. In practice, it's not. Regulators' primary role is to protect consumers — often, ironically, precisely from the kind of "financial innovation" the companies in the sandbox are offering — and to safeguard financial stability. It is not regulators' job to provide start-ups with free marketing or any kind of stamp of approval, which is how they are often being used (more on that later).

Worryingly, there now appears to be a kind of race to the bottom among global regulators to set up the most "light-touch" possible regimes so as to attract start-ups to their jurisdictions — whether or not they are offering consumers and investors anything useful. Sandboxes are a part of that.

Consider, for example, the title of this email about the Arizona sandbox, sent to us back in September (if this is what they're sending to journalists, what are they sending to industry?) :

Arizona State Offering Regulation-free Access for UK Companies

"Regulation-free access"! What could possibly go wrong? Arizona has so far only signed up three participants in its regime. One of these is listed on the official website as "a financial service platform implementing an array of avante garde [sic] technologies".

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some get accepted into a fintech sandbox

The sandbox idea first came from Britain's former chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport, who suggested the financial services industry would benefit from having something equivalent to the clinical trials of the health and pharmaceutical sectors. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) — specifically its Project Innovate arm — jumped on the idea, setting up the first sandbox for fintechs in 2016. The sandbox has accepted 89 companies since its inception in 2016 and is just finished taking applications for its fifth cohort.

In the last cohort, almost half of the 29 firms' business models were based either crypto or blockchain. One of them was TokenCard, a company that last May boasted about raising $16.7m in "mere minutes" in an ICO. While fundraising, TokenCard made some outlandish claims that were adjusted once Alphaville started looking into them (you can read the full story here).

The FCA says the sandbox helps it understand new technologies — and any associated risks — before products hit the mass market, and that it helps start-ups to build in safeguards for consumers at an earlier stage than would otherwise have been the case. It also says it sees innovation playing an important role in driving more effective competition in Britain's financial services market.

But what it doesn't say is that one of the biggest reason firms want to be in their sandbox is the PR value it brings.

We frequently get sent press releases from fintech start-ups boasting that they have been "accepted" into the sandbox or that they have tested out a product under supervision while in the sandbox, as if that were some kind of endorsement.* "PRESS RELEASE: NorthRow selected for the FCA’s Regulatory Sandbox (July 4); "Release: Globacap issues world’s first blockchain equity-security tokens under the regulatory supervision of the UK Financial Conduct Authority" (September 6).

A recent Deloitte survey of current and past participants in the FCA's sandbox found that most firms see it as a "badge of honour" and believe acceptance increased their credibility with both customers and investors. That's a problem.

Anna Wallace, the head of the FCA's Project Innovate, told us:

The regulatory sandbox is not a stamp of approval. We’ve been very clear about that since conception. It is a place to test things out in a safe environment.

She also told us, however, that the sandbox helped young firms attract investment, and that about 40 per cent of start-ups that went through the sandbox had got investment either during or after the programme. Sounds like quite good PR to us.

Why doesn't the FCA instead provide confidential guidance — rather than putting out a press release each time it announces a new cohort — so that the sandbox isn't exploited as PR? Wallace told us:

For us as a regulator the parallel is the fact that we have a transparent register of firms that are authorised by us as the FCA. So we saw no reason to take a different approach with the regulatory sandbox

New ideas are not always good ideas

But so what if the sandbox is being used as publicity and a means to get investment? If it's helping the FCA understand new technologies, what's the problem?

Firstly, it's not helping the FCA understand that technology on any kind of scale. By limiting the amount of customers and money start-ups are allowed to work with, how can the regulator possibly understand whether this could pose any kind of risks to the stability of the system as a whole?

Secondly, the fact that start-ups think they're being seen as more legit after they've been through the sandbox means they probably are being seen as more legit. We've seen the kind of problems that the "disruptive technology" that is crypto — and in particular the ICO market — can lead to, but that's just the start of it. Financial innovation, even if it starts off with good intentions, often leads to disaster.

As Martin Walker, director for banking and finance at the Center for Evidence Based Management, pointed out to us (hyperlinks our own):

Some of the most high-impact financial innovations of recent years included PPI, NINJA mortgages and CDO-squared.

Thirdly, not all regulators are born equal. The FCA might be conducting rigorous testing in its sandboxes, but that doesn't mean other regulators are doing so. Among those jurisdictions that have either implemented or announced fintech sandboxes are Russia, Indonesia, Jersey and Sierra Leone. Walker again:

The concept becomes really dangerous if applied by some of the more disreputable offshore centres or regulators in more naive jurisdictions.

The States appears to be the only place, so far, that has seen any pushback on any of this. After the US's federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced that it too would be setting up a fintech sandbox over the summer, a coalition of 50 public-interest groups wrote a letter to the bureau, saying such a programme could put consumers at risk. Here's an excerpt:

As with some other proposals for fintech “sandboxes,” vague promises of the benefits of innovation and industry claims about the constraints or uncertainties of existing regulations do not justify special treatment or waiver of consumer protection rules for favored companies or industries.

One of the groups, the National Consumer Law Center, added:

The CFPB is exceeding its authority under the law that created the agency and would set a dangerous precedent with its “disclosure sandbox” policy, its label for granting companies exemptions from disclosure rules. Instead of conducting limited, carefully drawn trials of model disclosures that could improve consumer understanding, the CFPB would allow firms to obfuscate or eliminate important information in the name of “financial innovation,” a label that was often applied to defend practices in mortgage lending that led to the 2008 crisis.

Indeed. Regulators need to make sure they are protecting consumers, and not getting lost in the "financial innovation" quicksands.

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