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The Biggest Fintech Stories of 2020- Other Than Those Two

John Best and I decided to bypass our annual Year’s Top Fintech Stories podcast and proceed directly to 2021 predictions- after all, isn’t everyone ready to move on without further discussion of coronavirus and the election?

Nonetheless, 2020 featured plenty of newsworthy fintech events- so many, in fact, that I’ve decided to spread them over two handy installments (just like Buy Now Pay Later!) Be sure to let us know which of these hit your radar, and holler about any I missed.

Ant Financial had the biggest IPO in history…until it didn’t- It looked like a done deal. In less than a week Ant Financial would be taken public in the largest public offering ever (topping Saudi Aramco’s late 2019 tally by roughly 50%) and valuing the fintech firm at over $300 billion- within striking distance of both Visa and Mastercard.

Then founder Jack Ma got a bit too bold, publicly musing about how Chinese regulation was hampering growth and innovation- the kind of things US financial services leaders gripe about on an hourly basis. Mr. Ma was summoned to meet with authorities, and Ant’s IPO was soon suspended due to “disclosure issues” (conveniently this occurred the day before the US election, limiting coverage). Ant is now expected to IPO in late 2021 at the earliest, at a significantly lower valuation- due in part to…tighter regulation.

The Visa/Plaid combination was held up by the DOJ- Meanwhile, high-flying US fintech Plaid found its “exit event” in January via a $5.3 billion acquisition by Visa. Not so fast- in early November (the same week Ant Financial’s new broke, ironically) the Department of Justice sued to block Visa’s purchase.

The DOJ’s objection minces no words: “Visa is a monopolist in online debit services, charging consumers and merchants billions of dollars in fees each year to process online payments.  Plaid, a successful fintech firm, is developing a payments platform that would challenge Visa’s monopoly. ..Visa’s CEO viewed the acquisition as an ‘insurance policy’ to protect against a ‘threat to our important US debit business.’”

The squabble is far from over, and it’ll be interesting to watch how it’s affected by the changeover in Washington. Bear in mind, however, that Democratic administrations are typically viewed as *more* aggressive in opposing mergers.

Venture capital kept chugging along- The now decade-long fintech boom has benefited from an unprecedented stretch of economic expansion. Now that the tide is receding, many have been bracing for a moment of reckoning for these young firms. So far, so good- venture capital funding held up surprisingly well in 2020. In fact, established players like FIS and Truist have doubled down on their corporate venture programs, and Canapi Ventures, an alliance spanning 35 banks and strategic investors, launched a new $545 million fintech-specific fund.  

A twist in the Top of Wallet battle- John has preached for years the need for credit unions to ensure their cards are not only top-of-wallet, but also “top-of-app.” The pandemic triggered a scenario that suddenly made such positioning more manageable. The turbocharged increase in e-commerce spending and renewed interest in contactless payment options open a window for the re-shuffling of card preferences. Also consider the mindset of consumers long enraptured by travel rewards, who may well now be receptive to new offers.

Banks got to wear the white hat for a change- What a difference a decade makes. During the global financial crisis of 2008-10 banks were vilified as the root of the problem (granted it was mainly the big banks, but few everyday citizens drew that distinction). Through their frontline roles in PPP lending, loan forbearance, etc. banks are being cast as good guys this time. And credit unions are leading the charge- according to CUNA’s Chief Economist Mike Schenk, early indications show CU lending has increased relative to March- just as it was during the Great Recession. Perceptions can shift on a dime, but so far the financial services industry is on the right side of history.

I’ll be back with a second round of stories- I’ve got plenty to share, but please reach out if you see any glaring omissions.


Read Part Two


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