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Taming the ‘new wild west’: how biometrics can help the ECB deliver a secure digital euro

Source: Finance Derivative

By Vince Graziani, CEO, IDEX Biometrics

Interest and acceptance of crypto and digital currencies are increasing, with national media, institutional finance, and even government circles discussing how to adopt cryptocurrency technology. China launched the e-CNY in 2021, and the UK parliament has recently launched an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) to discuss what role digital assets will play in the UK, where already three million adults are known to own cryptocurrency. The European Central Bank (ECB) has also begun to explore the future of crypto, commissioning a project to investigate the potential of a digital euro.

Vince Graziani

A two-year investigation, concluding in October 2023, is taking place to determine the feasibility of a central bank digital currency (CBDC) for Europe. It is carrying out a detailed exploration into what a digital euro might look like, how it could be designed and distributed to markets, retailers and the public, and what legislation is required.

Focus groups for the ECB investigation show that consumers want the digital euro to be as flexible as the fiat euro, and to be functional anywhere within the euro zone, as well as online. Instant, easy and contactless payments are also very high on the wish list of functionalities, which follows the decrease in cash purchases observed during the pandemic. Research participants envisage a ‘one-stop solution’: they have a vision for a single device that will reduce the need for multiple cards, mobile phones, and computers, and will also provide access to a range of payment options.

How can a digital euro ensure security?

While there is demand for a convenient digital currency, the commission, and the public also have security concerns surrounding cryptocurrencies. Cyber hacks have impacted the sector since its start. Regulation is also minimal, unlike conventional financial institutions and there is little recourse if something goes wrong.

The second biggest crypto hack in history, with more than $600 million worth of Ethereum currency recently hit the gaming-focused blockchain platform Ronin Network. Initial investigations show that the hack went unnoticed for a week, and it is believed that the hacker accessed the funds through hacked private keys.

This 2022 hack is even bigger than the legendary Mt. Gox cryptocurrency exchange hack which led to the company’s bankruptcy and serious requests to regulate the industry. Whilst regulation is underway, it is still in its infancy. Just this month, Fabio Panetta, a member of the executive board at the ECB, referred to the digital currency rush as the ‘new wild west’.

Although CBDCs are different from cryptocurrencies, governments will have to ensure funds are secure and regulated as they develop a national digital currency. It’s also important that the public has access to digital currency education to ensure that a new national CBDC will be universally welcomed by the public. The security issue must be addressed to give people confidence to use this purely digital money alongside their conventional fiat funds.

In addition, virtually all European countries have aging populations. Elderly as well as other less financially savvy demographics sometimes struggle to adopt new technology. The digital euro, along with any other central bank digital currencies must be inclusive, easy-to-use and secure.

Biometrics are inclusive and easy-to-use

Biometric technology can be leveraged in support of these pre-requisites. Used in conjunction with ‘cold wallet’ crypto storage (in simple terms, this is external currency storage, not connected to the internet), biometric sensor technology can provide high levels of privacy and security by linking the card to the owner through their fingerprint. Biometric fingerprint sensors have long been used on smartphones and are now being used in payment cards by banks – including BNP Paribas and Sweden’s Rocker, as well as for crypto firms. Hence the technology is in place to provide the same levels of security for a digital currency.

A CBDC wallet, through a biometric smart card could act as a bank account with in-built security, which would give millions of previously unbanked, or underbanked people instant access to digital finance and services

The need for privacy

Notably, the ECB consultation highlighted that privacy was considered the most important feature of a digital euro by both citizens and professionals. Given the previous data leaks in the cryptocurrency space, this is understandable. But it could also hold the public back from the full potential of a digital payment solution.

The commission found that when confronted with a specific choice between an offline digital euro focused on privacy or an online one with innovative features and additional services, respondents will generally opt for an offline solution focused on privacy. This indicates a clear need for a stronger, privacy-focused CBDC solution and education to support consumers to make the most of a digital euro.

On enrolment to a biometric wallet, the owner’s fingerprint image is immediately transformed into an abstract biometric template. This is then matched and stored in the secure element of the EMV chip. The owner’s biometric data never leaves the wallet and cannot be subject to a data breach.

A digital currency future

There is little doubt that digital currencies will feature in our future. In this fast-moving environment, where regulation is finally beginning to catch up, the introduction of a digital CBDC euro may be sooner than we think.

Fortunately, tried and tested biometric technology is now available to transform this major transition to digital currency into a secure, inclusive, and user-friendly process. The public’s vision of a ‘one stop payment solution’ could soon be realised by the ECB. The 2023 investigation findings could help tame the ‘wild west’ of payments for good.

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Business

Digital Banking – a hedge against uncertainty?

Source: Finance Derivative

Ankit Shah, Head of Digital Banking, Apex Group

The story of the 2020’s thus far is one of crisis. First the world was plunged into a global pandemic which saw the locking down of people and economies across the world. Now we deal with the inevitable economic consequences as currencies devalue and inflation bites. This has been compounded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent energy politics.

And the outlook remains uncertain. Tensions continue to build between China and Taiwan and inflationary conditions are forecast to continue well into 2023. This uncertainty is impacting everyone, and every sector. And finance is no exception with effects being felt everywhere from commodity and FX markets to global supply chains.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Rollercoaster markets and an ever-evolving geopolitical situation have made 2022 a tricky year far, but, despite the challenges, digital banking has proven resilient. In fact, the adoption of digital banking services has continued to grow over the last few years, and is predicted to continue.

So, what are the forces driving this resilience?

In an increasingly digital world and economy, digital banking comes with some advantages baked in, which have seen the sector continue to succeed despite the tumult in the wider world. In fact, the crises which have shaped the decade so far may even have been to the advantage of digital banking. Just as during the pandemic, technologies which could facilitate remote working saw a huge uptick in users, so to digital banking is well suited to a world where both people, and institutions demand the convenience that online banking services offer.

And while uptake of digital banking services is widespread amongst retail consumers, a trend likely to continue as digital first generations like Gen Z become an ever-greater proportion of the consumer market, uptake amongst corporate and institutional customers has been slower. This is largely down to a lack of fintech businesses serving the more complex needs of the institutional market, but, in a post-Covid world of hybrid working business, corporate clients are looking for the same ease of use and geographic freedom in their banking that is enjoyed by retail consumers.

This is not just a pipe dream – with the recent roll out of Apex Group’s Digital Banking services, institutions can enjoy the kind of multi-currency, cloud-based banking solutions, with 24/7 account access that many of us take for granted when it comes to our personal banking.

Staying compliant

One significant difference between retail and business accounts however, for banking service providers, is the relative levels of compliance which are needed. While compliance is crucial in the delivery of all financial services, running compliance on multi-million pound transactions between international businesses brings with it a level of complexity that an individual buying goods and services online doesn’t.

For digital banking services providers, this situation is further compounded by guidance earlier this year from HM Treasury – against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine conflict- requiring enhanced levels of compliance and due diligence when it comes to doing business with “a high-risk third country or in relation to any relevant transaction where either of the parties to the transaction is established in a high-risk third country or with a sanctioned individual.”

So, can digital banks meet these standards while also providing institutions with the kind of easily accessible, mobile service which retail customers enjoy?

The answer is yes and again, once initial hurdles are overcome, digital banking brings with it features which give it the edge over traditional banking services. Paperless processes, for example, mean greater transparency and allow for better and more efficient use of data. This means AI can be employed to search documents, as well as provide verification. It also means compliance processes, often notoriously complicated, become easier to track. Indeed, digitising time intensive manual process means the risk of human error in the compliance process is reduced.

Digital banking can also better integrate transaction monitoring tools, helping businesses identify fraud and irregularity more quickly. This can be hugely important, especially in the times of heightened risk we find ourselves in, where falling foul of a sanctions regime could have significant legal, financial and reputational consequences.

Cross-border business

Our world is increasingly globalised, and so is business. For corporate and institutional banking customers, being able to operate seamlessly across borders is key to the operation of their business.

This brings with it challenges, which are again compounded by difficult geopolitical and economic circumstances. In recent weeks for example, we’ve seen significant flux on FX markets which can have real consequences for businesses or institutional investors who are buying and selling assets in multiple currencies and jurisdictions. The ability to move quickly then, and transact in a currency of choice, is vital. Advanced digital banking platforms can help – offering automated money market fund sweeps in multiple core currencies to help their clients optimise their investment returns and effectively manage liquidity.

Control admin uncertainty

In times of uncertainty, digital banking can provide additional comfort via customisable multi-level payment approvals to enhance control of what is being paid out of business accounts, with custom limits available for different users or members of a team. Transparency and accountability are also essential, with corporate clients requiring fully integrated digital reporting and statements and instant visibility with transaction cost and  balances updated in real-time.

Outlook

For some, the perception remains that digital banking is the upstart industry trying to offer the services that the traditional banking industry has built itself upon. Increasingly however, the reality is that the pressure is on traditional banks to try and stake a claim to some of the territory being taken by digital first financial services.

With a whole range of features built in which make them well suited to business in a digital world, digital banking is on a growth trajectory. Until now, much of the focus has been upon the roll-out of services to retail consumers, but with features such as automated compliance, effortless international transactions and powerful AI coming as standard for many digital banks, the digital offering to the corporate world looks increasingly attractive.

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Business

Anyone Can Become an R&D Tax Expert with the Right Foundations

Source: Finance Derivative

Ian Cashin is a Customer Success Manager at Fintech company and R&D tax software provider WhisperClaims

For accounting firms, R&D tax credits offer a substantial opportunity to boost revenue and strengthen client relationships. According to Ian Cashin, Customer Success Manager at WhisperClaims, perceived complexities can be overcome with the right approach and support. Indeed, by embracing a few simple practices, any company can become an expert in R&D tax.

Building Confidence

Growing revenue through new business is far more challenging than unlocking revenue from an existing client base. However, a significant number of accounting firms are losing out on value-added opportunities as a result of their lack of confidence or knowledge in R&D tax relief.

Yet, advisors who follow best practice are now in an ideal position to use their extensive client knowledge to mitigate their clients’ risk of and potential exposure to interrogation over fraudulent claims, ahead of HMRC’s introduction of more stringent R&D tax processes in April 2023.

So why are firms reluctant? There is no doubt that the R&D tax credit procedure is different. Compared to other areas of tax regulation, it leaves greater room for interpretation. But it is readily understandable by a qualified accountant – even an unqualified trainee. Understanding what HMRC considers to fall under the scope of research and development is key. Astrophysicists and Formula 1 manufacturers are not the only people who employ science and technology to overcome business challenges. Every day, UK firms of all sizes engage in R&D activities, from civil engineers to food manufacturers, yet far too many have not yet filed claims, losing out on critical cash.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that, as an accountant, you already have a far deeper relationship with your client compared to any other service provider. Once you have raised your level of understanding, you are in the perfect position to optimise this.

Leveraging  Insight

Accountants already have a unique understanding of their clients’ operations –  insight which,  as professional advisors, will help to highlight companies most likely to qualify for an R&D tax rebate. Furthermore, with access to tools like R&D tax claim preparation technology, developed by R&D tax professionals, they are able to significantly speed up the process. This technology enables accountants to easily determine the top targets within their client base, indicating where to focus the efforts of their emerging R&D tax service.

Using this priority list in conjunction with their understanding of the criteria HMRC stipulates, an accountant can leverage their client knowledge and relationship to engage in a conversation regarding daily R&D activities and unlock potential tax relief opportunities.

Moreover, facilitated by a specialist R&D tax claims preparation platform, accountants can be assured of a structured process that prompts the right questions to ask clients during these conversations, and highlights answers that are either in sync with, or fall outside of, the HMRC parameters. For instance, ca restaurant owner adding vegan alternatives to the menu is not on the same level as a food producer starting the development and manufacturing of a fully plant-based product line. The latter will undoubtedly be eligible for R&D tax assistance, but not the former. Accountants should use their position as “professional advisors” in this situation to push back against clients, especially those who may have previously been unwittingly misled.

Best Practices

For the last twenty years, since the introduction of R&D tax rebates in 2001, best practice has been the provision of a detailed report, complementary to the CT600 form, to mitigate the chance of HMRC asking supplementary questions. The technical purpose of the claim as well as the business context must be covered in this report, e.g. the challenges faced; how science and technology were used to overcome these; and the professionals employed who overcame them. Simply put, if the challenges weren’t difficult to solve, it wasn’t R&D.

It’s also critical to keep in mind that R&D claims cannot simply be copied and pasted from year to year. R&D is not necessarily a constant; demand for it changes in line with the evolution of the business’ activity or stage of development. as businesses change and go to the next stage of development.

The accountant’s already solid client relationship and interpersonal abilities come into their own in such situations. Particularly if the appropriate course of action is to suggest that the client should not submit an R&D claim, an accountant must feel comfortable advising the client accordingly. The claim belongs to the client; if it is contested, the client will be the one facing an HMRC investigation. An advisor must be self-assured enough to refuse to input erroneous claims without endangering the client relationship.

Conclusion

Recent years have seen accountancy firms strengthen their position as dependable, trusted business advisors. Discussions regarding a business owner’s long-term objectives, succession and exit plans, as well as pensions and investments, have become commonplace. It should be natural to include R&D tax into these conversations . Asking a customer about their investment in R&D should be a common practice – business as usual –  just as it is to inquire about investment in infrastructure or buildings.

The only thing preventing accountants from successfully adding R&D tax to their suite of services  is a lack of confidence. Yet, any reservations can be addressed with a straightforward ‘back to basics’ R&D training course, as well as using technology to gain access to a completely new revenue stream with their current clientele. Now that HMRC is openly calling for a much more rigorous, trusted, and evidence-based approach to R&D tax from 2023, accountants hold all the cards they need to gain confidence and give clients the trusted service they desire.

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Business

Redefining the human touch with digital transformation

Source: Finance Derivative

Simon Kearsley, CEO of bluQube

It may not be a new phrase, but digital transformation is still inducing anxiety amongst 80% of employees. Reigniting the conversation around the future role of the human workforce, the COVID-19 pandemic caused 47% of business leaders to implement new technologies, and a further 29% to develop plans to do so in the near future.

Creating increased efficiencies, cost savings, and improved customer service, several new technologies are becoming ingrained within core business operations. For example, the capabilities of cloud computing have enhanced the customer experience, and many companies are also using this to digitise their supply chain. Likewise, the combination of artificial intelligence and big data can also be used to automate nearly 80% of physical work, and 70% of data-processing.

In the digital era with so many new channels for communication, the ability to receive valuable insights from customers has in practice never been greater, which can in turn be used to inform future planning. Leveraged properly, this means that technology can drive benefits and growth for not just businesses, but also their customers and even their workforce. As technology empowers staff to transition their roles from more onerous, repetitive tasks towards impactful decisions within their organisation, this encourages the workforce to better realise the value of their contributions.

A data-driven workforce

When businesses embrace data-driven digital technologies, process optimisation across various sectors of the organisation occurs. For example, digitally-led automation, such as the use of OCR software, has been able to take over many time-consuming manual tasks, including data-entry, re-keying, and core administration roles. Although tasks of this nature may have formed a large part of some employees’ roles, this doesn’t mean that anxieties around the purpose of their job must increase.

Optimisation across the business isn’t limited to processes and costs, it also extends throughout the workforce. Less monotonous roles mean that employees are free to take on strategic roles that form a more rewarding career. In practice, this access to enhanced data empowers employees to expand beyond the limited resources they have for decision-making, instead leveraging the insight collected by analytics to make more informed decisions.

By replacing repetitive tasks, staff are becoming increasingly involved in the ideation process for new products and how to improve the company’s existing services. Besides the clear benefits this has to daily productivity and efficiency, staff are equipped with the tools to more clearly demonstrate their contribution to the business and, in turn, provide greater scope for progression.

As investment in data-led solutions continues and traditional roles are reshaped around its impact, employees’ digital skillsets will act as a key driver within the talent market and generate career progression that staff may have previously felt was unattainable. However, this outcome for staff will only be achieved if managers and senior members of the company are open to change and flexible enough to evolve alongside digital transformation. Technology adaptations are inevitable, and as its organisational applications continue to expand, managers would be wise to support new digital initiatives to remain ahead of the competition.

Organisational impact

The business value provided by enhanced insights into customer preferences and behaviours cannot be overstated. With a clear overview of key behaviours, business leaders can accurately determine which areas of their processes need to be streamlined, where to focus their efforts, and how to attain the greatest possible value. On this basis, employees’ contributions will be vital for driving fundamental changes across the business, including roles in strategy development and operational management. Likewise, employees will be free to develop new product ideas and ways to improve the current service offering to benefit the business on a wider scale.

Amidst ongoing economic constraints, it has arguably never been more important for businesses to implement sustainable technologies that support their ability to respond to changing circumstances. Indeed, the insights discerned from employees’ data analysis and increased team collaboration are essential for reducing the risk of costly errors for the business.

In the coming years, AI-backed automation will become a key driver for technological change. As AI systems learn how to fit into the organisation and are programmed to improve over time, this encourages a greater focus on people on the long term. Not only should this reassure employees of their value, but it should also reassure managers that their investment was worthwhile.

Customer preferences

Further reinforcing the value of a data-led workforce is the customer preference for real, human customer service – the value of which remains remarkably high. This is recognised by the vast majority (90%) of business leaders, who believe that the human touch of customer service has become even more important amidst advancing technology, with 40% describing the continued human touch in customer service as a ‘100% mission critical focus.’

Experienced across virtually every industry, many companies may have temporarily seen customer service levels slip during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, technology is able to reverse this trend, supporting the human element of customer service with high-value data and insight. This enables teams to make decisions based on what they have learnt from evolving customer data and feedback, which can then be leveraged to improve the customer experience on an ongoing basis.

An additional benefit of digital transformation for customer service teams is that technology streamlining businesses’ operations in turn frees up organisations to provide the other crucial strand of the human touch, with dedicated customer service teams to personally connect with customers.

The bottom line

Simply enough, data-led technology significantly benefits business leaders, employees and customers alike. Achieving just base-level insights increases job satisfaction and security, encourages client retention, and instils confidence in customers that they are receiving a high-value service. For the four out of five workers that remain anxious about the implementation of digital technologies, it must be remembered that these advancements create an exciting opportunity for the human touch to grow alongside them.

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