Neil Katkov

About Neil Katkov

Neil Katkov, PhD, is the Senior Vice President of Celent's Global Asian Financial Services Group, based in the firm's Tokyo office. His areas of expertise include the Asian financial services industry, financial services distribution channels, and compliance issues including anti-money laundering and business continuity planning.

Cyber Security: Is Blockchain the Answer?

Cyber security has long been a serious matter for financial institutions and corporates alike, but fintech and the digital era make cyber security more of an issue. Delivery of products and services through digital channels means that more systems are available to scrutiny by malefactors. The continuing adoption of fintech APIs (by which institutions provide their clients with third party services) and cloud computing may introduce further vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, the growth of the digital economy is also creating a large population of highly trained technologists — potentially creating greater numbers of cyber attackers and cyber thieves.

Cyber threats affect all industries, but financial institutions are particularly at risk, because of the direct financial gain possible from a cyber intrusion. An important question is whether the existing cyber security guidelines issued by various industry organizations will continue to be adequate in the age of fintech and digital financial services.

Fortunately, the evolution of fintech also entails the development of new technologies aimed at creating the next generation of cyber security. A number of startups are beginning to develop applications using semantic analysis and machine learning to tackle KYC, AML and fraud issues. Significantly, IBM Watson and eight universities recently unveiled an initiative aimed at applying artificial intelligence to thwart cyber attacks.

The traditional cyber security paradigm is one of “defense,” and unfortunately defenses can always be breached. Artificial intelligence, as advanced as it is, still represents the traditional cyber security paradigm of “defense,” putting up physical and virtual walls and fortifications to protect against or react to attacks, breaches, and fraud or other financial crime.

What if there were a technology that broke through this “defense” paradigm and instead made cyber security an integral aspect of financial technology?

This is precisely the approach taken to cyber security by blockchain technology.

Bank consortia and startups alike are engaged in efforts to develop distributed ledgers for transfer of value (payments) and for capital markets trading (where the execution of complex financial transactions is done through blockchain-based smart contracts). Accordingly, distributed ledgers and smart contracts are likely to one day have a place in treasury operations, for both payments and trading.

Blockchain is gaining attention primarily because its consensus-based, distributed structure may create new business models within financial services. In addition, though, blockchain technology has at its core encryption technologies that not only keep it secure, but are actually the mechanism by which transactions are completed and recorded. In the case of Bitcoin, blockchain has demonstrated that its encryption technologies are quite secure. The further development of blockchain will necessarily entail significant enhancements in next-generation encryption technologies such as multi-party computation and homomorphic encryption, which are already under development. In other words, blockchain is likely to not only play a role in altering the way payments and capital markets transactions are undertaken, but also in the way next-generation financial systems are secured.

Reporting from Celent’s Model Insurer Asia Summit

If 2015 was the year of FinTech, 2016 will surely be the year that InsurTech comes into its own. Celent has been presenting our views on InsurTech and emerging technologies at insurance conferences throughout Asia for some time now, so naturally we see this as a welcome—and inevitable—development.

We held our 7th Annual Model Insurer Asia Awards event in Singapore last month, with presentations focusing on InsurTech and digital financial services. Celent Research Director Karlyn Carnahan set the tone with a keynote presentation on the challenges facing insurers as customers are increasingly seeking real-time, digital interactions tailored to their personal needs and channel preferences. Karlyn outlined the steps to becoming a digital insurer and provided many insights on how insurers can embrace the digital paradigm. In the afternoon session, Karlyn also led a peer-to-peer discussion on how insurers in Asia are responding to these significant changes in the digital landscape.

We were delighted to have GoBear, one of the stars of Asia InsurTech, on the program. GoBear is an online financial services aggregator with a decidedly digital offering that is expanding at a remarkably fast pace throughout Southeast Asia. In his keynote presentation, GoBear’s CEO Andre Hesselink discussed how his firm developed their product with the goal of better serving consumers while at the same time satisfying the business needs of their suppliers, the insurance carriers. Quite the balancing act I am sure.

Celent Analyst KyongSun Kong presented the results of Celent’s annual Asia Insurance CIO survey, revealing that nearly 80% of insurers surveyed are engaged in digital transformation initiatives.

Finally, we came to the heart of the event: the Model Insurer Asia Awards themselves. This year we celebrated best-practice technology initiatives at 14 insurers, including ICICI Lombard General Insurance, Taikang Insurance, multinationals Aegon and MetLife, and online insurance innovator DirectAsia, among many others. All winning initiatives are profiled in our report Celent Model Insurer Asia 2016: Case Studies of Effective Technology Use in Insurance.

From the Celent Innovation Forum, Tokyo

At Celent we have been focusing on financial services technology since our inception. Now of course all eyes are focused on fintech, which we might inversely call the use of technology to disrupt (traditional) financial services. Investment in fintech startups is significant, and the financial markets involved are huge – US$218 trillion annually in the capital markets alone. Celent recently held our latest fintech event in Tokyo to a full house, an indication of the intense interest in fintech in the Japanese market. The day consisted of two Celent presentations on fintech in the retail and institutional securities industries, followed by a discussion panel. Celent senior analyst John Dwyer presented on blockchain technology and its potential use across capital markets. Smart contracts powered by this technology could conceivably replace existing means of executing market transactions, and by enabling direct ownership might displace custodians and other intermediaries. As if this weren’t food for thought enough, governments including the US and UK are taking a serious look at putting the dollar and the pound on blockchains. Talk about fundamental disruption! Senior analyst Will Trout provided an analysis of how automated advice (robo advisory) is reshaping the wealth management industry. After the financial crisis many individuals quite naturally want to manage their assets themselves, but also require investment advice. Robo advisory, which perfectly suits the self-service, mobile lifestyle, is an answer to this dilemma. SoftBank, Nomura Asset Management and The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ joined the panel discussion, bringing their respective views on cognitive computing; the potential of fintech to lure Japan’s famously reticent retail segment to participate in the markets; and how to mobilize a large organization for innovation. A fundamental question about fintech is who will ultimately derive value from these innovations: fintech startups; technology giants like Alibaba and Google; or the incumbent financial institutions? Due partly to the regulatory stance, in Japan more than in most markets financial institutions may be in the best position to end up in the winner’s box. Only time will tell, for Japan and for markets across the globe, but you can rely on Celent to continue to provide our clients with insights in the rapidly developing world of fintech.

Announcing the winners of the 5th Asia Technology Insurance Awards

Celent and Asia Insurance Review hosted the 5th Asia Insurance Technology Awards (AITAs) at AIR’s CIO Technology Summit at Le Meridien Hotel Jakarta on 1 September 2015. The AITAs recognize excellence and innovation in the use of technology within the insurance industry. This year we received over 30 nominations from Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Pakistan; as well as the Asia Pacific divisions of global insurers. There were many impressive submissions, from which our international panel of Celent insurance analysts selected the very best to receive the six awards. The Innovation Award recognizes innovation in business models or in the use of technology. The winner was MetLife Asia. MetLife Asia implemented Advanced Data Analytics to transform big data into customer insights and to deliver a more personalized customer experience – delivering the right products and services, for the right people, at the right time. They are using these insights to inform product and services development, and to deliver sales leads to agents. The company won the award because of the innovative usage of data analytics. The IT Leadership Award honors an individual who has displayed clear vision and leadership in the delivery of technology to the business. The recipient will have been responsible for deriving genuine value from technology and has demonstrated this trait with a specific project or through ongoing leadership. The winner was Girish Nayak, Chief – Customer Service, Operations and Technology at ICICI Lombard General Insurance. ICICI Lombard implemented a business assurance project to address the ever present gap between real business uptime on the ground vs technology uptime. The firm implemented an in-house customer experience center; and deployed an infrastructure as a service model in Microsoft Azure Cloud. These initiatives generate genuine value for the business. The Digital Transformation Award honors an insurer who has made the most progress in implementing digitization initiatives. BOCG Life was the winner. BOCG Life implemented the Electronic Commerce System to provide online needs analysis and policy services. Through a transparent, direct and needs-oriented process, it facilitates prospective customers applying for multiple products they need in one go, and allows customer to adjust the offer according to their budget. The company won the award because of the way it is building trust and developing long-term relationships with customers through digital transformation. The Best Newcomer Award recognizes the best new player in the insurance technology field. The winner was CAMS Insurance Repository Services. CAMS Insurance Repository Services launched the Insurance Repository to provide e- Insurance Accounts to maintain policies as e-policies. This brings new efficiencies and benefits across the stakeholders, including Policy Holders, Insurers, Agents and the Regulator. The company won the award because they demonstrated real, unique value to the ecosystem. The award for Best Insurer: Technology honors the insurer who has made the most progress in embracing technology across the organization. The winner was RAC Insurance. RAC Insurance implemented a series of projects to digitize the business between suppliers, members and RAC Insurance. These projects include Claims Allocation, Motor Repairer Integration, and a B2C platform. The company won the award because of the way technology transformed the organization’s capability by offering an exceptional, one-touch experience for their members through online channels. Finally, the New Business Model Leveraging Mobile Applications Award recognizes the insurer who has developed a new, perhaps disruptive business model involving the innovative use of mobile technology. Max Life Insurance won the award. Max Life Insurance launched mServicing and mApp which enable digital servicing of customers, sales force and operations. The company won the award because of the use of mobile technologies to increase agent activity and engagement, enable speedy issuance of policies, and enhance business quality and operational efficiency. Be on the lookout for the 6th Asia Insurance Technology Awards in 2016. We’ll post another blog when the nomination period opens, sometime around June 2016. You can also find information on Celent’s website: http://www.celent.com/aita.  

Innovation and Legacy Modernization in Japan

As a regional unit, Celent Asia covers all of the industries under Celent’s purview: Banking, Insurance, and Securities & Investments. So it can be a bit of a challenge when we put on a Celent conference in Asia to find topics that resonate across all these verticals. Our recent (and sold out) Insight and Innovation Day in Tokyo hit the target by examining two interrelated themes of vital import to many financial firms today: strategies for innovation, and legacy renewal to support these strategies. The event was anchored by not one but two surveys Celent carried out this spring in Japan. A survey of 1,000+ Japanese consumers initiated by Celent’s CEO Craig Weber suggested that highly digital consumers are the best targets for innovative financial services. The challenge, as this survey revealed (and contrary to popular belief outside Japan), is that digitally savvy consumers are still just a tiny minority in Japan. This implies that financial institutions in Japan must not only innovate, but also educate and lead their customers into the digital financial future. The second survey, organized by Celent Senior Analyst Eiichiro Yanagawa, looked at legacy modernization trends at more than 60 banks, insurers and investment firms in Japan. Core system replacement is in full swing, with a majority of firms either planning or in the midst of their legacy transformation initiatives. Significantly, survey respondents indicated that the primary driver for replacing the core is to improve customer service and satisfaction. Which increasingly will require digital support for the customer experience. In a word, innovation. These surveys were modeled on the Celent reports Targeting Innovation: How Your Customers Might Respond and Tracking the Progress in Core Systems Replacement (Global Life and Global P&C editions). We’ll be publishing our analyses of the Japan surveys shortly. This is what our team does best and, I believe, uniquely: apply our global experience to the markets here in Asia to help firms deliver value.

On the cusp: regional integration in Asia

It’s 2015, the mid-point of the decade and a good time to start looking at major trends in Asian financial services over the next five to ten years. One of the major themes will be regional integration, which is another way of saying the development of cross-border markets. There are at least two important threads here: the ongoing internationalization of China’s currency, and the development of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in Southeast Asia. RMB internalization is really about the loosening of China’s capital controls and its full-fledged integration into the world economy. And everyone seems to want a piece of this action, including near neighbors such as Singapore who are vying with Hong Kong to be the world’s financial gateway to China. The AEC is well on its way to becoming a reality in 2015, with far-reaching trade agreements designed to facilitate cross-border expansion of dozens of services industries, including financial sectors. While AEC is not grabbing global headlines the way China does, we see increasing interest in Southeast Asia among our FSI and technology vendor clients. From Celent’s point of view, both trends will open significant opportunities across financial services. In banking, common payments platforms and cross-border clearing. In capital markets, cross-border trading platforms for listed and even OTC products. In insurance, the continued development of regional markets. Financial institutions will be challenged to create new business models and technology strategies to extract the opportunities offered by regional integration. It’s the mid-point of the decade, and the beginning of something very big.

Apple Watch is a game changer

The Apple Watch unveiled a few hours ago is a game changer. Even if the “iWatch” flops, the voice input function will have a profound effect on lifestyles, finally liberating users from the tedious and clumsy digital (as in fingers) input that has dominated human-device interaction since the advent of the typewriter (actually since the invention of writing). Like the smartphone and the tablet before it, the Apple Watch marks another giant leap in usability, and in turn has the potential to boost adoption of digital financial services. In a best case scenario, mobile payments, digital wealth management services, and biomonitor-based insurance could all reach their long-awaited tipping points and achieve widespread adoption. It should come as no surprise due to Apple’s reputation for design, but the fact that the Apple Watch looks like a watch,  not a Dick Tracy-era device, will be a major factor in its adoption. The slim form factor and accuracy of the timepiece place the iWatch squarely in the jewelry accessories market as much as in the smart device market. This is a virtual first in the computing industry (it is hard to imagine many people wearing the clunky Samsung Gear as a fashion statement) and its significance in driving demand for the device should not be underestimated. No doubt we will see iWatch shops in the jewelry sections of department stores globally before long.

Beyond HFT

Last week I attended the Tokyo Financial Information Summit, put on by Interactive Media. The event was interesting from a number of perspectives. This event focuses on the capital markets; attendees are usually domestic sell side and buy side firms and vendors, including global firms active in Japan. This year there was good representation from around Asia ex-Japan as well; possibly attracted by the new volatility in Japan’s stock market. The new activity in the market was set off by the government’s Abenomics policies aimed at reinvigorating the Japanese economy. But I suspect the fact that Japan’s stock market is traded on an increasingly low latency and fragmented market structure gives some extra juice to the engine. Speaking of high frequency trading, Celent’s presentation at the event pointed out that HFT volumes have fallen from their peak (at the time of the financial crisis) and that HFT revenues have fallen drastically from this peak. In response to this trend, as well as the severe cost pressures in the post-GFC period, cutting-edge firms seeking to maintain profitable trading operations are removing themselves from the low latency arms race. Instead, firms are seeking to maximize the potential of their existing low-latency infrastructures by investing in real-time analytics and other new capabilities to support smarter trading. HFT is not dead, but firms are moving beyond pure horsepower to more nuanced strategies. Interestingly, this theme was echoed by the buy and sell side participants in a panel at the event moderated by my colleague, Celent Senior Analyst Eiichiro Yanagawa. Even though HFT levels in Japan, at around 25 – 35% of trading, have probably not reached their peak, firms are already pulling out of the ultra-low latency arms race–or deciding not to enter it in the first place. The message was that for many firms it is not advisable to enter a race where they are already outgunned. Instead they should focus on smarter trading that may leverage the exchanges’ low latency environment, but rely on the specific capabilities and strategies of a firm and its traders. Looking at this discussion in a global context, it seems interesting and not a little ironic that just as regulators are preparing to strike against HFT, the industry has in some sense already started to move beyond it.

Quotes from the Innovation Roundtable

They said it couldn’t be done, but we held the latest installment in Celent’s series of innovation roundtables in Tokyo recently. Our innovation roundtables put the focus squarely on interactive discussion among the participants. This is a relatively untried model in Japan, where events typically take the form of conventional conferences with presentations. We’re glad we tried it though, because we got a very interesting line-up of firms. Participants included the whole spectrum: banks, capital markets firms, and insurers; Japanese and foreign firms; traditional mega-institutions and alternative new entrants. The discussion was lively; below are some quick notes I took of some of the more interesting comments made, to capture a bit of the flavor of the day. Why Innovate? “Innovation is not the goal, it is a method and a tactic.” “We need to innovate because it has become difficult to differentiate us from our competitors.” “In today’s environment, innovation is necessary if you want to stay profitable.” Paths to Innovation “Incremental innovation is an axymoron. You can’t innovate by increments; innovation requires a big bang change.” “It might be possible to rearrange existing elements to create something new.” “When to innovate? If our clients think a new service is interesting, we try and create it for them and see if it succeeds.” “Innovation needs to be business driven.” “Financial institutions need to have an innovation division; an incubation unit that accumulates ideas from throughout the company.” IT and Innovation “IT is not the impetus for innovation, but because IT inevitably evolves, that creates need for innovation.” “Legacy is a barrier: it is hard to throw things away.” Cultural Challenges “We need to justify ROI on any investment each fiscal year. It is hard to show this on an innovation project.” “If you think about it, financial institutions don’t even have R&D departments.” Quote of the Day “Changing company culture is really about changing oneself. I personally enjoy innovation and change. Innovative culture is about getting a bunch of people together who enjoy change.”

On Innovation

Celent held our most recent Innovation event in Singapore the last week of November, following similar events in New York, Boston, Toronto, Tokyo, London, and, most recently, San Francisco. Most of Celent’s work is focused on specific financial industry verticals, but Innovation is a topic that transcends industry barriers, and so—by design—do many of our Innovation events.

In Singapore we had representation from the entire financial services spectrum—banks, credit cards, insurers, capital markets firms and exchanges. We presented some of Celent’s recent thinking on innovation, much of it from our new innovation survey. But the main event was a peer discussion between the participants themselves.

It was one of the more lively discussions I’ve seen. We set aside two hours for the peer discussion, and it went by in a flash. Participants jostled to get their say in, and the session ended with the feeling that it could have gone several hours more. I think one of the keys was that there were a lot of different types in the room: the abovementioned full spectrum of FIs, from both the business and IT side, and even from compliance.

Everyone was naturally interested in how their “colleagues across the aisles” looked at innovation, how far each had come in achieving it, and what their technology, operational and cultural approaches were—or were not. Participants brimmed with on-the-spot case studies of initiatives at their firms. This was also refreshingly unusual, since firms are often reticent to divulge competitive information and “secret sauces.”

I think the reason for this relatively high level of enthusiasm lies in the industry’s realization that innovation is crucial to long-term success–and considering the rapidly expanding number of disintermediators, and the remarkable success of some of them, maybe even needed for short-term survival.