The art of using all those small financial margins


One of those days when ideas flow so quickly that I can almost see smoke rising from my keyboard. So, first things first, that business plan for the EneFin project. I have just passed in review the balance sheets of four FinTech companies – PayPal, Square Inc, Fintech Group AG, and Katipult – in order to make myself an idea of what the balance sheet of EneFin should look like. Surprise! By the look of their balance sheets, there is very little Tech in those FinTech companies, and a s**tload of Fin. How do I know that? Well, when I am reading a balance sheet, I start by paying attention to assets. The account of assets is a financial expression of the economic value present in the proprietary resources of a business. In other words, the structure observable on the active side of a balance sheet informs about what’s really valuable in the given business.

Moreover, when I see a lot of value accumulated in a given category A of assets, and quite little value in category B, I gather that people in that company want to have a lot of A and care a lot less about B. Stands to reason: they have accumulated a lot of A and little B. In any balance sheet, technological assets are to be found mostly under the heading of ‘Property, plant and equipment’. Depending on the accounting practices in use with the given company, intellectual property can be kicked out of this general category, into a separate one, labelled ‘Intangible assets’.

As I dug through the balance sheets of those FinTech companies, the value of those typically technological assets is ridiculously low, way below 10% of the total capital engaged. The lion’s part of said capital is allocated in financial assets. These split into two, functionally distinct categories: customer accounts and investments. This is, by the way, that tiny little detail that I completely overlooked before, as I had been nurturing my enthusiasm for my own idea, i.e. EneFin. In FinTech, you need to process financial transactions, and in order to process them, you need to maintain the corresponding current accounts, commonly called ‘customer accounts’.

The more customers I have in my EneFin project, the more transactions I process, and, consequently, the greater is the aggregate value reported on those customer accounts. Here comes the hard conclusion that I have made as I read those balance sheets: I need to rethink the business process of EneFin under that specific angle, i.e. as the creation of and capitalisation on the customer accounts, which will accompany transactions.

The second thing I need to think about, and which I found in those balance sheets, is hedging. Besides the financial assets that back up customer accounts, FinTech companies hold large amounts of low-risk, low-yield, debt-based financial assets, like sovereign bonds. This is the kind of thing you hold in order to hedge risks that you have in other assets. Those other assets must be those financial ones engaged in customer accounts. It looks as if every $ on customer accounts needed to have at least one sibling in hedging. Once again, something to ponder in the development of my business concept.

Thus, I need to figure out the core process of EneFin, its component customer relations, and the process of starting up the whole business precisely as a process of capital accumulation in customer accounts and in hedging. This is just part of the story I need to rethink. As I read those balance sheets, I am cross-reading the corresponding statements of income. The latter show important, current expenditures on technology, for example on the development of company’s software. Still, those current expenses do not reflect in the value of proprietary assets. In other words, those expenses do not capitalize. This is the money you need to spend in order to stay in the race, but you can hardly expect any durable return on it. It is a typical example of what we, economists, use to designate as ‘sunk costs’: you can hardly live without them, and you can hardly expect to recoup them later.

Right, so I need to figure out them processes. As any living organism, I do with what I have and what I have are those balance sheets. So I go and I am having a look at grandpa PayPal’s annual report. The first thing I do when I am having a stroll at the passive side of the balance sheet is to measure equity. In a balance sheet, equity is what is really yours, out of what you think is yours, i.e. out of your assets. At PayPal, by the end of 2017, shareholders’ equity was equal to $15 994 million. In other words, each dollar earnt in terms of revenues in 2017 ($13 094 mln) needed a puff cousin of $1,22 in equity. From another point of view, that equity of $15 994 million makes 37,5% of the total assets ($40 774 mln). That 37,5% is the coefficient of financial liquidity in PayPal. As financial institutions come, 37,5% is a lot. Banks start moaning when they are legally forced to go over and above 10%; PayPal looks really well-rooted in comparison.

The next thing I do on the passive side of a balance sheet is to look for things that sort of mirror similar things on the active side. On the active side of PayPal’s balance sheet, the biggest category is ‘Funds receivable and customer accounts’: $18 242 mln out of the total $40 774 mln of assets. On the passive side, in the dark forest of liabilities, I am spotting a similar beast. It has ‘Funds payable and amounts due to customers’ written on it, and it makes $19 742 mln. In probabilistic terms, each single $1 paid in on a customer account and held on this account has a mirror in some $0,94 held in assets that PayPal labels ‘Funds receivable and customer accounts’. The remaining $0,06 from that $1 are held in other assets.

Here, I am getting into the business process. A customer opens an account with PayPal. They can do it in two ways, or rather with two distinct purposes: for making payments or for receiving payments. When a customer wants to use the PayPal account mostly to make payments – let’s call them active payers – they will take care of transferring some money to this account from some other one, like from the personal bank account, of from a credit card. This happens frequently with people who buy and pay a lot online, and want their sort of financial crown jewels well protected. They open a PayPal account, and transfer there the amount of money necessary for those payments they think they will be doing like over the month to come. Even if one of those payments is traced back by some malware, the amount at risk is the amount transferred to the PayPal account, not the money on the person’s main bank account or on their credit card. Of course, really nasty malware can also trace back the transfer from my main account to the one I have on PayPal, and can be sort of tempted to attack that main account as well. Still, it makes at least one more firewall to cheat their way through.

Other customers, which I provisionally label as passive receivers, will open and hold a PayPal account mostly for receiving payments. For example, I maintain such an account for the purposes of this blog and as an adjacent functionality to my Patreon profile. The operational distinction between active payers and passive receivers is that the former are more likely than the latter to hold significant monetary balances on their PayPal account.

Let’s see how does PayPal handle those customers. I found an interesting passage on page 132 of their last annual report: ‘We hold all customer balances, both in the U.S. and internationally, as direct claims against us which are reflected on our consolidated balance sheet as a liability classified as amounts due to customers. Certain jurisdictions where PayPal operates require us to hold eligible liquid assets, as defined by the regulators in these jurisdictions, equal to at least 100% of the aggregate amount of all customer balances. Therefore, we use the assets underlying the customer balances to meet these regulatory requirements and separately classify the assets as customer accounts in our consolidated balance sheet. We classify the assets underlying the customer balances as current based on their purpose and availability to fulfill our direct obligation under amounts due to customers’.

OK, so I can see the first choices that a FinTech company can make in that respect. The monetary balances written on customer accounts can be held either directly by the operator of the FinTech platform, or their holding can be underwritten to a third party, a bank, for example. We call it a fiduciary contract. PayPal chooses the first option, i.e. holding customer accounts directly.

What’s the difference? If you hold directly the customer balances, they are your liability vis a vis your customers. You need to figure out, then, how to allocate those balances into some assets. Once you underwrite the holding of those balances to that fiduciary institution, you have a claim on that institution. Your customers have a claim on you, and this is your liability, and you have a claim on your underwriter, and this is your asset. The balance sheet balances itself.

Another choice that I can see kind of underneath that passage is the choice of jurisdiction. See there? ‘Certain jurisdictions […] require...’. Your choice is between the jurisdictions that require, and those which just don’t. It is about flexibility in your assets. In jurisdictions, which require to mirror the balances on customer accounts with ‘eligible assets’, the ‘eligible’ part is bound to be narrowed down somehow, either in the legal rules strictly spoken, or in some guidelines, or even in adjudication. It all tells you, how you should structure your financial assets.

Now, something that is not exactly a choice, but more of an imperative: liquidity of assets as functionally connected to the liquidity of liabilities. I am referring to the last sentence in that passage above. When a customer keeps money on a payment account – such as those at PayPal – the customer can withdraw their money any minute. Hence, if you want to mirror that on the asset side of the balance sheet, you need to place that money from customer accounts, waiting in full gear all the time, in placements that allow just as swift a withdrawal.

All that makes me think about the business process of the EneFin project. The supplier of energy issues the simple contracts that make the base for the complex EneFin contract, i.e. the futures on the supply of energy, and the participatory deed, e.g. shares. Now, those simple contracts have to be combined into the complex contract, EneFin way: whoever buys the futures on energy, buys the participatory deeds attached.

Question: how is that complex contract written into the balance sheet of EneFin? Option (I): all the rights attached to the complex contract remain with the supplier of energy and EneFin just provides a digital token to be put in circulation. EneFin acts on behalf and in the name of the supplier of energy. Financially, in such case, EneFin has a bundle of conditional claims on the supplier of energy, and this is an asset endowed with conditional value.

Those claims are conditional on the behaviour of buyers (consumers of energy). As long as nobody acquires the digital token registered with EneFin, there is no claim with EneFin on the supplier of energy. Once somebody buys the thing, EneFin has a claim on the supplier of energy to transfer the rights from simple contracts (future claim on energy at fixed price + claim on the supplier’s capital) onto the buyer of the token.

This option raises a secondary question: if the complex contract is an asset with EneFin, and it has a conditionally determined value, what sort of capital should mirror that asset on the passive side of the balance sheet? A liability? A share in equity?

Option (II): all the rights attached to the complex contract are entrusted with EneFin, i.e. EneFin becomes the fiduciary (not just the agent) of the primary issuer, i.e. of the supplier of energy. In this case, the contract becomes a liability with EneFin, and we need some assets to mirror its value.

The value, this time, is not as conditional as in Option (I). As a matter of fact, it is not conditional at all. There is the plain value defined as the quantity of energy (QE) encompassed by the contract multiplied by the price of that energy in the households-oriented pricing PHE. It is like V = QE[kWh]*PHE[kWh] and this value turns up in EneFin’s balance sheet as a liability. It needs being mirrored with assets of similar liquidity.

What’s similar liquidity? In general, liquidity of capital is measured with a coefficient of turnover divided by nominal value of the deeds being traded. Logically, the lower the turnover in a given nominal value V = QE[kWh]*PHE[kWh] of contracts entrusted with EneFin, the less liquid those mirroring assets have to be. As the transactional platform warms up and as trade spirals up, liquidity should increase on the asset side. Something to ponder carefully.

how is the complex contract written into the balance sheet of EneFin

Now, I switch to the buyer side, i.e. to relations with the consumers of energy. A buyer of energy – supposedly a household – needs to open an account with EneFin in order to be able to buy complex contracts on energy. They can: a) put money on that account and use it to pay for complex contracts b) not to put money on the account and buy complex contracts with a short-term loan offered by EneFin. In case (a) they create a liability in EneFin’s balance sheet, whilst (b) creates an asset with EneFin.

In case (a), EneFin has the choice between (a)(i) directly holding the monetary balance, and (a)(ii) commission an external financial institution as fiduciary, who will hold that balance. In case (a)(i), this is a liability, with a mirroring asset to be figured out on EneFin’s own. When in (a)(ii), that asset figures itself out, as the EneFin’s liability vis a vis the owner of the account is automatically mirrored by EneFin’s claim on the underwriter who holds the corresponding monetary balance on the base of the fiduciary contract.

Kind of a similar choice appears in case (b): EneFin can (b)(i) lay out that credit from its own balance sheet, or (b)(ii) just resell a loan financed by an external institution.

How does EneFin hold the balances on customers’ accounts

These are loose thoughts, for the moment. Sort of a brainstorm with myself. I hope the storm will rain with some good ideas, soon, but now, it makes me aware of some subtle distinctions I have not been noticing so far. ‘Cause so far, I thought that EneFin would just earn money on transactional fees, and on periodical subscription fees. Now, a different landscape appears under those brainstorm clouds. There are fees for the possible fiduciary services, to be paid to EneFin by the suppliers of energy, and the fiduciary fees to be possibly paid by EneFin to the underwriting financial institution who holds the balances from customers’ accounts. There is a commission that EneFin could have on reselling credit offered by an external agent. There are all the particular rates of return on financial assets of different kinds. After all, you can have an interest even on an overnight deposit.

Intuitively, I guess that the difference between sort of profitable and really profitable, and thus between just possibly sustainable and really sustainable, in that EneFin projects, lies very much in the art of using all those small financial margins.

I am consistently delivering good, almost new science to my readers, and love doing it, and I am working on crowdfunding this activity of mine. As we talk business plans, I remind you that you can download, from the library of my blog, the business plan I prepared for my semi-scientific project Befund  (and you can access the French version as well). You can also get a free e-copy of my book ‘Capitalism and Political Power’ You can support my research by donating directly, any amount you consider appropriate, to my PayPal account. You can also consider going to my Patreon page and become my patron. If you decide so, I will be grateful for suggesting me two things that Patreon suggests me to suggest you. Firstly, what kind of reward would you expect in exchange of supporting me? Secondly, what kind of phases would you like to see in the development of my research, and of the corresponding educational tools?


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