Asia-based startups are beginning to make progress serving artificial-intelligence solutions to global asset managers.
To date the most activity has been in the U.S. or Europe, where global fund houses are based and where they have the most business. Kensho Technologies, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one leader in applying A.I. and machine learning to finance; it was acquired last year by S&P Global for $550 million, the largest deal for an A.I. startup to date.
Can an Asian startup generate that kind of enthusiasm? Here we look at three companies with their hats in the ring.
All three cited challenges in getting a mandate. Fund managers, already under commercial pressure, have limited budgets. These tend to be defined along old-school tech needs, i.e. trading connectivity or cyber-security. They don’t have space for newfangled things like A.I. startups.
Some appear at the cusp of breakthroughs, others aren’t there yet. Some have received generous funding, while others are still bootstrapping off founders’ money. But all of them are finding opportunities that are specific to Asia, a trend that is likely to accelerate.
Blue Fire AI
Anecdotally, the company that is generating the most unprompted buzz is Blue Fire AI, which DigFin profiled two years ago. In that period, while being funded by partners Luke Waddington and Samir Rath, the company had to find a path to commercialization.
Waddington, co-CEO and an ex banker, says they learned two things. One was that asset managers weren’t interested in claims of delivering alpha – delivering alpha is their job. What they wanted was a way to avoid nasty surprises.
The second deliverable was a way of piecing information together into a story for the purposes of portfolio construction.
“We built the equivalent of a FitBit for a listed company,” Waddington said. Instead of seeing a doctor annually (or filing a financial statement) the FitBit monitors heart, lungs and sleep continuously (or balance sheet, cash flows, shares, bonds). “It’s how you can see when the heart rate or the sleeping patterns aren’t right,” he said.
The output needs to be monitored by senior investment professionals, though, to ensure against false flags.
The company has won plaudits from asset-management industry groups in London and Singapore, and it’s now working with those member firms to develop solutions, which should be deployed within weeks. London managers are interested in applying risk alerts to Chinese companies (an area Blue Fire has invested in) while Singaporean managers want warnings of unknown risks.
The company is also opening a Toronto office where it is hiring data scientists and coders.
This startup is also storytelling, helping clients visualize things happening in the market. Based in Hong Kong by way of Beijing, MioTech is working for hedge funds, the research units of investment banks, family offices, and the investment advisors at private banks.
In 2017, the company received $7 million in financing from Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing.
“We tell a visual story, not about the portfolio but about the investment thesis,” said Jason Tu, co-founder and CEO. For example, how does a relationship manager pitch an investment opportunity to a knowledgeable client who also has lots of information?
MioTech does this through topic modeling, a branch of A.I. that analyzes what companies are trending and what relevant people are talking about.
For example, one bank’s sell-side research team wants to know how the U.S.-China trade war will impact supply chains of, say, consumer electronics companies inside China.
Or a private bank’s R.M. wants to know how a Federal Reserve rate change will affect a client’s portfolio.
Tu says MioTech’s software can answer those questions a lot more quickly and accurately than a human analyst. And from there it can use data to build new investment ideas.
So far, early adopters of MioTech services are hedge funds and investment banks that can make quick business decisions. Private banks or those with clients are slower adopters. But for all of them, the challenge has become that the wide availability of information means clients may well know more about an investment idea than the firm.
This startup had early PoCs with the likes of Mirae Asset and the buy-side arm of Chinese broker Shenwan Hongyuan. But production has been put back.
In the meantime, Alibaba has made a seed investment into the company, and it is in a program sponsored by Alibaba and SenseTime that gives Squared-S access to some of their resources.
The founders, Soujit Ghosh and Seth Huang, are using the time to do more research into how to apply their A.I. models. The initial concept was portfolio optimization. However, they are currently working with two clients that want their software for something else.
In one case, a bank is using it to help predict very short-term movements in foreign exchange. In the other, it’s working with a hedge fund to identify moves in distressed debt. The startup seems to have found an immediate demand in these short-term market predictions but it is still working on a more long-term investible solutions.
Part of that process is now running proprietary money. “We’re not interested in becoming a hedge fund or getting a license,” Ghosh said. It’s more about proving the technology instead of relying on the usual backtesting. “A.I. is about doing things better, whether that’s improving my Sharpe ratio or reducing my portfolio’s volatility.”
People at banks and asset management firms don’t really care about the underlying technology. They just want something they trust will work.
Blue Fire relies on natural language processing (see here for our Glossary explainer), combining capital-market expertise with machine learning techniques in a quest of getting the machine to put text into context. “We’ve invested technology that can identify what matters” in a document, Waddington said.
From there, that understanding has to be related to a target (a company, a stock). “This is where the magic happens and you build relationships, you measure the strength or the distance of those relationships, and you measure when those relationships stop,” Waddington said. “Then you need more information to continue. It’s just like how your mind works.”
But today most of this exists only in theory.
MioTech is also trying to create these relationships. It uses knowledge graphs, a version of NLP, to create an ambitious, broader approach.
Knowledge graphs connect and expand data sets, and find sub-graphs or similar patterns within a graph to map that to a goal (what the client wants) and a larger training set.
Self-learning relies on better training data, which companies like Tencent and Netflix achieve through topic modeling. Lots of data from many sources is built around an entity, which could be a listed company, or a market event. So if two companies are in the news together (a lawsuit, an acquisition, a contract) then that forms a topic. A knowledge graph is a never-ending process of building relationships in data among these two entities.
MioTech has been working on knowledge graphs for listed companies and economies in the region since 2016. “We think it’s the biggest graph in Asia, or looking at Asian economies,” Tu said during a presentation earlier this year.
Because two companies have many other relationships (suppliers, competitors, former executives), then entity and event vectors for other connected players. And so the machine training keeps expanding.
Finally on top is a convolutional neural network, a class of deep neural networks used to visualize data. The goal is to create insights that are more meaningful than sell-side analyst reports, which use a lot of hedged language and don’t help investors make the binary, buy- or sell decisions they need to make. (Although it still takes a human to sell what might be a politically unpopular decision.)
Although businesspeople may not care much about the tech, startup execs are frustrated by how it is perceived.
Many in finance don’t understand how it works.
“There’s no backtesting in A.I.,” Tu said. “There’s only more training with new data. If the data isn’t available, we can’t produce what clients want. But ‘backtesting’ is what finance people keep asking for – it’s not what A.I. people ask for.”
And even if people do understand it, the internal makeup of a financial institution is difficult to work with.
“Corporate digital teams are not aligned with management and sales,” said Seth Huang, CTO at Squared-S. There is often suspicion that A.I. will take away jobs. “But I’m not trying to get rid of analysts,” he said. “Banks are trying to get rid of analysts.”
For machine learning to work in finance, it can’t just be about computer scientists. It requires experts in economics, capital markets and other fields to put it into context. But it’s becoming easier and faster to do so. “Machine learning is not mysterious,” Huang said. “It’s easy to learn, and there are plenty of libraries that are open sourced. It would probably take eight weeks to solve many of your company’s problems.”
Half of Invesco’s China sales now via digital
But as the PRC joint venture learns how to distribute digitally, Invesco remains unsure of robo’s role in Asia.
This week DigFin is highlighting three asset-management firms’ approach to digital distribution, particularly in China. See also strategies from AllianceBernstein and BEA Union Investments. Go here for more insights into digital asset and wealth management.
Invesco is using its joint venture in mainland China, Invesco Great Wall, to figure out digital distribution.
The business now manages about $50 billion of assets, of which about 80% is retail, making it the fourth-largest Sino-foreign fund house in China. Over the past two years, half of retail inflows have come from new digital channels, as opposed to the traditional reliance upon banks, says Andrew Lo, senior managing director and Asia-Pacific CEO of Invesco in Hong Kong.
This is in keeping with a broader trend in the global mutual funds industry, which is shifting from one based on products to one focused more on investment solutions. “There’s an emphasis on designing outcomes for clients, such as through asset allocation or structuring,” to combine types of risk and asset classes.
That’s driven both by client demand as well as market volatility and challenges to active fund houses to deliver alpha (outperformance) on a net-free basis, compared to ultra-affordable passive investments tracking a benchmark.
That’s been an emerging story for the funds industry over the past decade. But on top of that is a new wrinkle: the ability to use technology to speed up operations and to reach more people.
“Technology is now changing the distribution landscape,” Lo said. “In China, it’s having quite an impact on reaching retail investors.”
For now this has been a story unique to mainland China, where existing bank channels (which dominate funds distribution in most Asian markets) are not well developed, and where regulation favors digital disrupters like Ant Financial.
The power of digital was evident in Ant’s success with money-market funds (under an affiliated fund house, Tianhong Asset Management), but it has now extended to equity and quant products onshore – products that Invesco’s J.V. now sells through fintech channels, including Ant, East Money Information, JD.com (Jingdong) and Snowball Finance (Xueqiu).
This has not been straightforward, however. Fund management companies are designed to cater to bank distributors, and are built on old-fashioned tech.
“We learned how to do digital marketing,” Lo said. “It’s very different to traditional distribution. It’s iterative, it changes fast, and you have to listen to customer feedback.” Partnering with digital channels has also required a different sense of product design, and to rebuild the company’s operational process to support round-the-clock digital sales and support.
Lo says the experience will be increasingly relevant as other markets digitalize, although they may need to be tweaked, depending on local regulation, client behavior and distributor demands. “Some things we can learn and apply elsewhere as the world goes digital,” Lo said.
The onshore funds market manages about Rmb14 trillion (almost $2 trillion) in total assets among 135 asset managers authorized to sell to retail clients, of which are 44 Sino-foreign JVs.
But most of these JVs are run by the local partner, with foreign shareholders having less influence. They are limited to stakes no greater than 49%, and local partners are often banks or other powerful institutions. One analyst told DigFin that local fund houses are not particularly bold when it comes to digital channels; and even if they are, the lessons don’t flow to the foreign partner.
But Invesco Great Wall’s case is different. Both Invesco and Great Wall Securities own 49%, with two other shareholders holding another 1% each. Given that Great Wall Securities has its own in-house funds business, it has been willing to let Invesco drive the business. (Beijing has recently permitted J.P. Morgan Asset Management to take a 51% stake in its funds J.V.) Invesco Great Wall is also among the oldest funds JVs in China. It is today led by Shenzhen-based CEO Ken Kang Le.
In China, Invesco is leading the way in digital opportunities. Elsewhere it seems to be running with the rest of the herd. In the U.S. and the U.K., it has made digital acquisitions: Jemstep, a B2B robo-advisor that services U.S. bank distributors, and Inteliflo, a British platform to support financial advisors.
“We haven’t found the right use case in Asia,” Lo said. Onboarding a digital B2B (of B2B2C) platform needs scale, but Asia is fragmented, with each market requiring its own business and compliance needs.
“Digital transformation is still evolving,” Lo said. “My guess is it can be like it is in China, where it’s a real thing that has become a major part of the industry.” But what that looks like elsewhere remains hard to know – or at least hard for justifying a business case.
New China distribution not just for money-market funds
Investors on digital platforms are beginning to look to other products, says BEA Union’s Rex Lo.
This week DigFin is highlighting three asset-management firms’ approach to digital distribution, particularly in China. We will also provide strategies from Invesco and AllianceBernstein. Go here for more insights into digital asset and wealth management.
Retail investors in China accessing funds via digital platforms are beginning to diversify away from money-market funds. That is creating opportunities to push ETFs and active funds, says Rex Lo, managing director for business development at BEA Union Investments.
China’s retail funds industry is mainly about money-market funds (MMFs). The total industry size is Rmb13.2 trillion, or $1.9 trillion, of which MMFs account for 57%, or Rmb7.7 trillion.
Among MMFs, by far the biggest player is Tianhong Asset Management, whose product, Alibaba’s Yuebao fund, is Rmb1.2 trillion in size, or $162 billion – the largest money-market fund in the world.
It’s no surprise then that digital distribution platforms in China mainly cater to MMFs. Lo says until recently, MMFs accounted for about 80% of all funds sold on digital platforms. This is propelled businesses such as Tianhong (which of course is sold via Ant Financial) and a few bank-affiliated fund houses with big MMF products, such as CCB Principal and ICBC Credit Suisse.
But it has made digital distribution of limited interest for fund houses looking to sell equity funds or other actively managed products; for them, traditional distribution via banks has remained the only viable channel.
MMFs: less big
Lo thinks this is changing, however.
The popularity of MMFs lies mainly in the fact that they offered high returns combined with guarantees, real or assumed by investors – assumptions the government has been reluctant to upset.
Yuebao and other MMFs usually invest in non-standardized wealth-management products (themselves supposedly “guaranteed”, with investors assuming a government backstop), that returned 5% to 8% to those managers. They in turn offered investors 5%, an equity-like return on what’s meant to be an ultra-safe and liquid asset class.
Over the past few years, however, Chinese banking and securities regulators have been trying to shift the funds industry onto a footing that respects risk and return, and clamping down on the supply of shadow-banking instruments available to portfolio managers.
“Today MMFs return only a little over 2%, while A shares are doing well,” Lo said. “As demand for money market funds declines, turnover has fallen, so these distributors are now promoting index or active funds.”
In recent months, Lo says, MMFs account for only 70% of sales on digital channels, with ETFs now gaining ground.
Accessing the mainland market
BEA Union is able to sell its Hong Kong-domiciled Asia fixed-income fund to Chinese retail investors through a scheme called MRF, Mutual Recognition of Funds.
This program, which began in 2015, allows fund managers on either side of the border to sell eligible products through a master-agent arrangement. Regulators in mainland China have been slow to approve such funds, however, and there are only seven Hong Kong products available via MRF, including BEA Union’s (and 48 mainland funds available for sale in Hong Kong).
Lo is hoping to take advantage of the shifting fortunes among asset classes to use digital channels to push BEA Union’s bond fund.
Platforms such as Ant Financial are requesting the fund house for more material around equities and active funds management. It’s a big, long-term commitment to investor education – especially for foreign fund managers whose ranking is low on Ant Financial and other digital platforms.
“Domestic investors want familiarity,” Lo acknowledged. “But we continue marketing because we want to be on the platform. Today it’s more for exposure than real [inflows], and ticket sizes are as small as Rmb100 ($14). But if you have 100,000 investors, that becomes a lot of money.”
The intention of this ongoing marketing is to become sufficiently well known among Ant’s users to take advantage when retail investors want to invest overseas.
New ways of doing business
Adding platforms such as Ant to traditional distribution methods has been an eye-opener, Lo says. “They don’t think like a traditional finance company. They’re a fintech, so they’re very responsive and open to new ideas. And they’re independent – they’re not a bank with its own funds J.V. – so there aren’t conflicts of interest.”
Marketing was not the only part of business that had to adjust.
“I was amazed when we began to work with these firms,” Lo said. “Enhancements that would take months to get done in Hong Kong take them a few days. We can learn a lot from working with fintechs.” It’s knowledge that will come in handy as more banks in Hong Kong and Asia add mutual funds to their mobile trading apps, as Standard Chartered did earlier this year.
There are limits, however, to how far a fund house can go selling products on mainland China’s digital platforms.
Those channels are limited to funds from either local licensed retail-facing houses, or offshore products eligible via MRF. The retail funds market in China, at $1.9 trillion, is only a fraction of the total investments industry, which is about $9.7 trillion – but that includes separate licensed businesses for asset managers linked to insurance companies, or to trusts, or to banks. Those businesses for now can’t market to retail or use sell via e-commerce players.
BEA Union is a joint venture formed in 2007 between Bank of East Asia and Germany’s Union Investments. Its initial business model was to service local pension and insurance customers, so its investment expertise has been mainly in Asian fixed income. It has since developed funds in Hong Kong and Asia equities, and its total AUM is now $11.2 billion.
It is the only foreign fund house to establish a wholly owned foreign enterprise (Woofie) in Qianhai (part of Shenzhen), as opposed to Shanghai. This was partly because the authorities in Qianhai were very welcoming, and because Bank of East Asia has a presence in southern China, and the fund house hopes to take advantage of this should cross-border opportunities emerge (under the concept of a “Greater Bay Area”).
This medium-term ambition is another driver of BEA Union’s strategy to build an online brand on Ant Financial and other digital platforms.
AllianceBernstein looks to add value to digital channels
Ajai Kaul, regional head, says the buy-side battleground is moving to banks’ evolving digital distribution.
This week DigFin is highlighting three asset-management firms’ approach to digital distribution, particularly in China. We will also provide strategies from Invesco and BEA Union Investments. Go here for more insights into digital asset and wealth management.
Asset managers need to be ready to work with banks’ digital capabilities to reach retail investors.
Ajai Kaul, the Asia ex-Japan CEO at AllianceBernstein, a $580 billion investment firm, says digital distribution remains a puzzle for the industry. Although new channels are emerging, particularly in China, asset managers will likely adapt to what their existing distributors do online.
“Banks have the capital and the captive client base,” he said. “As asset managers, we deliver a product and service the client, including their digital engagement. So we need to understand how we’re going to plug into what banks are doing.”
Over the past two decades, banks in Asia have transitioned away from supermarket approaches involving dozens of manufacturers to a core set of perhaps 20 asset managers on the shelf.
Banks represent the vast majority of sales to retail investors in the region, so asset managers remain dependent keeping these relationships. Although buy-side firms recognize the importance of “digital transformation”, in Asia at least they are waiting to see which way their distributors move.
Follow the banks
“Banks are already responding with their own digital strategies and we need to continue to engage them and plug into their platforms,” Kaul said, adding this is likely to be more around operations, education and reporting than marketing or front-office activities. “We’re having conversations now about what this might look like…I do not believe banks are about to cede customers to the digital and online service providers.”
One aspect is likely to change how asset managers support distributors with things like marketing material. This will increasingly be less about papers and statements, and more about real-time online communication. And it will change the way asset managers arm financial advisors, bank salespeople and other intermediaries with information about their products, and about investing.
“People want convenience,” Kaul said. “They’re used to instant transactions. But we need to ensure that they understand what they’re buying.”
That principle sounds simple but it’s not clear how it will materialize. Does that information get communicated at point of sale, or via a continuous stream of back-and-forth with investors? Who is responsible for education – and who finances it?
The prize for getting this right is data-driven insights that enable fund mangers to build better products, with more tailored, suitable features, be it about liquidity, or asset classes, or risk. “You can scale faster if you get a real insight,” Kaul said. “And there’s a lot of data – if you ask the right questions.”
What about direct?
Is there a point at which asset managers will also go direct to consumers?
Kaul says this could emerge as a complementary strategy, but: “We’ll always be working with banks. Wealth management and financial advice are just tools for banks, along with loans, credit cards and foreign exchange.”
In other words, banks will retain the overall customer relationship, at least as far as asset managers are concerned – although banks themselves are now eager to cement their customer relationships in the face of being themselves swallowed up into “ecosystems” dominated by consumer-facing tech platforms.
Kaul is also looking at more direct digital channels, notably in China, where AB, as the firm is known, is licensed as a private fund manager, which can raise money from professional investors but not retail.
This makes PFMs unappealing to domestic banks, which can’t sell their products to their retail clients. Most sales are institutional in nature, but digital channels are becoming relevant.
This is still however more theoretical than real for firms like AB. But Kaul and his colleagues are putting time into studying the market.
“We need to understand mobile platforms and how we engage with them, in general,” he said. “In mobile environments, we can’t just be a product on a shelf.”
The China experience
So far the majority of funds sold in China through such channels are money market funds. But platforms such as Ant Financial, EastMoney and WeChat are beginning to develop more advice-based services that will help users with financial planning.
“How does a fund manager add value?” Kaul said. “If a transaction is on a mobile phone, that’s a very small piece of visual real-estate to work with, or become prominent on.” Fund products are usually three, four or five clicks away from where users spend their time on these platforms. Foreign fund managers do not enjoy brand recognition in China. “Just being a product isn’t sufficient to win traffic,” Kaul said. “You have to present something of value that creates interaction between the user and AB.”
He says China offers a good place to begin this learning process, given the popularity of these channels for everyday use. And within the Chinese context, these digital platforms are similar – if a fund house can master one, it can adapt a similar method to the others.
What’s special about mainland China isn’t the platform so much as it’s the investor culture, which ever since the stock markets appeared in 1990, have been habituated to short-term trading.
“How we build and deliver product may not match the local wealth market, which has developed its own biases toward duration, time horizons and the purpose of investment,” Kaul said. “But the population there has fully embraced mobile platforms, as we can see by the sheer volume of transactions now taking place. China is the front line of innovation.”