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Mike Cagney is testing the boundaries of the banking system for himself — and others

Founder Mike Cagney is always pushing the envelope, and investors love him for it. Not long sexual harassment allegations prompted him to leave SoFi, the personal finance company that he cofounded in 2011, he raised $50 million for new lending startup called Figure that has since raised at least $225 million from investors and was valued a year ago at $1.2 billion.

Now, Cagney is trying to do something unprecedented with Figure, which says it uses a blockchain to more quickly facilitate home equity, mortgage refinance, and student and personal loan approvals. The company has applied for a national bank charter in the U.S., wherein it would not take FDIC-insured deposits but it could take uninsured deposits of over $250,000 from accredited investors.

Why does it matter? The approach, as American Banker explains it, would bring regulatory benefits. As it reported earlier this week, “Because Figure Bank would not hold insured deposits, it would not be subject to the FDIC’s oversight. Similarly, the absence of insured deposits would prevent oversight by the Fed under the Bank Holding Company Act. That law imposes restrictions on non-banking activities and is widely thought to be a deal-breaker for tech companies where banking would be a sidelight.”

Indeed, if approved, Figure could pave the way for a lot of fintech startups — and other retail companies that want to wheel and deal lucrative financial products without the oversight of the Federal Reserve Board or the FDIC — to nab non-traditional bank charters.

As Michelle Alt, whose year-old financial advisory firm helped Figure with its application, tells AB: “This model, if it’s approved, wouldn’t be for everyone. A lot of would-be banks want to be banks specifically to have more resilient funding sources.” But if it’s successful, she adds, “a lot of people will be interested.”

One can only guess at what the ripple effects would be, though the Bank of Amazon wouldn’t surprise anyone who follows the company.

In the meantime, the strategy would seemingly be a high-stakes, high-reward development for a smaller outfit like Figure, which could operate far more freely than banks traditionally but also without a safety net for itself or its customers. The most glaring danger would be a bank run, wherein those accredited individuals who are today willing to lend money to the platform at high interest rates began demanding their money back at the same time. (It happens.)

Either way, Cagney might find a receptive audience right now with Brian Brooks, a longtime Fannie Mae executive who served as Coinbase’s chief legal officer for two years before jumping this spring to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), an agency that ensures that national banks and federal savings associations operate in a safe and sound manner.

Brooks was made acting head of the agency in May and green-lit one of the first national charters to go to a fintech, Varo Money, this past summer. In late October, the OCC also granted SoFi preliminary, conditional approval over its own application for a national bank charter.

While Brooks isn’t commenting on speculation around Figure’s application, in July, during a Brookings Institution event, he reportedly commented about trade groups’ concerns over his efforts to grant fintechs and payments companies charters, saying: “I think the misunderstanding that some of these trade groups are operating under is that somehow this is going to trigger a lighter-touch charter with fewer obligations, and it’s going to make the playing field un-level . . . I think it’s just the opposite.”

Christopher Cole, executive vice president at the trade group Independent Community Bankers of America, doesn’t seem persuaded. Earlier this week, he expressed concern about Figure’s bank charter application to AB, saying he suspects that Brooks “wants to approve this quickly before he leaves office.”

Brooks’s days are surely numbered. Last month, he was nominated by President Donald to a full five-year term leading the federal bank regulator and is currently awaiting Senate confirmation. The move — designed to slow down the incoming Biden administration — could be undone by President-elect Joe Biden, who can fire the comptroller of the currency at will and appoint an acting replacement to serve until his nominee is confirmed by the Senate.

Still, Cole’s suggestion is that Brooks still has enough time to figure out a path forward for Figure — and if its novel charter application is approved, and it stands up to legal challenges — a lot of other companies, too.

African fintech startup Chipper Cash raises $30M backed by Jeff Bezos

African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has raised a $30 million Series B funding round led by Ribbit Capital with participation of Bezos Expeditions — the personal VC fund of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Chipper Cash was founded in San Francisco in 2018 by Ugandan Ham Serunjogi and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled. The company offers mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya.

Parallel to its P2P app, the startup also runs Chipper Checkout — a merchant-focused, fee-based payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business. The company has scaled to 3 million users on its platform and processes an average of 80,000 transactions daily. In June 2020, Chipper Cash reached a monthly payments value of $100 million, according to CEO Ham Serunjogi .

As part of the Series B raise, the startup plans to expand its products and geographic scope. On the product side, that entails offering more business payment solutions, crypto-currency trading options, and investment services.

“We’ll always be a P2P financial transfer platform at our core. But we’ve had demand from our users to offer other value services…like purchasing cryptocurrency assets and making investments in stocks,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch on a call.

Image Credits: Chipper Cash

Chipper Cash has added beta dropdowns on its website and app to buy and sell Bitcoin and invest in U.S. stocks from Africa — the latter through a partnership with U.S. financial services company DriveWealth.

“We’ll launch [the stock product] in Nigeria first so Nigerians have the option to buy fractional stocks — Tesla shares, Apple shares or Amazon shares and others — through our app. We’ll expand into other countries thereafter,” said Serunjogi.

On the business financial services side, the startup plans to offer more API payments solutions. “We’ve been getting a lot of requests from people on our P2P platform, who also have business enterprises, to be able to collect payments for sale of goods,” explained Serunjogi.

Chipper Cash also plans to use its Series B financing for additional country expansion, which the company will announce by the end of 2021.

Jeff Bezos’s backing of Chipper Cash follows a recent string of events that has elevated the visibility of Africa’s startup scene. Over the past decade, the continent’s tech ecosystem has been one of the fastest growing in the world by year year-over-year expansion in venture capital and startup formation, concentrated in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch/Bryce Durbin

Bringing Africa’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online has factored prominently. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

As such, fintech has become Africa’s highest-funded tech sector, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019. Even with the rapid venture funding growth over the last decade, Africa’s tech scene had been performance light, with only one known unicorn (e-commerce venture Jumia) a handful of exits, and no major public share offerings. That changed last year.

In April 2019, Jumia — backed by investors including Goldman Sachs and Mastercard — went public in an NYSE IPO. Later in the year, Nigerian fintech company Interswitch achieved unicorn status after a $200 million investment by Visa.

This year, Network International purchased East African payments startup DPO for $288 million and in August WorldRemit acquired Africa focused remittance company Sendwave for $500 million.

One of the more significant liquidity events in African tech occurred last month, when Stripe acquired Nigerian payment gateway startup Paystack for a reported $200 million.

In an email to TechCrunch, a spokesperson for Bezos Expeditions confirmed the fund’s investment in Chipper Cash, but declined to comment on further plans to back African startups. Per Crunchbase data, the investment would be the first in Africa for the fund. It’s worth noting Bezos Expeditions is not connected to Jeff Bezo’s hallmark business venture, Amazon.

For Chipper Cash, the $30 million Series B raise caps an event-filled two years for the San Francisco-based payments company and founders Ham Serunjogi and Maijid Moujaled. The two came to America for academics, met in Iowa while studying at Grinnell College and ventured out to Silicon Valley for stints in big tech: Facebook for Serunjogi and Flickr and Yahoo! for Moujaled.

Chipper Cash founders Ham Serunjogi (R) and Maijid Moujaled; Image Credits: Chipper Cash

The startup call beckoned and after launching Chipper Cash in 2018, the duo convinced 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to back their company with seed funds. The startup expanded into Nigeria and Southern Africa in 2019, entered a payments partnership with Visa in April and raised a $13.8 million Series A in June.

Chipper Cash founder Ham Serunjogi believes the backing of his company by a notable tech figure, such as Jeff Bezos (the world’s richest person), has benefits beyond his venture.

“It’s a big deal when a world class investor like Bezos or Ribbit goes out of their sweet spot to a new area where they previously haven’t done investments,” he said. “Ultimately, the winner of those things happening is the African tech ecosystem overall, as it will bring more investment from firms of that caliber to African startups.”

Singapore’s Credit Culture raises $29.5M for its soon-to-launch digital loan business

Singapore’s digital fintech companies are attracting investor attention and dollars in 2019. Fresh from Singapore Life — a digital-only insurer — raising $33 million across two recently closed rounds, so Credit Culture, a digital loan specialist — has banked SG$40 million ($29.5 million) ahead of its imminent launch.

Credit Culture has raised its capital from Malaysia’s RCE Capital Berhad in a deal that allows the investor to potentially take a stake of up 30 percent in the startup. Its investment is via five-year bonds that are secured with the loan receivables from Credit Culture and include granted call options for taking that stake — in other words: this isn’t your regular startup deal.

RCE Capital Berhad said in a filing that Credit Culture has already raised SG$4 million ($2.9 million) via a seed investment, and it appears that it is financially set ahead of its launch.

“We are currently well-positioned with the recent injection of funds. That being said, we are always open to exploring various options to grow especially for regional expansion,” Credit Culture a representative told TechCrunch in an emailed response.

Founded by former bankers, Credit Culture is set to become one of Singapore’s first digital financial service startups after its parent company, DEY, secured approval to operate a moneylending business as part of a pilot to test online fintech services.

Since it hasn’t launched yet, there’s not a huge amount to say about the business, but its goal is to offer personal loans to Singapore-based customers using digital channels, so its website and mobile apps. The company plans to vet applicants using a mixture of existing platforms for data, including government initiative like MyInfo, and its own credit-scoring engine for creditworthiness assessment. It will also require face-to-face verification for loans to be granted, it confirmed.

Like Singapore Life and other digital-only ventures, including Hong Kong’s Bowtie, the objective is to pass on cost savings from being a purely online player — i.e. not operating branches and other physical consumer-facing outlets — and make prices fully transparent to applicants.

As you’d expect, Singapore is the initial focus for the company but it is already eying potential market expansions.

“We do have plans to expand to other Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Indonesia,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch. “There is a large potential given the need for personal financing and the large unbanked population segments.”