INSIDE THE DEAL
How Covid-19 created a massive fintech boom
By Robert Scammell
Despite fears at the start of the pandemic, Covid-19 has proven to be a boon for fintech companies looking to invest. Eric Johansson explains how.
Covid-19 has created a fintech boom. Two years to the day after the World Health Organization declared that the world was in the clutches of a new pandemic on March 11, 2020, it’s clear that the financial technology sector has enjoyed record investment and skyrocketing adoption of its services. Two years ago, few industry stakeholders would have dared to hope for this turn of events.
Back then, fintech leaders were growing increasingly worried about Covid-19. They had reason to be – the virus with the official designation SARS-CoV-2 was terrifying. The first reports about people falling victim to the new disease had started to leak out of Wuhan at the end of 2019. Since then, the novel coronavirus had become a global threat, infecting tens of thousands of people every day. Two years later, the contagion has infected more than 453 million people worldwide, ending over six million lives, according to the WHO.
With the mounting waves of infection came the uncertainty. The coronavirus was a massive unknown and its impact on societies was undetermined. Fintech leaders didn’t know how to respond to Covid-19, and had no idea what it would mean for their ability to attract customers, expand services or raise fresh capital to fuel growth.
It didn’t help that world leaders responded in very different ways. President Sergio Mattarella’s government, for instance, moved quickly and put all of Italy in lockdown in early March. Donald Trump’s White House, by contrast, oscillated between downplaying the escalating international crisis and calling his own response a massive success. That was before he proposed treating the illness with bleach injections.
In the UK, Boris Johnson’s government followed a similar pattern, but slowly started to admit the severity of the crisis by ending non-essential travelling and, eventually, announcing the first national lockdown on March 23, 2020.
By that stage, Covid-19 had wreaked havoc on markets, creating massive volatility. Analysts warned at the time that this would make consumers less likely to invest their savings, meaning digital wealth managers and share-trading apps like Robinhood would likely get fewer customers. Instead, it would turn out that the pandemic saw more people sign up to use trading apps, which would eventually be one of the contributing factors behind the meme stock trading chaos at the start of 2021.
Payment processing giants Visa and Mastercard both warned that they would struggle to meet expectations in the second quarter of 2020 due to people being less likely to travel. Block, then Square, warned traveling restrictions could disrupt its supply chain and, consequently, the production of new devices.
In Europe, challenger banks like Starling Bank, Monzo, N26, Revolut and bunq all issued statements about how their employees could stay safe and how they were enabling remote working.
Monzo also postponed the salaries of its board members as well as its rollout in the States. The UK neobank didn’t move out of beta into a public US launch until February 2022. The coronavirus delays also contributed to it suffering a downround in the summer of 2020 that saw its valuation drop form $2bn to $1.4bn. It has since regained some of that momentum. Monzo achieved a $4.5bn valuation on the back of a $500m round in December 2021.
The struggles in those early days also underlined the fear that investors would be spooked by market uncertainties, meaning they would be less likely to back startups. However, data from research firm GlobalData shows that this fear was premature. As it turned out, Covid-19 would result in a fintech boom.
Fintech industry enjoyed more funding because of the Covid-19
To begin with, there was a slump in investment in the fintech sector in 2020. The value of the venture capital deals in the industry dropped from $35bn in 2019 to just $30bn in 2020. The number of deals dropped from 2,065 to 1,786 over the same period.
However, those figures jumped in 2021. Last year, fintech companies attracted $88bn across 2,528 deals, according to data from GlobalData.
The numbers for 2022 look equally promising. By the end of February, the fintech industry had already raised $88bn in total across 312 deals.
“The pandemic hasn’t necessarily made the investment process easier, but it certainly hasn’t hurt fintech investment in general,” Laurel Wolfe, VP marketing at cloud banking platform Mambu, tells Verdict.
At the start of the pandemic, early-stage startups feared they would struggle to raise money as they hadn’t had a chance to prove themselves yet.
It does seem that this fear was somewhat unfounded, with the majority of funding being recorded by GlobalData going into investment rounds worth up to $50m. In 2020, 1,640 deals recorded were worth up to $50m. In 2021, that figure had jumped to 2,120. In other words, several small startups successfully topped up their coffers during the pandemic.
The proportion of investment deals worth $50m or more of the total number of deals has grown over the past two years. In 2019, 8% of deals were worth more than $50m. Last year, that figure had jumped to 22.8%.
This suggests more mature ventures have been able to tap into the deep coffers of investors more successfully than before.
“Established fintechs and those in the scale up stage, were able to secure further capital and the pandemic has helped bring clarity on market opportunities, especially digital-centric trends such as online payments, digital banking and investing,” Wolfe says.
Fintech trends in the age of Covid-19
SARS-CoV-2 accelerated digitalisation efforts across the globe. Businesses scrambled to enable their employees to work remotely without loss of efficiencies or cyberattacks. That latter part was one of the reasons behind a jump in cybersecurity investment deals over the past two years that coincided with the fintech surge.
Clearly, the fintech industry benefited from Covid-19. There had already been a push towards more online shopping over the years – a trend accompanied by a seemingly never-ending string of doom and gloom reports about the death of the high street.
Once the coronavirus crisis kicked off, this trend accelerated thanks to people being confined to their homes, unable to shop in physical stores. The UK Office of National Statistics estimates that ecommerce sales grew by a record 46% in 2020, the highest increase since records began in 2008.
Understandably, people need to pay for their digital shopping sprees, which meant that companies providing payment solutions or ways for people to shop without breaking the bank became more popular.
“Embedded finance, led by buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) and remote lending at the vanguard, is another segment that’s on the rise but competition is high,” Alex Woodhouse, SVP financial services at Endava, tells Verdict.
Other segments of the fintech sector that enjoyed a boom included B2B lending platforms and businesses empowering banks to offer remote digital services. The coronavirus also contributed to accelerating the trend towards a cashless society, with people worrying that the illness could spread via physical money.
“Reliance on cash has been diminishing over the last few years,” Bala Kumar, chief product officer at know your customer company Jumio, tells Verdict. “With the pandemic, we saw a real acceleration of the move to digital financial services, even more bank branches closed and the general population embraced a digital-first lifestyle. With this growing shift, we saw increased investment in the fintechs providing these solutions.”
The pandemic also contributed to surging numbers of people investing in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, seeing the value of these digital assets reach record heights and the suggestion was made that they had become safe haven assets like gold. Bitcoin’s recent plunge has somewhat dispelled those delusions, and now there is talk of an imminent cryptocurrency winter instead.
While they have enjoyed a boon thanks to Covid-19, fintech companies still face the challenges of new regulation and increased competition. The question is what these challenges and the prospective end to the pandemic will mean for future fintech investment.
“Investment in fintech is currently still going strong,” Philip Taliaferro, VP of product management at Finastra, tells Verdict. “However, we may see it start to flatten in the coming months.
“In the public markets over the last few quarters, we have seen that investors are more willing to give companies the space to prove their business model and generate strong top-line growth. If that growth materialises, then fintech stocks will continue to perform well. If not, we may see a big pull-back in valuations. We can expect to see this trend present in the private markets too, as the exuberance turns into practicality and a demand for financial returns.”
While both January and February saw fintech companies raise multi-million rounds, there were fewer rounds than during the same period during the record year 2021. Some analysts have suggested this apparent slowdown may be due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting market uncertainties. However, just as we learned at the start of the pandemic, it might be too early to start to panic just yet.
Main image credit: Shutterstock.com
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