Banks are facing challenges on all sides as fintech players seek to disintermediate the old model; But some banks are successfully responding to the threat


The fundamental model of banking is simple: take deposits and lend them at a profit. Until now, this model has not really been challenged, and banks have competed by trying to do these basics better than others, whether it’s paying competitive rates of interest, offering sweeteners, being operationally efficient or having better reach or customer service.

In any industry, disruption occurs when the old business model is overturned, and this is the approach of banks’ current challengers. They realise that the future can’t be created by re-inventing the past. And existing banks will find it difficult to compete with this vision of the future.

There’s lot of talk about user experience being the differentiator for banks. It’s important, but it’s not the be all and end all. Great design is nice, but if a bank is unable to produce the right products, market them at the right time and provide compelling service, then a flashy website and mobile app will mean very little.

So unless a bank’s back-end technology — the core system — is advanced enough to handle the swathes of data created in modern retail banking, the experience will eventually break down. Just look at the system crashes we’ve seen at several high street banks in recent years.

Three key trends are currently driving change in financial services. These are peer-to-peer networks, crowd-sourcing and regulation around open data; all three challenge the banks’ existing models causing disruption and stimulating competition.

Let’s take a look in more detail at the areas currently shaking up the banking market.

Peer-to-peer

Peer-to-peer loan firms such as Zopa, Lending Works and Ratesetter have also emerged as new competition to banks. These firms take funds to lend on in return for better rates than high street banks. For example, Zopa has lent £1.14bn and has 59,000 active lenders. The overall sums are limited, but these players are making a dent in the banks’ businesses. There is also the small business loans equivalent, called FundingCircle.

A related offshoot is crowdsourcing; start-ups are using platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo to source seed financing directly from investors and bypass bank loans. This model has been effective for innovative start-ups, which can pitch direct to lenders and by-pass complex credit-check processes of banks.

Infomediaries, fintech

Fintech companies are using these developments to push into financial services by dis-intermediating banks and becoming “infomediaries,” or digital brokers, operating between clients and the deposit takers or loan makers.

Among the most compelling “infomediaries.” are those developing services and apps for banks and other firms, or those launching alone on the market as a go-between for the customer and the bank.

The fintech explosion covers a host of value-added services. Some companies offer compelling user experience and “banking as a service”. They aim to make their money from new revenue streams and by becoming banking marketplaces, which sell products from different providers and take a commission for doing so. The sectors covered are as diverse as digital asset management, portfolio risk management tools, payments hubs, document filling, consumer risk profiling, biometrics passwords, interest rate comparisons and virtual piggy banks for kids.

Take fund management. Now, the consumer is able to track other investors and their portfolios using platforms like eToro. Using artificial intelligence platforms, or robo advisers, it helps to match risk requirements and asset preferences with individuals. There is a host of other matching services – call it Tinder for financial services – such as assetmatch, for investors looking for illiquid shares. There have been plenty of winners, and there will be more, especially where companies adapt to local markets.

But there also needs to be an element of caution. There is a bubble and lots of duplication. There are few real “unicorns” – privately held technology firms valued at over $1 billion – hence many are predicting a shake up. Recently, it emerged that Square, a firm handling credit-card payments for small merchants, priced its initial public offering at $2.9 billion, down by half from the valuation during a private fundraising last year.

Reinventing Banks

While fintechs are disrupting the business model, the banks themselves — whether digital start-ups or divisions of existing lenders — are pushing hard to create the kind of services that will engender customer loyalty, and hence help them survive the upheavals.

One country that has been a surprising source of financial innovation is Poland. There, cheques have almost disappeared and contactless payment is standard. MBank has a small branch network and has launched a mobile payment service with contactless technology. It also offers a retail advice and discounting service, using client data and behaviour patterns, alongside geo-fencing, to alert customers to offers. That allows them easily to build rewards programmes — and loyalty. Idea Bank developed Europe’s first business account based in the cloud. It has also piloted a program where clients can summon an ATM-equipped BMW to deposit and withdraw funds. Customers simply need to download and register the app, then request one of four cars to any location within the user area. Alior has a mobile and internet platform similar to mBank’s, while PKO Bank Polski is pushing mobile phone payment technology.

In Turkey, DenizBank became the first bank anywhere to let customers access deposit and credit card accounts through Facebook. Prior to that, it already let prospects apply for credit through SMS and Twitter. İşbank has developed an iPad app that offers access to a wide range of accounts, payments and transfers, as well as a store selling event tickets and novels. It uses biometric authentication at ATMs. Turk Ekonomi Bankasi was the first bank in Europe to give customers debit cards with built-in authentication technology.

In Japan, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, showcased a robot bank teller last year at a Tokyo branch. NAO, the programmable 58cm mini-robot, is equipped with sensors, and responds to customer requests with pre-recorded responses. It speaks Japanese, Chinese and English.

India’s ICICI has launched a digital wallet and pioneered virtual access to safety deposit boxes. It also pioneered video banking for non-resident Indians, has a service enabling customers to transfer money to anyone in the country who has a Twitter account and has launched an app for Android and Apple smartwatches.

Regulation

Changes in the rules governing the sector obviously play a crucial role in determining the actions of banks and related service providers and challengers, and their ability to innovate. Without delving into too much detail on the supervisory backdrop, it is worth noting that the British government has thrown its weight behind a report calling for the creation of an open banking API standard to make it easier to share and use financial data. The move can be expected to improve choice for customers, promote competition and stimulate innovation.

At the European level, the EU’s Payment Services Directive 2 includes an Access to Accounts (XS2A) provision that will require banks, when customers request it, to provide third parties — via application program interface (APIs) — with access to customers’ data.

Where are we going?

As banks and financial services companies improve the offerings for Millennials and digital-only customers, they need to remember that the next generation will have very different demands and expectations. Coding, for example, is starting to become mainstream among youngsters.

And that means that the bank of the future will have to allow more responsive and flexible APIs and allow clients to build their own “banking interactions,” probably by voice commands.

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