Cutting through the noise around financial technology
We estimate there are today more than 2,000 start-ups offering traditional and new financial services. Here's how banks should respond.
Banking has historically been one of the business sectors most resistant to disruption by technology. Since the first mortgage was issued in England in the 11th century, banks have built robust businesses with multiple moats: ubiquitous distribution through branches; unique expertise such as credit underwriting underpinned by both data and judgment; even the special status of being regulated institutions that supply credit, the lifeblood of economic growth, and have sovereign insurance for their liabilities (deposits). Moreover, consumer inertia in financial services is high. Consumers have generally been slow to change financial-services providers. Particularly in developed markets, consumers have historically gravitated toward the established and enduring brands in banking and insurance that were seen as bulwarks of stability even in times of turbulence.
The result has been a banking industry with defensible economics and a resilient business model. In recent decades, banks were also helped by the twin tailwinds of deregulation (in a period ushered in by the Depository Institutions Deregulation Act of 1980) and demographics (for example, the baby-boom generation came of age and entered its peak earning years). In the period between 1984 and 2007, US banks posted average returns on equity (ROE) of 13 percent. The last period of significant technological disruption, which was driven by the advent of commercial Internet and the dot-com boom, provided further evidence of the resilience of incumbent banks. In the eight-year period between the Netscape IPO and the acquisition of PayPal by eBay, more than 450 attackers—new digital currencies, wallets, networks, and so on—attempted to challenge incumbents. Fewer than 5 of these challengers survive as stand-alone entities today. In many ways, PayPal is the exception that proves the rule: it is tough to disrupt banks.
The fintech moment
This may now be changing. Our research into financial-technology (fintech) companies has found the number of start-ups is today greater than 2,000, compared with 800 in April 2015.1 Fintech companies are undoubtedly having a moment (Exhibit 1).
Globally, nearly $23 billion of venture capital and growth equity has been deployed to fintechs over the past five years, and this number is growing quickly: $12.2 billion was deployed in 2014 alone (Exhibit 2).
So we now ask the same question we asked during the height of the dot-com boom: is this time different? In many ways, the answer is no. But in some fundamental ways, the answer is yes. History is not repeating itself, but it is rhyming....MUCH MORE
The moats historically surrounding banks are not different. Banks remain uniquely and systemically important to the economy; they are highly regulated institutions; they largely hold a monopoly on credit issuance and risk taking; they are the major repository for deposits, which customers largely identify with their primary financial relationship; they continue to be the gateways to the world’s largest payment systems; and they still attract the bulk of requests for credit.
Some things have changed, however. First, the financial crisis had a negative impact on trust in the banking system. Second, the ubiquity of mobile devices has begun to undercut the advantages of physical distribution that banks previously enjoyed. Smartphones enable a new payment paradigm as well as fully personalized customer services. In addition, there has been a massive increase in the availability of widely accessible, globally transparent data, coupled with a significant decrease in the cost of computing power. Two iPhone 6s handsets have more memory capacity than the International Space Station. As one fintech entrepreneur said, “In 1998, the first thing I did when I started up a fintech business was to buy servers. I don’t need to do that today—I can scale a business on the public cloud.” There has also been a significant demographic shift. Today, in the United States alone, 85 million millennials, all digital natives, are coming of age, and they are considerably more open than the 40 million Gen Xers who came of age during the dot-com boom were to considering a new financial-services provider that is not their parents’ bank. But perhaps most significantly for banks, consumers are more open to relationships that are focused on origination and sales (for example, Airbnb, Booking.com, and Uber), are personalized, and emphasize seamless or on-demand access to an added layer of service separate from the underlying provision of the service or product. Fintech players have an opportunity for customer disintermediation that could be significant: McKinsey’s 2015 Global Banking Annual Review estimates that banks earn an attractive 22 percent ROE from origination and sales, much higher than the bare-bones provision of credit, which generates only a 6 percent ROE (Exhibit 3).2