Banks Simply Can’t Handle Technology As Well As PFs

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We have made the argument before that when it comes to mastering the technology required for next-generation payments, the structure of banks doesn’t permit it and the attitude of bankers won’t allow it. Seems that we’re not alone. McKinsey & Company has now come to the identical conclusion.

In a fascinating report, McKinsey’s argues that bank’s technological intransigence—which creates the economic hole that payment facilitators are uniquely qualified to fill—dates back hundreds of years before credit cards.

“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),” the McKinsey report said. “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.”

The story goes on to say that this has historically meant fintech players working with banks, typically in subordinate roles. But that the fintech movement of 2016 could change all or at least much of that.

The historic pattern: “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, U.S. 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.”

But, the report finds, this is now 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 2015.1Fintech companies are undoubtedly having a moment.” It added: “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.'”

And this has created a payments environment that is not only fertile breeding grounds for payment facilitators, it absolutely needs them. PFs won’t replace banks, but they will supplement them in key strategic ways. Only this time, it’s not at all clear whether the banks will be calling the shots—or taking orders.

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