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Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Beginning of The End of Consumer "Banking"

Funny to see a story from John Gapper in the FT this morning, saying technology will hurt retail banks but not kill them, only a few pages before First Direct admits it mis-sold complex investment products to consumers.  While I agree that innovation doesn't 'kill' anything, and must co-exist with what it is replacing, John seems to have a misplaced faith in retail banks' ability to maintain their direct relationships with consumers.  Banks are steadily being relegated to the back-office of retail finance.
 
John may be right to point out that banks lose money on the limited activity of offering current accounts, and possibly even savings account functionality, so that these are not attractive areas in themselves for technology businesses to enter. But of course you can't view those 'products' in isolation. They are just part of the 'bait and switch' routine that banks operate to persuade people to part with their money so the banks can earn far more from using those funds for their own ends.

To understand what the tech companies are doing, you have to consider how much money the banks make out of the end-to-end activity of robbing investors/depositors of yield while fleecing borrowers with expensive loans - and making everyone pay a lot for slow-cycle payment processing. 
 
It is wrong to say that technology companies are merely playing at the edges of 'banking' by offering payment services and person-to-person loans. This is all part of the strategy for disrupting the 'banking' sleight of hand.
 
Tech companies know that if they can provide a decent, transparent consumer experience to savers/investors on the one hand, and those who need the funds on the other, then they are in a position to cut the cost of moving money between the two. In fact, the money may not even have to move at all: the important issue is who is entitled to it, and whether it is available. 
 
You don't need a bank to keep the data and transaction records that tells you who owns the funds. It's all just data, as Marc Andreessen is quoted as saying. 
 
And it's far safer to separate the transaction processing and record-keeping function from the cash, which should be held separately from the processor's own funds. That's how e-money institutions, payment institutions, P2P lending and crowd-investment firms are set up...  They may rely on segregated commercial bank accounts for holding that cash, but the banks who provide those accounts have no control at all over which consumers own the money in them, or what those consumers choose to do with it amongst themselves.
 
In the EU, the regulatory support for such new business models began in earnest in Europe in 2000, with the advent of the first E-money Directive, and has snowballed with the Payment Services Directive in 2007, a new EMD in 2009 and the proposed revamp of the PSD. There are now hundreds of these payment institutions in the UK alone. And it's no coincidence that the UK has led the way in both creating and regulating P2P lending and crowd-investment platforms.
 
All of this spells the beginning of the end for consumer 'banking'.
 
 
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