Clearly, to be a deposit taking bank and offer products like Mortgages, loans, savings accounts and so forth, it would be easier to have a bank charter. However, today the lines between banks and non-banks offering financial services is blurring faster than speculative investors dumping shares for Facebook.
There are many types of ‘banks’ or organizations that use the word ‘bank’ to describe their business activities such as Photo Banks, Seed banks, Sperm Bank, DNA bank, Blood Bank. There are also organizations that use the word bank in their name for other reasons like the “Bank Restaurant” in Minneapolis, JoS. A. Bank Clothiers and others. JoS. A. Bank offers a Pre-paid Gift Card program for individuals and corporates that has the name “Bank” in it’s offering, but isn’t regulated by industry. Bank Freedom, from Irvine California, offers a pre-paid Mastercard Debit Card but isn’t regulated as a bank.
Despite some claims to the contrary, it isn’t actually illegal to call yourself a ‘bank’ or have ‘bank’ in a tradename. In some states in the US, you might have difficulty incorporating yourself as a “Bank” if you have bank in the name of your company and you’re intending on offering financial services. But then again CIticorp, JP Morgan Chase, HSBC and others don’t actually have “Bank” in their holding company name. You don’t need the name ‘bank’ in your name to be licensed as a bank, and having the name ‘bank’ doesn’t force you to be a chartered bank either.
Then there are the likes of iTunes, PayPal, Dwolla, Venmo, Walmart, Oyster card in the UK, Octopus in Hong Kong, and the myriad of telecoms companys who offer pre-paid contracts, who regularly take deposits without the requirement of a banking license. In some markets, this has resulted in a subsidiary ‘e-Money’ or basic deposit taking licensing structure, but these organizations do not have the restrictions, regulations or requirements faced by a chartered bank. For more than 7 million Americans, 11 million Chinese and many others, their basic day-to-day method of payment in the retail environment is a pre-paid Debit Card (sometimes called a “general purpose reloadable” card). The pre-paid market is expect to reach an incredible $791 billion in the US alone by 2014.
When a bank account is not offered by a bank
What’s the difference between a prep-paid debit card account in the US and a demand deposit account from a chartered bank? Both can be used online commerce and at the point-of-sale. Both can be used to withdraw cash from an ATM machine. Both allow cash deposits to be made at physical locations. Both can receive direct deposit payments like a salary payment from your employer. Often pre-paid debit cards can offer interest on savings also. So what can’t a pre-paid card do that a typical deposit account can?
Most prepaid cards don’t allow you to write cheques (or checks), deposit more than a few times a month, keep a balance in excess of $10,000, make transfers/payments that exceed $5,000 per day, and/or going into the red with an overdraft facility.
For many customers who use pre-paid debit cards, these are not restrictions at all – and thus the card represents an alternative to a typical bank account from a chartered bank. Behind the program managers of pre-paid cards there is an issuing bank with an FDIC license in the US, but the program manager is not regulated as a bank. That nuance may be lost on some, but for the customer they are generally completely unaware that there is a “bank” behind the card – they simply see the program manager as the ‘bank’ or the card as a ‘bank account’ based on the utility provided by the product.
Today PayPal, Dwolla, Venmo and others offer the ability to transfer money via P2P technologies that mimic the likes of the ACH and Giro networks. I think it is fair to say that no one considers these organizations to be ‘banks’, but until recently (certainly prior to the Internet) we would have considered the activity of these businesses to be “banking”. Now you could argue that PayPal is more like a WesternUnion than a Bank of America, but the point is that these organizations are increasingly attacking traditional ‘bank’ functionality.
Then you have P2P lenders who in the US have offered more than $1 billion in loans since 2006, despite not having banking licenses.
If only ‘banks’ did banking…
Today banking is not restricted to those with banking licenses. Banks no longer have an exclusive on the business of banking. If they did PayPal, iTunes, Dwolla, and the myriad of prepaid debit cards would be illegal. They are not. If they did, you couldn’t deposit money on your prepaid telephone contract without visiting a bank branch. If they did, you couldn’t send money to a friend without a bank BSB, sort code or routing number.
The assumption that only banks can do banking is a dangerous one, why? Because often, like any other industry suffering from competitive disruption, the only thing that forces positive change on an industry mired in regulation and tradition are competitive forces. Sometimes those forces result in the complete disruption of the industry (see Telegraph versus Telecoms), other times it results in fragmentation.
Are there banks who don’t have banking licenses? There are hundreds of organizations today that are doing banking activities that don’t have bank charters or licenses. Can they call themselves a bank? Some do, but they obviously don’t need to in order to offer banking-type products and services, and those that do generally have a regulated bank charter behind them through a partner. Like Post Offices around the world that offer a place to pay your bills or deposit money on behalf of a regulated bank, this activity is not illegal, nor does it require regulation. Why? Because the partner bank who has a charter is responsible for ensuring their agents and partners stay compliant within the legal framework
The activity of ‘banking’ is going to become a lot less defined, owned or identifiable in the next few years as many non-banks start infringing on the traditional activities of banking, and as banks are forced to collaborate more and more to get their products and services into the hands of consumers. While we still have banks doing the heavy lifting, much of the basic day-to-day activities of banking will become purely functional and will be measured by consumers on the utility of that functionality, rather than the underlying regulation of the company or institution that provides it. Thus, customers won’t really care if a bank is at the front end or what it’s called; just that they can get access to banking safely, conveniently and securely.
What will regulators have to say about this? Well that’s an entirely different matter.