Brett King

Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

The unintended consequences of the Durbin amendment

In Branch Strategy, Economics on March 26, 2012 at 09:38

In the UK and Australia, account keeping fees are nothing new. In the US, however, since the introduction of the Durbin amendment, many US banks have been moving to monthly fees on checking accounts (we call them current accounts generally outside of the US) for the first time. These moves have resulted in often massive backlash from the public, including social media campaigns, “Bank Transfer Day” and further fuel for the Occupy Movement.

In the US, there are actually people you meet who will tell you that free checking is, or at least should be, a constitutional right. Thus, emotion runs high when a bank suggests that you now have to start paying for the right to keep YOUR money with their bank – it’s an outrageous concept to many!

The biggest problem for the US banking industry is that for the longest time it trained customers to believe that this was exactly how they should feel, what they should demand. Advertisers promoted ‘free checking’ for decades as the basic hook for new customers, although it could hardly be called a differentiation. The logic is that there is nothing better than free to attract customers to a new service platform. So how did banks pay for ‘free checking’?

Not really free

Well, it was never actually free. Banks initially made money off deposits (or Assets under Management), but as regulations tightened in the last 2 decades, rates dropped and spreads decreased, margins became razor thin. In th 80s as interest rates climbed, some banks instituted basic fees to combat the cost of savings accounts, but when credit cards became popularized in the 90s, banks now had fallback sources of revenue in credit fees and interchange that could sustain ‘free checking’. A side effect of the Global Financial Crisis is that credit card usage has declined as consumer “saving has become the new spending”, this means that a credit card isn’t working as an offset against basic account costs. With interest rates at historical lows and with no immediate signs of improvement, basic account profitability is at further risk. Then to add to all of this pressure along came the U.S Senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin…

The Durbin amendment to Dodd-Frank, has cut off the lifeblood of interchange fee from larger institutions, many of whom claim it will cost Billions in lost revenue. So while account keeping fees are seen as a mechanism to claw back loses on interchange, I expect it will have a secondary, more subtle consequence on retail banking.

Branch Economics Fail

In the light of revised economics of interchange and debit cards, the first reaction to loss of interchange fee in the US was to try to find new sources of revenue. However, the second reaction inevitably will be a realization that the cost base banks carry to support checking accounts via the branch is no longer viable – network is simply a luxury in a world where consumers just aren’t utilizing physical spaces for their relationship. With the best customers only visiting branches occasionally as they become increasingly digitally enabled, the expense of sustaining a network for a core product or relationship which looks more and more like a cost than a profit, becomes rapidly apparent.

The UK has had more than a decade to deal with this, which is undoubtedly why the UK has halved the number of retail bank branches since 1990. The US, with the false economics of consumer credit and interchange, have paid for their bloated physical infrastructure without the realization of the cost of changing behavior on their distribution model. That realization is now hitting hard as the real costs of an outmoded business model hit home.

Unintended Consequences

The Durbin amendment will give banks the imperative to better manage the economics of their debit card and checking account business. As they are forced to be more disciplined around metrics, two issues will emerge. The first, that while the economics of branch banking are oft justified as supporting high-net worth customer interactions, that increasingly this demographic is moving to digital channels and the branch is no longer the lynchpin in this coveted relationship. How can it be when I use my mobile or internet to talk to the bank 30 times a month, but I visit the branch only twice a year? Secondly, the least profitable customers also are laggards to digital (largely due to adoption cost) and rely more heavily on tree-killing paper statements, ‘free’ checks and over-the-counter interactions.

Once you’re forced to re-examine your cost base in the light of changing distribution, behavior and regulation, the realization emerges that branches are not the profit centre they once were, but are now largely a cost that was hidden by the buffer of high interchange and credit card fees. Couple this with new challenges to the distribution model through Internet direct banks and non-bank FIs who offer better savings rates and lower fees on the basis of better economics, and branch banking will be mercilessly attacked by the big banks looking to retain their earnings-per-share.

The unintended consequences of Durbin may very well be the rapid unwinding of branch banking in the US. It takes a long time to turn the ship, but once that turn starts the momentum of branch closures will speed up rapidly.

Big Banks are like SuperTankers - they don't change direction easily

How many jobs will digital kill off in banking?

In Bank Innovation, Economics, Future of Banking, Social Networking, Strategy, Technology Innovation on January 16, 2012 at 08:35

I’m starting to hear of some very significant digital and multi-channel budgets being put in place by many of the leading retail banking brands in 2012. It’s about time!

While I won’t name names or budgets, I’ve heard of mid-sized banks dedicating more than $50m to Internet, mobile and social-media this year, and large banks in the range of many hundreds of millions. It’s obvious from some of the outcomes in 2012 that major brands like Citibank, BBVA, CommBank, and Amex, for example, are putting some major spend into various initiatives on the digital engagement side. Key to these activities is some groundwork around platform development, staying competitive on the customer interface side, exploring the mobile wallet and new forms of loyalty around payments, and of course, big social media plans.

2011 was a tough year for many bank brands

As earnings reports have been coming in this quarter, it’s no surprise that 2011 was a tough year for the big banks. Of course, I’ve also heard of major brands in the space whose budgets are woefully thin and spell major problems for them on a competitive front this year, some of these banks are already hurting. How can I argue that budgets for digital are too thin in the current environment? Well, when a major global brand in the space spends less on social media globally than the cost of deploying one branch in central London or New York, and they are yet to have any type of coherent social media strategy (no real Twitter presence as an example), that is a budget out of kilter with the reality of customer behavior and acquisition/retention mechanics.

The Intertia Problem

While I’m sure I’ll hear the justification that the economy and particularly the ongoing Euro crisis is the primary cause, there must be a recognition that banks are simply carrying a lot of redundant capacity, based on the old paradigms of the way banks should operate, and are under-invested in the new platforms and skills that will help them grow their business out of the current economic malaise. This appears to be forcing banks to try new fee structures to cover the costs of legacy business operations, rather than adapting the organization and thus cost structures. I could call out legacy branch infrastructure again, but I won’t beat a dead horse, as they say – the economics of that are becoming glaringly obvious to most. So let’s take two other simple examples where the organizational behavior is skewed by inertia:

Account Opening and Administration
With average account acquisition costs being in the range of $250-350, you would think that someone would have connected the dots between the need for a signature card (and related physical handling) at account opening, with the cost of acquisition. The easiest way to reduce acquisition costs is get rid of the paper. Which brings us to annual costs for checking accounts too. With an average checking account costing around $350 a year, sending paper statements, printing checkbooks that are never used, charging big fees for wire transfers so that you prop-up your dying legacy check business, all smacks of a business driven by inertia.

What’s my account balance?
This is the number one requested piece of information from the bank today, and while we provide internet banking access to this piece of information, the dominant method of a customer getting this is still through an ATM or through the call centre. A far simpler mechanism would be sending the account balance via text message when a major transaction occurs, at set intervals (say weekly) or as defined by the customer. The cost of sending a text of your balance to a customer 10 times a month, is less than the cost of one call to the call centre for the same information, and less than two ATM balance enquiries (based on current channel cost estimates). The deployment of mobile wallets will massive reduce these ongoing costs as well.

Investment prioritization

In terms of size of budget, here is my rough take on where the investment prioritization is occurring across the board:

  1. Mobile
    Clearly, whether it is deploying new mobile apps, iPad apps, playing with mobile wallets, or geo-location features and offers, Mobile is the big play in 2012 and everyone wants a part of the action.
  2. Social Media
    From deploying monitoring stations, building service paths organization-wide to cope with social media requests and incidents, building new loyalty programs powered by social platforms, or trying to tap-in to friends, likes and advocacy, social media is a big play this year.
  3. Acquisition/JVs/New Appointments
    Acquisitions are a tough one because it is only the larger organizations who are looking at this, but there’s an effort to acquire key skills, technology and business practices emerging though acquisition, and significant dedicated funds for exploring new lines of business. With CapitalOne’s acquisition of INGDirect, and other moves, we’re going to start to see this being a sizeable component of global plays in the space as the bigger players try to acquire core capability. We’ve seen banks like Comm Bank in Australia start to make strategic investments in core skills at the top, such as the appointment of Andy Lark, along with major changes in their budgets internally around digital. While Andy is billed as the Chief Marketing Officer, he bares little resemblance to the marketing officers of most banks traditionally.
  4. Core Systems replacement to cope with channel mix
    I think this one is obvious
  5. PFM, Big Data and Analytics
    I’ve put all these in one bucket, which isn’t really fair, but for many organizations the start to collating their big data into useful information only occurs through the move to PFM (Personal Financial Management) tools behind the login. The need to connect people to their money, to target cross-sell and up-sell messages and otherwise monetize account activity and data, is a big priority.
  6. Engagement Marketing and Collaboration
    Increasingly we’re seeing dedicated efforts at partnerships, API layers, new marketing initiatives across broader platforms and other such mechanisms. We’re starting to see a new slew of ‘business development’ and ‘partnership’ resources emerge as banks look beyond their own walls for growth opportunities. Expect this to grow significantly over the next 3 years as we see more JV, incubation and acquisition budgets emerge as well.

The downside to the shift

Clearly these changes are all good for staying relevant to consumers, changing business practices to adapt to new behaviors, and better aligning costs with operations as they shift. However, the downside is that as you move away from legacy operations there’s a lot of dead wood.

AUSTRALIA is on the cusp of a white-collar recession with insiders warning that thousands of jobs are at risk in the finance sector, after it emerged yesterday that ANZ planned to cut 700 jobs.

While many banks used the global financial crisis to ‘downsize’, the reality is that there are going to continue to be significant job cuts in the sector as a result of re-tasking the organization for the new reality. In fact, my estimates are that we’ll lose many more jobs to the ‘shift’ than we did in the global financial crisis. Sure, there will be new hires as well, but the reality is as we downsize branch staff, manual operations and traditional marketers, we simply don’t need the volume of skills to replace them on the digital front. Even in-branch we’ll be using technology to avoid queues, speed up transactions, and hence reduce branch staff footprints.

Joshua Persky, an unemployed banker, on the job trail

It’s inevitable in the shift to digital within finance, that some humans will be replaced by technology efficiency gains. As we really start to see digital making progress, those legacy skills sets will become glaringly obvious on the balance sheet. Unfortunately, it’s either lose legacy operations staff or lose customers and profitability.

My address is no good for identity verification

In Economics, Future of Banking, Strategy on December 21, 2011 at 23:50

There has been a 25% decline in the total mail volume for the USPS (United States Postal Service) from 2006-2011, resulting in a $5.1 Billion loss in 2011 alone. Since 2007 the USPS has been unable to cover its annual budget, 80 percent of which goes to salaries and benefits. In contrast, 43 percent of FedEx’s (FDX) budget and 61 percent of United Parcel Service’s (UPS) pay go to employee-related expenses. The USPS has 571,566 full-time workers, making it the US’s second-largest civilian employer after Wal-Mart. It has 31,871 post offices, more than the combined domestic retail outlets of Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. It’s also more than double the number of branches of the combined retail distribution points of Wells Fargo, Chase and Citibank. The problem is that 80% of those USPS offices lose money annually.

USPS' Rapid Decline started in 2007 and has been shocking

Why the decline?

The decline in first-class mail in the US has accelerated in recent years. The USPS relies on first-class mail to fund most of its operations, but first-class mail volume is steadily declining—in 2005 it fell below junk mail for the first time. The USPS needs three pieces of junk mail to replace the profit of a vanished stamp-bearing letter.

Junk Mail, or as Advertisers call it “Direct Mail”, promotion is rapidly declining with projected declines in the range of 39-50% estimated for the period 2008-2013.

Email, Internet Bill Payment and Statements, SMS alerts, and other information delivery mechanisms are much more timely and cheaper than “Snail Mail” today. Environmental awareness and ‘do not mail’ lists have contributed to the decline also. The couponing business, which has supported the ‘junk mail’ industry for the past two decades in the US, has been decimated in recent times by the daily deals industry. Jeff Jarvis predicted this shift back in 2009.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the USPS is in major trouble.

What does this have to do with banking and IDV?

At least 80% of non junk mail I receive these days is from financial institutions that I have a relationship with (an even then it is often bank ‘junk mail’). This is despite my best efforts to eliminate snail mail as a formal method of communication with those service providers I choose.

Most banks still ask me for my address, and require verification of that address through some utility bill. This is a requirement of most regulators too.

The problem is – no bank has ever, as far as I know, actually verified my address is real. In theory, a utility bill is one of the easiest documents to compromise via identity theft, and/or fake with photoshop and a laser printer.

Why do banks collect my address?

The initial reason had nothing to do with regulatory requirements. The main reason initially was to send me my replacement cheque book, or send my regular monthly statements. Today, with snail mail all but disappearing, why do I still need to verify my address with the bank? I actually don’t want the bank sending me snail mail, and my physical address has nothing to do with my ability to pay for credit or the likelihood of anti-money laundering.

From a compliance perspective, sending you physical mail is one of the riskiest activities a bank can undertake today, because not only is it not secure – it actually increases the likelihood of fraud. If there wasn’t a legacy snail mail process, it is unlikely in the extreme that compliance would approve a process as risky as snail mail today.

Do we need an address?

Today your address is just a common data element shared as part of your profile. It is insecure. It can be easily compromised. It bears no relevance to the likely risk or otherwise of your suitability as a customer. It is unverifiable.

It doesn’t make sense to have address verification associated with a customer from an identity perspective.

There must be a better way. Why not use the guarantor method? Why not get trusted associates to vouch for you, as they do with new social networks likeConnect. Why not ask a new applicant to get an existing customer of the bank to vouch that he is real, and trustworthy? Why not take a photograph of the applicant and match their picture to their drivers licence or passport photo using facial recognition, along with cross-checking a government database?

There are a dozens of activities I could undertake which are safer, more reliable and more verifiable than a physical address.

Identity doesn’t need an address. Identity is about verifying you are real, and an address doesn’t do that.

Keep it as a data point, by all means. But let’s stop kidding ourselves that an address is a requirement for KYC.

Can Social Media Bring Down a Bank?

In Economics, Future of Banking, Social Networking, Strategy on November 23, 2011 at 00:26

Bankers often talk about the ‘trust’ consumers have in banking as a defining characteristic of why customers give banks their money instead of simply keeping it under a mattress. Some bankers might have difficulty understanding why customers of today seem perfectly happy to give money to the likes of PayPal, M-PESA, Lending Club or Zopa. The fact that I trust PayPal to send money on my behalf, in lieu of banks, might have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The concept of lending money through a social network would have seemed laughable too. Part of this is that we just don’t trust banks like we used to, and alternatives seem far less risky comparatively.

Reputational risk is surfacing in the sector as a whole today through social movements like “Occupy Wall Street”, “Bank Transfer Day” and other actions led by frustrated consumer groups and collectives. As an industry, we’re not organizing a structured approach to this challenged perception of ‘banking’. Instead we’re often trying to defend the indefenisble, a system saddled by inertia that assumes we have far greater responsibility to our shareholders, than we do to the customers we are supposed to serve.

Not the Regulator’s problem

At the European Retail Banking Summit held in London on November 8th, 2011, I pitched to European regulators the issue of Social Media, the Occupy Movement and what their position was towards the increased transparency that retail banks were facing. Martin Merlin (Head of Financial Services Policy and Relations with the Council, European Commission) and Philip Reading (Director, Financial Markets Stability and Bank Inspections, Oesterreichische Nationalbank) were at a loss to understand the role of regulators in defining a coordinated industry response. Martin’s response was telling:

“It’s simply not on our radar yet as regulators”
Martin Merlin, Head of Financial Services Policy, European Commission

Customers finding their voice

The new voice of the populace is demonstrated with no greater effect than through the so-called “Arab Spring” across the MENA region. If Twitter, YouTube and Facebook can overturn regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, I’m pretty sure they can totally undermine the brand of a bank that we’ve previously thought was “Too Big To Fail”.

To add credibility to that notion, in just months we have seen the Occupy Movement develop into a global protest against the economic and social inequality promoted by the current “system”. Consumers today have found their voice. Increasingly that voice is about choice, about rewarding organizations that listen and punishing those that think their decisions are immune from public debate or dialogue.

Prior to social media, the thought of rapid political change in a country like Egypt would have been considered extremely unlikely, a real outlier. Is there a measurable effect of this voice of the consumer on retail financial institutions today? Absolutely.

In January 2011, Bank of America’s (BofA) post financial crisis share price had recovered to $15.31 at its peak. As of this blog post, BofA’s stock is ranging at $5-5.50. This is instructive. Stocks with a historical Beta (β) of 1 are generally tracking flat for the year. So why has BofA lost more than 50% of its value in the last 12 months, compared with a market and contemporaries that have remained flat over the same period?

Bank of America's share price is at a 2-year low

Overlaying stock trading volumes and pricing, against average and cumulative sentiment (via social media analysis) shows that public displeasure with the company direction and engagement has been a core driver in BofA’s troubles. What is clear is that BofA would not have considered consumer sentiment a significant driver in their share price in the past. They simply could not have run their retail bank badly enough to result in this type of dip in the past unless there was some sort of significant and very public scandal resulting in massive losses. The market is obviously now pricing in concern about the long-term viability of a brand that doesn’t have affinity with the consumers it serves.

A great infographic from EvoApp showing the correlation between sentiment and share price for BofA

What to do next?

Understanding consumer sentiment, and actively managing the brand in this open dialog is going to be a key skill in the near term. This is not about ‘spin’ or control, because as Egypt and the Occupy Movement has shown, you can’t control these forces.

Instead what will be critical is the capability to respond visibly to the markets concern, to improve sentiment. In BofA’s case, the leveraging new Debit Card fees, claiming BofA had a “right to make a profit” and then dropping the planned fees – is no way to demonstrate strategic understanding of consumer sentiment in the social age.

We need a lens on sentiment that drives strategy. This requires a very different board room and executive feedback loop that simply does not exist today.

Transparency, Broken Risk and the Loss of Physicality

In Bank Innovation, Customer Experience, Economics, Engagement Banking, Future of Banking, Strategy on October 19, 2011 at 12:33

Recently I’ve been discussing with bankers, economists, strategists and futurists the future of the banking industry. At a time when we’ve got the likes of the “Occupation of Wall St” (#OWS) through to discussions in various camps about the very survival of banking as we know it, a question you might ask is how did we get here so quickly? 10 years ago, discussing the collapse of the modern day banking system and widespread loss of trust in bankers, might have been ludicrous, unthinkable – but today it is happening.

The New Normal is inherently unstable
As bankers most of us would have preferred if things had just stayed the same as they were, or at least returned to the ‘good ole days’ once the dust from the global financial crisis had settled. Instead we’re faced with talk of a “New Normal”, of increased volatility and of sustained uncertainty. There’s now a growing concern that a Greek default will trigger a crisis in the Eurozone, which in turn will bring on a new ‘great depression’. It is not lost on the public at large that this is a financial crisis we probably didn’t need to have. It is a financial crisis that was bought on by the ultimate in speculative investment behavior, the creation of financial instruments designed to create wealth and trading momentum from underlying, sub-prime debt that really should never have been readjusted as collateralized ‘AAA’ rated securities. So here we are today with so called blue-chip or developed economies which have higher volatility and risk, than so-called emerging markets. Since when did China and Brazil become better bets than the US as investments?

The perfect storm for a financial system in crisis is not just the failure of the banking system to self-regulate, or the default of sovereign nations in respect to servicing their national debt. The perfect storm is driven by three primary mechanisms that aren’t normally discussed as macro-economic factors, but are critical as part of a discussion around reforming the banking industry. They are:

1. Increased Transparency and Visibility
2. The Reassessment of the role of Risk and Regulation, and
3. The Loss of Physicality

Adjusting to a Transparent World
The response to bailouts, banker bonuses, new rates and fees structures, and to the financial crisis itself is indicative of the fact that bankers can no longer just assume that the public at large will trust that banks know what they are doing. How has the industry at large responded to this increased transparency? At first with incredulity, then with a defense of the indefensible, and finally with begrudging acceptance.

There are still many banks today, for example, who not only prohibit the use of social media in the bank workplace, but refuse to engage with end consumers in any really useful way through social media. In a world where dictators can be overturned, where public opinion is expressed in mentions, tweets, likes and fan pages, and where consumers can be as loud and effective as your most expensive marketing initiative – how do you adjust?

Understanding that you now answer to the public and you need to defend your positions with openness, logic and fair value, Brian Moynihan’s defense of BofA’s recent fee hikes shows a lack of nuance in this new, socially transparent world:

“I have an inherent duty as a CEO of a publicly owned company to get a return for my shareholders,” Moynihan said in an interview with CNBC’s Larry Kudlow at the Washington Ideas Forum… Customers and shareholders will “understand what we’re doing,”… “Understand we have a right to make a profit.”
Brian Moynihan, CEO – Bank of America

As a bank you do have the right to make a profit, but customers now understand more acutely than at anytime in history that they have rights too. It’s not that customers don’t want to pay for banking, it’s not that they are unreasonable; it’s that they now demand value and they are assessing that value, and exposing your shortcomings when you don’t meet up to their expectations.

In this way, what we need to do as an industry is better understand our value in the system. Right now we have trouble articulating that because we’ve become too historically focused on ‘banking’ as the system, rather than banking as a financial service to those that have the right to pay and choose. The balance has tipped in favor of the voice of the consumer.

There are bigger Risks than Risk
I was in a conference in Oslo earlier in the year and talking about the need for retail banks to adjust to serving their customers better, no matter when or where they needed banking, and a banker in the audience defended the need for a strict, traditional approach to physical KYC (Know-Your-Customer) because banking is first and foremost about ‘managing risk’ – at least that’s what he said. With our almost myopic focus as an industry on risk management and risk mitigation, we’ve perhaps missed the biggest risk of all – the fact that we are putting so much of the risk workload back onto the customer and the front-end of the business, that we’re starting to become a problem.

I’ve talked at length previously about the huge amount of time the front-end staff and customers spend in an attempt to reduce the potential legal or regulatory enforcement risk. When I, as a customer, am spending 50%, 60% or perhaps 90% longer doing a simple task like opening an account or applying for a loan than I did 20 years ago – do I see that as progress, or do I feel it a burden? Do I see such moves as a reduction of risk, or do I merely see it as an increase in complexity? In such a risk adverse environment, the bank is no longer serving the customer, the customer is serving the bank – and the customer is increasingly getting intimidated by the thought of having to navigate this complexity before he can get to the actual product or service he wants.

If you look at the biggest consumer shifts in the last 15-20 years, the biggest shifts have been driven around change in process or distribution that makes life simpler and easier. Here’s a few examples:

  • Mobile phone versus Landline
  • Google Search versus Catalog
  • Online Trading/Travel versus Broker/Agent
  • Multi-touch screen versus stylus/keyboard
  • iPad/Tablet versus PC
  • Kindle/eBook versus Paperbook
  • Online News/Streams versus Newspaper
  • Email/SMS/Facebook versus Mail/Telephone

The threat here is complexity, and invariably as we try to manage risk, we’re actually making customer facing processes more complex. This is bucking the trend of almost every other core customer interaction we’re seeing today.

The Loss of Physicality
I recently posted on American Banker | BankThink about my views around branches, checks/cheques and all things physical in banking. I suggest you read that separately, but a key consideration or thought in that article is as follows:

“The bank is no longer a place you go. Banking has becoming something you do. It is now contextual, and measured in terms of utility – how easily someone can use bank products or services to accomplish a task like shopping, traveling or buying a car or a home. The more a bank insists on physicality, the more it risks becoming irrelevant to customers who no longer cherish the traditional processes and artifacts. In just four years, that will be the vast majority of your customer base – not a marginal demographic, as some would prefer to believe.”

Conclusions
In this environment, retail banking is ripe for disruption. Why? Because instead of understanding the shifts around us, we’re digging in – levying fees, increasing complexity, and arguing that customers are just going to have to suck it up. After all, where else are they going to go?

Increasingly customers have a choice. Whether it is pre-paid debit cards, mobile wallets, PayPal, or other challenges to day to day financial interactions, the concept that as a regulated industry we’re protected from having to make the hard decisions and actually reform the way we work, is foolhardy.

We need to start working very differently…