Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Why Big Data and analytics aren't the answer for banks

‘Big Data’ and ‘analytics’ are amongst the most over-used and abused terms currently in the business world. They are often sold as the panacea to all known problems by snake oil sellers across the globe. Banks should focus on true insights and consequential actions to differentiate themselves and take an industrial view to data and analytics.

Big Data and analytics have generated lots of revenue for hardware suppliers, software providers and consultants. They have also created lots of jobs for people with skills ranging from basic statistics to advanced mathematical modelling skills. What is highly questionable is whether all this expenditure has generated value for the banks that have invested in them?

Like many new business philosophies and technologies the approach banks have taken to adopting them is to build them in-house. Just like when computers first emerged and individual departments took it on themselves to buy their own computer, hire their own programmers and write their own code to address their department’s specific requirements (as an aside, It is one of the reasons why so many banks still today have such dysfunctional IT departments and systems), banks don’t appear to have learnt the lessons from the past and are adopting the same approach when it comes to data and analytics. Functions such as risk, mortgage underwriting, card product management, marketing, finance and treasury are creating their own local data marts, hiring their own data scientists and modellers and buying their own query and advanced analytics tools. They are building models, sometimes in inappropriate tools, with inadequate testing that the bank’s executives are making critical decisions based on the output from them.

The fact that individual departments are doing their own thing is very cost inefficient is the least of the problems with this approach. Even for banks that have elected to go for a Centre of Excellence operating model for data and analytics whereby a central pool of data and analytics experts provide services to whole bank there is a fundamental problem with this way of addressing data and analytics.

Building models in-house is predicated on the basis that every bank is so unique that the models will provide differentiation from the competition. However banking, and particularly retail banking, is based around standardised products with standardised ways of underwriting those products, standardised ways of funding the products and very largely standardised way of moving the customer’s money. Therefore spending large amounts of money hiring expensive data scientists and modellers and then lots of time building models when there are standard models available to either buy or pay for the use of from the likes of Experian, SAS and other data and analytics specialty firms makes no sense. Not least of all because true data scientists need to be continually fed interesting and challenging problems to crack (something few banks will be able to consistently provide enough of while specialty firms will be able to) otherwise they get bored and stressed – a bit like caged lions that are fed raw meat rather than having the excitement of the hunt.

Unfortunately the peddlers of Big Data and analytics solutions don’t point out to their customers and the IT users who buy their solutions don’t acknowledge the critical fact that:

Data and analytics without context and insight is of no value to a bank.

Insight is an unfortunate word because many banks take it to mean having a better understanding of what is going on inside their banks. However that is only the half of it. As critical is to have an understanding and the context of what is going on in the environment that the bank is operating within. What are the competitors doing, what is happening and could happen in the macro economic environment and how would that impact the bank’s customers are just some of the potential questions that need to be answered to create insight. If there had been a better understanding of some of these questions then it is possible that the financial crisis of 2008 could have been avoided.

However insight of its own is not enough. A number of banks across the globe could rightly claim that they have teams of data scientists who like the PreCogs in the Tom Cruise film ‘Minority Report’, who were able to predict crimes before they were carried out, know so much about their customers that they can predict what they will do next. However having that knowledge but not having a means of sharing it in a simple and usable way with the banks’ systems and the people who use those systems means that it is of no value at all.

Insight with the ability to know the ‘Next Best Action’ and execute on it is what will define the banks that will emerge as the winners.

This ability to apply data and insights to bring about great outcomes should not be limited to use with customers but should also be applied to other areas of the bank such as pricing models to allow personalised offers, to fraud detection, to identify money laundering activities and to make better funding decisions. The list of areas where this could be applied to banks is almost limitless.

However what it requires is a very different approach to data and analytics then is largely adopted today. It needs to be driven down by the desired business outcome with the data required being seen as the very last thing. It needs to be driven by the business executives not from IT or worst still technology vendors. It needs to be driven as an industrial process rather than as a cottage industry. Banks need to understand that where they will be able to differentiate themselves from their competitors is on their insights and how well they execute on those. For the rest they should look for best in class products and services for data and analytics from organisations that are truly expert in those areas.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Why shared branches could be the answer to avoiding closing the last branch in town

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The announcement by Lloyds Banking Group that it would stop honouring the promise to not close the last branch in a town at the end of 2015 caused some furore amongst politicians and those representing rural communities. Lloyds having the largest number of branches of the major banks in the UK and partially owned by the tax payer has in many cases been left as the last branch in town as competitors have closed their branches knowing that Lloyds were obligated not to close theirs.

The response by Vince Cable, the UK Business Secretary, to the Lloyds announcement was to give all the major banks yet another rap across the knuckles in a sternly worded letter stating that this was unacceptable. However unacceptable it is what is the answer? While the banks may point to the many transaction services that the Post Office offers on behalf of the banks, a better answer is for the banks to get together and have shared branches for those villages and towns where they cannot justify the costs of having a single dedicated branded branch.

This joint branch would allow customers to perform transactions with their bank either with the help of a teller or by using self-service machines. If there is a teller then they would need to be trained in using each of the banks’ technology for the transactions covered by the branch. The simplest implementation would be for the branch to have one teller device for each brand sharing the branch and similarly for self-service machines, however this would have the disadvantage of requiring a larger branch than each of the individual branches will have required. The smarter option would be to have single devices which allowed the customer to say which brand they wanted to deal with when they first signed in and then the appropriate screens for that bank to appear. This would keep the size of the branch down.

The shared branch could include one or more meeting rooms where customers could meet with advisors from the appropriate bank by making an appointment in advance, allowing the opportunity for the advisor to service multiple branches and therefore maximising their productivity. The advisor would not even necessarily have to be physically in the branch but could converse with the customer via videoconferencing. This way a branch could remain open in low populated areas at a relatively low cost to each individual bank.

This service could even be provided by a third party or the local community under a different overarching brand.

This is not a new idea and is one that was first floated (by me amongst others) at least ten years ago. However that was at a time when the banks were making larger profits, there was less regulatory pressure and the technology to easily and cost effectively deliver these types of solution was neither mature nor available. While there was some initial interest from the major banks it was the idea of collaboration amongst the banks that was unthinkable even though it provided a benefit to the customer.

Maybe as the big 5 banks look to reduce their number of branches and rebuild their reputations this could be the right time to look to shared branches as a means of not being seen as the bank who closed the last branch in town.

Friday, 3 October 2014

The FCA is wrong to focus on account portability

The news that the FCA is to explore the move to full account portability as part of a review of current/checking account switching is disappointing as the FCA appears to be rushing to a solution without having really understood why customers are not switching their account providers at the levels that politicians and consumer lobbyists would like to see. The reason that these parties wish to see higher levels of switching is that they see this as an indicator of competition in the current account market which is dominated by the big five banks – Lloyds, Barclays, RBS, HSBC and Santander.

Customer switching has gone up by only 19% since 7 day switching was introduced

The FCA have been triggered into action by their disappointment at the low increase in the level of switching following the introduction of seven business day current account switching service introduced in October 2013. Despite the investment of $750m by the large banks in creating this guaranteed switching service levels of customer switching has gone up by only 19%.

The large banks have been the beneficiaries of switching

The irony is that the biggest beneficiaries of the account switching services have been Halifax (part of Lloyds Banking Group), Santander (one of the world’s largest banks), Nationwide Building Society and TSB (a Lloyds clone and still partially owned by the bank). With the exception of Nationwide, the account switching service has done little to change the market share of the major banks and even Nationwide has hardly changed the percentage.

The parallels between mobile phone numbers and account numbers are not valid

However for the FCA to jump to the conclusion that this is down to customers being reluctant to change their bank account number and therefore account portability will change this is both bizarre and illogical. Parallels are often made with the mobile phone industry where phone number portability has encouraged customers to switch between providers. However the use of phone numbers and bank account numbers are quite different. Whereas in order for telephone customers to be able to keep in contact with the hundreds and even thousands of people who have their number programmed into their phones keeping their mobile number when changing suppliers is essential the same cannot be said for bank account numbers.

Most bank customers have not memorised their bank account numbers. Once access to internet and mobile banking is set up a customer very rarely needs to know that number. When paying bills, transferring money, checking their balances, setting up or changing direct debits or standing orders there is no need for customers to know their bank account number. With the seven day switching services direct debits are transferred and guaranteed that if a problem occurs that the customer will be refunded for any charges occurred during the transfer process. With the increasing availability of P2P (Person to Person) mobile banking applications such as Pingit customers only need to know the mobile phone number of the person that they are transferring the money to (which is very likely to be stored in their phone) and don’t need to know the bank account details of the person that they are wanting to transfer money to. It is a fallacy to say that the reason people are not changing their bank accounts is because they don’t want to change their bank account number.

Customer interest in switching accounts is far lower than politicians and lobbyists

One of the primary reasons that is quoted despite the Seven Day Switching Service making it far easier for customers to switch current accounts is what politicians refer to as ‘customer apathy or inertia’. The reason that customers aren’t bothered is because for most customers banking really isn’t that interesting (until it goes wrong or they have a financial crisis), that the actual amount that they would save by switching from one bank to another is so minimal that it isn’t worth the effort and that they see one bank account much the same as another. To most customers banking services are a commodity and a largely undifferentiated one. They have better things to do with their lives than monitor whether one bank account is better than another.

There are significant numbers of providers of current accounts

The fact that the main beneficiaries of account switching have been the larger players is not because there is not a lot of choice in the market. Examples of organisations offering personal bank accounts include Nationwide Building Society, Tesco Bank, Marks & Spencer Bank, Metro Bank, Co-op Bank, Yorkshire Bank, Clydesdale Bank, Bank of Ireland (via the Post Office) and Handelsbanken.

The reason that Halifax, Santander, Nationwide, TSB and Metro Bank (though on a lot lower scale than the other four) have been successful in getting current account customers to switch to them is because of their attractive propositions whether it be paying interest on current account balances, discounts on utilities and other bills, convenience of branches or even offering dog biscuits. The fact that some of the most attractive propositions have come from the larger banks is because for most banks most personal current accounts are either loss leaders or have very low margins and therefore to be profitable in the current account market you need scale. That is very difficult and takes a lot of time to build from scratch as Metro Bank is finding.

Many of the so-called challenger banks e.g. Aldermore, Shawbrook, OneSavings Bank and Handelsbanken are not even attempting to engage in the personal current account market because of how unattractive it is financially. They would rather focus on the mortgage market or SME banking where the margins are higher and the cost to enter the market are far lower. As Virgin Money comes to the market it is based on the profits from mortgages and credit cards that the value will be attributed not current accounts.

The FCA is not focusing on the real issue

If the FCA is really interested in seeing greater competition in the current account market then rather than investigating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist (customer only don’t switch because they don’t want to change their bank account number) then they should look at how to make it more attractive for the existing sub Big Five and new players to engage in the market with customer friendly banking propositions. It is only when there is significant differentiation between bank accounts in customers’ minds that switching volumes will become significant.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Where have all the global retail banks gone?

Where have all the global retail banks gone? The banks that had the ambition to become truly global retail banks. What happened to HSBC and ‘The World’s Local Bank’? (see HSBC goes back to its roots ) It isn’t only HSBC that has lost the appetite to be a global retail bank but also Citibank, Standard Chartered, Barclays and RBS amongst others have made it clear that they no longer have that aspiration. Each of them has and continues to be in the process of selling off or closing down selected retail banking operations across the globe.

So what made some of the largest banks in the world consider becoming a global retail bank?

Myth 1: Banking is the same all over the world

For a long time the myth has been actively peddled by consultants and banking applications salespeople that retail banking is the same the world over. After all a loan is a loan, a mortgage is a mortgage and a savings account is a savings account wherever they are in the world – aren’t they?

On the surface this appears to be true. The definition of a residential mortgage is fundamentally the same wherever you are in the world. However the process to take out that loan, the regulations that must be complied with and how the bank treats the mortgage asset is unique to each country. For example in the UK most loans are not securitised whereas in the US Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac play a role in almost every mortgage. The role that notaries play in the sales process in Spain is quite different from that which solicitors perform in the UK. Santander found this out to their cost when they replaced Abbey National’s banking platforms with Partenon, the Santander European retail banking platform. Significant parts of the banking platform had to customised to meet the different way that business is conducted in the UK compared to Spain. The ease with which Partenon could be implemented was a core part of the business case for the acquisition of Abbey by Santander. It turned out to be a lot more expensive and took a lot longer than envisaged.

 Likewise Bradford & Bingley and Barclays both found out separately that implementing a US mortgage application in the UK market was nigh on impossible with both writing off the complete cost of the implementation after many years and millions of pounds being spent trying to modify the applications to meet the local requirements. They had wanted to believe what the mortgage platform sales person had told them.

Both Citibank and HSBC decided to address the problem a different way by building their own custom global retail banking platforms. Neither of them succeeded in delivering a single core banking platform that has been rolled out to all their retail operations but hundreds of millions of pounds (if not billions) were spent trying to achieve that. Neither programme was completed.

As has previously been mentioned, Santander has come the closest to achieving this is. The Santander Partenon platform has been implemented for their European and parts of their US operations. For their South American operations Santander recognised that bending and force fitting Partenon was not going to be a viable option. Instead they needed to develop a different platform Altair but even this needs significant customisation for each new implementation.

Even when looking to implement in only one different country and with more modern architectures than HSBC, Citi or Santander were working with, one of the world’s largest platform vendors, SAP, has found it far more difficult and expensive to implement a core banking system than was envisaged as has been illustrated by the troubled programmes at Commonwealth Bank (Australia), Postbank (Germany) and Nationwide Building Society (UK). Commonwealth Bank has achieved the implementation and is now reaping the benefits (see CBA proves case for core banking replacement)  

Myth 2: Retail Banking is highly profitable

Politicians and consumer lobbyists across the world continue to complain that banks make excessive profits. When the total profit that the large banks make is looked at the numbers can seem very large but when you look at the margin being made it presents a very different picture. Retail banking is only really profitable when operated at scale. It is for a very good reason that in most countries the retail banking market is dominated by a small number of large banks. The costs of capital, of meeting global and local regulations, setting up branch and back office infrastructures, of putting in place the IT systems, of either creating or joining the payments infrastructure are huge. The risks and returns for large banks entering a new market and building a customer base from scratch are very unattractive. This and the myth below are two reasons why the large global banks have been selling or closing their operations in many countries – they simply didn’t have the scale and couldn’t see a way to get to the scale to make the business attractive.

Myth 3: Global brands matter to retail customers

The global banks that have entered local markets have been under the misapprehension that the power of their global brand would be sufficient to make local customers change their primary banking relationship to them. HSBC is the bank that spent the most money in trying to make this true with their ‘The World’s local bank’ campaign. Despite all that money being spent they discovered that it wasn’t true and have and are withdrawing from countries where they could not build enough scale. Citi discovered this to their cost in countries such as Spain, Germany, Poland and Turkey where they could not get local customers to move to them. (see Citi in Europe). The reality is that the majority of customers want to bank with local banks with all the perceived benefits of local and national regulation and the knowledge that the bank is not going to disappear if Head Office decides that the operation in that country is not making enough money.

What of the future of global retail banking?

So does all this mean the end of global retail banks? In terms of a Barclays UK customer walking into an Absa branch in Capetown and transacting as if they were a local customer or a Santander UK customer walking into a branch in Sao Paulo then that is not something that the banks are willing to invest in, nor do they see sufficient demand to justify it. In terms of banks having significant retail presences in other geographies then there won’t be too many banks that will do that – HSBC and Santander being the exceptions.

Santander stands out as the leader in global retail banking particularly given that it is a  Spanish bank where the profits from its retail bank in the UK exceed those of its local market. Despite the death of Emilio Botin it doesn’t appear that that strategy is going to change with Ana Botin fully supporting the direction he set with ambition to expand further globally particularly in the US and Poland.

Monday, 18 August 2014

CBA proves the case for core banking replacement

CBA (Commonwealth Bank of Australia) has delivered record profits of $8.6bn AUD (£4.8bn, $8.0bn USD) for the year to June 2014. With a return on equity of 18.7% (versus typically 5-7% for US/UK banks and less for European banks) and a cost:income ratio of 36% for the retail bank (42.9% for the bank overall), this puts CBA amongst the most profitable banks in the world. It is also one of the banks with the fastest growing profits. This is despite fees paid by customers going down. The profit is being driven a combination of growing the revenues outperforming their competition and by increases in productivity. The CEO, Ian Narev, is clear that a major factor in the high performance of the bank is due to the major investments in technology, including the replacement of their core banking platforms.

For many banks the idea of replacing the core banking platforms is the equivalent of performing a full heart and lungs transplant while running a marathon. However, whilst most banks have not had the courage to embark on such a challenging endeavour, in 2006 CBA decided to. CBA made the task even harder by rather than choosing to replace their old legacy systems with proven technology they chose to be one of a very few pioneers with the new SAP Banking platform that, at that point, was largely unproven.

CBA have not been risk averse in adopting new technologies. They were one of the first banks to outsource their internet banking infrastructure to Amazon Web Services (AWS). See CBA and Amazon

The journey to their new banking platforms was not straight forward, bumps were found along the way and the costs rose above original estimates but there were releases along the journey which released business benefits and they have succeeded in delivering a completely new set of platforms to drive their business from. This has given them significant competitive advantage.

One consequence of simplifying their IT landscape has been a dramatic decrease in the number of high impact system impacts from 400 in FY2007 to a mere 44 in FY14. Considering the number of major outages that some of its competitor banks have had and the damage to the brand this is a significant achievement. It will undoubtedly have contributed to why CBA is #1 for customer satisfaction amongst Australian banks.

Among the benefits that the bank and the customers have experienced is a dramatic reduction in the time it takes to get innovations into production – two recent examples of this are Lock & Limit (allowing customers to block and/or limit the size of transactions) and Cardless Cash (customers being able to withdraw from ATMs using their mobile phones) which came to market in May 2014 ahead of competitor offerings.

CBA has also seen a significant increase in self-service with the percentage of deposits completed via an Intelligent Deposit Machine going from 10% to 37% over a twelve month period. With the launch of online opening of accounts (savings and current accounts) customers can now open accounts in less than 60 seconds.

None of the big UK banks has embarked upon a core banking platform replacement programme. Lloyds has consolidated and simplified its systems based on the legacy TSB platform. Santander has a single platform, Partenon, which is based on a banking package but it is legacy technology.  HSBC embarked on developing a single system for the Group, One HSBC, but that programme was stopped after a number of year. Nationwide Building Society is some way down the journey of implementing SAP Banking and is beginning to see the benefits with reduced times to launch products and propositions.
One of the key architects and sponsors of the technology transformation programme at CBA was Michael Harte. He is shortly to take up the role of COO with responsibility for IT at Barclays. There can be little doubt that his experience at CBA was the major attraction for his recruitment. The benefits that CBA is reaping following this six plus years journey are clear to see. The question is with all the challenges that Barclays faces, the size of the investment and the length of the return on that investment, the decreasing margins in banking and the amount of work needed to keep up with the regulatory burden whether Barclays will have the appetite and the staying power to embark upon what can be a highly rewarding but hazardous journey

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Creating competition in retail banking

With the recommendation by the UK CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) to conduct a review of competitiveness in the current account banking market, what are some of the areas that they may consider to increase competitiveness?

Breaking up the banks. This is the Labour party’s big idea - creating a set of competitor banks by splitting the big banks. The primary focus for this would be the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group. However this isn’t a new idea and is already being tested with the creation of TSB from Lloyds Banking Group and Williams & Glyn’s from RBS. However already there are lessons to be learnt from this process.

While there was initial interest from a number of players the list of serious bidders rapidly shortened when the complexity, the capital required and the price being sought became clear. The initial two successful bidders the Co-op (Lloyds) and Santander (RBS) after lengthy negotiations and detailed planning withdrew their bids.

Separating the bank’s technology whether cloning (TSB) or migrating to a new platform is proving to be enormously complex and very expensive.

The payback period is very long and without the subsidy and support of the selling bank would be even longer. TSB for instance does not expect to break even for many years and that is despite being helped by Lloyds lending the new bank a book of loans.

While breaking up the banks will mean that there are more places to have a current account there is no guarantee that this will ensure better deals for customers, particularly given that the easiest option for the broken up banks is to be clones of the original banks just simply without the scale advantages. With little to differentiate them having more players in the market doesn’t result in real consumer benefit.

Creating a payments utility separate from the big banks. One of the often heard complaints from new entrants is that the big banks have an advantage because they own the payments infrastructure and the cost for new entrants to use that infrastructure is a barrier to entry. One option would be to create a separate payments utility not owned by the banks. However that does not mean that it will necessarily be cheaper for new entrants. For a start there is the cost of acquiring and separating the infrastructure from that of the banks that currently own it which would need to be paid by customers of the utility. There is also the question of how to charge for the use of this utility. The charge would need to reflect the significant cost of running, maintaining and investing in modernising the infrastructure – it is not simply the cost of using the infrastructure because otherwise what is the incentive for whoever ends up owning the infrastructure to invest in it to make it not only continually available but also suitable for new innovations as they come along? Commercial reality dictates that for banks with high transaction volumes that cost per transaction should be lower.

Portable bank account numbers. Many of the challenger banks are supportive of the concept of portable bank account numbers. They look at the mobile phone industry and see the way that customers can take their phone numbers with them. However before recommending this change the CMA needs to research just how big an inhibitor to switching bank accounts for customers is the change of account number. Given the Seven Day Switching Service where the banks guarantee no interruption to direct debits and standing orders and given the limited numbers of times customers actually have to know their account number in order to transact, would portable bank account numbers really open the floodgates of customers switching bank account numbers?

Ending ‘free when in credit’ banking. In the UK customers have got used to so-called ‘free banking’ where as long as a customer remains in credit, whilst they get little or nothing for the balance that they retain, they don’t pay charges. A number of the challenger banks have complained that this gives the incumbent banks an advantage as it is difficult (but not impossible) to compete on price and because it gives banks offering current accounts a distinct advantage over those who don’t in terms of the low cost of all those balances when it comes to lending. It will take a brave politician to move to compel the end of free banking. Of course to attain transparency then the cost of each transaction e.g. cost of an ATM withdrawal, the cost of paying in a cheque, the cost of a direct debit, etc, would need to be made clear to customers and, the challengers would argue, that that would enable customers to choose between banks. However looking at a market where this is the way banking is conducted, Australia, then not only is there a greater concentration of current accounts held with the Four Pillars (Nab, Westpac, CBA and ANZ) than with the equivalents in the UK, but Australian banks are amongst the most profitable retail banks in the world. Despite that there are not lots of new entrants fighting to get a slice of the pie. For customers Australia is also one of the most expensive countries to bank. It would appear that ending ‘free banking’ alone would not solve the perceived competition problem.

Set a maximum market share for current accounts. On paper this would appear to be the solution. The big banks could be given a period of time over which they must reduce their share of the market to for instance to no more than 15% of the market each leaving the challenger banks to fight over the remaining 40%. The banks would need to be told the mix of customers they must dispose of, just as Lloyds was instructed for the disposal of TSB. However what does this do for consumer choice? Not all customers were happy to be told that they were moving from Lloyds to TSB without an option. Given that the CMA investigation is about creating competition and making it easier for customers to switch banks this does not appear to be the solution.

Make it even easier for new challengers to enter the market. Measures have already been put in place to reduce the capital required, shorten the process and allow challenger banks time to grow into being a full scale bank. The benefits of this are already being seen with the likes of Atom Bank being announced. It is difficult to see what more could be done in this area.

Make retail banking more profitable to encourage more new entrants. There is little chance of this being one of the recommendations of the CMA. The reality is that with increased regulation, increased scrutiny and rising costs for compliance retail banking is becoming less and less attractive a sector for investors. As JC Flowers have recently remarked with Returns on Equity going from double to single digits there are more attractive sectors to look at investing in.

Is the CMA looking to solve a problem that customers don’t see as a priority? With the advent of Seven Day Switching the number of customers changing banks has risen – over one million customers have chosen to do that. The biggest beneficiaries have been TSB, Santander and Nationwide Building Society. There more than a handful of challenger banks out there – Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Metro Bank, Co-op Bank, Handelsbanken, Aldermore and others with current accounts on the way – amongst them Atom Bank and Virgin Money. Despite that the market share of the large high street banks hasn’t changed significantly. The question is why aren’t customers changing banks? Is it simply because they see banking as a utility, that each of the banks are pretty much the same, that for most customers (unlike bankers, politicians, financial journalists and consumer champions) banking doesn’t enter their consciousness unless they have a bad experience. In the grand scheme of things for most customers they have far more important issues to think about than whether they should switch their bank accounts.

Perhaps it is time that the CMA focused on something of more day to day importance to consumers.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Interest rate rise will be the litmus test for challenger banks

Banks don’t like periods of stable interest rates and the rates in the UK have been stable for a long time now. The reason that banks like to have the interest rates changing frequently is because each change is an opportunity to improve the net interest margin, to squeeze a bit more profit out of the customer.

With the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, indicating and then soft shoe shuffling away from the position that interest rates could go up as early as the end of 2014 savers shouldn’t get too excited as firstly the rise won’t be large and secondly banks usually don’t pass on the full amount to customers but keep a bit back for themselves. Bank business plans are built on the assumption that they won’t pass on the full benefits to the customer. With bank profitability squeezed by regulation and low interest rates this is why the banks are looking forward so much to greater interest rate volatility.

So the question is whether the challenger banks will back their branding of doing banking differently by not following the herd and instead passing on the full amount of the rate rise? After all it isn’t as if they are incurring additional costs (other than typing into the computer the new interest rate which is not exactly difficult) when the rate rises so there is no justification for taking a slice of the interest rate rise.

Most of the challenger banks find themselves in the position where they have more deposits, whether from savings accounts or from balances on current accounts, than they need. A sure fire way to lose money as a bank is to be paying out more to customers in interest than you are receiving back in interest and fees. This is why you won’t find the likes of TSB, Metro Bank, Aldermore or Handelsbanken appearing in the best buy tables for savings accounts. They want you to like them but they’d rather not attract too much of your money, particularly at a high cost.

TSB, the spin off from Lloyds Banking Group, is in the worst position. So bad is the situation for TSB that Lloyds has had to pad out TSB by lending it a book of loans to soak up some of the excess savings for the next few years. Not only that it also has an infrastructure (branches, back office and IT systems) which is larger than it needs for its existing customer base. It is like a new boy at school where its mother has bought it a uniform that is a few sizes too big to allow for growth. This means that for TSB passing on the full interest rate increase will only extend the loss making period of the bank, which it is unlikely shareholders will support.

Equally you won’t find the challenger banks topping the lending price tables. They want to lend you money but, given their cost of acquiring deposits they can’t in the long term price aggressively. This is where the incumbent banks have a significant advantage. Their cost of funding is far lower. Having large numbers of current accounts with large balances for which the majority of customers are paid no interest they can afford to lend at far lower rates than the challenger banks if they chose to. Instead of passing this advantage onto customers they choose to make a larger profit whilst still charging competitive prices to win new business.

When it comes to existing customers the challenger banks don’t appear to be backing their customer focused words with actions. A primary source of profits for banks are made from customers whose fixed rate or discount deals and have ended and have been moved onto the bank’s Standard Variable Rate. This is always higher than what a new customer could get. If the challenger banks really are focussed on long terms relationships with their customers and with providing good value for money then when the end of a fixed rate or discount period is coming up rather than just telling the customer that they are going to move onto the SVR (which the banks wouldn’t tell them if they weren’t obligated to) they would be offering them a new fixed rate or a new discounted rate. However most banks don’t do this because they want the additional profit they make from having customers on the higher interest rate. Instead they mark the customers as DND (Do Not Disturb), waiting until a customer threatens to move their mortgage before considering making them a better offer. Only at that point and only for certain customers do they then offer them a better deal to keep them. The message this sends to customers is that there is no reward for loyalty. Instead their loyalty is a means of subsidising the price of loans to new customers.

For challenger banks that have started from scratch, rather than from acquiring another business or a book of loans the jury is still out as to their attitude towards existing versus new customers. They have not yet been tested by a large volume of maturing customers and have not had the chance to demonstrate whether they really want to do banking differently from the incumbent banks.

However the challenger banks that have been spun off from another bank or have grown by acquiring mature mortgage or credit card books and have seen customers offers mature have had the chance to demonstrate that they are doing something different but have not taken it.

When the first base rate rise is announced customers will have the chance to judge the challenger banks by whether they pass on the full rise to savers. This will tell customers whether these challenger banks are really serious about taking on the legacy banks, genuinely have a different attitude towards treating their customers fairly, and are putting their money where their mouths are or whether it is all just marketing hype.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Tesco Bank launches a current account - finally!

The news that Tesco Bank has finally launched its current/checking account six years after its split from RBS was announce must come as a great relief to Benny Higgins, CEO, and the rest of the team at Tesco Bank. Like expectant fathers they have been pacing the corridors of the maternity ward far longer than they would have liked. The delays have been numerous but principally down to getting over the regulatory hurdles and, more recently, ensuring that the IT systems fully work the way that they are meant to before being unleashed on real customers. Delaying the launch of the current account until the systems were thoroughly tested, while it was frustrating for those anxious to see Tesco Bank becoming a real challenger to the sector, should be recognised as absolutely the right decision for the CEO to take. The embarrassment and reputational damage caused to banks such as RBS and National Australia from having serious outages in their core banking systems far outweighs the benefits of launching earlier.

The announced current account is paying 3% on balances and only charging a monthly account fee of £5 if less than £750 is paid into the account. This is a competitive offer. There are added advantages for Tesco customers who will also receive loyalty Clubcard Points on all spending using the Tesco debit card.

Marks & Spencer beat Tesco out with a current account, having both free and fee-charging versions of their accounts. As with Tesco there will be benefits of being both a customer of M&S and its bank in terms of rewards. There will be some overlap between customers but the big difference is that Marks & Spencer Bank is owned by HSBC and therefore cannot really be seen as a challenger bank.

The launch of the current account by Tesco Bank should represent a real challenge to the big five banks (Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC, RBS and Santander). As an aside, Santander likes to position itself as a challenger but being owned by one of the largest banking groups in the world, coming from the consolidation of building societies (Abbey National, Alliance & Leicester, Bradford & Bingley being the main ones) and with a less than perfect reputation for the service it provides it quite rightly deserves to be clumped in with the other big 4 banks as being just another legacy bank.

There are many reasons why Tesco Bank should be seen as a real challenge to the established players. For starters it is not a small bank – it already has over 6 million customers using its insurance and lending products. All of these customers are potential customers for their current account offering. It also already has a large physical distribution network through its supermarkets. As they are available to savers today customers will be able to make deposits in 300 stores. However this account has been designed to be opened online and customer support will be available on the phone. The bank being designed for digital differentiates it from the likes of TSB, Metro Bank, Virgin Money and Williams & Glyn, which have all come from a traditional branch centric design.

Not only has Tesco Bank been designed from the start with digital in mind, Tesco also has many years experience of running large scale digital operations through its own website as well as operations like Tesco Mobile. This gives it a much better chance of delivering a reliable good customer experience than other challenger banks, particularly the small scale contenders such as Metro Bank, Aldermore and Atom.

Tesco Bank also has the added advantage that through its Clubcard programme it not only has vast amounts of data on both its existing and potential customers but it also has years and years of experience of using that data to drive business. Unlike the new start ups and the established banks so-called ‘Big’ data is not a new topic for Tesco. This should give it significant advantages given its customer insight in terms of providing customised propositions to its customers.

Tesco Bank is also not weighed down by legacy. They don’t have the reputational problems from the mis-selling of PPI and the high levels of complaints which the Big Five banks have. They can position themselves as truly a new entrant. While TSB and Williams & Glyn may have the liability for the past retained by their parents (Lloyds and RSB respectively) many of the executives who made the decisions to sell PPI, set the aggressive targets and the staff who delivered them are working for these ‘challenger’ banks.

They are also not weighed down by legacy systems unlike the Big Five banks, those spawned from the Big Five (TSB and Williams & Glyn) and those challenger banks who have been created by the acquisition of former building societies such as One Savings Bank (Kent Reliance Building Society) and Virgin Money (Northern Rock). While it may have taken Tesco Bank longer to get to market with their current account it is being delivered on (at least relatively) modern systems.

What the launch of Tesco Bank’s current account means is that there are now two sizeable challenger banks that are not tainted with the legacy of the financial crisis and that are serving their customers using modern technology platforms designed to work in the digital mobile world – Nationwide and Tesco.

Does this mean that the Big Five banks are quaking in their boots worried about their future? Clearly any bank executive should be aware of and taking into account what the competition is doing. The reality though is that for most customers banking is not that interesting, it is a commodity not worth spending a lot of time thinking about and that despite Seven Day Switching making it easier, they have better things to do with their time than switch bank accounts. This means that there will not be a flood of customers leaving the Big Five banks to sign up with Tesco or Nationwide.

The launch of the Tesco Bank current account is to be welcomed as a new force in the retail banking market, but no one should think that this is going to bring about a seismic change to who customers bank with.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

New NAB CEO faces challenge of what to do with Yorkshire and Clydesdale Banks


With Cameron Clyne leaving National Australia to spend more time with his family, incoming Group CEO, Andrew Thorburn, will have to face the perennial question of what to do with the bank’s UK businesses. For many years Yorkshire Bank and Clydesdale Bank have been seen as albatrosses hanging around the neck of the incumbent Group CEO of National Australia. With Nab’s focus on growing in their domestic market and Asia the two banks have long been seen as non-strategic.

During the financial crisis Nab had to invest nearly £1.5bn of capital into the business to shore up the balance sheet. There have been challenges with non performing loans as well as redress for misselling of PPI to add to the woes. As part of a plan to improve the performance of the business there has been a significant cost cutting exercise that resulted in the removal of 1,400 jobs and the closure of 29 banking centres. There has also been a withdrawal from London and the south of England.
However for many years both banks have been starved of any significant investment to improve them and to make them better able to compete in the UK market. It is not since the Brit John Stewart was Group CEO and fellow Brit Lynne Peacock was running the UK operations that any significant effort was put into innovation and growing the businesses in the UK. Indeed large parts of the strategy for the UK banks set out by Stewart and Peacock were reversed during the cost cutting exercise. (Recent news that Clydesdale Bank is to issue Britain’s first plastic £5 note hardly counts as innovation).
Nab in Melbourne have for a long time been very open about the fact that Yorkshire Bank and Clydesdale Bank are seen as non-strategic. The market has been sounded out for interest in acquiring the business. At one point it was rumoured that Santander was interested in acquiring the business but no deal has emerged. A key on-going challenge for the Nab Group CEO has been that there has been a significant gap between the value that the UK operations are held on the balance sheet and the price potential acquirers are prepared to pay. This situation has deteriorated even further since the crisis in 2008 with both bank valuations dropping and the interest in acquiring banks disappearing. For Nab, either no  Group CEO wanted to take that write off on their watch or the Board wouldn’t let him.
There is no doubt that there has been and continues to be a lot of dissatisfaction from analysts and investors about the financial performance of Nab in its local domestic market. It is seen as the laggard of the Four Pillars. The challenge for Andrew Thorburn is to turn around that perception. Whilst the UK operations are definitely not the highest priority in terms of fixing the business they are seen both as a distraction and requiring significant capital that could be better deployed elsewhere.
So as Andrew Thorburn starts his role as CEO in August 2014, will he do something to resolve this issue and what are his options for the UK operations?
The ideal outcome for the new CEO would be to sell the UK operations and minimise the write off. The question though is who would want to buy them?
On paper Yorkshire Bank and Clydesdale Bank could be challenger banks. They both have strong brands with loyal customers. The Yorkshire brand stretches way beyond the county boundaries. Clydesdale is seen very much as a Scottish bank and one that has managed to maintain its reputation far better than either Royal Bank of Scotland or HBoS, its two main rivals. This could make it attractive to Private Equity firms, for instance JC Flowers might wish to merge it with its OneSavings Bank. It could also be attractive to other Private Equity firms looking to establish a foothold in the UK retail banking market. However the timing for One Savings Bank is not good as they have already announced that they are to float and that is where their focus in the short term will be.
The challenge for anyone evaluating Yorkshire and Clydesdale is, apart from their customer base, what is there of value to acquire? Between the Yorkshire and Clydesdale they have 322 branches, a very similar number to the branches that Williams & Glyn (the challenger bank being created from the forced disposal RBS has to make) will have. However, as is becoming increasingly apparent to both established and challenger banks, the use of branches by customers is declining and therefore the value of having an extensive network of branches is reducing. As both RBS and Lloyds found out finding buyers for their branches was not easy with both, respectively, Santander and Co-op withdrawing their offers after long protracted negotiations. The additional challenge with the Yorkshire and Clydesdale branches is that significant investment by the buyer would be required to bring the branches up to  a standard customers expect today due to the lack of investment by Nab over the last few years.
If a new entrant was looking to acquire the Nab UK operations and they wanted to initially use the Nab IT platforms then if they wish to be competitive they would need to invest very heavily over the medium term on new platforms, as the Nab platforms are old and in need of retiring.
With a cost income ratio of 76% there is a lot of efficiency gains to be driven out by the right owner, but the question is the level of investment to achieve this and over what time period.
Given the level of investment that any new entrant would need to make in order to use the UK operations as a platform for competing in the UK retail banking market, the price that they would be prepared to offer is highly unlikely to meet the amount sitting on the Nab balance sheet.
Given Nab’s situation it is easy to understand why a couple of years ago Santander were rumoured to be interested in acquiring the UK operations. Santander has its own platform, Partnenon, and has a track record of being able to migrate bank accounts onto its systems – Abbey National, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley. The challenge for Nab is that Santander is a distress purchaser and never knowingly overpays.
If Nab can’t sell Yorkshire and Clydesdale at an acceptable price then what about a flotation? Timing is a real challenge here as there has never been a time when more banks are coming onto the market. TSB, Aldermore, OneSavings Bank,William & Glyn, Virgin Money, Metro and Shawbrook have all announced intentions to come to the market over the next eighteen months. Investors are spoilt for choice. Along with the recent disappointing flotations (Saga, JustEat. AO, etc), albeit in other sectors, there will be a downward pressure on prices and consequently the amount of capital that will be raised.
Another option is to do nothing and let the two brands continue to operate as they are today, continue to reduce costs and improve performance with minimal investment and allow the business to slowly decline as customers move away to competitors when they are attracted by better offers.
There is no immediate need for Andrew Thorburn to make a decision about the future of the UK operations particularly given the uncertainty with the Scottish Referendum occurring in September 2014. The UK operations operate under a Scottish banking licence and a ‘Yes’ vote could create a long period of uncertainty and have a significant impact on the value of the UK operations.
However as a new CEO there is a grace period during which there is an opportunity as the new broom to look with fresh eyes at all the problems. It is an opportunity to announce write offs, set the bar and expectations low and then over-perform. Thorburn should take full advantage of this initial period of goodwill to be quite clear what his plan is for Yorkshire and Clydesdale to end the uncertainty for customers, colleagues and investors.

Friday, 16 May 2014

RBS forced to sell Citizens ending the most successful UK retail banking foray into US market

British businesses don’t have a great track record in breaking into the US retail market. You only have to look at the disastrous foray that the Marks & Spencer acquisition of Brooks Brothers was, Tesco’s humiliating and expensive attempt with the Fresh & Easy brand and, most recently, the failure of Yo Sushi! to realise how difficult it is for firms with strong brands in their domestic markets to make it across the pond.

The retail banking track record is no better with Barclays, Lloyds and Natwest all quitting the US in the late 1980s and 1990s. Losses from the acquisition of Crocker drove Midland Bank into the arms of HSBC. Even HSBC has not been immune to the problem with the disastrous acquisition of subprime Household continuing to hurt the bank to this day.

It is quite ironic then that RBSG is being forced to exit the one reasonably successful move into retail and commercial banking that British banks have made in the US. Whilst Fred Goodwin, the former CEO of RBSG, has been criticised for much of the way that he ran the global banking group (particularly paying over the odds for ABN Amro just as the wholesale markets were closing down) his strategy for building a presence in the US retail and commercial banking sector should be heralded as one his smarter moves.

Rather than trying to take on the large US retail banks where they were, at that time, competing aggressively with each other in New York, California, Texas and Florida, Goodwin decided to build his beachhead in the Mid-Atlantic by the acquisition of Citizens Financial Group. A series of small but strategically significant acquisitions followed that expanded it into New England and the Midwest. Citizens is now the 15th largest commercial banking organisation in the US. Whilst there have been challenges including writedowns following the acquisition of Charter One and recent issues with the way that capital is planned, overall Citizens is a highly capitalised and profitable bank. Yes its capital is under deployed but that is addressable. Indeed its reputation with its customers is far better than RBS’ in its own domestic market.

It is a great shame then for RBSG that due to having to take state intervention and becoming largely nationalised, primarily due to the acquisition of ABN Amro and the disastrous business in Ireland, that RBSG is being forced by the EU to dispose of its ownership of Citizens by the end of 2016.

As the first step of moving towards this in January 2014 Citizens sold off 103 branches in the Chicago area to US Bancorp.

 It has been announced that the next step will be to float or sell 20-25% of its share of Citizens. A flotation is more likely as there have been few signs of interest from potential buyers. However for Canadian, Japanese or Spanish banks that want to significantly grow their presence particularly in the Midwest and given that it is a forced sale it could be an interesting opportunity.

The flotation will help to rebuild its balance sheet, but the sale is what is really needed as that could release more than $3bn of capital, which would help RBSG reduce the government holding in the bank.

This is all a sad ending to what could have been had RBSG scaled back its ambition to be global investment bank.

As a footnote, British banks should not give up on being able to build a presence in the US retail and commercial banking market. RBSG has shown that it can be done. Barclays is having success with its Barclaycard US operation building scale to take on the other cards providers, however this is a monoline not a full service retail banking offering.

The British banks can also look to the Spanish banks, Santander and BBVA which with respectively the acquisition of Sovereign Bank and Compass Bank, are demonstrating that it is possible for Europeans banks to build a presence in the US retail banking market. It takes time, patience and recognition that whilst both the US and European markets have the words ‘retail banking’ in their names that they are quite different.