Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Should the CIO be on the Executive Board?


The news that the CIO of Co-operative Group (which has a minority holding in Co-operative Bank), Andy Haywood, is to move off the Executive Board but to remain Group CIO brings a further spotlight onto what is the role of the CIO going forward and, whilst not directly related to the demotion of Mr Haywood, specifically what is the future role of CIOs in banks.

The reporting lines of CIOs have evolved with the increasing use of technology in organisations. Even the title of the person responsible for IT has evolved alongside the technology.

When computers were first introduced into banks their sole purpose was to act as a giant calculator and move what was held in physical ledgers onto computers so that the bank’s financial position could be calculated. The person responsible for making that happen would have had one of a few titles including EDP (Electronic Data Processing), MIS (Management Information Systems) or simply Computer Manager. The role would have reported to the Finance Director or Chief Accountant as that was the department that was primarily serviced by computers. Indeed today in many organisations today IT continues to report to the CFO.

As automation started impacting the back office operations of the banks and IT started being used outside of Finance, the Head of IT or CIO may have found the reporting line moving to the Chief Operating Officer. For many banks today that continues to be the case.

However with the rise of digital, IT has increasingly permeated beyond the back office and accounts departments and an increasingly large proportion of IT expenditure is being consumed by Marketing.

Banks in particular, where fundamentally the vast majority of their commercial, money-making operations are conducted electronically and not in the physical world, IT is increasingly seen as the lifeblood of a successful business. You only have to observe how little a bank can actually do when its IT systems crash and customers cannot access their bank accounts or their card transactions are not processed to see how important IT is to the operation of a bank.

There have been some interesting experiments in terms of what the right organisation structure for IT should be.

For instance at Barclays when Shayghan Kheradipir was Chief Operating and Technology Officer, he had a model where the COO and CIO of each business unit jointly reported to the CEO of that unit. (See CIO/COO joined at the hip). This meant that IT had a voice at the table for the key strategic decisions for that business unit rather than merely being represented by the COO.  With Mr Kheradipir leaving Barclays to be the CEO of Juniper Networks, it will be tempting for Barclays to revert to the more traditional model.

Commonwealth Bank of Australia has gone further than Barclays did by having the CIO reporting directly to the CEO. It is interesting to note that subsequent to that organisational change Commonwealth Bank has spent significantly more as a proportion of overall costs than other banks on refreshing its IT but as a consequence has one of the most advanced IT architectures and platforms of any retail bank of size globally. It is now being able to exploit that new platform to launch new products and services far faster than its competitors.

However with IT increasingly being outsourced, (whether it by the traditional route of selling IT assets to an outsourcer and buying back services or through the use of the cloud), the demands of digital and increasingly Business Intelligence and data analytics, there is a bigger question as to whether there is a role for the traditional CIO at the Executive table? If it isn’t the traditional CIO then who should be providing the strategic input of the role that IT can do to both lead and serve the bank? The skills are far more aligned with a business savvy enterprise architect who has no vested interest in building an internal organisation but is more interested in providing a pragmatic solution, wherever it is sourced from, who knows how to form strategic alliances, both within the bank and outside and who is driven by the desire to use technology to deliver the best value to both internal and external customers.

That doesn’t appear to be what the latest announcement from the Co-op regarding the role of the CIO is saying, indeed the organisational change sounds like a regressive step. But then the Co-op has far bigger problems to address than how to more effectively exploit IT.

Friday, 7 March 2014

This is not just any fee-free current account, this is a Marks & Spencer fee-free current account

Marks & Spencer have announced that they are to launch a fee-free current account. The account will have no overdraft fees, the first £100 of which is interest free and a (relatively) low interest rate for overdrafts of 15.9%.  For those who transfer their main banking account to M&S they will receive a £100 gift card. A key attraction for M&S customers will be the loyalty scheme where points are earned for debit card spending in M&S stores and online. It also passes the critical requirement of allowing customers to bank online as well as on the phone or in store.

A key differentiating feature is not charging a transaction fee for ATM cash withdrawals made with the debit card abroad. For both Metro Bank and Nationwide the lack of transactions fees when abroad attracted customers; however that feature was withdrawn and both now do charge fees for transactions abroad.

On the face of it this is a competitive offering and should be attractive to to both M&S and non-M&S customers alike.

This is not a new market entry for Marks & Spencer (they launched their fee-charging account with a similar loyalty scheme in September 2012) but rather a change of their positioning re. free banking. M&S claims that their fee-charging account has been successful with M&S customers, so this does raise some questions as to why they should launch a fee-free product and at this time.

One of the dangers to M&S of having similar current account products with one offering a fee and one not is self-cannibalisation. Will customers of the current fee charging account be happy to see that whilst they are paying a fee other customers are not paying one for what seems a remarkably similar product? Will some of those customers look to switch to the fee free product? M&S is allowing these Premium Customers to switch their accounts to the free one and will even give them a £100 gift card if they switch their main account to M&S.

Of course this is not just a current account this is an M&S current account. Except it isn't. It is actually an HSBC current account as it is HSBC that is not only behind M&S Bank but owns 50% of the bank. While M&S may position itself as being good for current account competition in the UK market, with HSBC behind it the impact on the market share of the Big Four banks will be none.

Another question that M&S will, hopefully, have considered is what types of customers will be attracted to this account? With no mandatory minimum monthly amount that needs to be paid into the account, customers may only open this account for the loyalty scheme and maintain minimum balances or, as Nationwide found with its credit card, only use the card for cash withdrawals abroad. For a current account to be profitable for a bank it is important for it to become the primary customer account where the customers salary is paid into and the mortgage and other core regular payments come out of it. Without high current account balances or large overdraft fees (which the account does not charge) current accounts for banks are loss leaders. For M&S they need to demonstrably see the customers of their current accounts spend significantly more in M&S stores and online than non-current account customers for the bank to be deemed a success.

For those championing an end to so-called free banking, the launch in September 2012 by M&S of fee-charging current accounts was seen as setting an example to others that would help to accelerate the end of so-called free banking. For those championing an end of free banking, this recent news from M&S that they are launching fee-free accounts will be seen as a step backwards delaying the end of free banking further.

So why have M&S made this announcement at this time? There are already successful non-Big Four banks, particularly Nationwide, Metro Bank and Santander (with their 1-2-3 account) as well as HSBC-owned First Direct who have been taking advantage of the delays and the problems that other challenger banks have been facing in getting their current account propositions right. Now however with Tesco having announced that it will (finally) launch its current account offering this summer and Virgin Money expected to launch its basic bank account later this year, M&S is clearly keen to get to the potential switchers ahead of the others.

But why have M&S decided to launch fee free products given the issues and risks discussed above? It can only because of the need for volume. Running a profitable current account business with all the investment in infrastructure such as contact centres and IT, in personnel and marketing requires scale. Clearly M&S, despite their protestations, haven't achieved this with their fee charging accounts and they see this as an opportunity to build a bigger customer base which will reduce the marginal cost of running a bank.

It will only be some months after the launch of the both the new M&S fee-free accounts and the Tesco current account that it will be clear whether this move was good news for M&S' beleaguered shareholders and customers or not.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Why 0% BT cards and teaser rates have no role to play in customer centric banks

The announcement by Ross McEwan, RBSG CEO, that RBS and Natwest will remove teaser rates from savings products and scrap 0% interest credit card deals is another step on the road to recovery for RBSG. RBSG is not the first banking group to identify the unfairness for existing loyal customers when these types of offers are made to new customers. It is however the first of the Big Five UK banks to make this stand.

Banks that scrap short term special introductory rates on products for customers, while they position this as for the benefit of existing customers are not simply being altruistic. They are doing this because they know that by adopting a customer- rather than a product-centric approach to running their bank there can be a significant improvement in the long term profitability of their businesses.

Over the past few years there has been a significant price war in the 0% Balance Transfer (BT) credit card market. As one competitor has extended the length of the 0% interest period by one month the next has extended it a further month. Six months ago the market thought that no one would go further than a 28 month (2 years three months) period but it has now got to the point where Barclaycard is offering a 31 month interest free period. It could be argued that this is really good news for customers as fierce competition is driving better deals for consumers. However what is interesting to note is that the top three places in the BT card table are all being offered by one of the Big Four banks - Barclays, HSBC and Lloyds Banking Group. With their very large deposit and current account bases they have large amounts of low cost money to lend which they, it could be said, are using to keep other competitors out, particularly the smaller players who have to resort to the wholesale markets to fund these loans. By extending the periods so long it makes it too expensive for smaller players to compete.

But why are the big banks so keen to lend customers money apparently free for so long? There is of course an up front a fee based on a percentage of the balance being paid - in the case of Barclaycard it is 3.5% which is reduced to 2.99% by a refund (nothing like simplicity!). What this gives the banks offering these products is short term fees, which, with interest rates being so low, fee income is particularly important for short term profits. None of the banks that offers these products has a competitive APR (Annual Percentage Rate) for additional transactions. The banks also know that these are customers who do not pay off their credit cards every month otherwise they would not have got a balance to transfer in the first place. Until recent regulation came into place forcing banks to pay off the most expensive debt first (in this case the new transactions not the 0% balance) this was almost a licence for banks to make money as every payment customers made was used to pay off the 0% balance meaning every new tranaction that was rolled over the month end would continue to rack up high interest rate charges. Even with the change in legislation, whilst these cards are positioned as a way for customers to pay off their debts, the banks concerned are certainly hopeful that their customers will continue to use their credit cards accruing the bank interchange and other fees for every transaction as well as building a large balance for when the 0% interest rate expires.

The problem with BT customers is that they have had the nous to transfer the balance for a 0% period. This means that they are likely to be price conscious and therefore when the next good deal comes along or when their free period ends some of them are likely to be off again to the next bank or credit card company offering a good deal. Others are likely to rack up debts that they cannot afford and go into arrears. For a bank that is looking to develop long term mutually profitable relationships with its customers the majority of these are the wrong type of customers. These are not customers who are looking to or have the money to take out other products from the bank. Banks who offer these types of products are, on the whole, product-centric. Banks who the only credit card they offer is a Balance Transfer is not customer centric.

Moving onto the removal of teaser rates from savings products. The primary reason banks offer short term attractive rates is to build volumes of deposits in order to be able to lend the money out to other customers in the form of a loan or mortgage. It is also a way of raising the brand of the bank by getting it into the best price tables, on the first screen of the aggregator websites such as Moneysupermarket.com and getting it mentioned by Money Savings Expert Martin Lewis. However being successful at doing this can have at least two downsides. Firstly the bank can end up with more low or no margin deposits than it has the demand to lend which leads to losses and secondly it attracts price sensitive customers aka, price tarts. The problem with price tarts, as the name implies, is that as soon as the introductory rate expires they will be off taking their money and giving it to the next bank that has decided to get offer a teaser rate. Just like the with Balance Transfer Card these are not the types of customers that a long term profitable bank should be built upon. With both product strategies it is a case of quantity being sacrificed for quality and taking a product perspective over a customer one.

However  it would be wrong to think that there are no downsides to a strategy that strictly adheres to the principle that existing customers should never be disadvantaged over new customers. In 2001 Nationwide Building Society, under the previous CEO, introduced a policy that all its mortgage offers would be made available to both new and existing customers. It resulted in retaining a higher proportion of its mortgage customers than other banks but with significantly impacted profitability. Nationwide has moved away from that purist implementation to a more pragmatic approach. It doesn't seek to be in the top of the price tables for its products but rather it seeks out customers that are looking for a long term relationship with the building society as its Save to Buy offering for first time buyers illustrates. The result has been a very significant growth in profitable business.

Ross McEwen sees the turnaround of RBSG as taking at least another five years. The announcements of the changes to the retail product strategy will potentially have a negative short term effect for the retail bank, but in terms of moving RBSG towards being a customer centred bank these are sensible steps as long as the shareholders and other interested parties have the patience to see them through. What he has recognised is that 0% cards and teaser rates have no role to play in a customer centric bank.