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.