Showing posts with label CBA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label CBA. Show all posts

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

Monday, 27 January 2014

How to be a successful challenger bank


So assuming you have got the capital raised and have got through the regulatory hurdles necessary to be a challenger bank what the critical factors for success?

Pick your battleground. Given that the big five banks (in the UK) or the Four Pillars (in Australia) or the equivalent in other markets are so called because they have the scale and the established track record trying to take them head on at their own game is a sure fire guarantee of failure. To paraphase the Chinese general Sun Tsu in his ‘Art of War’ only attack the enemy head on if you have a three to one advantage.  A bank that wants to take on the banks across their entire retail customer base is setting itself up to fail. The established big players have the depth of capital and the customer base to play the long game and can besiege the challenger bank until they have used up all their capital and their investors patience.

For challenger banks the better strategy is to ‘fragment’ i.e. to pick off part of the established banks’s customer base, preferably one of the more profitable segments.

By not having a clear customer segment strategy but simply competing for business that can be won from the established banks can end up with the so-called challenger winning the unprofitable business that the big five would happily like to exit.  

Handelsbanken have never sought to be a replacement for the big five banks in the UK for all their customers. They have deliberately adopted a strategy that focuses on small businesses in largely market towns where customers like to use branches, have face to face contact and are prepared to pay for that service. The result has been very high customer satisfaction along with high profitability.

First Direct (albeit owned by HSBC) set out to be a bank for customers that weren’t interested in visiting branches, liked to be able to talk to a person, liked a high quality of service and were prepared to pay for it. First Direct is very rarely at the top of the price tables. Equally First Direct has not tried to grow its customer base aggressively with its market share relatively stable and relatively small. What they have ended up with is the highest Net Promoter Score amongst the banks.

Consider competing from a position of better insight. The established banks have the scale, the benefits of a high margin back book and the deep pockets so competing purely on price is not a long term strategy. Neither is competing simply on not being one of them. Some of the legacy problems the established banks have is their data has grown up from individual product systems, there is a culture of not sharing data between organisational silos, their systems have often grown from a series of acquisitions and are based on old technology. This gives the challenger bank a real opportunity. Designing the bank from the start to be based around the customer not the product, designing the data infrastructure around the ability to analyse, model and forecast not only the customer, but the risk, the external environment and the way the business performance will be managed will give the challenger bank a significant advantage. By having better customer insight offers can be better tailored to what the customer actually wants (resulting in a reduced Cost Per Acquisition), pricing can be based on individual or segment risk (not only for lending but also for deposit pricing) and retention of customers can be significantly higher.

A good current/checking account offering is not optional. Without it being a real challenger is impossible. Unless you have a transactional product, one where the customer interacts with you frequently, you are not going to be able to own the customer relationship and whilst you might win in the short term it will only be for that. When you ask any customer who they bank with their first response will be the bank where their salary is paid into and which they use daily to buy goods and services with.

If the basis of competition is around taking  mortgages and savings market shares off the established banks, then effectively regardless of the ownership structure, this is a building society offering. Building societies have been around for over a hundred years and their attempts to be challenger banks can be seen in the demise of the likes of Alliance & Leicester, Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock.

Nationwide Building Society has shown that by having a good current account offering that they are a real challenger to the established banks. (Nationwide has done more than that as well but the current account has been a key building block to their success).

What’s more the current account offering needs to be designed to attract the customer segment that has been selected as part of the fragment strategy.

Most customers see one current account being the same as another. A lot of customers will also have been made more cynical because of the ‘value-added’ or packaged current accounts that were sold in the run up to the financial crash. These were accounts where it was questionable whether the ‘added value’ was worth the monthly fee. There are very few ways of differentiating a current account but certainly for a challenger bank it needs to be designed for being used on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. The established banks, whilst they may have deeper pockets, have old and under-maintained systems which should give challenger banks an advantage (see the comments about IT below)

The danger of coming out with a simple, low function current account is that the challenger bank ends up with the low income, highly unprofitable customers that established banks are obliged by governments to offer to the unbanked. While this may make the challenger bank popular with government it will do nothing to help investors and if that is not the customer segment being aimed for will only lead to brand confusion.

Design the business from the outside in. One of the biggest challenges the existing banks have is their organisation structure which is built around silos, largely product-based and very hard to change. This brings inflexibility and high cost. Challenger banks have a real opportunity to do something different, even if they have come into existence by acquiring an existing player. The way that the bank’s processes are designed should be driven by the experience that its customers, partners (intermediaries, aggregators, suppliers) want and then decide how it can be delivered profitably. Experience doesn’t just apply to getting a customer to purchase a product but also what happens after that. On-boarding is even more important now for retention, profitability and customer advocacy, particularly where business comes from brokers or comparison websites.

What typically happens is that organisations where there is any conscious design are built from the perspective of the bank and how it is easiest to manage, not from the customer’s or strategic supplier’s perspective. The challenger who gets this right will only be able to attract customers at a lower cost (reduced CPA), will reduce customer attrition and achieve higher customer referral rates.

Invest in talent and experience. Everybody thinks they are an expert in retail banking because everyone has a bank account. This is the equivalent of saying that everybody is a doctor because they have a body. If retail banking was really that easy and that profitable there would be no need for challenger banks. It is not only since the financial crash in 2008 that people have looked down on bankers and treated them as of less value than estate agents or tabloid journalists. Prior to the crash many banks employed retailers because they thought bankers were just staff who didn’t know how to sell properly. A probable consequence of the introduction of this retail talent was the PPI (Payment Protection Insurance) and the Structured Investments scandals, where sales techniques borrowed from the retail industry were applied to the banking industry. There is no doubt that the banking industry can benefit from the insights and experience of industries that deliver better customer service and use technology more smartly but that needs to be counterbalanced with deep experience of retail banking. Current account-based retail banking is far from the same as simply attracting deposits and selling mortgages. If retail banking was so easy why have the building societies (Nationwide excepted – see comment above) been so unsuccessful in making a significant dent in the established banks market share? To be a successful challenger bank investment in real expertise of current account banking is not optional.

Just because technology can do something doesn’t mean customers want it. There are plenty of digital gurus out there who are coming up with very imaginative ways of doing banking whether it is different ways of making payments (at least once a day someone somewhere in the world announces a new way of making payments), identifying the customer, wearing technology, and interacting in branches, but just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. Unless it makes it more convenient for the customer (and many of the novel ways of making payments are cool but take longer than conventional ways of paying) then don’t do it. Being sexy is not a requirement to be a challenger bank.

Start from the goal of zero IT ownership - exploit the cloud, SaaS and outsourcing. The established banks have very expensive and old IT systems which they need to maintain. This comes from the legacy where banks were amongst the first organisations to use IT and therefore had no option but to build up their own expertise. With the maturity of the both the IT and the outsourcing industries there is no reason for banks to own or manage their own IT. Given the problems established banks have had with their legacy systems over the last few years their competency as an IT provider has been seriously tested. Not only does putting IT out to third parties save overall money but it also allows the challenger banks to focus on what is important and that is the provision of banking to their customers.

For many banks using the cloud to provide banking services has been unthinkable. However Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), the former public sector bank, has its internet banking hosted by Amazon. (See http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2012/12/commonwealth-bank-of-australia-run-by.html) If a traditionally conservative bank has done that why wouldn’t challenger banks adopt that approach?

Metro Bank, one of the challenger banks in the UK, has bought the use of its core banking service on a per transaction basis (SaaS – Software as a Service). Its IT is outsourced. When the time it took to Metro Bank to launch its current account is compared with Tesco Bank (which is building its own platform based on a core banking package) then there is a clear argument for considering SaaS.

 Taking modern technology and commercial approaches should give challengers a great advantage; however it isn’t always turning out that way.  A number of challenger banks are being created by the acquisition of assets from existing players. They would argue that by having existing proven platforms that they can be up and running faster than starting from scratch. This is true in the short term but rather than being able to offer a truly differentiated service what they offer is a smaller but more expensive (due to the smaller scale and, in some cases, having to pay one of the big 5 banks to support the IT) version of the established banks. This is the situation that both TSB (the former Verde Lloyds Banking Group 630 branches) and William & Glyns (the 316 RBS branches) find themselves in.  (See http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2013/07/can-tsb-be-challenger-bank.html) In the longer term this is not a viable solution for a challenger bank.

Challenger banks who have acquired legacy IT, need a transformational CIO working alongside the bank’s executives, to put in place a plan to get off the legacy and onto modern platforms enabled for mobile and digital as quickly as possible. They also need to be experts in strategic supplier management. The challenger banks need to educate their investors that this is not optional.

Have an exclusive relationship with major investors and get them committed for the long haul. There are plenty of hedge, private equity and sovereign funds who are interested in investing in challenge banks, however a number of them have placed investments in more than one challenger bank in the same sector in the same country. What does that say about their commitment?

To build a sustainable challenger bank will take time particularly given the limited availability of off the shelf banking technology and the time it takes to implement a new business model. Equally getting a return on these investments is not going to be quick, so investors who aren’t in for the long haul should be politely shown the door.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of what a challenger bank should be looking at but highlights some of the areas where the difference can be between success and failure.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Commonwealth Bank of Australia run by Amazon?

 

No this isn't the latest bold move on the part of Amazon, acquiring one of Australia's so-called 'Four Pillars', but rather the extensive use of Amazon's cloud services by Commonwealth Bank.

Michael Harte, CIO of Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) has spent the last four years and around AUD$1bn (£650m, $1bn USD) moving to a cloud-based operating model transforming the infrastructure and the way applications are delivered at the bank. This has included a considerable investment in the use of cloud services particularly those provided by Amazon Web Services (AWS). By so doing he has managed to reduce the percentage of the IT budget spent on infrastructure from 75% to 26%.

An example of where this cost reduction comes from is that whilst it used to take eight weeks to stand up a new server and several thousand dollars it now takes, according to Harte, eight minutes and 25 cents to do the same in the cloud. There is also a hugely significant reduction in the amount of energy that the bank directly consumes. No wonder large amounts of cost can be taken out.

Amongst financial services organisations there is a lot of debate about the use of cloud and whether it is safe or appropriate to use. There are some CIOs, such as Barclays European CIO, Anthony Watson, who are skeptical of the hype around the cloud and see it as fundamentally nothing more than large server farms, and there are others who are still in the early stages of deciding what to do about it. CBA and NAB (National Australia Bank) with their approach to virtualising the IT function (see http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2012/10/do-banks-need-to-be-it-experts.html ) appear to be leading the way in implementing these technologies and  making the fundamental shifts to the IT operating model. However the use of Amazon Web Services by banks is not limited to those in the Southern Hemisphere, both Bank Inter in Spain and Italian bank Unicredito are using Amazon to host applications.

Customers may become concerned about the security of their personal data when they hear of  their banks moving onto the cloud, but Harte and other progressive CIOs are very clear about the fact that customer data will never be put into a public cloud. What this does mean is that the design of how applications and data are put into the cloud is absolutely critical, particularly as increasingly organisations implement cloud-based application such as the CRM solution, salesforce.com. Finding ways of exploiting the richness of functionality and the reduced costs of cloud solutions while leaving customer data firmly secured in the financial institutions private data centre is critical if the confidence and trust of the customer is not to be lost. This is particularly key for banks where the customer trust is at an all time low.

CBA has taken a measured approach to moving towards the cloud operating model starting with using it for development and testing, where no customer data is involved. Before Christmas 2012 CBA will migrate commbank.com.au, the internet banking platform onto Amazon's cloud and then it will be fair to say, with tongue lightly pressed into the cheek that Commonwealth Bank is being run by Amazon.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Are the regulators being realistic about Retail Banking?

Andy Haldane, the Executive Director for Financial Stability told a UK Parliamentary Commission on Banking that the UK banks should create a common technology platform for Retail Banking that would act as a public utility and spur further competition in the sector. This he said would make it easier for customers to swap banks and make it easier for both new banks and existing ones that are currently held back by "antiquated" technology.

The theory would be that all the customer bank accounts along with their numbers could be on a common system so that when a customer wanted to change their bank they wouldn't have to change their bank account number all they would need to do is have that account number point to a different bank. Instant switching with no hassle, no direct debits going missing, no standing orders not paid, no missing salary payments - what more could customers want?

The underlying premise behind Mr Haldane's proposal is that retail banking is an undifferentiated commodity  service and that therefore having an industry common platform makes sense since the only basis of competition is price. Whilst it could be argued that retail payments processing is an undifferentiated service e.g. the transmission of payments using the Faster Payments scheme is standard for all the banks, is that really true for all aspects of retail banking? Certainly Svenska Handelsbanken could successfully argue that the customer centric, branch-based banking service that they operate is very different from the Big 5 banks and is reflected in their success in winning customers from the other banks. The ability of their branch managers to make lending decisions without referral to head office is clearly a differentiator. Equally First Direct customers would argue that the service that they receive from their bank is quite different to that from other banks.

To counter this it could be argued that competing banks could still differentiate their service by overlaying a different customer experience over the top of a common utility platform which would hold all the customer accounts. However the fundamental question is how practical would it be to build a common utility platform?

As Mr Haldane argues the incumbant banks have 'antiquated' systems. This has been very publicly seen by the recent problems that RBS has had. It has also been stated as the reason that Santander walked away from the acquisition of the 316 branches that RBS is compelled to sell.  For a long time it has been obvious that the banks need to replace their core systems in order to keep up with the demands of customers for real time, mobile, digitally enabled experiences. Despite this none of the UK banks has embarked on a wholesale change of their core banking systems. Why? Because replacing the core banking systems is like a full heart, lungs and liver transplant where every vein and artery has to be individually unpicked.

Lloyds Banking Group spent just under £4bn to migrate HBOS onto the Lloyds TSB platform. This was the cost of bringing two banks together onto one of those 'antiquated' systems that Mr Haldane referred to. It has now spent a further £660m on simplifying the systems with more to come.

Commonwealth Bank of Australia has to date spent Au$4bn (£2.6bn) on replacing its core banking platform. That was one bank that is smaller and less complex than any of the UK Big 5.

Even if it was feasible to get the Big 5 banks to agree the specification for a common retail banking platform the cost including migration would be measured in tens of billions of pounds and would take a minimum of 5 years to implement.

The parallels with the NHS IT project where all the NHS records were to be on one system which could be instantly accessible whichever hospital or doctor wherever in the country a patient is are uncanny. The NHS IT programme cost over £6bn. Effectively nothing has been implemented and the programme is seen as an abject failure.

The British Bankers' Association (BBA) responded to Mr Haldane's suggestion by pointing out that the banks have committed up to £850m to produce a system that will make switching bank accounts far easier. This has been underway for some time. This will operate more like a mail redirection service. Clearly this is a far lower cost and far more practical approach than Mr Haldane's proposal.

What is concerning is that such impractical recommendations are coming from such a senior executive with the responsibility for ensuring financial stability. It raises the fundamental question of whether the regulator has taken sufficient time to understand the reality of the current state of retail banking.  This is particularly concerning since this is not a one off. The Bank of England governor-designate, Mark Carney, has, according to the FT,  said of Mr Haldane's views on simpler regulation as 'not supported by a proper understanding of the facts', this doesn't bode well for Mr Haldane's future at the Bank.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

RBS pays the price of underinvestment as systems fail



It was for good reason that Fred Goodwin, the former CEO of Royal Bank of Scotland, was nicknamed Fred the Shred. Slashing costs and running a lean bank was what he was famous for. However the retail bank was not just lean, it was positively anorexic. RBS was very proud of the way that the merger with Natwest was delivered on time and below budget. They were also very proud of the fact that they had the lowest cost:income ratio amongst Western banks. However it is not difficult, in the short term, to have a good efficiency ratio if you starve the business of investment. In the longer term this lack of investment will come back to bite the organisation.

The impact of the lack of investment is being realised at RBSG (which owns the RBS, Natwest and Ulster Bank brands) as the bank has had one of the worst customer visible, publicly embarassing technology problems a UK bank has had in recent times. Many customers have not been able to access their accounts online and balances have not been correct due to 'technical problems'. Branches have had to extend hours both at the beginning and the end of days and even, shockingly, opening on Sundays. It couldn't have happened at a worst time of the month as this is the time when many salaries are being paid in and bank balances are typically at their lowest.

RBS, Natwest and Ulster Bank share the same systems. This was a significant part of the business case for the merger of  RBS and Natwest. The merger was based on migrating the Natwest systems onto the RBS platform. One of the reasons that the merger was completed on time and below budget was because of the no arguing approach that regardless of whether the Natwest IT was better it would be migrated onto the RBS platforms. This reduced costs which could have resulted from extended debates between the two banks as to the virtue of the systems. This philosophy came about following the Lloyds Bank and TSB merger where, after lengthy debate and two years pursuing a strategy of migrating onto Lloyds Bank's platforms, the decision was reversed and the Lloyds' platforms were migrated onto the TSB ones, which were far more modern and flexible than Lloyds'. The RSB management were determined not to make the same mistakes as Lloyds TSB had made.

The consequences of RBS, Natwest and Ulster Bank all being on the same platform is that the technical problem has impacted all three banks, albeit Natwest has been hit the most. The extent of the impact is further evidence of the lack of investment in re-architecting what are very old systems to give them greater resilience.

The impact of the lack of investment in RBS systems has not only caused the very public problems for customer service but also major delays in the handing over of the branches that Santander has acquired from RBS as a consequence of the forceed sale that RBS was required to make following taking state aid to stop it going under. Where the transfer of the branches was meant to take place in 2011 it is now projected to be completed in 2013. Not only is RBSG going to incur signifcant additional project costs for the separation, but also the amount that Santander will eventually pay for the branches will be substantially reduced due to the fall in bank valuations in the meantime. Separating the set of branches from the mothership has proved to be far more difficult than expected due to the archaic nature of the systems. These systems, many of the designers of which retired some time ago, were designed in a monolithic fashion rather than in a modern, modular way, meaning that it is the equivalent of removing a part of a limb from a live body nerve by nerve, vein by vein.

RBS is not alone in facing the symptoms of having creaking, old, underinvested systems. Nab (National Australia Bank) and CBA (Commonwealth Bank of Australia) have had a number of very public systems failures over the last couple of years, see http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2011/04/deja-vu-as-nab-systems-down-once-again.html , however the difference is that both Nab and CBA have had major programmes underway for several years to replace their core ageing systems. Neither of these replacement programmes have gone smoothly, both are significantly late and over budget, but they will emerge with better systems, designed for the 21st Century and able to deliver a customer service designed with the digital age in mind.

The reality is that most of the major banks across the globe are facing the same problem of ageing systems and a reluctance to spend the money necessary to replace them. These are major programmes and for many CEOs will take longer than their tenure at the top of the bank, so there is little incentive for many CEOs to do anything about it.

Antonio Horta-Osorio, the Lloyds Banking Group CEO has recognised the challenge. On completing the merger of Lloyds TSB and HBoS he immediately kicked off a major simplification programme. He recognised that having all the brands on a single set of applications was only the first step towards making the bank ready for the 21st century. However simplification is not a core banking replacement programme, which is actually what is needed. It could make some difference. However it could simply be an exercise in rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Simplification is like putting a patient with chronic coronary heart disease on a better diet and exercise routine rather than giving them the heart transplant they require.

Horta-Osorio came to LBG from Santander where the importance of the core banking system is recognised as being key to delivering the bank's strategy. Santander has its Partenon platform that has been instrumental in enabling the success of many of Santander's takeovers of banks across the globe including Abbey National, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley.

Out of the public humiliation of RBS and the financial impacts of the delay in transferring the sold branches to Santander it is to be hoped that some good will come. Stephen Hester, the RBSG CEO should take this opportunity to take a long hard look at the investment that is needed to get RBS the banking systems that it needs to service its customers in the 21st century.

Friday, 14 October 2011

HSBC goes back to its roots

HSBC announced its return to its roots as a bank that supports international trade in the strategy announcement on May 11th. Stuart Gulliver, the new CEO and former investment banker, has firmly changed the emphasis back to becoming 'the leading international bank concentrating on Commercial and Wholesale banking in globally connected markets'.



Stuart Gulliver

Whilst the words may be modern, this is what the bank was first set up for in Hong Kong in 1865. Supporting international trade alongside the Taipan at Jardines. 'globally connected markets' are the twenty first century words for what is essentially trade routes, though expanded beyond commodities and goods to include money. So when you look at the US and Mexico or Germany and Turkey, as well as the large amount of trade flowing, you see large quantities of money flowing across borders sent by entrepreneurial immigrants back to their families, the strategic value of being in these geographies makes abundant sense.

'Becoming the world's leading international private bank' is also a return to the original roots. Support the international trading companies and support their owners - again what the original HSBC was set up to do for the taipans living on The Peak. In addition with the focus on Wealth Management HSBC is ensuring that as the entrepreneurs acquire their wealth there is a route to climb up to the exclusivity of the Private Bank.

The real change of focus is on 'limiting retail banking to those markets where we can achieve profitable scale', but who can argue with the cold logic of that? What it does mean is that questions are undoubtedly being asked as to whether the use of the strapline that has been so successful and has won so many awards, 'The World's local bank',  will still be valid, unless of course your definition of 'the world' is restricted to the number of focus countries, considerably less than the 80+ countries that HSBC currently operates in.
With the announcement of the sale of its Hungarian retail banking operations to Cofidis Magyarorszagi Fioktelepe, the sale to Itau (the Brazilian bank) of its Chilean retail operation and discussions underway for the sale of its small (11 branch) South Korean retail bank, the strategy of withdrawal is in full execution.

However it is not all about withdrawal. In Australia HSBC has opened its 31st retail branch as it builds its presence there. Whilst there is an increasingly large and affluent Asian population which HSBC will be attractive to it is difficult to understand how this fits in with HSBC's strategy to focus on markets where it can grow a significant presence given the dominance of the 'Four Pillars' - Nab, CBA, ANZ and Westpac in Australia. 

HSBC has clearly made some diversions from its original path along the 146 years that it has been running, not least of all the move into the subprime market with the acquisition of Household in the US (the remains of which is now subject to review and may results in the selling of all or part of the cards and retail banking businesses), but it is to be welcomed the statement of intent to move to a 21st century version of what it was originally set up for.