Showing posts with label RBS. Show all posts
Showing posts with label RBS. Show all posts

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Can Yorkshire Bank and Clydesdale Bank become challengers?

The latest results from TSB have demonstrated that it is possible for a bank spawned from a global retail bank to be a challenger in the market. With National Australia keen to get rid of its northern hemisphere business, Nab UK consisting of the Clydesdale and Yorkshire brands, could this business be the base upon which a challenger bank is built?

A history of innovation

There have been several attempts to make Clydesdale/Yorkshire challenger brands particularly under the leadership of former Woolwich Building Society executives John Stewart and Lynne Peacock. After all they were the first people to introduce the concept of speed dating for SME customers whereby customers could meet other customers in the bank’s business centres with a view to starting a new business to business relationship.

Before that in the first internet boom it was Clydesdale Bank that launched Kiboodle a b2b portal for customers to buy and sell products using an online catalogue.

Lynne Peacock also tried to invigorate the bank and take on the Big 4 banks in the SME sector by opening up new banking centres particularly in London and the South East. That may be where there is the most money but it is also where there is the most banking competition. Looser lending criteria in order to build market share has been a major contributor to the current problems that Nab’s UK business has with major writedowns on loans made at that time.

What would it take to become a challenger?

So if National Australia has failed to make its UK operations a significant challenger to the now Big 5 banks (HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group, RBS, Santander) what would it take to change that?

What Yorkshire Bank and Clydesdale Bank require to become significant challengers to the major banks would be significant investments in digital and core banking to deliver both the sort of customer experience offer the propositions that will attract customers of the Big 5 Banks to switch to them. The banks need to become significantly more efficient and that can only be brought about by investing heavily in automation.

Clydesdale Group is expected to be floated, or preferably sold, in either in 2015 or 2016. What will any purchaser of equity or the business actually be getting?

What do Yorkshire Bank and Clydesdale Bank bring?

Yorkshire Bank and Clydesdale Bank are very strong brands with a high level of customer loyalty. According to Yorkshiremen Yorkshire is God’s country and anything from Yorkshire is better than from anywhere else. That loyalty by Yorkshiremen to the bank extends way beyond Yorkshire. Maximising the value of that brand and the pride in Yorkshire could be key to future success.

The Clydesdale brand is equally strong in Scotland and particularly after the nationalisation of both RBS and Halifax Bank of Scotland (through being acquired by Lloyds Banking Group). Should another referendum on the independence of Scotland result in a ‘Yes’ vote then Clydesdale Bank could become the only bank headquartered in Scotland which could attract a lot more Scottish customers post independence.

Between them Clydesdale and Yorkshire operate 298 retail branches, 42 business and private banking centres mainly in Scotland and the north of England as well as having online operations.  That is comparable to the 316 branches that the still to be launched Williams and Glyn Bank (to be spun out of RBS) will have.

Clydesdale bank is the official issuer of Scottish banknotes and 50% of the currency in circulation in Scotland has been issued by the bank and has the brand on them. No other bank in the UK has their customers reminded of them every time they spend money. Clydesdale is also the first bank in the UK to issue plastic bank notes.

With loan balances in excess of £27bn, deposit balances of £23bn the two banks are comparable  in size and efficiency with Virgin Money.

Who might be interested in acquiring Yorkshire and Clydesdale?

Prior to the offer to buy TSB by Sabadell it had been rumoured that TSB might have been interested in acquiring the business. However one of the stumbling blocks was that there was a significant overlap in branches in Scotland and that would significantly reduce the value to TSB of the businesses.

Theoretically bringing Nationwide Building Society and Yorkshire and Clydesdale banks together should be an ideal arrangement.  It would significantly boost Nationwide’s presence in the north and Scotland. In return Yorkshire and Clydesdale could replace their legacy systems with Nationwide’s new, state of the art, SAP core banking system and significant investments in digital. Nationwide has significant experience of integrating businesses (Anglia Building Society and the Portman Building Society among others) and driving down the Yorkshire and Clydesdale’s efficiency ratio from an eye-watering 70% to much closer to Nationwide’s own 50%. However one of the downsides of being a mutual is that it is far more difficult to raise capital and therefore as sweet as this deal might be it is unlikely to be feasible.

A merger of Nab UK and Virgin Money would not make sense given the significant overlap of their branch locations even though the combination would build a challenger with sufficient critical mass of customers and assets to start impacting the Big 5 banks. Neither Virgin Money nor Nab UK have a suitable banking platform to build a challenger bank on so there  would need to be a very significant investment required to get the efficiencies and customer experience to the level required to challenge the big banks. Virgin Money has a similar cost:income ratio to Yorkshire and Clydesdale. The level of investment required and the payback period are likely to put off the existing investors in Virgin Money.

An argument could be made for Santander to acquire the business as it would significantly boost their presence in Scotland and the North and it has the technology platform in Partenon that it could migrate Nab UK onto, having already done this for Abbey National, Bradford & Bingley and Alliance & Leicester. However Santander likes to be a distress purchaser and never likes to pay over the odds. In addition two of the core assets of Nab UK the Yorkshire and Clydesdale brands would not be of value to Santander and the subsequent re-branding to Santander could lead to a significant loss of customers loyal to the Yorkshire and Clydesdale brands. All of this makes it unlikely that Santander will want to acquire the business at a price that Nab is prepared to accept.

A question then would be whether a foreign investor could be interested in acquiring the businesses off Nab. Given that Abbey was acquired by Santander, TSB will most likely be acquired by Sabadell then the large global Spanish bank BBVA could be a contender. With its focus on being both a bank and a software business and its recent acquisition of Simple, the US digital bank, then it would be surprising if they didn’t consider this as their opportunity to get into the UK retail banking market.

These are all questions that the incoming CEO for the Nab UK business, former AIB CEO David Duffy, will have to address as he prepares the business for IPO and potential disposal.

 

 

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Why TSB/Sabadell is no Abbey National/Santander



When news of the Sabadell, the Catalan bank, bid for TSB broke it was inevitable that parallels with the 2004 acquisition of Abbey National by Santander would be drawn. After all both banks are Spanish, have global footprints despite having started out as regional banks and are run by family dynasties.

However the two situations and players are quite different.

Sabadell is no Santander

Abbey National having made the transition from building society (savings & loans/community bank) to listed bank, at the time of the acquisition was struggling to decide what its role in the banking market was to be. With its launch of co-branded branches/coffee shops with Costa Coffee and its partnership with Safeway, the supermarket, it was not clear to its customers what it was. Santander came along to change all that.

Through its close relationship with RBS, including non-executive director roles, Santander had been observing the UK retail banking market for some time and understood the opportunities that were there.

Banking platform was key to Santander business case

The case that Santander made for Abbey National was that as leading global retail bank with a strong track record in successfully managing integrations and a world class technology platform that had been at the core of all their acquisitions, Santander could significantly reduce the costs of running Abbey National by replacing Abbey’s multiple banking systems with Santander’s Partenon banking platform, implementing Santander’s  best practice retail banking processes and Santander’s formidable disciplined approach to cost management.

It is interesting to note that despite Santander's assertion that the Partenon platform would be able to work for the UK market it took far longer and was more expensive to implement than originally envisaged.
Santander is quite unique in that as part of its journey from a small regional bank to one of the world’s largest banks IT has been at the heart of everything that they do and they even have their own IT company, Produban. Santander has set out not only to be a world class bank but also a world class IT company.

The situations for both TSB and Sabadell are quite different from that of Abbey and Santander.

TSB is no Abbey National

TSB has a very clear idea of the role that it wants to play in the UK retail banking market. It has strong leadership. As a result of the EU forced separation from its majority shareholder, Lloyds Banking Group, TSB is sitting with an infrastructure and balance sheet too big for the customer base and products that it currently serves. It is also using a legacy set of IT systems that Lloyds Banking Group runs for it. TSB has two main requirements that it needs to fulfil. Firstly it needs a significant increase in its customer base particularly in terms of lending to be able to make a profit. Secondly it needs a modern, agile IT platform that will both be able to deliver the fantastic customer experience that is so core to its strategy and at a significantly reduced cost than it is charged by Lloyds Banking Group today.

Sabadell due to its lack of a presence in the UK market will not directly bring the increase in the customer base or the additional lending, that a UK merger could bring TSB. Sabadell does not have its own IT company neither does it have a track record of building a modern banking system to manage businesses in multiple countries.

Digital excellence

What it does bring is excellence in the application of digital. Under the leadership of Pol Navarro, Head of Digital Transformation at Sabadell the bank has been a pioneer in digital banking and has demonstrated how banks can embrace digital. This is certainly something that TSB would want to exploit.

In addition Sabadell would bring to TSB deep experience in business banking something that inevitably TSB will need to offer to both meet it customer needs but also its shareholders’ profitability requirements.

£450m IT sweetener

Should Sabadell complete on the acquisition of TSB then Lloyds Banking Group will pay it £450m to assist it in getting TSB off the legacy Lloyds platforms. Should Sabadell get this then it should use this as a significant down payment to replace its group wide banking platforms, starting with the UK with a new platform architected for the digital age - agile enough to be able to quickly adapt to the inevitable and continuous changes in the financial services industry.

A Sabadell/TSB tie up would be good for Lloyds Banking Group (and UK tax payers since they are still shareholders), however the case for the deal going ahead is nowhere as easy to make as it was for the acquisition of Abbey National.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Why 2015 won't be the year of the challenger bank


When politicians and consumer finance champions talk about challenger banks they are looking for new players to eat into the 77% of the current account market and the 85% of the small business banking market that the Big 5 (Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC, RBS and Santander) currently have.

The figures from the Financial Conduct Authority for potential new banks could give the impression that 2015 could be the year that finally the Big 5 sees their market share being significantly reduced:

6 banking licences issued
4 banks proceeding through the application process
26 new banks being discussed

In addition there are already the likes of Nationwide, Co-op, TSB, Yorkshire Bank, Clydesdale Bank, Metro Bank, One Savings Bank, Handelsbanken, Aldermore, M&S Bank, Tesco Bank, Virgin Money and Shawbrook operating in the UK.

However on closer scrutiny the picture isn't quite as rosy and is unlikely to cause any executive from the Big 5 banks to lose any sleep.

The existing “challengers” broadly fall into one of four camps.

Camp 1: Existing established Players:

Nationwide

Co-op

Yorkshire Bank

Clydesdale Bank

Post Office (Bank of Ireland)

The established players have been operating current accounts in the UK market for many years, Nationwide being the newest of these to this specific market. Despite having been in the market for some time these established players’ impact on the market share of the Big 5 has been minimal. Nationwide is the most proactive in trying to acquire new customers within this group as is reflected by their being one of the biggest beneficiaries since the introduction of 7 Day Switching. Their market share is small but growing and its offering is something that clearly appeals to customers who do not like the Big 5 banks.

Camp 2: Banks created from former banks:

One Savings Bank (Kent Reliance Building Society)

TSB (Lloyds Banking Group)

Virgin Money (Northern Rock)

Williams & Glyn (RBS) – still to be launched

These are all banks that have (or will) relaunch themselves and have existing customers, branches and IT infrastructure. What this means is that in terms of offering a true alternative to the Big 5 banks they are limited by the legacy technology and cost bases they have inherited when they were set up. In the case of TSB and Williams & Glyn both of these were compulsory disposals by their parent banks following the 2008 financial crisis, however both of them have significant shareholdings by Lloyds Bank Group (TSB) and RBS (Williams & Glyn) so whether they can really be seen as challengers when they are still owned by one of the Big 5 is questionable.

One Savings Bank does not offer a current account and is focused on the specialty lending sector. Virgin Money does not currently market a current account.

Camp 3: Banks owned by larger organisations

Handelsbanken

Tesco Bank

M&S Bank

These three are each quite different.

Handelsbanken which has more than 175 branches in the UK has its parent company in Sweden. It is primarily focused on SME banking but does offer a personal current account. It is building a presence and has very high customer satisfaction but is still sufficiently subscale to not be a threat to the market share of the Big 5. However it is picking off customers that the Big 5 banks would rather not lose.

Tesco Bank has only relatively recently launched its current account so it is difficult to judge how successful it will be. With the size of the Tesco customer base and the insight it has into its customers from the Clubcard it has the potential to be a serious challenger however achieving sufficient scale will be beyond 2015. There is also a possibility with the woes of Tesco that the bank could be a candidate for disposal which could change significantly Tesco Bank’s market position.

M&S Bank while it does offer current accounts cannot be seen as a challenger as it is owned by HSBC, one of the Big 5 Banks. 

Camp 4: Greenfield challenger banks

Metro Bank

Aldermore

Shawcross

Atom Bank

Charter Savings Bank

Hampden & Co

These (and there are more) are the genuine upstarts the ones that are doing or planning to do something different in the market. The last three are still to launch. They are all primarily Private Equity funded.

Of those listed on Metro Bank offers a personal current account and Atom has a stated intention to offer one.

What each of these Greenfield challengers does not offer is scale and will certainly not bother the Big 5 banks in 2015.

Big 5 bank executives can sleep easy in 2015
When an examination is made across the four Camps as described above the inevitable conclusion is that while there may be some headlines and excitement about the number of potential challengers in and coming into the UK banking market there can be no doubt that in 2015 there will be very little dent in the current account market share of the Big 5 banks.

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.

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, 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.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

The challenges facing the next RBS CIO

With the news that Mike Errington, CIO of RBSG, is retiring the bank will be looking for a replacement. The new CIO will have an overflowing inbox, so for those considering taking on the role what are some of the challenges that he or she will have to face?

The immediate on-going work is to ensure the stability of the existing systems. Having had a number of serious, customer-impacting outages over the last few years (including a problem with Ulster Bank ATMs on the day this was written), the work of applying patches to and building resilience into both hardware and software needs to continue. RBS is not the only bank that in earlier times avoided doing maintenance as a way of saving costs and subsequently is feeling the impact of doing that in terms of reliability of systems.

The second tactical exercise is the simplification of the IT infrastructure. However this is far easier said than done as the IT systems have evolved over many decades, creating great complexity and the number of people who understand the older systems and how they interrelate is rapidly declining both as the result of retirement and cost cutting within the bank. Simplification is about retiring and rationalising systems and infrastructure. Given the complexity that exists this is alike disarming a booby-trapped Second World War bomb requiring both high levels of skills and nerves of steel.

Both of these steps are akin to re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, given the ages of the systems. There is no doubt that there has been significant underinvestment in IT since way before the RBS/Natwest integration. Whoever is the new CIO they should use the opportunity of as part of their taking the role to negotiate a commitment to a wholesale replacement of the core retail banking system as the likes of CBA (Commonwealth Bank of Australia), Nationwide Building Society and Deutsche Bank have carried out. However this would involve spending measured in the low to mid billions of pounds and a programme taking 3-5 years to execute. This is where making such an essential change becomes particularly difficult specifically for RBS as RBS is not just any bank, it is a state-owned bank. Such is the political pressure to see the bank returned profitably to the private sector and within the first couple of years of the next government i.e. almost certainly by the end of 2018, that it is highly unlikely that the funding for such a major investment programme will get approval from the key shareholder. However that is what both the CIO and the CEO should be looking for if RBS is to once again become a truly competitive UK bank.

There are however other major transformation programmes that the new CIO will have to pick up, drive and deliver.

Having negotiated an extension of the deadline to the end of 2016 for the disposal of the 308 branches that RBS was forced by the EU to sell as a result of receiving state aid, creating a separate clone of the RBS systems for the new Williams & Glyn’s bank to run on is another top priority for the new CIO. This is not dissimilar to the exercise that Lloyds Banking Group had to perform to create the platform for TSB to run on. However the Lloyds Banking Group platforms were in a far better state than the RBS systems benefitting from coming on the back of creating a single set of systems for the Lloyds TSB/HBoS merger. Even having that advantage for Lloyds Banking Group creating the separate TSB platform was not simple or easy with the eventual cost being in the order of £2bn. Delivering the William and Glyn’s separation to the 2016 deadline will be a major achievement.

This is not the only separation programme that the CIO will have to oversee. The IPO of the Citizens business in the US in Q4 2014 and the complete disposal by the end of 2016 will also need to be executed. This will entail the disengaging of Citizens from the Group systems.

In addition there is the question of what to do with Ulster Bank. The preferred option is to dispose of it by selling it to one of the challenger Irish banks e.g. Permanent TSB, Danske Bank. If that is to go ahead then the new CIO will have to look at the separation of Ulster Bank from the Group systems and supporting the clone until it is integrated into the buyers' systems.

One of the core strategies of RBSG is to scale back the investment bank, reducing costs to be aligned with the smaller bank and to return the bank to be more focused on the UK and supporting UK businesses. This will inevitably require changes to the investment banking platforms as businesses are closed or sold off. To achieve the reduction in costs and the required flexibility as volume drops will almost inevitably mean looking at further outsourcing of platforms and operations to third parties.

On top of the RBSG specific initiatives the new CIO will also face the plethora of transformation programmes and projects that will need to be implemented as a result of regulatory changes. One of the core ones will be the implementation of ring-fencing once that is fully defined. This will mean a significant change in the governance of RBSG and there is a question as to whether the role of Group CIO can persist under the new rules, requiring in a significant restructuring of Group Operations.

All of this will need to be delivered whilst digital, mobile and the use of data analytics for both competitive advantage and risk management continue to move at pace in an increasingly competitive banking market.

The new RBS CIO will need to face up to this hugely challenging environment all within the constraints of  a bank operating very much in the public spotlight, with the need to rebuild trust and the financial constraints imposed by  having the government as the largest shareholder. Only the bravest should apply.

 

 

 

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.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Back to the future - a return to supermarket banking or the end of banking for all?

The report on the BBC News website that Barclays is looking at potentially closing 400, or a quarter, of its UK branches which was subsequentally retracted and replaced with a statement that Barclays is 'considering closing branches to reflect the that more customers are now accessing financial services online and via mobile devices',  reflects the sensitivity the big 5 banks have to announcing branch closures and comes on the back of a statement in November 2013 that in August 2014 it is to open four branches within Asda (the UK arm of the US supermarket behemoth Walmart), closing the standalone branches in the same towns. The model of putting bank branches into supermarkets brings back memories of the wave of supermarket banking experiments that took hold in the UK at the end of the last century with the launch of Sainsbury’s Bank (backed by Bank of Scotland), Tesco Personal Financial Services (backed by Royal Bank of Scotland) and Safeway Banking (backed by Abbey National). At that time the supermarkets were seen as a serious challenger to the established banks (despite being backed by them) and the world of banking was going to fundamentally change. It was also the time of the tie-up of Abbey National with Costa Coffee to create new and destination branches – very much building on the revolutionary Occasio branches that WaMu (Washington Mutual) launched in the US.
 
So what happened to all these new visions of banking? Abbey National was taken over by Santander who quickly took the axe to the partnership with Costa, Safeway was acquired byMorrisons who closed down the financial services arm and the remains of Washington Mutual following the financial crash of 2008 were acquired by JP Morgan Chase who effectively bulldozed the Occasio branches returning to a far more business like branch format.
 
Tesco Bank (as it became) with its 6.5m customers continues to make significant investments into becoming a full service retail bank. Sainsbury’s Bank bought out the Lloyds Banking Group share (that Lloyds inherited when it took on HBoSfollowing the financial crisis) in May 2013, however it made it clear that it has no intention of becoming a full service bank and is not planning to offer mortgages or current accounts.Sainsbury’s appear to have no intention of turning its supermarkets into bank branches.
 
In the meantime Marks & Spencer launched in late 2012 M&S Bank operated by HSBC offering a fee-paying current account. With Marks & Spencer continuing to struggle with their fashion lines the retailer is increasingly being measured principally as a supermarket. The jury is still out on how successful M&S Bank but there are no indications that it has been a runaway success.
So why is Barclays trying to re-visit the supermarket banking model? The reality is that it has very little to do with wanting to be in supermarket banking and much more to do with finding a way to reduce their costs by closing their branches. Barclays will benefit from the ability to sell or end the lease on the branches and will have significantly lower costs fromhaving an in store branch than a standalone one. It is also true that this move should make it easier for customers to visit their branches. As high streets increasingly become parking unfriendly through the use of parking restrictions combined with prohibitive parking costs where parking exists bank branches are becoming harder to just pop into or even to access (Metro Bank with their drive through branch opened in the mecca that is Slough would beg to differ). Typically supermarkets have large amounts of parking which will make it easier for customers to visit their banks if they are within a supermarket. It is not only the difficulty of parking that is reducing the number of visits by retail customers to banks. The increasing comfort and acceptance by consumers of all ages of carrying out activities online and the increased penetration of smart phones and tablets means that there are increasingly few reasons for customers to visit branches – cash withdrawals, making payments, getting foreign currency, paying in money into accounts no longer require a physical visit to a manned branch. Increasingly it is only at those key life moments such as buying a house, getting married, getting a loan, opening a bank account that a visit to a bank branch is necessary and some of that is driven not by the desire to talk to someone or to get advice but by the continued legal requirement to provide a physical signature on documents.
 
For those important financial transactions such as arranging a mortgage or a loan it is highly questionable how conducive a branch within a supermarket will be to have a meaningful discussionExchanging confidential information over the sound of the tills ringing and the promotional announcements over the loudspeakers is not what customers are looking for. Neither is taking out a mortgage or a loan one of those spontaneous purchases that supermarkets rely on to increase basket size. As a mother pushes her trolley around with her two screaming toddlers in tow she is unlikely to suddenly decide that she would like to talk to her banker about a loan.
 
However Barclays might have liked to position the opening of branches within ASDA supermarkets as for the convenience of their customers, with the review of their branch network (and the denied closing of 400 branches) with no confirmation that all closed branches will re-open in Asda stores, Barclays are making a statement of intent about the role of branches going forward.



Had the report of the potential for 400 branches being closed stood, Barclays would have been credited with the courage to be the first of major high street banks to make its intentions clear. This would have made it easier for the remainder of the big five banks to annouce their own closure plans. The other banks have hinted at their desire to close branches but none have been bold enough to say how many. They will eventually have to do this because it is an undisputable fact that less and less customers visit their branches. Many of those that visit their branches only do so because there are not currently convenient alternative ways to carry out transactions such as paying in cheques. However with the increasing penetration of smartphones with cameras built in even paying in cheques may soon no longer require a visit to a branch.



The future of branch  base banking is at a cross roads where the big five banks must decide whether they wish to continue to support customers who want to use branches or whether they should encourage those customers to move to banks that see branch banking as fundamental to what they do such as Metro Bank, Handelsbanken, Umpqua Bank (in the US) and Bendigo Bank (in Australia). It maybe that the end of the universal bank serving all segments of customers is in sight.