Fintech might be hot right now, but banks are still winning

PayPal is far more dominant in online payments in the US than Australia where traditional players have defended the market. Geoff Livingston/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The term “fintech” – the marriage of financial services with technology companies – has only recently come into vogue in Australia, with venture capital starting to flow into the sector.

It was only around October 2014 that the term fintech started to appear in Australia’s mainstream media – rather late given it was just two months later peer-to-peer lending platform LendingClub listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

LendingClub reached a valuation of US$8.5 billion in the closing days of 2014, making it the 15th largest US lending institution by market capitalisation at the time, the company’s estimated.

Taken at face value, it would seem Australia has simply been late to the fintech party. But that is not really the case.

There are four roles that financial services companies perform in any economy: they facilitate payments; create credit; manage wealth through investment platforms; and assist with risk mitigation through either insurance or facilitating price discovery in the traded financial markets.

Outside of Australia – in the US particularly – startup fintech companies have launched a relentless assault on all of these functions. In every case, they have succeeded by offering customers a cheaper, simpler product, more suited to exactly the type of transaction customers were looking to undertake. This is the classic model of business disruption.

To be clear, fintech companies are not just online banking platforms. Their products are unique. First, many platforms directly match buyer and seller, taking out the finance middleman and large balance sheets. Second, most innovate new ways to use personal information for product creation and sales – such as mining social media sites to support customer identification and credit scores.

Finally, fintech platforms often cross-sell other, non-financial products to their customers, accruing value to the platform rather than to the product itself. This is an inversion of the traditional financial services model that asks customers to pay for products, and uses product revenue to subsidise its “free” distribution platform of branches, offices, salespeople and online transaction platforms.

Australian banks have held back the tide

Fintech companies have sprouted like mushrooms across the payments, credit, investment and markets space outside of Australia. Why are the first green shoots in Australia only starting to appear now? Three reasons spring to mind. One is that Australian financial services firms have been innovating from within, reducing the incentive for their customers to go in search of cheaper, more convenient options. Second is that traditional financial institutions have used their market power to maintain market share. Finally, Australia’s regulatory settings have been too restrictive, making it difficult for young startups to enter the market. This last point was particularly noted in the Murray Financial Services Inquiry, which recommended a more finely attuned regulatory structure to promote greater competition in the financial services sector.

Perhaps the most noteworthy absence of fintech startups in Australia is within the payments system space. This stands in contrast with countries like the US, where PayPal’s dominance in online payments is unquestioned. Customers choose PayPal in the US because its banks never created a unified national online payments system and were too late to realise customers would rather transact online than write out and mail cheques. But PayPal is not alone. Google has launched Google Wallet, Facebook and WeChat in China have announced debit cards for online “sharing money”, and AliPay in 2014 announced it had facilitated nearly US$150 billion in mobile transactions.

Not all of these startups have entered Australia, and the reason may be that Australia already has one of the most advanced online and cashless payments systems in the world. The system – which most Australians will know as Eftpos (electronic funds transfer at point of sale), PayAnyone (online account-to-account transfers) and its compatriot BPay (online bill payments system) – are innovations created by a consortium of Australia’s major banks around the same time as PayPal’s founding in the US. Australian banks have remained competitive in this part of financial services.

Google has said it has no plans to launch its Wallet service in Australia. Sergio Uceda/Flickr, CC BY

Where the gaps are

The gap in the payments space is in international money transfers, where anti-money laundering regulations and compliance reporting are so onerous that the major Australian banks have closed their doors to remittance businesses. In their absence, we see firms such as CoinJar utilising digital currencies like bitcoin to transmit across borders. CurrencySpot offers a more traditional foreign exchange service, but also anti-money laundering compliance reporting on foreign exchange transactions.

Competition is even hotter in credit markets. On what seems like an almost daily basis, another peer-to-peer (P2P) lender announces it is entering the Australian market. Local player SocietyOne has in the last 12 months been joined by RateSetter (UK), OnDeck (US) and Kiva (US), among others.

But the P2P lending industry in Australia is still niche, emerging only in the spaces where the large Australian banks have voluntarily withdrawn: consumer lending and small business lending. The chart below highlights the extent to which banks have preferred to grow their loan books through mortgage lending – almost certainly driven, at least in part, by the preferential risk weighting on capital assigned to mortgage lending under the Basel III framework.

Lending and credit aggregates in Australia

RBA/Author

In contrast, this chart below highlights the rather slow growth of business lending. Moreover, since the global financial crisis, new business credit has increasingly gone into loans of a size in excess of A$500,000 - a loan amount much more suggestive of a large corporate than a small or medium-sized business. In aggregate, the data suggests that credit from the banking system has not been flowing to either consumers (outside of housing) or the smaller end of the business market.

Australia’s business credit flow by loan size

RBA/Author

The space left by banks is where P2P lenders are entering the market. SocietyOne (Australia) and RateSetter (UK) are operating in the consumer lending space, while OnDeck (US) and ThinDeck (UK) specialise in small business loans. MoneyPlace (Australia) handles both consumer and small business lending.

A key advantage of P2P lenders – aside from their generally lower cost of capital and ability to use unstructured sources of data – is that they are able to vary the interest rate offered to individual borrowers in a way that is unrealistic for a large bank. While now a relatively small share of overall credit growth in the Australian economy, there is no question that the ability of the financial system to meet the credit needs of smaller borrowers – especially SMEs – is critical for economic growth. The experience in the US has suggested that, over time, established banks can work with the P2P community, using P2P platforms to identify new customers and benefit from a superior online customer experience.

Similar trends are being seen in the financial investment market with “robo-advice” - investment advice that is online and automated by the use of algorithms to produce an individual’s optimal portfolio allocation. Other investment start-ups include names like Macrovue, which helps unsophisticated retail investors to diversify their portfolios and easily track returns.

The number of robo-advice providers in the Australian market is still relatively small, but suits the estimated 80% of Australian superannuation fund holders who do not seek professional financial advice. The future here may also be one of accommodation, where financial advisers look to take advantage of tools made available by robo-advice to find a less expensive way to service their customers.

Either way, it’s a competitive gain for consumers, and a productivity boost for the Australian economy.