Too little too late? Banks play catch up with consumer apps

REUTERS / Adnan Abidi/Files

LONDON (Reuters) – British retail banks are poised to introduce money management apps to compete with those already launched by financial technology start-ups, betting their trusted brands, broad client base and deep pockets will help them make up lost ground.

HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group and the Royal Bank of Scotland are at various stages of producing cutting-edge apps that will allow customers to pull data from different accounts, even those at rival lenders, on their mobile devices and home computers.

They are playing a serious game of catch-up. Numerous fintech firms and digital banks like Monzo and Money Dashboard already offer the kinds of apps the banks are building, winning fans among the young and tech-savvy.

The user base for Monzo’s app, which analyses and categorises spending habits, sends budgeting nudges and allows users to freeze and unfreeze cards at the click of a button, soared by 300 percent to 450,000 in nine months last year.

After years spent rebuilding balance sheets and managing regulatory change after the 2008 financial crisis, technology is now at the top of the banks’ agenda, said Edward Firth, managing director for UK banks at brokerage Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

“This is all they’re talking about,” he said.

The drive has been turbo-charged by new “open banking” regulations requiring Britain’s nine biggest banks to share data so that customers can access their financial information across providers in an aggregated format and make it easier to compare services as well as change banks.

The rules were supposed to be implemented on Jan. 13 but six of the banks, including Barclays and HSBC, have asked for more time to ensure the data is secure.

The changes will now start for the majority of customers in March, although some banks have been allowed to delay until next year for certain segments of their customer bases.

Jeremy Light, managing director of Accenture Payment Services for Europe, Africa and Latin America, said the changes will spark a competitive technology race in which aggregator apps will be the “bare minimum”.

“You will have to have them, because if you don’t you’re out of the game,” Light said. “It’s really all of the other services that you then start offering.”

Monzo, Starling Bank and Revolut have already opened a “marketplace” within their apps where users can shop around for and sign up to other products and services from fintech firms, banks or even energy and insurance companies.

HSBC is the only major lender to show an interest in this kind of service so far, teaming up with fintech firm Bud to trial a money management and marketplace app with users on its First Direct brand.

Money, brand and loyalty clients

Big banks have the advantages of scale, name recognition and funding power, Accenture’s Light said.

Lloyds, which had 13.5 million users of its online and mobile offerings in 2017, plans to unveil a new app with “full open banking capability”, Chief Executive Antonio Horta-Osorio said at the bank’s annual results announcement on Feb. 21.

He did not give a date for the launch, but a source familiar with the matter had previously told Reuters it was expected sometime this year.

Horta-Osorio also unveiled a 3 billion pound investment programme focused mainly on digitisation and staff over three years.

HSBC’s app, dubbed HSBC Beta in the pilot stage, aggregates data from users’ current accounts, loans and savings, calculating their disposable income each month and sending nudges like Monzo’s app.

The app will launch to existing clients “imminently”, said Raman Bhatia, head of digital at the lender for the UK and Europe, and will eventually be available to other banks’ customers too.

HSBC has earmarked $2 billion for investments in and 3,000 people working on digital technology globally, with Britain taking a large share of the funding and around a third of the workforce, he said.

Tom Moore, a 30-year-old graphic designer, is taking part in a trial of the HSBC app and told Reuters via Facebook that although there are some features he would like to change, he would trust such products from HSBC above others.

“The benefit of this being done by HSBC, rather than some mysterious company nobody has ever heard of, is definitely in their (the bank’s) favor,” he said.

RBS will launch its account aggregator app some time in 2018 but tests with customers have already started, Jane Howard, managing director of personal banking at RBS, told Reuters.

Barclays said it was too soon to talk about its plans.

Light said smaller firms tended to be able to deliver slick technology faster and more effectively than big rivals who have to contend with vast user bases and complex legacy technology.

Nikolay Storonsky, founder & CEO at Revolut, which claims more than one million customers across Europe, says he isn’t worried, “no matter how much funding the big banks have”.

“They may copy some of our savings products 12 months after we’ve launched them, but by that time we have three or four other features in this area and we’re moving onto the next big thing,” he said in an email.

“To keep younger customers excited and loyal, they will need to focus on reducing red tape, attracting top developers and begin innovating, not copying.”

Click here for the graphic – The Rise of Digital Banks

(By Emma Rumney; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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