Why the US Consumer Loses with Loose Change

The antiquated US Financial regulatory framework continues to undermine technical innovation and hold consumers back from making the most of their money. And most of them don’t even realize it.  

As far back as the late 90s, the US Regulatory frameworks for banking services in technology have yielded to the pressure of lobbyists and incumbents rather than evolving to meet changing industry dynamics, customer opportunities and increasingly global marginalization in tech innovation. While the OCC FinTech Charter is a starting point, legislators and regulators should be aggressively pushing for initiatives to enable competitive technical stacks.  

Capitalism by Any Other Name

In the 1900s, companies like BMW, GE, GM, VW, Target, Goldman Sachs and Toyota were granted a creative means of undertaking banking activities by creating an Industrial Loan Corp License in select states. In some instances, the banking activities of these companies were more valuable than the bankrupt core business, as was the case with Conseco. However, there have been no hearings or approved ILCs that would receive FDIC insurance in almost a decade.

Walmart and Home Depot are still in a holding pattern, yet Target and GM were approved— begging the question of why and what’s the criteria for consideration? In fact, the Independent Community Bankers of America has stressed that Congress should close the ILC loophole, stating it not only threatens the financial system but creates an uneven playing field for community banks, allowing them to play on their relationships to essentially pillage customers.

And, to add insult to injury, over the past two decades, the collective assets of these ILCs have increased by more than 5,000% and some of them are now among the largest financial institutions in the country.  

Finding a Loophole

We’re watching as fintech Titans, Affirm and SoFi, are applying for Industrial Loan Licenses, whereas other fintech companies, TransferWise and Coinbase, have created “clever” workarounds by partnering with innovative community banks like Cross RiverBank of New Jersey. PayPal, the largest and oldest fintech company with over $13BN in customers’ loose change has been plagued by the FDIC question since its earliest days. Now, as they continue expanding with lending via SWIFT Financial, you wonder when PayPal will start returning money to their customers rather than taking it from them.

Loose Change Infographic.pngOutsourcing Innovation

When a communist country like China, whose PayPal equivalent Ant financial, nets users an annual return of close to 5% versus PayPal’s 0% on funds left in your account, you know something’s gotta give. But the current regulatory frameworks don’t really lend to PayPal making that change anytime soon. And if it doesn’t benefit them, why would they do it of their own volition? When you stack Ant Financial’s Yu’E Bao product—which essentially translates to “Loose Treasure”—and that has 325 Million customers with $1.14TN in assets earning about 5% annually, and you compare it to Paypal’s 179 Million customers with $13BN earning nothing, you wonder what’s broken in the US system.

It’s Time to Put Change Back in America’s Pocket

If they aren’t already, Senator Warren and the CFPB should be looking overseas to see how to put money in consumers pockets, not keep the companies that people prefer from being insured, monitored and innovating. In the end, regulations need to help support and drive innovation so we all win, whether that’s through ILCs or sharing the “loose change”.

 

Scope and Scale…or fail

No-Limit Thinking

  • Amazon began as an online bookseller and now sells everything including cloud software.
  • CVS—“Your Neighborhood Drugstore”—sells groceries and make-up.
  • Modern day financial companies like Square Capital have expanded from payment processing into lending, food delivery and more.  

What’s clear from these companies is that in order to scale, you need scope and in order to have scope, you need scale. It’s the classic chicken and egg strategic scenario. So the question for both incumbent and new entrant financial institutions is: How will you gain scope and scale?  

Epic Failure

The classic example of catastrophic failure is Sandy Weill’s merger of Citibank and Travelers, which resulted in what some called a zombie bank.

“Mr. Weill’s watershed deal is regarded by some as one of the worst mergers of all time.”

And while Weill might have been a visionary in his grand vision of a globe-spanning financial supermarket, he failed to take into account both scale and scope, essentially combining two businesses into the Titanic of financial institutions. The result has been a shedding of business lines, shrinking geographies and the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs. Citi went from a dominant #1 to merely a top 5 bank in the US.

Infographic citigroup employees.png

1 https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/831001/000083100117000038/c-12312016x10k.htm

2 https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/831001/000083100117000038/c-12312016x10k.htm

Stunning Success

On the flip side, Schwab, Fidelity, and Vanguard are scaling with aplomb, crushing a nascent monoline Robo Advisory sector by introducing Robo Solutions for their customers, advisors and technology partners. Not only does this severely cut costs, it potentially offers higher net returns for investors and eliminates the complexity of a direct relationship with a human financial advisor.  

Infographic Vanguard growth.pngVanguard Personal Advisor Services hit $65 billion in managed assets as of March 31, up $15 billion from the previous quarter or $5 billion a month

They added 2x what Betterment has ($9Bn) in total in just one quarter.

Fidelity’s new RIA platform already reaches more than SigFig ($70 million AUM).

It took 15 months for Charles Schwab & Co. Inc.’s robo-advisor to reach $8.2 billion. Now, in just nine months, the robo’s assets have nearly doubled that amount and it’s on pace to hit $30Bn of AUM by 2018.

But the AUM of Vanguard’s Personal Advisor Services, at the end of the first half of 2017 was $83 billion, more than four times the AUM of Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, and almost five times the assets at inception in March 2015.

Who’s next?

Several entrants have claimed to be the financial supermarkets of the future. SoFi was one but with the departure of their CEO—who left in disgrace and may have been their best hope at being a Bezos of Finance—that seems unlikely.

Betterment and Wealthfront have the war chests to pivot and expand their business scope but scaling may prove trickier and more timely than investors have the appetite to accommodate.

N26 represents a variant of the supermarket by allowing other financial products to compete for their mobile app customers via an API marketplace. Scaled properly, they have the potential to replace the end-to-end ego of traditional banking with an adaptable tech platform for changing times.

Lessons

Scale matters. It allows for price leverage, operational efficiencies, and brand development.

Scope matters. Choose your scope carefully. Unlike Citi, Fidelity, Vanguard and Schwab didn’t expand into new business lines, they drove innovation in their product lines, took ownership of their value chain and evolved the parts of their business requiring disruption.

Amazonization. Becoming the global financial supermarket may sound like a Sandy Weill dream, but the realization is that mingling assets and liabilities, conflicting regulatory bodies and cross-selling take time and innovation. We’ve seen how scale and scope can help, but on their own, they’re a three-legged stool. Technical innovation is the missing leg to complement them for true success.

The Importance of Understanding the Psychographics of your Consumer – Part II

Last week we touched on the importance of psychographics vs. demographics when it comes to targeting and knowing your audience. This week, we’re highlighting the importance of design and user experience in creating stickiness and limiting barriers to entry.

How can you use behavior when it comes to your site or app experience? In other words, what are the visuals, words, and features that reinforce psychographic “clues” to help a user get or stay engaged if you want to serve both?

Color plays an important role in psychographics and making people feel good.

Think about a politician’s red power tie or why a blue bedroom is so soothing for sleep. And yet how many banking sites think about color when creating their look and feel? An app and site like Mint uses light and fun colors as well as space to literally make people feel like they can breathe when they see the home page. It’s clean, simple and dare we say—fun.

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 9.01.01 AM.pngCompare that to a banking site like Bank of America. It’s cluttered, adding more stress to someone already on the edge about their finances. And the color does nothing to soothe an anxious investor. In fact, it just looks like everything else out there. It’s cookie cutter. And in today’s market, you can’t afford to be mundane.

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 9.30.51 AM.png

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Your mother was right about this. Words play a huge role in making people feel welcome and comfortable. Let’s look at the home pages of sites like Lending Tree and Bankrate.

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 9.12.14 AM  Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 9.12.04 AM

Both simply have rate comparisons above the fold. Nothing welcoming. Nothing suggesting a comfort and simplicity for the visitor. Nothing offering help. (Let’s not even talk about the awful colors and design of Lending Tree.)

Contrast these with Robinhood and Betterment.

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 9.16.06 AM.pngScreen Shot 2017-10-05 at 9.16.34 AM.png

Both instantly try to reassure the visitor. They let them know their sites are different. They want to help. Plus, look at how airy they are. The sites aren’t congested and the colors are clean and soothing, not harsh.

Keep it simple stupid.

For most of us in the industry, finance is easy. But, for most consumers, it’s overwhelming and difficult. Make them feel like you understand that and make your site as easy to use as possible. Create tools, like the ability to import their portfolio. Yahoo! Finance was an early master of this and now uses TradeIt to allow users to sync their brokerage portfolios in order to buy and sell stocks without leaving the app. This encourages people to come back repeatedly to look at their net worth. It’s the stickiest thing you can do and it becomes a daily habit, creating daily visits.

Think of it this way: You have one runway to land a plane. If you put the terminals in front of the runway, the plane crashes. In other words, help people know where to go by directing them around your site. Show them the runway and watch them become a frequent flyer of your site.