The Passing of the Screen Scraping Baton

The FinTech world is buzzing with news of Plaid buying Quovo. Hats off to Quovo’s founder, Lowell, who’s built an excellent reputation in the industry for innovation, professionalism and proprietary technology to enable screen scraping. We’ve received over a dozen inquiries from partners, investors and prognosticators on what the deal means, and, while we have no insider information, we have a few thoughts given our earlier blog series on screen scraping.

There are a few lenses to look at this deal as it relates to what it means to the FinTech space and why it makes sense. We’re going to break it down based on three factors: market structure drivers, systemic reasons and direct reasons.  

Market Structure Drivers

The FinTech world is embracing APIs as the most effective way to interact between institutions, apps and developers — as PSD2 in Europe leads the way. Asian countries are already adopting API protocols. However, since the US has not developed a standard or unified protocol, we can expect more jockeying between screen scrapers and financial institutions, as we saw earlier this year with Plaid & CapitalOne. As long as the US doesn’t mandate standards, screen scraping companies are going to look to gain greater scale and leverage against the more fragmented financial institutions (when’s the last time you saw Citi, JPMorgan, Fidelity & Schwab join forces to protect customer data?).

With 40-70% of FIs website traffic coming from screen scraping companies providing access to Personal Financial Management apps like Mint, FIs have finally woken up to the need to provide secure, controlled access to their products in an increasingly unbundled and distributed world.  FIs are going to require customers to use oAuth to ensure proper security and controls, but traditional US screen scraping companies don’t look favorably on oAuth due to the user experience. The Plaid/CapitalOne battle was a preview of things to come between screen scrapers and Fis, requiring scrapers to go through the front door, not the back.  

Systemic Reasons

If you’re in the screen scraping business and do a value chain analysis, you want to own your own destiny and technology. Screen scrapers exist for a simple reason: to make it easy for FinTechs to enable their clients or customers to aggregate their data in one spot. The screen scrapers create simple and easy to use APIs that customers can integrate and these APIs use screen scraping technology behind the scenes. The technology learns the layout, data formatting and access placements for thousands of FIs, which allows the scrapers to easily enable customers to share their credentials in order to gain entry into the FI. The FI is not a party to this access, it’s a back door. Not all screen scraping companies do this themselves. Quovo did it with robust and secure technology, as do Yodlee and Finicity who often provide their technology to other screen scraping companies like Plaid and MX.    

Data security couldn’t be more paramount to FIs. As much as customers like to demonize banks, banks have done a lot more to protect customer information than big Silicon Valley tech companies. If your user name and password were breached by a portal, hotel company or social network in the last year, it’s likely that the user name and password combination was sold on the dark web. Bad actors on the dark web then run scripts testing your credentials against FIs to get access to your funds. And, while the Fis are proactively monitoring their front door, what many have found is that the bad actors run the scripts via sites using screen scraping to identify vulnerable accounts via the back door. Herein lies the rub. Screen scrapers don’t want to put speed bumps into the user journey, but FIs are requiring oAuth through the front door.  Something has to give, and hopefully it won’t be caused by a breach of your financial information.

Direct Reasons

Plaid and Quovo were direct competitors with similar offerings which could lead to downward pressure on prices. Consolidation will likely allow the combined entity to test price elasticity. Yodlee was the Grand Daddy of screen scraping. Early on, Yodlee bought Vertical One for customers, pricing power and leverage. Yodlee is now owned by Envestnet who has publicly stated that they’ve been focused on making the acquisition pay, meaning they’re increasing prices.

Plaid stated that Quovo’s offering in the wealth space was a driving force for the acquisition.  Yodlee and Morningstar® ByAllAccountsSM have a solid grip on the wealth space, however a combined Plaid/Quovo could result in a greater penetration. And, it doesn’t hurt that Quovo’s founder hails from a storied wealth management lineage, adding to his wealth sector cred.  

Finally, the brands of Plaid and Quovo resonate differently in the broader financial space. Plaid is loved by Silicon Valley FinTechs and Quovo is well-regarded by the established FIs.

In sum, while the financial terms are not readily available, the strategic fit of Plaid and Quovo makes sense — leverage, scale, reputation and technology. Just as Yodlee’s founder stepped away last week from leading his company, the baton (and screen scraping team captain) is now with Plaid’s leadership — run fast and innovate often.

What does 2019 hold for FinTech?

2018 had its fair share of disruption in the FinTech space, but for the most part, companies and investors sat out the end of the year market fluctuations and are cautiously — and perhaps optimistically — looking to 2019. The latest downturn is definitely not unexpected, and if the market continues to soften as most have predicted, we expect to see more acquisitions in FinTech, as investors tighten their belts.

Here are our thoughts on what potential market moves might include:

Chinese FinTechs make another go at the US market

As highlighted in the MIT Technology Review, the Chinese market is much more innovative and disruptive than the US FinTech Market. While the Alipay-Moneygram tie-up failed with regulators, it won’t deter the ambitions of these cash-rich companies.  Notably, Alipay, TenCent, Fosun, CreditEase and PingAn continue to be ever-present at US FinTech conferences, networking, looking to deploy capital, and tempting entrepreneurs with cash offers. Expect to see Chinese companies buying smaller FinTech companies that allow them to fly below the radar of regulators, yet buy and scale with US teams that have strong operating reputations.  

Betterment or WealthFront might get acquired by a smaller incumbent who’s looking to chase down Vanguard and Schwab’s market dominance

Wealthfront got a bump with a $75M investment earlier this year, but some claim that raising money at this stage (10 years in) is a delay tactic if they’re seeking acquisition. Perhaps a “marriage between two leading independent robo advisors is next,” claims Timothy Welsh of Nexus Strategy. He also states that “if robo advisors were going to disrupt, they would have already.” A very debatable stance, in our opinion. But if a merger isn’t in the cards, it’s certainly likely that acquisition is on the table.

The economics of “set it and forget it” firms might catch up with robos as market prices soften

Robos haven’t had to deal with a down market since their inception. As we head into 2019 and likely more volatility, how will they respond and, perhaps more importantly, how will their clients? With a down market and poor returns, will investors stick it out with a “set it and forget it” or will they just say “forget this” and move their funds back to an incumbent? And, though most robo investors are Millennials, will they be ok getting communication about downturns from their advisors solely via email or social media? More importantly for the bottom line, it will be very telling to see if an electronic relationship has the same stickiness as a personal one. According to Greg Curry, a fee-only financial advisor with Pillar Advisors in Louisville, Kentucky, “In a down market many clients need hand holding and the value of interaction with a human financial advisor can be the difference between them sticking with a well-conceived financial plan and investment strategy and making moves that are detrimental to their financial future out of fear.”

With the loss of Robinhood, APEX Clearing looks to sell

Now that Robinhood has built their own clearing system from scratch, what does that mean for APEX Clearing? The last time a major brokerage built something similar was Vanguard, in 2008. It was only five years ago that Apex claimed it was the only company that had the technology to make Robinhood possible. And while right now Robinhood Clearing will only be used on its own platform, they haven’t ruled out the possibility of commercializing it. So, what does this mean for other FinTechs? Is Robinhood Clearing the potential go-to for these solutions? Or, with Robinhood’s recent insurance snafu surrounding their checking and savings account announcement, did they tarnish themselves as a trusted platform/partner?  

N26’s move to the US from Europe will gain ground in the investment world based on their API platform approach

The German mobile bank just received the largest equity financing round in the FinTech industry in Germany to date, as well as one of the largest in Europe. According to their Americas CEO, Nicolas Kopp, they’re “a technology company with a bank license.” Because N26 was built from scratch, and their European roots means they have to comply with PSD2, they’re prepared for open banking protocols. Their design was specifically built for mobile — to be both visually appealing and user friendly, and they support/use APIs, not siloing technology for different lines of business, creating a seamless user experience. And they’ve AI-enabled their platform, allowing them to create more personalization at scale. We’re curious to see what else they have up their sleeve.

What are some of your FinTech predictions for 2019? Share them with us on Twitter using #TradeIt2019 and #FinTechPredictions