Banks and Fintechs Adjust Strategies as Sector Matures

September 2nd, 2016

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After a period of rapid growth, the fintech sector has reached, if not full maturity, at least the end of its adolescence. With customer acquisition growth rates slowing among digital wealth management services, otherwise known as robo-advisors, a number of industry participants have adjusted their strategies in response. One development reflecting this process is the increasing tendency among large banks and other financial institutions (FIs) to enter the sector by purchasing some of the earliest and most successful innovators in the field.

This marks a change from the approach more commonly seen early in the fintech revolution, when large FIs were more likely to take positions as minority shareholders in promising fintechs than to buy them out. Fintech buyouts hit an all-time high in 2015 as banks rushed to stake their claim in this disruptive market, with KPMG and CB Insights showing fintech investments growing from $3 billion in 2011 to $19 billion in 2015. A CNBC.com report on the sector sees no signs of this trend abating in 2016, with big banks expected to continue to favor outright purchases of technology innovators in the sector over investing in startups.

Other banks and FIs have chosen to pursue different strategies, either forming partnerships with leading fintech firms or, in the case of some of the largest FIs such as Fidelity and Schwab, electing to build their own digital wealth management platforms. Fintech firms, in the meantime, continue to rely on product innovation to attempt to set themselves apart from their competitors. As sector growth moderates and truly disruptive innovations become more difficult (and expensive) to develop, these startups must make difficult decisions about whether to attempt to go it alone or to merge or partner with existing financial industry players.

Outside of a few companies willing to devote the tremendous resources necessary to build their own platforms, the majority of FIs entering the fintech space have done so via purchases or partnerships. While partnerships can be a viable method for entering the sector, some banks and other FIs prefer to own the technology their customers use to access their financial information. For these firms, purchasing an existing fintech company offers the advantage of speeding time to market and gaining the expertise of the tech-savvy founders or operators of the acquisition, in addition to controlling the use and development of the acquired technology.

In an interview for this article, Charlie Haims, vice president of marketing at cloud-based portfolio management service MyVest, expanded on this idea: “The larger FIs historically choose to build a new innovation in-house to tightly integrate it with the rest of the company. But now we are seeing an increase in acquisitions, like BBVA with Holvi, Groupe BPCE with Fidor, Silicon Valley Bank with Standard Treasury and many in wealth management like BlackRock with FutureAdvisor, Invesco with JemStep, and Northwestern Mutual with LearnVest.” Haims attributes this trend to sizable VC investment in fintech startups a few years back, leading to the recent buyouts of VC-backed startups whose success in the field attracted suitors.

While owning your own fintech platform may seem attractive to banks and other FIs looking to enter the space, the truth is that the cost of this approach, whether via purchasing an existing startup or building your own platform, is by no means trivial. A price tag upwards of $100 million to build a comprehensive digital wealth management platform is not unknown. For many banks interested in entering the field, finding a technology partner is perhaps a more practical way of gaining access to the industry. Haims agrees: “For smaller FIs, the best approach is often partnering with leading service providers or startups to quickly adopt the best-of-breed for a given fintech innovation, and this still seems to be the case today.”

MyVest offers its enterprise wealth management software platform to FIs such as banks, broker-dealers, RIAs and service providers. Haims cites banks as being particularly well-suited to use the company’s service to “help them bridge silos across their trust, brokerage and RIA divisions, so they can run a smoother operation and provide a holistic customer experience on a single, unified platform.” The company also has channel partnerships with Genpact Open Wealth and Thomson Reuters Wealth Management “to offer a combination of wealth management technology and services to FIs.”

In addition to digital wealth management, banks have formed partnerships across a variety of other fintech platforms, including startups in the crowdfunding and direct-to-consumer loan sectors. In the former category, BNP Paribas has inked a partnership deal with SmartAngels, which provides a platform for investing in crowdfunding deals; in the latter category is JPMorgan Chase’s partnership with On Deck Capital, which provides online small business loans.

As the industry matures, the competition among fintech sector participants has become increasingly fierce. In the digital wealth management field, independent robo-advisors now face the challenge of competing with large FIs such as Vanguard and Schwab, which have attracted the bulk of new robo-advisor assets since entering the space.

One prominent robo-advisor, Personal Capital, has engaged a private equity firm to help it consider its financial options, leading some to speculate that the firm is seeking a buyer. Other digital wealth management platforms, such as Wealthfront and Betterment, have stressed their dedication to innovation as a major factor in helping them stay competitive. Industry expert Craig Iskowitz has outlined the challenges facing such firms as their growth slows in an article on his Wealth Management Today blog. In the article he suggests that, rather than going head-to-head with industry behemoths for assets, a hybrid model of “selling to consumers as well as advisors, along with the B2B model, will soon be seen as the best way to succeed in this market.”

Among digital wealth management advisory services continuing to pursue the direct-to-consumer model, Iskowitz cites the Acorns robo-advisor platform as notable for experiencing robust growth by pursuing a millennial-friendly strategy. The company’s mobile app allows users to link their bank or credit card accounts to the firm’s platform and automatically invest the spare change gained from rounding up transactions to the nearest dollar in an electronically traded fund, or ETF, which is a diversified portfolio of securities that can be valued and traded at any time during the trading day instead of after market close like a mutual fund.

Mark Tygart is a writer and contributor for FinXTech.