To understand the seismic shifts underway in the banking industry today, it’s helpful to look back at what a different industry went through in the 1980s—the industry for computer memory chips.
The story of Intel Corp. through that period is particularly insightful.
Intel was founded in 1968.
Within four years, it emerged as one of the leading manufacturers of semiconductor memory chips in the world.
Then something changed.
Heightened competition from Japanese chip manufacturers dramatically shrank the profits Intel earned from producing memory chips.
The competition was so intense that Intel effectively abandoned its bread-and-butter memory chip business in favor of the relatively new field of microprocessors.
It’s like McDonald’s switching from hamburgers to tacos.
In the words of Intel’s CEO at the time, Andy Grove, the industry had reached a strategic inflection point.
“[A] strategic inflection point is a time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change,” Grove later wrote his book, "Only the Paranoid Survive."
“That change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights,” Grove continued. “But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end.”
The parallels to the banking industry today are obvious.
Over the past decade, as attention has been focused on the recovery from the financial crisis, there’s been a fundamental shift in the way banks operate.
To make a deposit a decade ago, a customer had to visit an ATM or walk into a branch. Nowadays, three quarters of deposit transactions at Bank of America, one of the biggest retail banks in the country, are completed digitally.
The implications of this are huge.
Convenience and service quality are no longer defined by the number and location of branches. Now, they’re a function of the design and functionality of a bank’s website and mobile app.
This shift is reflected in J.D. Power’s 2019 Retail Banking Advice Study, a survey of customer satisfaction with advice and account-opening processes at regional and national banks.
Overall customer satisfaction with advice provided by banks increased in the survey compared to the prior year. Yet, advice delivered digitally (via website or mobile app) had the largest satisfaction point gain over the prior year, with the most profound improvement among consumers under 40 years old.
It’s this change in customers’ definition of convenience and service quality that has enabled the biggest banks over the past few years to begin growing deposits organically, as opposed to through acquisitions, for the first time since the consolidation cycle began in earnest nearly four decades ago.
And as we discussed in our latest issue of Bank Director magazine, the new definition of convenience has also altered the growth strategy of these same big banks.
If they want to expand into a new geographic market today, they don’t do so by buying a bunch of branches. They do so, instead, by opening up a few de novo locations and then supplementing those branches with aggressive marketing campaigns tied to their digital banking offerings.
It’s a massive shift. But is it a strategic inflection point along the same lines as that faced by Intel in the 1980s?
Put another way, has the debut and adoption of digital banking changed the fundamental competitive dynamics of banking? Or is digital banking just another distribution channel, along the lines of phone banking, drive-through windows or ATMs?
There’s no way to know for sure, says Don MacDonald, the former chief marketing officer of Intel, who currently holds the same position at MX, a fintech company helping banks, credit unions, and developers better leverage their customer data.
In MacDonald’s estimation, true strategic inflection points are caused by changes on multiple fronts.
In the banking industry, for instance, the fronts would include regulation, technology, customer expectations and competition.
Viewed through this lens, it seems reasonable to think that banking has indeed passed such a threshold.
On the regulatory front, for the first time ever, a handful of banks don’t have a choice but to focus on organic deposit growth—once the exclusive province of community and regional banks—as the three largest retail banks each hold more than 10 percent of domestic deposits and are thus prohibited from growing through acquisition.
Furthermore, regulators are making it easier for firms outside the industry—namely, fintechs—to compete directly against banks, with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s fintech charter being the most obvious example.
Technology has changed, too, with customers now using their computers and smartphones to complete deposits and apply for mortgages, negating the need to walk into a branch.
And customer expectations have been radically transformed, as evidenced by the latest J.D. Power survey revealing a preference toward digital banking advice over personal advice.
To be clear, whether a true strategic inflection point is here or not doesn’t absolve banks of their traditional duty to make good loans and provide excellent customer service. But it does mean the rules of the game have changed.