Banks and Fintech: friends or foes?

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28 January 2016
Zilvinas Bareisis
The question in the title of this post has become a rather hot topic lately. Earlier this week, I was kindly invited to join the panel on "what's hot in Fintech" at Citi's Digital Money Symposium, and it was one of the central questions we debated as a group. My colleague Stephen Greer has also discussed Bank-Fintech relationships on these very pages, for example, see here and here. The question is not necessarily new. Back in 2011, I wrote a report titled Innovative Payment Startups: Bank Friends or Foes? In the report, I looked at companies presenting at the inaugural FinovateEurope and concluded:
"Banks have little to fear from this particular group of payment innovators. Some solutions actively support the established payment systems, in particular cards. Others are expanding the market by enabling payment transactions in places where they may not have been possible before."
There is no question that the pace of innovation has increased in the last five years since that quote. However, today we also have many startups and Fintech companies that are actively serving banks with their technology tools (from authentication and fraud management to back- and middle-office systems). Others, such as Apple partner with banks to develop propositions that "wrap around" a card transaction. In the last few months, we have also noticed an increase in stories around collaboration between banks and Fintech. Most payment unicorns (private companies with valuation of over $1bn) achieved their impressive scale and valuations mainly by competing with banks in a specific niche and focusing on being the best in class in that area. Often, it is in merchant services, such as those provided by the likes of Stripe, Adyen, Square, and Klarna, while TransferWise is successfully attacking banks in the international payments market. Yet, even among the unicorns there are those that have chosen to partner with banks, such as iZettle which has partnerships with Nordea, Santander, and other banks in Europe. TransferWise, a unicorn that has long been positioning as an alternative to banks, is now partnering with LHV, an Estonian bank, to offer its service via the bank's online and mobile channels, and is rumoured to be in discussions with “up to 20 banks” about adopting its API. The Wall Street Journalrecently quoted Ben Milne, the CEO of Dwolla, as saying, “Time humbles you. Working with banks is the difference between running a sustainable business and just another venture-funded experiment.” It has become fashionable to pronounce the death of banking. The disruption caused by Fintech is supposed to blow the old-fashioned banks out of the water. Of course, we acknowledge the disruption and recognise that banking is changing. We simply don’t agree that banks will disappear — at least not all of them:
  1. Today’s smartest banks will figure out a way to stay relevant for their customers.
  2. Some of today’s disruptors are becoming banks (e.g. Atom, Mondo, Starling in the UK)
  3. Both Fintech and banks are starting to acknowledge the value they each bring to the relationship and will learn to collaborate effectively.
My colleague Gareth Lodge and I have just published a series of reports on reimagining payments relationships between banks, retailers and Fintech. Commissioned by ACI Worldwide, the reports take a perspective of each party and explore this topic in a lot more detail. Just like a family is locked into a set of relationships, banks, retailers, and FinTech form a payment ecosystem that we believe is more symbiotic than many would want to admit.

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