I spent the first part of last week in Phoenix at the Bank Director Acquire or Be Acquired (AOBA) conference and as always I came away feeling like I knew more about industry conditions and expectations than I did when I got on the plane. If you are a bank executive, you should probably be there every year and may want to consider taking your team on a rotating basis every year. If you serve the industry in some way, you must be there as well. If you are, like me, a serious bank stock investor, you need to be there at least once every few years to stay on top of how bankers feel about their industry and how they plan to grow their banks.
The mood this year was much more upbeat than last year. All the concerns about low interest rates, regulatory costs and other potential headwinds have been blown away by a blast of post-election enthusiasm. Bankers were almost giddy in anticipation of higher rates, a stronger economy and possible regulatory relief. Everyone I talked with during my three-day stay was upbeat and enthusiastic about the future of banking.
There has also been a tremendous change in bankers’ view of fintech of late. Fintech companies have often been viewed as the enemy of smaller banks, and I have talked with many community bankers who are legitimately concerned about their ability to keep up with the new high-tech world. One older gentleman told me at Bank Director’s Growing the Bank conference last May in Dallas that if this was where the industry was going, he would just retire as there was no way he could compete with the upstart fintech companies.
Over the course of the last year, however, a different reality has begun to set in. Fintech companies have discovered that the regulators and bankers were not ready to concede their traditional turf and consumers still like to conduct business within the highly regulated, insured-deposit world of traditional banking. Banks have begun to realize that instead of relying on their traditional practices, much of what fintech companies are doing could make them more efficient and enable them to offer services that attract new customers and make those relationships stickier.
It has become apparent to many of the bankers I chatted with that fintech is not a revolution but an extension of changes that has been going on for years. Drive through bank branches and ATMs were also thought to be revolutionary developments when they were introduced, and today they are considered standard must-have items for any bank branch. Mobile banking is just another step along the evolutionary scale. More customers today interact with their mobile devices than through traditional means like branch visits, phone calls and ATM transactions. That’s not going to change, and bankers are adjusting.
Chris Nichols of CenterState Bank spoke in a breakout session about using fintech to improve the bottom line. He pointed out that if you used the traditional banking approach based on in-branch transactions it cost about $390 per customer per year to service your clients. Using the same cash required to build a branch and spending it to improve the bank’s mobile offering could bring the annual cost per customer down to just $20 a year. Processing a customer deposit costs the average bank about $2 if done in a branch and just $0.20 if done via a mobile phone. Nichols also suggested that acquiring a C&I loan customer could be as high as $14,200 when done via traditional banking methods, but the expense drops to just $3,060 if the transaction is done on a mobile platform.
The proper use of fintech, according to Nichols’ presentation, should also allow banks to lower their efficiency ratio and increase their returns on assets and equity. That is the kind of news that gets bank CEOs and boards excited about expanding the use of technology even if they still carry flip phones and use AOL for home internet.
While you can expect to see partnerships between bankers and fintech companies expanding in the future, bankers will use the technology that reduces costs or creates more revenue streams. They will offer the mobile payment and deposit services customers demand today. The litmus test for technology is, “Does it make or save me money or dramatically improve my customer relationship?” If the answer to these questions is no, then banks will pass on even the most exciting and innovative fintech ideas. They are bankers, after all, not tech gurus.