Technology is playing an increasingly central role in banks’ strategic plans. Now more than ever, banks rely on technology to deliver products and services, improve processes and the customer experience, acquire new customers and grow.
When it comes to new technology, banks essentially have four options: build it, license it, partner with a third party or buy it. Traditionally, only the largest banks had the resources and inclination to build technology in house; however, some smaller banks are now dedicating resources to developing technology themselves.
Much more commonly, banks obtain technology solutions from their core processors or other vendors. Over the last several years, there has been a proliferation of banks partnering with fintech companies to deploy their technology, or for banks to provide banking services to a customer-facing fintech company. As banks become more tech-centric, more are likely to explore acquiring fintech companies or fintech business lines. Each approach carries with it unique advantages, disadvantages, risks and legal and regulatory considerations.
The federal bank regulatory agencies have been especially active in recent years in the bank/fintech partnership space. In July 2021, the agencies published proposed updated interagency guidance on managing risks associated with third-party relationships, which includes guidance on relationships with fintech companies. Later in 2021, they released a guide intended to help community banks conduct appropriate due diligence and assess risks when considering relationships with fintech companies, and the Federal Reserve Board published a white paper on how community banks can access innovation by partnering with third-party fintech companies. Prior to that, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. published a guide intended for fintech companies interested in partnering with banks. These pronouncements indicate that while the agencies are generally supportive of banks innovating via fintech partnerships, their expectations for how banks conduct those relationships are increasing.
As technology and the business of banking become more intertwined, banks need to remain mindful not only of regulatory guidance on these partnerships specifically, but on the full spectrum of laws and regulations that are implicated — sometimes unintentionally — by these relationships. For example, partnership models that involve banks receiving deposits through a relationship with a fintech company could implicate the brokered deposit rules, which the FDIC updated in 2020 to account for how banks use technology to gather deposits.
As another example, partnership models that involve a fintech company offering new lending products funded by the bank, or the bank lending outside of its traditional market area, can raise fair lending and Community Reinvestment Act considerations, and potentially expose the bank to a heightened risk of regulatory enforcement action. Banks must keep in mind that when offering a banking product through a fintech partnership, regulators view that product as a product of the bank, which the bank must offer and oversee in accordance with applicable law and bank regulatory guidance.
Although bank/fintech partnerships have been around for some time, the amount of recent regulatory activity in this area suggests the agencies believe that many more of these partnerships, involving many more banks, will develop.
As the partnership model matures, more banks may become interested in developing closer ties with their fintech partner, including by investing cash in their fintech partner. Banks may be motivated to explore an investment to make its relationship with a fintech partner stickier, allow the bank to financially share in the fintech partner’s growth or enhance the bank’s attractiveness as a prospective partner to other fintech companies.
Banks considering investing in a fintech company or a venture capital fintech fund must understand not only the regulatory expectations associated with fintech partnerships generally, but also the legal authority under which the bank or its holding company would make and hold the investment.
As some banks start to look and operate more like technology companies, more may explore acquisitions of entire fintech companies or fintech business lines or assets. In addition to the many business and legal issues associated with any M&A transaction, banks considering such an acquisition have to be especially focused on due diligence of the target fintech company, integration of the target into the bank’s regulatory environment and ensuring that the target’s activities are permissible for the bank to engage in following the transaction.
Banks need innovative technology to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive financial services marketplace. Some will build it themselves, others will hire technology vendors or partner with fintech companies to deploy it and some will obtain it through acquisition. As banking and fintech evolve together, banks must understand and pay careful attention to the advantages and disadvantages, and legal and regulatory aspects, of each of these approaches.