Why Embedded Finance Is the Next Area of Digital Revolution

The four decades after the internet made information readily accessible has led to inventions and innovations like smart devices, mobile apps and the ability to be constantly connected. Today, companies are focusing on harnessing technology to build smoother, richer and deeper customer experiences.

As the information age evolves to the experience age, the next digital revolution will be embedded finance. Embedded finance enables any brand, business or merchant to rapidly, and at a low cost, integrate innovative financial services into new propositions and customer experiences. Embedded finance is driven by consumers’ desire for more convenient and frictionless financial services. Several use cases that underline the demand for embedded financial experiences include:

  • Billing payments as part of the experience. Businesses are already using payment options, like buy now, pay later, to differentiate their offering, increase sales and empower buyers at checkout.
  • Growing popularity of Point-of-Sale financing. The volume of installment-based, flexible payment and instant credit options has increased significantly in the past five years, indicating a desire for instant access to short-term borrowing.
  • Mainstreaming of digital wallets. As more people use their mobile phones to purchase products and services, it makes sense that consumers want to access other financial services seamlessly within apps.

There is potential for embedded finance in almost every sector; in the U.S. alone, embedded finance is expected to see a tenfold revenue increase over the next five years. Financial institutions are in a position to provide branded or white-label products that non-banks can use to “embed” financial services for their customers. Banks must evolve rapidly to take advantage of this new market opportunity.

The front-runners will be institutions that can offer digital real-time payments or instant credit with minimal friction and optimum convenience to customers. But providing this requires new core technologies, cloud capabilities and flexible application programming interfaces, or APIs and other infrastructure to support new business models. Banks will also have to become much more collaborative, working closely with fintechs that may own or intermediate the customer relationship.

Embedded finance allows nonbank businesses to offer their customers additional financial services at the point of decision. Customers can seamlessly pay, redeem, finance or insure their purchase. This can look like buying, financing, and insuring a TV from a store’s shopping app, securing a mortgage through the estate agent’s website as part of a house purchase or obtaining health insurance from a fitness app. This does not mean that every retailer or e-commerce business will become a bank, but it does mean that many more will be equipped with the potential to offer more financial capabilities to customers as a way to compete, differentiate and engage more effectively.

In May 2021, Mambu surveyed 3,000 consumers and found the following:

  • 81% would be interested in purchasing health insurance via an app, and almost half of these would pay a small premium.
  • 60% would prefer to take out an education loan directly from their academic institution rather than a bank.
  • 86% would be interested in purchasing groceries from a cashier-less store.

How these capabilities are delivered and consumed is changing constantly. Consumers want to use intuitive and fast financial services via online and mobile banking channels. Digitalization and cloud services are reinventing back-office functions, automating and streamlining processes and decision-making. At the same time, legislation, open banking and APIs are driving new ecosystems. These changing markets and increased competition make it more difficult for banks to meet evolving customer demands, prevent churn and sustain growth.

We are living in the world of the continuous next. Customers expect financial service providers to anticipate and meet their requirements — sometimes even before they know what they want — and package those services in a highly contextual and personalized way. At the same time, new digital players are setting up camp in the bank space. Tech giants are inching ever closer to the banking market, putting bank relationships and revenue pools are at risk. On an absolute basis, this could cost the industry $3.7 trillion, according to our research.

Incumbent banks need to adopt a foundation oriented toward continuous innovation to keep pace with changing customer preferences. Embracing innovations such as embedded finance is one way that banks can unlock new opportunities and raise new revenue streams.

How Technology Blends Banking’s Future

After rapidly adjusting operations at the start of the pandemic and accelerating their digital transformation roadmaps, banks are left wondering: What happens next? And what did the acceleration mean for banks’ digital strategy?

Banks need to shift their mindsets from emergency response toward using digital technologies to boost their relevance to their customer’s lives. Blended banking will become the norm. Although Covid-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future, people have returned to shops, restaurants and theatres. Similarly, customers are returning to bank branches, but in lower volumes and for different reasons. The proliferation of digital banking means customers no longer need to visit a branch for a transaction. But many retail and business customers will still visit a branch to receive advice or to buy a financial product. And although most banking journeys start online, many are still completed in branch.

Banks must recognize this and provide a consistent customer experience across channels, with human support for digital interaction and digital tools that augment human interaction. In practice, this means empowering customers with an engaging digital experience that can continue in branch. Many banks already acknowledge this evolution: They are repurposing branches as advice centers, with less emphasis on over-the-counter transactions. In addition, banks can harness modern tech devices, like tablets, to support the in-person experience. But to truly elevate the customer experience and increase engagement, banks must also harness the power of data.

Advanced Analytics
For many banks, data and analytics have great untapped potential to drive the next wave of innovation to increase customer engagement. With a wealth of customer data at their disposal, banks can gain a deep understanding of customers behavior, goals and financial aspirations, and deliver personalized experiences in a way that was never before possible.

In practice, big life events have financial consequences — buying a car, getting married or having children — but the reality is that small transactions and spending habits can also provide valuable clues to a customer’s behavior. Careful use of data and analytics allows banks to help customers align their financial services closely with real-life events. They can also use data to help their customers gain a deeper understanding of their own financial standing, providing recommendations to optimize the use of cash. For example, a customer with surplus funds may be advised to pay down a mortgage or increase pension contributions rather the leave money on deposit.

Banks can also do more for commercial customers to evolve beyond transactional banking to helping them run their business more effectively. Once again, data and integration are key. Providing commercial customers with up-to-the-minute aggregated cash positions and forecasts gives them a deeper understanding of their cash use, liabilities and commitments. As banking becomes more open and connected, commercial banks can become the heart of an ecosystem with many participants. Banks must embrace modern technologies, boost automation and integration and ultimately adopt a fintech approach to finance.

A Fintech-First Approach to Finance
The pandemic has accelerated banking’s shift to a technology business. Banks that ignore this will be left behind. To attract and retain consumers and business customers, banks need to eliminate guesswork by harnessing technology and data and offering customers what they want, when they need it.

Banks have much to learn from big technology: Amazon.com generates around 35% of sales from recommendations, while 75% of what’s streamed on Netflix is because of its suggestion algorithm. In the digital age, consumers welcome recommendations, nudges and insights — and are usually happy for trusted suppliers to use their data to personalize their digital experience. Banks must adopt a more entrepreneurial approach to customer engagement.

Retail banking: For a long time, bankers have designed banking experiences based on customer journeys. Now is the time to support customer life journeys by proactively supporting customers throughout their entire lifecycle — from large, life-changing decisions as well as everyday spending and budgeting.

Commercial banking: Banks must acknowledge that millennials are more digital savvy and entrepreneurial than any previous generation. Many current retail customers will start businesses and become the commercial customers of tomorrow. Many will need financial advice, and all will need banking.

With fintechs and challenger banks growing in scope and number, now is the time for incumbent banks to act. The digital age is here to stay.

Breaking the Legacy Mindset

For banks, the status quo can often stymie innovation. Even if executives have the desire to try something new, their institution can be incumbered by entrenched legacy systems.

But taking a chance on something new can open up institutions to the possibility of achieving something bigger. The decision to choose a new path is usually very difficult; loyalty and security can feel hard coded in our DNA. But sometimes it comes to the point where you realize that the thing you are doing over and over is never going to produce a different, game-changing outcome.

The adage of “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” continues to ring true in many ways in the fintech space. It refers to the idea that making a safe bet never got anyone in trouble; choosing the industry’s standard company, product or service had little repercussions for the executives making the decisions — even if there were newer, cheaper or better options. It was safe, the company was reliable and little happened in the way of bucking the status quo.

The payments industry has a number of parallels from which we can draw. The electronic payment ecosystem is more than 40 years old; while there has been innovation, it has not been at the same pace as the rest of the technology industry. Some bankers may remember “knuckle busters” and the carbon paper of old. Although banking have since shed those physical devices, the core processing behind the electronic payments system largely remains the same.

These legacy systems mean the payments industry traditionally has had extremely high barriers to entry. This is due to a number of factors, including increasing risk and regulatory compliance needs, high capital investments, a technology environment that is difficult to penetrate and complex integration webs between multiple partners. This unique environment increases the stickiness of mature offerings and creates a complex set of products and long-standing relationships that make it difficult for new products or providers to break through.

The industry’s fragmentation is also a blessing and a curse. While fragmentation gives institutions and consumers choices in the market, it hinders new companies from emerging. This makes it challenging for companies to gain traction or disrupt existing solutions with new and creative ways to solve problems and address needs. Breaking into the market is still only step one. Convincing banks that you can simplify their processes and scale your solutions is an ongoing challenge that smaller fintechs must overcome to truly participate — and potentially disrupt — the industry. The combination of these factors fuels a deep resistance to change in the banking industry.

Fintechs aren’t legacy companies — and that is a good thing. Implementations don’t need to take months, they can be done in weeks. Customer service isn’t challenging when communication happens openly and quickly. Enhancements are affordable, and newer platforms offer nimbleness and openness.

In order to succeed, fintechs must find ways to innovate within the gray space. This could look like any number of things: taking advantage of mandates that create new opportunities, stretching systems and capability gaps to explore new norms, or venturing out into entirely uncharted territory. And banks do not have to fit into the same familiar patterns; changing one piece of the puzzle does not always have to be a massive undertaking.

What within your bank’s walls just “works”? What system or processes have been on autopilot that could chart a new path? What external services are your customers using that the bank could bring in-house if executives thought outside the box? Fintech can complement the bank, if you select the right partner that expands your ecosystem. Fintech can change user experiences — simplifying them to deliver a truly different outcome altogether.

Take a chance on fintech. It will be epic.

3 Ways to Drive Radical Efficiency in Business Lending

Community banks find themselves in a high-pressure lending environment, as businesses rebound from the depths of the pandemic and grapple with inflation levels that have not been seen for 40 years.

This economic landscape has created ample opportunity for growth among business lenders, but the rising demand for capital has also invited stiffer competition. In a crowded market, tech-savvy, radically efficient lenders — be they traditional financial institutions or alternative lenders — will outperform their counterparts to win more relationships in an increasingly digitizing industry. Banks can achieve this efficiency by modernizing three important areas of lending: Small Business Administration programs, small credits and self-service lending.

Enhancing SBA Lending
After successfully issuing Paycheck Protection Program loans, many financial institutions are considering offering other types of SBA loans to their business customers. Unfortunately, many balk at the risk associated with issuing government-backed loans and the overhead that goes along with them. But the right technology can create digital guardrails that help banks ensure that loans are documented correctly and that the collected data is accurate — ultimately reducing work by more than 75%.

When looking for tools that drive efficiency in SBA lending, bank executives should prioritize features like guided application experiences that enforce SBA policies, rules engines that recommend offers based on SBA eligibility and platforms that automatically generate execution-ready documents.

Small Credits Efficiencies
Most of the demand for small business loans are for credits under $100,000; more than half of such loans are originated by just five national lenders. The one thing all five of these lenders have in common is the ability to originate business loans online.

Loans that are less than $100,000 are customer acquisition opportunities for banks and can help grow small business portfolios. They’re also a key piece of creating long-term relationships that financial institutions covet. But to compete in this space, community institutions need to combine their strength in local markets with digital tools that deliver a winning experience.

Omnichannel support here is crucial. Providing borrowers with a choice of in person, online or over-the-phone service creates a competitive advantage that alternative lenders can’t replicate with an online-only business model.

A best-in-class customer experience is equally critical. Business customers’ expectations of convenience and service are often shaped by their experiences as consumers. They need a lending experience that is efficient and easy to navigate from beginning to end.

It will be difficult for banks to drive efficiency in small credits without transforming their sales processes. Many lenders began their digital transformations during the pandemic, but there is still significant room for continued innovation. To maximize customer interactions, every relationship manager, retail banker, and call center employee should be able to begin the process of applying for a small business loan. Banks need to ensure their application process is simple enough to enable this service across their organization.

Self-Service Experiences
From credit cards to auto financing to mortgages, a loan or line of credit is usually only a few clicks away for consumers. Business owners who are seeking a new loan or line of credit, however, have fewer options available to them and can likely expect a more arduous process. That’s because business banking products are more complicated to sell and require more interactions between business owners and their lending partners before closing documents can be signed.

This means there are many opportunities for banks to find efficiency within this process; the right technology can even allow institutions to offer self-service business loans.

The appetite for self-service business loans exists: Two years of an expectation-shifting pandemic led many business borrowers to prioritize speed, efficiency and ease of use for all their customer experiences — business banking included. Digitizing the front end for borrowers provides a modern experience that accelerates data gathering and risk review, without requiring an institution to compromise or modify their existing underwriting workflow.

In the crowded market of small business lending, efficiency is an absolute must for success. Many banks have plenty of opportunities to improve their efficiency in the small business lending process using a number of tools available today. Regardless of tech choice, community banks will find their best and greatest return on investment by focusing on gains in SBA lending, small credits and self-service lending.

What Does a Tech-Forward Bank Look Like?

You wouldn’t think Jill Castilla would have trouble getting a bank loan. After all, she’s the CEO of Citizens Bank of Edmond, a $354 million institution in Edmond, Oklahoma. But as a veteran of the U.S. Army married to retired lieutenant colonel Marcus Castilla, she figured they would qualify to get a VA home loan from a bank other than Citizens, which doesn’t offer VA loans.

After 60 days stretched to more than 90 days, the big bank still hadn’t said yes or no, and the seller was getting increasingly anxious. To get the house they wanted, the couple switched gears and got a loan from Citizens instead.

After abandoning the attempt to get a VA loan, Castilla vowed to help other veterans. Her bank has partnered with several technology companies, including Jack Henry Banking, Teslar Software and ICE Mortgage Technology to start a lending platform on a national basis called Roger.

Bank of Edmond hit on a problem the market hadn’t solved: How to make the process of getting a VA loan quicker and easier, especially in a hot real estate market where veterans are more likely to lose bids if they can’t be competitive with other buyers. As Managing Director Sam Kilmer of Cornerstone Advisors put it at Bank Director’s FinXTech Experience conference recently, borrowing from Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph, “the no. 1 trait of an innovator is recognizing what causes other people pain.” Many banks like Castilla’s are trying to solve customer problems and remake themselves with the help of technology, particularly from more nimble financial technology, or “fintech” partners.

In fact, investors already view banks differently based on their approaches to technology, said William “Wally” Wallace IV, a managing director and equity analyst at Raymond James Financial, who spoke at the conference. Wallace categorized banks in three groups: the legacy banks, the growth banks and the tech-enabled banks.

The legacy banks aren’t growing and trade close to book value or 1.5 times book, Wallace said. The growth banks emphasize relationships and are technologically competent. They trade at 1.5 to 2.5 times book. But the tech-enabled banks use technology offensively, rather than defensively. Tech-enabled banks look to create opportunities through technology. Their stocks command a median tangible to book value of 2.5 times. They have more volatile stock prices but they have outperformed other indexes since 2020, with an average return of 104%, he said. Wallace predicts such banks will out-earn other banks, even growth banks, in the years ahead. He estimates their earnings per share will enjoy average compound annual growth rates of about 24% over a five-year period starting next year, compared to 7% for small-cap banks on average.

Take the example of banking as a service, where a bank provides financial services on the back end for a fintech or another company that serves the customer directly. Wallace said those banks have a fixed cost in building up their risk management capabilities. But once they do that, growth is strong and expenses don’t rise at the same rate as deposits or revenue, generating positive operating leverage.

But, as banks try to remake themselves in more entrepreneurial and tech-forward ways, they’re still not tech companies. Not really. Technology companies can afford to chase rabbits to find a solution that may or may not take off. Banks can’t, said Wallace. “You have to be thoughtful about how you approach it,” he added. But, he suggested that tech-enabled banks that invest in risk management will have large payoffs later. “If you guys prove you can manage the risks, and not blow up the bank, investors will start to pay for that growth,” he said.

Customers Bancorp is positioning itself as one of those tech-forward banks but it’s already seeing results. The West Reading, Pennsylvania-based bank reported a core return on common equity of 24% and a return on average assets of 1.63% in the first quarter of 2022.

Jennifer Frost, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at $19.2 billion Customers Bank, spoke at the conference. “We had some pretty sophisticated platforms, but we didn’t have a way to unlock the power with the people who knew how to use them,” she said. Since the Paycheck Protection Program proved the bank could pivot to providing digital loans quickly, the bank began ramping up its capabilities in small business and commercial lending. Instead of limiting itself to buying off-the-shelf platforms from technology providers, its strategy is to carefully pick configurable programs and then hire one or two developers who can make those programs a success.

“Take what you’ve learned here and start a strategy,” she warned the crowd of some 300 bankers and fintech company representatives at the conference. “If you’re not starting now, it’s going to be a dangerous season.”

Poll Results: Digital Transformation’s Next Phase

NYDIG-Report.pngJPMorgan Chase & Co., which is the largest U.S. bank by assets, spends $12 billion a year on technology, investing in a vast array of technologies that include machine learning, artificial intelligence and blockchain. The second largest bank, Bank of America Corp., spends roughly $3.5 billion annually on new technology initiatives alone, according to Chairman and CEO Brian Moynihan.

It’s a lot of money — and a level of spending that smaller banks can’t hope to achieve. Executives and directors primarily representing community banks under $10 billion in assets reported a median technology budget of $1.7 million for fiscal year 2021 in Bank Director’s 2021 Technology Survey, with a median increase in spending of 10% compared to the previous year.

Those limitations should have bank leaders thinking strategically about how to allocate those precious dollars. With that in mind, Bank Director’s FinXTech division polled bank executives in January and February 2022 about technology adoption trends, and asked about specific noncore solutions that have had a recent, significant impact toward achieving their goals.

Bankers identified 20 platforms as their favorites when it came to driving that change, ranging from digital lending solutions to data analysis. You can find the companies listed on page 7-8 of the report. To categorize the solutions by type, we relied on input from FinXTech Research Analyst Erika Bailey, who manages Bank Director’s FinXTech Connect platform, a guide to financial technology companies working with U.S. banks.

While the past 18 months found many banks putting digital account opening and lending platforms in place — in response to the digital acceleration brought about by the pandemic — banks shifted plans for the next 12 months to application programming interface (API) platforms, data aggregation and analysis, and workflow automation.

To gain additional perspective on these trends, we talked to the executives of three banks that are actively accelerating their digital journeys. Mascoma Bank, a $2.6 billion mutual in Lebanon, New Hampshire, is in the early stages of implementing an API-enabled, cloud-based core platform that will help the bank customize its product and service offerings. St. Louis-based Midwest BankCentre, with $2.4 billion in assets, leveraged its digital subsidiary to expand its capabilities to all of its customers; it will expand digital account opening to business clients in 2023. And West Reading, Pennsylvania-based Customers Bancorp, with $20 billion in assets, is using data-driven insights to fuel the next phase of its digital transformation.

Click here to access the poll results and learn more about how those banks are moving technology transformation forward in this special report.

Also included is a success checklist, questions that boards and leadership teams could ask to help strengthen their technology strategy.

Bank leaders should start by evaluating their organization’s strengths and how technology can align with strategy, advises Ron Shevlin, chief research officer at Cornerstone Advisors. “Stop thinking about technology adoption, and focus more on … the business opportunity,” he says. “Focus on the business results.”

An Inside Look At One Bank’s Digital Growth Planning

By now, most bank leadership teams understand the importance of offering well-designed digital experiences. What we’ve found is often more elusive is knowing where to start when making a significant investment in digital.

One bank that recently grappled with this was Boston-based Berkshire Hills Bancorp, the $11.6 billion parent company of Berkshire Bank.

Executives wanted to digitally transform the bank and that success would only be achievable if they unified around a core set of goals and built a robust strategic plan for reaching them. This vision allowed teams to work toward individual milestones along the way.

We recently spoke with Lucia Bellomia, EVP and head of retail banking and CIO Jason White. They gave us an inside look at what went into developing the Berkshire BEST plan for transformation, and the factors they believe will lead to their successful digital growth.

The Berkshire leadership team started by recognizing that if the plan was going to truly transform the entire bank, they needed to gather input and feedback from every department. “Executives spoke to stakeholders in every department to what milestones the bank would need to hit and what it would take to achieve those goals”, says Bellomia. They also formed groups specifically to achieve some of the components of that milestone.

Involving this many additional stakeholders extended the strategic planning phase — In Berkshire’s case, it took three months of meetings. But White felt the time spent laying a foundation of transparency and open communication will help the bank execute and fulfill the objective of the transformation.

Without some clearly defined pillars outlining your main goals, the whole process of starting the institution’s digital plan can feel chaotic and messy. White suggests that banks first investigate what it means for their institution to digitally transform, and then define the core strategic pillars from there.

Berkshire’s three core pillars were: optimize, digitize and enhance. These pillars support efforts to improve the customer experience, deliver profitable growth, enhance stakeholder value, and strengthen their community impact. Taking the time to first define core pillars that support a larger strategic plan helped Berkshire Bank recognize even greater opportunities. Rather than simply adding new digital services to their banking stack, they realized they could facilitate the evolution of their entire bank.

With the plan announced and in place, Berkshire launched into the execution phase of its transformation. Here, they were met with new challenges that required thoughtful commitments from leadership and investments in project infrastructure. One impactful early investment was developing a transformation office that was responsible for measuring, monitoring and communicating the success of the plan. Executives and sponsors worked with the office to define both date and monetary milestones.

A dedicated internal resource focused on project management helped Berkshire communicate the progress made toward each milestone through regular meetings, tracked and updated key performance indicators, and other updates.

Equally important to the success of Berkshire’s transformation plan was its commitment to scrutinizing each investment and vendor to ensure the right fit and an acceptable return on investment for the bank. The bank is a “low-code” development team with limited resources and used achievable digital goals to identify and select vendors to digitize, according to the bank’s plan.

As part of its transformation plan, the bank extended its existing fintech relationship to include digital banking platforms for consumer and small business customers. This allows the bank to innovate and digitize at an accelerated pace, without having to grow internal developer resources.

Ultimately, institutions like Berkshire Bank are realizing that developing a successful plan for digital transformation that works for both internal stakeholders and customers requires a rethinking of the way executive teams gather feedback, address challenges across departments, and monitor the success of a project.

Top 5 Fintech Trends, Now and in the Future

A version of this article originally appeared on RSM US LLP’s The Real Economy Blog.

Financial technology, or fintech, is rapidly evolving financial services, creating a new infrastructure and platforms for the industry’s next generation. Much remains to be seen, but here are the top trends we expect to shape fintech this year and beyond:

1. Embedded Finance is Here to Stay
Increasingly, customers are demanding access to products and services that are embedded in one centralized location, pushing companies to provide financial services products through partnerships and white-label programs.

Health care, consumer products, technology companies can embed a loan, a checking account, a line of credit or a payment option into their business model and platform. This means large-scale ecosystem disruption for many players and presents a potential opportunity for companies that offer customized customer experiences. This also means the possibility of offering distinct groups personalized services uniquely tailored to their financial situation.

2. A Super App to Rule All
We also anticipate the rise of “super apps” that pull together many apps with different functions into one ecosystem. For example, WeChat is used in Asia for messaging, payments, restaurant orders, shopping and even booking doctors’ appointments.

The adoption of super apps has been slower in the United States, but finance and payment companies and apps including PayPal Holding’s PayPal and Venmo, Block’s Cash App, Coinbase Global’s cryptocurrency wallet, Robinhood Markets’ trading app, buy now, pay later firms Affirm and Klarna and neobank Chime are building out their functionality. Typical functions of these super apps include payments via QR code, peer-to-peer transfers, debit and checking accounts, direct deposits, stock trading, crypto trading and more.

3. DeFi Gains Further Acceptance
Roughly a third of all the venture capital fintech investments raised in 2021 went to fund blockchain and cryptocurrency projects, according to PitchBook data. This includes $1.9 billion in investments for decentralized finance (known as DeFi) platforms, according to data from The Block. DeFi has the potential not only to disrupt the financial services industry but radically transform it, via the massive structural changes it could bring.

DeFi is an alternative to the current financial system and relies on blockchain technology; it is open and global with no central governing body. Most current DeFi projects use the Ethereum network and various cryptocurrencies. Users can trade, lend, borrow and exchange assets directly with each other over decentralized apps, instead of relying on an intermediary. The net value locked in DeFi protocols, according to The Block, grew from $16 billion in 2020 to $101.4 billion in 2021 in November 2021, demonstrating its potential.

4. Digital Wallets
Digital wallets such as Apple Pay and Google Pay are increasingly popular alternatives to cash and card payments, and we expect this trend to continue. Digital wallets are used for 45% of e-commerce and mobile transactions, according to Bloomberg, but their use accounts for just 26% of physical point-of-sale payments. By 2024, WorldPay expects 33% of in-person payments globally to be made using digital wallets, while the use of cash is expected to fall to 13% from 21% in the next three to four years.

We are starting to see countries like China, Mexico and the United States strongly considering issuing digital currency, which could also drastically reduce the use of cash.

5. Regulators Catching Up to Fintechs
It’s no surprise that regulators have been playing catch up to fintech innovation for a few years now, but 2022 could be the year they make some headway. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, noting the rapid growth of “buy now, pay later” adoption, opened an inquiry into five companies late in 2021 and has signaled its intent to regulate the space.

Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Gary Gensler signaled the agency’s intent to regulate cryptocurrencies during an investor advisory committee meeting in 2021. The acting chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has similarly prioritized regulating crypto assets in 2022, noting the risks they pose. And this January, the Acting Comptroller of the Currency, Michael Hsu, noted that crypto has gone mainstream and requires a “coordinated and collaborative regulatory approach.”

Other agencies have also begun evaluating the use of technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning in financial services.

The Takeaway
There are other forces at play shaping the fintech space, including automation, artificial intelligence, growing attention on environmental, social and governance issues, and workforce challenges. But we’ll be watching these five major trends closely as the year continues.

The Key to Creating Transformational Financial Products, Services

Banks need to offer products that address unmet needs of current and prospective customers to gain a meaningful competitive advantage and retain market share.

But upgrading the “front end” experience is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to competing in this increasingly crowded financial services landscape. Still, this can often be a nearly impossible step for banks with legacy delivery and core systems; these dated technologies typically don’t enable banks to customize products and services or have the combination of capabilities that they require to meet niche needs of customers.

To truly launch impactful products and services, banks must first fully understand who their customers are and where the gaps lie. This doesn’t just mean creating generic customer segments, such as Generation Z, urban dwellers and mass affluent, among others. It means determining niche groups based on their unmet needs. It’s time to look beyond traditional demographics like age, household income, gender and life cycle to uncover narrow customer behaviors.

Executives can ascertain such insight from mining many data sources, including the bank’s delivery channels, payment systems and core banking systems. However, it’s often necessary for banks to identify and use previously untapped data sources as well, such as payroll, assets or even health insurance. To effectively do so, banks must have the proper infrastructure and technology in place. But facing existing challenges like constraints on resources and tech talent shortages, many financial institutions instead rely on trusted fintech partnerships to collect, organize and analyze the data.

Once banks or their partners analyze the data, they can form niche groups based on what unique user needs are not being met with traditional financial services. This segmentation gives banks the opportunity to provide new value for those customers by offering meaningful, relevant features or products that can fill the gaps. This is a stark contrast to the generic mass mailing offer for a debit card or auto loan that some institutions send out on a regular basis.

For example, some customers value sustainability as one their core principles. These customers might drive hybrid cars, only shop at small businesses or prefer organic produce. Banks can use this insight to create empathetic products and services that support these customers’ lifestyles and beliefs. Maybe the bank decides to provide loans for purchases that directly support clean energy. Such innovative products and services show that the bank understands and shares their customers’ values, building stronger customer relationships.

Or, consider that a bank uncovers a niche group of young adults that tend to take advantage of buy now, pay later (BNPL) services. To meet this group’s specific needs, a bank might develop a feature within its digital banking interface that notifies the user when a new BNPL charge appears on their statement. The bank could provide a more holistic view of the customers’  BNPL purchases and upcoming payments by tracking and categorizing each purchase. Or, perhaps the bank could recommend credit cards to help build the user’s credit instead of using BNPL programs. In these scenarios, the bank is offering products and services that meet this niche group’s specific situation and needs.

In both examples, the new products and services resonated with customers because they demonstrate the institution’s empathetic understanding of the niche group’s unmet needs. These are the types of digital transformations banks need in order to remain competitive in a landscape full of disruptors. Those banks that are carefully evaluating their data, launch products and services designed for niche groups and are tapping trusted, proven consultants and fintech partners for analysis and development when needed will be well positioned to increase wallet share and increase and deepen customer loyalty.

Should You Invest in a Venture Fund?

Community banks needing to innovate are hoping they can gain an edge — and valuable exposure — by investing in venture capital funds focused on early-stage financial technology companies.

Investing directly or indirectly in fintechs is a new undertaking for many community banks that may lack the expertise or bandwidth to take this next step toward innovation. VC funds give small banks a way to learn about emerging technologies, connect with new potential partners and even capture some of the financial upside of the investment. But is this opportunity right for all banks?

The investments can jump start “a virtuous circle” of improvements and returns, Anton Schutz, president at Mendon Capital Advisors Corp., argues in the second quarter issue of Bank Director magazine. Schutz is one of the partners behind Mendon Ventures’ BankTech Fund, which has about 40 banks invested as limited partners, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

If there is a return, it might not appear solely as a line item on the bank’s balance sheet, in other words. A bank that implements the technology from a fintech following a fund introduction might become more effective or productive or secure over time. The impact of these funds on bank innovation could be less of a transformation and more of an evolution — if the investments play out as predicted.

But these bets still carry drawbacks and risks. Venture capital dollars have flocked to the fintech space, pushing up valuations. In 2021, $1 out of every $5 in venture capital investments went to the fintech space, making up 21% of all investments, according to CB Insight’s Global State of Venture report for 2021. Participating in a VC fund might distract management teams from their existing digital transformation plan, and the investments could fail to produce attractive returns — or even record a loss.

Bank Director has created the following discussion guide for boards at institutions that are exploring whether to invest in venture capital funds. This list of questions is by no means exhaustive; directors and executives should engage with external resources for specific concerns and strategies that are appropriate for their bank.

1. How does venture capital investing fit into our innovation strategy?
How do we approach innovation and fintech partnerships in general? How would a fund help us innovate? Do we expect the fund to direct our innovation, or do we have a clear strategy and idea of what we need?

2. What are we trying to change?
What pain points does our institution need to solve through technology? What solutions or fintech partners have we explored on our own? Do we need help meeting potential partners from a VC fund, or can we do it through other avenues, such as partnering with an accelerator or attending conferences?

3. What fund or funds should we invest in?
What venture capital funds are raising capital from community bank investors? Who leads and advises those funds? What is their approach to due diligence? Do they have nonbank or big bank investors? What companies have they invested in, and are those companies aligned with our values? What is the capital commitment to join a fund? Should we join multiple funds?

4. What is our risk tolerance?
What other ways could we use this capital, and what would the return on investment be? How important are financial returns? What is our risk tolerance for financial losses? Is our due diligence approach sufficient, or do we need some assistance?

5. What is our bandwidth and level of commitment?
What do we want to get out of our participation in a fund? Who from our bank will participate in fund calls, meetings or conferences? Would the bank use a product from an invested fintech, and if so, who would oversee that implantation or collaboration with the fintech? Do bank employees have the bandwidth and skills to take advantage of projects or collaborations that come from the fund?