Motivation for Mergers Will Grow as Interest Rates, Loan Growth Stay Low

The pace of announced mergers among rated U.S. banks has accelerated and is likely to gain steam.

The limited prospect of material loan growth makes asset growth via mergers and acquisitions increasingly attractive. And as we anticipated, more banks are favoring large transformational deals. We expect the industry will continue to consolidate in the second half of 2021. Greater size and efficiency will remain primary drivers of consolidation in the face of continued low interest rates, as will the imperative to invest in new technologies at scale.

  • There was a substantial jump in transformational M&A activity during the second quarter. Four sizable deals were announced in the period, and each envisions an enlarged entity that benefits from greater diversification and economies of scale. All four transactions promise eventual benefits for creditors, but each presents significant execution risk that is an immediate credit negative.
  • The main drivers of consolidation will continue for the next 12 to 18 months. Interest rates are unlikely to rise until 2023, increasing the likelihood of a jump in M&A activity. Technology upgrades will require substantial investment, which prospective cost savings from acquisitions can help fund. And loan growth will remain subdued because of the massive deposit holdings of U.S. companies and households.
  • Difficulty forecasting business activity and loan growth, as well as rising bank share prices, may have held back some deals. The value of an acquisition target is harder to gauge in an uncertain economic and market environment, which likely helped slow overall sector consolidation in 2020 and first quarter 2021, but nonetheless did not prevent the prominent deals we highlight in this report.

Leveraging Rationalization to Tackle Digital Transformation

The coronavirus pandemic has had a notable impact on financial institutions, creating a more-urgent need to embrace digital-first banking. However, shifting to digital doesn’t just mean adopting new digital banking tools — a common misconception. Rather, it requires that banks rethink their holistic digital strategy to evolve alongside customer expectations, digitize all aspects of the financial journey and connect their customers’ digital and physical experiences.

Such a transformation boils down to determining which processes are digital-ready and which will need to be overhauled completely. Enter rationalization.

Relying on rationalization
Three billion people will access banking through digital devices this year, according to one estimate from Deloitte. Most banks have 3, 5 or even 10-year plans, but struggle to determine where to start. Think of rationalization as triage for banks: It allows them to identify which processes are ready to be digitized right now, and which need to be reimagined entirely before embarking on digitization.

Consider the process to open a checking account. It’s a simple process, requiring proof of identity and address, and a form to complete. Customers are generally good to go. This is a prime example of a digital-ready banking service that should be moved online immediately — and that can be accomplished rather easily.

Compare that to applying for a loan: a process that involves careful evaluation of the applicant and a mountain of paperwork filled with lengthy, confusing terms and requirements. If the process is intimidating to consumers with the help of a professional, imagine how it feels left to their own devices.

For processes that contain inherent points of friction, like the loan application example above, digitizing may simply make the cumbersome process quicker. Outdated, clunky processes must be revamped before they can be digitally transformed.

Putting customers at the center
Customers are the most important part of rationalization. As customer expectations have rapidly evolved, it’s time for institutions to modernize the digital experience to strengthen relationships and solidify loyalty. Some areas that banks should consider when evaluating the customer experience include:

  • Automating previously manual processes can reduce costs, improve efficiency and deliver an “always on” experience.
  • Ease-of-use. Along with being more accessible to people who might resist digitization, intuitive use and educational resources are integral to customer adoption and success.
  • Constant support. According to Accenture, 49% of customers say real-time support from real people is key to fostering loyalty.
  • Enhanced security. Strong security efforts are fundamental to giving customers peace of mind, which is critical when it comes to their money.
  • Make simple possible. Remove friction from the process to enhance the customer experience.

As banking catapults into a digitally dominant era, institutions should establish a presence across all digital touchpoints — desktop and web browser, mobile apps, even social media — to enable customers to access financial services and information at their convenience. A mobile-first mentality will help ensure that products and services work seamlessly across all devices and platforms. Consistency here is key.

Customers are ultimately looking to their institutions to solve their individual financial problems. Banks have a wealth of data available to them; those that seek to create the strongest relationships with customers can leverage these insights to tailor the experience and deliver relevant, timely products and support to meet their unique needs.

All sectors faced the same challenge over the course of the pandemic: How does a business survive physical separation from their customers? Industries like retail were better prepared for expedited digital transformation because they’ve been establishing a digital presence for years; they were largely able to rationalize quicker. Hospitality sectors, on the other hand, more closely mirrored banking in that many processes were far behind the digital times. Some restaurants lacked an online presence before the pandemic, and now must undergo their own version of rationalization to remain in business.

While rationalization looks different to each vertical, the central mission remains the same: determining the best, most sensible order of digital transformation to provide the best customer experience possible. Those companies that leverage the principles of rationalization to manage the massive migration to digital will be better positioned to solidify and capitalize on customer loyalty, and keep their institutions thriving.

How to Modernize Your Payments Strategy

2020 induced widespread digital transformation in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In payments, we saw the rise of options for contactless payments, digital wallets, P2P transfers and more. The challenge for banks was that consumers often did not have to go through their bank to use any of these solutions.

The developments in the payment space over the past year make one thing clear: Banks should keep up with the newest available consumer technology to retain and attract customers, and modernize their digital payments strategy for future success as well.

Consumer demand remains strong, and the experience companies provide matters more than ever. After leaning so heavily on digital solutions for the past year and a half, they expect everything to be easy and instant. It is now relatively easy to find payment apps that provide real-time payments, P2P, bill pay and more. Banks that don’t offer similar solutions runs the risk of losing market share to non-banks that do.

Customers are weighing their banking experience against their experience with fintech apps as well as  any other experience they have when shopping online, ordering food or taking a rideshare. Any good customer experience — no matter the industry — is one that the bank must now measure up to.

Take artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, for example. While not every financial institution is using AI and machine learning today, retailers like Amazon.com use AI and machine learning to predict consumer behavior, knowing what they need and when they will need it. They estimate when consumers will repurchase a product or try something new. A bank that is not doing the same is falling behind in providing the experiences that many consumers are growing accustomed to.

Where to Start?
By leveraging technologies like AI and machine learning, banks can use the tremendous wealth of customer data at their disposal to provide a more personalized experience. This is a tremendous advantage over non-bank competitors that do not have access to the same consumer information. It can seem like a challenge to effectively put customer data to use, but there are a few steps banks should take to make the change a successful one.

First, a bank must set clear goals for what it wants to achieve when updating its payment platform or adding a technology like AI and machine learning. For most, the goal will be to provide a better experience, but it is helpful to dig even deeper than that. Ask: Do we want better customer satisfaction? More engagement with the platform? More bill pay users? More account-to-account (A2A) transactions? More P2P transactions? Be as specific as possible with goals, as these form the roadmap for the remainder of the process.

Once goals are set, find the partner that can help achieve those goals. Look for a partner that shares the bank’s vision for payments and has the right skill sets and capabilities to achieve those goals. Finding the right vendor partner will ensure the bank is successful in the end.

Clear goals and a like-minded vendor ensure that the tech a bank uses can help meet its goals. Just as Amazon uses AI and machine learning to predict a consumers’ purchases or recommend a product, banks can predict customers’ payment habits or make proactive payment recommendations to manage their financial health. The use cases of AI and machine learning are versatile, and can serve many different purposes to help banks reach their unique goals.

Finally, do not lose sight of the future. It is easy for banks to get concerned with what will make them successful now, but keep looking ahead. Work with your vendor to think about where both the industry and your bank are going. Be sure to choose solutions that can grow and change with the bank and its customers for years to come, rather than focusing too heavily on the here and now.

Change can be intimidating, but following the right steps to implement a tool like AI will ensure success by creating a better customer experience. Revitalizing your bank’s digital payment strategy is a process, but done right, the stronger digital relationships you build with your customers will be worth it.

Four Ways Banks Can Cater to Generational Trends

As earning power among millennials and Generation Z is expected to grow, banks need to develop strategies for drawing customers from these younger cohorts while also continuing to serve their existing customer base.

But serving these younger groups isn’t just about frictionless, technology-enabled offerings. On a deeper level, banks need to understand the shifting perspective these age groups have around money, debt and investing, as well as the importance of institutional transparency and alignment with the customer’s social values. Millennials, for instance, may feel a sense of disillusionment when it comes to traditional financial institutions, given that many members of this generation — born between 1981 and 1996, according to Pew Research Center — entered the workforce during the Great Recession. Banks need to understand how such experiences influence customer expectations.

This will be especially important for banks; Gen Z — members of which were born between 1997 and 2012 — is on track to surpass millennials in spending power by 2031, according to a report from Bank of America Global Research. Here are four ways banks can cater to newer generational trends and maintain a diverse customer base spanning a variety of age groups.

1. Understand the customer base. In order to provide a range of services that effectively target various demographics, financial institutions first need to understand the different segments of their customer base. Banks should use data to map out a complete picture of the demographics they serve, and then think about how to build products that address the varying needs of those groups.

Some millennials, for instance, prioritize spending on experiences over possessions compared to other generations. Another demographic difference is that 42% of millennials own homes at age 30, versus 48% of Generation X and 51% of baby boomers at the same age, according to Bloomberg. Banks need to factor these distinctions into their offerings so they can continue serving customers who want to go into a branch and engage with a teller, while developing tech-driven solutions that make digital interactions seamless and intuitive. But banks can’t determine which solutions to prioritize until they have a firm grasp on how their customer base breaks down.

2. Understand the shifting approach to money. Younger generations are keeping less cash on hand, opting to keep their funds in platforms such as Venmo and PayPal for peer-to-peer transfers, investing in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and other savings and investment apps. All of these digital options are changing the way people think about the concepts of money and investing.

Legacy institutions are paying attention. Bank of New York Mellon Corp. announced in February a new digital assets unit “that will accelerate the development of solutions and capabilities to help clients address growing and evolving needs related to the growth of digital assets, including cryptocurrencies.”

Financial institutions more broadly will need to evaluate what these changing attitudes toward money will mean for their services, offerings and the way they communicate with customers.

3. Be strategic about customer-facing technology. The way many fintech companies use technology to help customers automatically save money, assess whether they are on track to hit their financial goals or know when their balance is lower than usual has underscored the fact that many traditional banks are behind the curve when it comes to using technology to its full potential. Institutions should be particularly aggressive about exploring ways technology can customize offerings for each customer.

Companies should think strategically about which tech functions will be a competitive asset in the marketplace. Many banks have an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot, for instance, to respond to customer questions without involving a live customer service agent. But that doesn’t mean all those chatbots provide a good customer experience; plenty of banks likely implemented them simply because they saw their competitors doing the same. Leadership teams should think holistically about the best ways to engage with customers when rolling out new technologies.

4. Assess when it makes sense to partner. Banks need to determine whether the current state of their financial stack allows them to partner with fintechs, and should assess scenarios where it might make sense — financially and strategically — to enter into such partnerships. The specialization of fintech companies means they can often put greater resources into streamlining and perfecting a specific function, which can greatly enhance the customer experience if a bank can adopt that function.

The relationship between a bank and fintech can also be symbiotic: fintech companies can benefit from having a trusted bank partner use its expertise to navigate a highly regulated environment.

Offering financial products and services that meet the needs of today’s younger generations is an ever-evolving effort, especially as companies in other sectors outside of banking raise the bar for expectations around tailored products and services. A focus on the key areas outlined above can help banks in their efforts to win these customers over.

Can a Hybrid Work Model’s Cyber Risk Be Tamed?

Many U.S. banks are beginning to repatriate their employees to the office after some 16 months of working at home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some, like JPMorgan Chase & Co., have demanded that their staff return to the office full time even though many of them may prefer the flexibility that working from home affords. A recent McKinsey & Co. survey found that 52% of respondents wanted a flexible work model post-pandemic, but that doesn’t impress JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon. “Oh, yes, people don’t like commuting, but so what?” the CEO of the country’s largest bank said at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council in May, according to a recent article in the paper. “It’s got to work for the clients. It’s not about whether it works for me, and I have to compete.”

Other banks, like $19.6 billion Atlantic Union Bankshares Corp. in Richmond, Virginia, are adopting a hybrid work model where employees will rotate between their homes and the office. “We have taken a pretty progressive view there is no going back to normal,” says CEO John Asbury. “Whatever this new normal is will absolutely include a hybrid work environment.” Asbury says the bank has surveyed its employees and “they have spoken clearly that they expect and desire some degree of flexibility. They do not want to go back into the office five days a week [and] if we are heavy-handed, we risk losing good people.”

However, a hybrid work model does create unique cybersecurity issues that banks have to address. From a cyber risk perspective, the safest arrangement is to have everyone working in the office on a company-issued desktop or laptop computers in a closed network. In a hybrid work environment, employees are using laptops that they carry back and forth between the office and home. And at home, they may be using Wi-Fi connections that are less secure than what they have at the office.

“If you think of a typical brick and mortar [environment], the network and computer systems are walled off,” says David McKnight, a principal at the consulting firm Crowe LLP. “No one can gain access to it unless they’re physically there.” In a hybrid work environment, McKnight says, “There are additional footholds on to my network that I don’t necessarily have full visibility into, whether that’s my employee’s home office, or the hotel they’re at or their lake house. That introduces different dynamics, connectivity-wise.”

Still, there are ways of making hybrid arrangements more secure. Full disk encryption protects the content of a laptop’s hard drive if it is stolen. Virtual private networks – or VPNs – can provide a secure environment when an employee is working from a remote location. Multi-factor identification, where employees must provide two or more pieces of authentication when signing on to a system, makes it harder for hackers to break-in to the network. And new cloud-based platforms can enhance security if configured properly.

Many smaller banks struggled to adapt when the pandemic essentially shut the U.S. economy down in the spring of last year, and many banks sent their employees to work from home. Some banks didn’t even have enough laptops to equip all of their workers and had to scramble to procure them, or ask employees to use their own if they had them.

Atlantic Union was fortunate from two perspectives. First, it had already completed a transition throughout the company from desktop computers to laptops, so most of its employees already had them when the pandemic struck. And the bank considers the laptop to be a “higher risk perimeter device,” according to Ron Buchanan, the bank’s chief information security officer. “What that means is you’re putting it in a high-risk environment, and you just expect that it’s going to be on a compromised network [and] it’s going to be attacked.”

The bank has a VPN that only company-issued laptops can access, and this gives it the same level of control and visibility regardless of where an employee was working.

Other security measures include full disk encryption, multi-factor authentication and administrator-level access, which prevents employees from installing unauthorized software and also makes it more difficult for hackers to break into a laptop.

Although cyber risk can never be completely eliminated, it is possible to create a secure environment as banks like Atlantic Union did. But they have to make the investment in upgrading their technology and cybersecurity skill sets. “The tools are there, and the abilities are there,” says Buchanan.

How Fintechs Can Help Advance Financial Inclusion

Last year, the coronavirus pandemic swiftly shut down the U.S. economy. Demand for manufactured goods stagnated while restaurant activity fell to zero. The number of unbanked and underbanked persons looked likely to increase, after years of decline. However, federal legislation has created incentives for community banks to help those struggling financially. Fintechs can also play an important role.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone — but not all equally. Although the number of American households with bank accounts grew to a record 95% in 2019 according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s “How America Banks” survey, the crisis is still likely to contribute to an increase in unbanked as unemployment remains high. Why should banks take action now?

Financial inclusion is critical — not just for those individuals involved, but for the wider economy. The Financial Health Network estimates that 167 million America adults are not “financially healthy,” while the FDIC reports that 85 million Americans are either unbanked or “underbanked” and aren’t able to access the traditional services of a financial institution.

It can be expensive to be outside of the financial services space: up to 10% of the income of the unbanked and underbanked is spent on interest and fees. This makes it difficult to set aside money for future spending or an unforeseen contingency. Having an emergency fund is a cornerstone of financial health, and a way for individuals to avoid high fees and interest rates of payday loans.

Promoting financial inclusion allows a bank to cultivate a market that might ultimately need more advanced financial products, enhance its Community Reinvestment Act standing and stimulate the community. Financial inclusion is a worthy goal for all banks, one that the government is also incentivizing.

Recent Government Action Creates Opportunity
Recent federal legislation has created opportunities for banks to help individuals and small businesses in economically challenged areas. The Consolidated Appropriations Act includes $3 billion in funding directed to Community Development Financial Institutions. CDFIs are financial institutions that share a common goal of expanding economic access to financial products and services for resident and businesses.

Approximately $200 million of this funding is available to all financial institutions — institutions do need not to be currently designated as a CDFI to obtain this portion of the funding. These funds offer a way to promoting financial inclusion, with government backing of your institution’s assistance efforts.

Charting a Path Toward Inclusion
The path to building a financially inclusive world involves a concerted effort to address many historic and systemic issues. There’s no simple guidebook, but having the right technology is a good first step.

Banks and fintechs should revisit their product roadmaps and reassess their innovation strategies to ensure they use technologies that can empower all Americans with access to financial services. For example, providing financial advice and education can extend a bank’s role as a trusted advisor, while helping the underbanked improve their banking aptitude and proficiency.

At FIS, we plan to continue supporting standards that advance financial inclusion, provide relevant inclusion research and help educate our partners on inclusion opportunities. FIS actively supports the Bank On effort to ensure Americans have access to safe, affordable bank or credit union accounts. The Bank On program, Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, certifies public-private partnership accounts that drive financial inclusion. Banks and fintechs should continue joining these efforts and help identify new features and capabilities that can provide affordable access to financial services.

Understanding the Needs of the Underbanked
Recent research we’ve conducted highlights the extent of the financial inclusion challenge. The key findings suggest that the underbanked population require a nuanced approach to address specific concerns:

  • Time: Customers would like to decrease time spent on, or increase efficiency of, engaging with their personal finances.
  • Trust: Consumers trust banks to secure their money, but are less inclined to trust them with their financial health.
  • Literacy: Respondents often use their institution’s digital tools and rarely use third-party finance apps, such as Intuit’s Mint and Acorns.
  • Guidance: The underbanked desire financial guidance to help them reach their goals.

Financial institutions must address both the transactional and emotional needs of the underbanked to accommodate the distinct characteristics of these consumers. Other potential banking product categories that can help to serve the underbanked include: financial services education programs, financial wellness services and apps and digital-only banking offerings.

FIS is committed to promoting financial inclusion. We will continue evaluating the role of technology in promoting financial inclusion and track government initiatives that drive financial inclusion to keep clients informed on any new developments.

The Robust Potential of Robo-Advisors

When the New York Stock Exchange closed its doors on its physical trading floors in March of 2020, the immediate future of investing looked fraught with trepidation. The Dow Jones Index had plunged nearly 3,000 points on March 16 — the largest point drop in its history — and many saw this as a grim indicator of the months to come.

Others saw an opportunity.

During the second quarter of 2020, at the onslaught of the pandemic, Apex Clearing’s Next Investor Outlook Report saw a 27.5% increase in volume of trades as compared to the first quarter. A Charles Schwab study found that 15% of U.S. investors entered the market for the first time during 2020. Robinhood claimed 13 million users by the end 2020, a number some now believe to be near 20 million, according to the news publication CNBC.

Interest in investing has arguably never been more popular, and this trend has no signs of slowing down. CB Insights’ State of Wealth Tech Q1’21 reported that the wealth tech sector raised $5.6 billion in capital in the first quarter of 2021, surpassing the total amount raised during all of 2020 ($5.2 billion). Investors plowed the most money into retail investing, with $4.2 billion raised during the first quarter.

Consumers, specifically new individual investors, are showing that they want in on the action. And banks are in a prime position to introduce their customers to all types of services associated with wealth management via robo-advising technology.

Implementing robo-advising capabilities is an affordable way for banks to provide personalized financial advice to a broad segment of customers. There is typically no asset minimum, and services are available at any time. Also worth noting, banks don’t have to pull professionals away from their high net worth clients and accounts.

Robo-advisors aren’t strictly rooted in investment capabilities. Robinhood and other similar retail investment technology platforms get a lot of press, but there are hundreds of wealth management companies around the world that offer retirement, personal finance management, savings, onboarding, back office automation, reporting, portfolio analytics and aggregation, as well as automated trade execution services.

ABAKA, for example, is a London-based fintech that uses its artificial intelligence technology to offer bank customers retirement, wealth management, banking, workplace and mortgage advice, among other services. Their technology isn’t limited to one sector of wealth management, and customers are in control of what type of advice they seek out depending on their current needs.

Bambu takes a similar stance when it comes to offering individuals specific financial advice at specific moments in time. “Everybody wants a better financial life,” says Ned Phillips, CEO and founder of the Singaporean digital wealth management technology developer. And while this is a universal want, the path to financial security is as unique as snowflakes are.

Phillips points out that the banks that will succeed in keeping customer accounts will be the ones that understand their goals and desires, and subsequently provide personal and actionable advice, as well as recommended next steps. “You need a smaller, nimble company to provide that tech,” he adds. And currently, he thinks fintechs are much better positioned than a bank to understand how to make this attainable for each individual user.

While robo-advisors are an incredible way to both democratize and personalize financial advice, they do not diminish the importance of professional advisor and management services a bank may offer. There will be customers whose needs surpass the services a robo-advisor can offer, and should be transferred to a physical advisor when the time comes.

There isn’t enough time in the world for each individual person to sit down with a financial advisor, but wealth techs with robo-advice capabilities can at least offer it as an option to bank customers. For many, this may be the first time they ever receive financial advice that is tailored to their wants and needs.

Making these services accessible to all will be what sets a bank apart from the rest. And Phillips believes that we’ve barely scratched the surface regarding robo-advising technology and its potential impact on consumer financial wellness. “Today, we’re not even at the beginning.”

Tactical Pillars for Quick Wins in the Challenging Operating Environment

The challenges of 2020 included a landslide of changes in financial services, and the sheer effort by banking professionals to keep operations running was nothing short of historic.

Although there will be some reversion to prior habits, consumers in 2021 have new expectations of their banks that will require more heavy lifting. This comes at a time when many banks in the U.S. are engaging in highly complex projects to redesign their branches, operations and organizational charts. Fortunately, there are some quick win tactics that can support these efforts. Consider the following three “pillar” strategies that offer short-term cost savings and guidelines to set a foundation for operational excellence.

Portfolio Rationalization
Portfolio rationalization need not involve product introductions or retirements. But, given the changing consumer landscape, executives should consider taking a fresh look at their bank’s product portfolios. Due to the many changes in accountholder behavior, certain cost/benefit dynamics have changed since the pandemic began. This fact alone makes re-evaluating and recalibrating existing portfolio strategies a matter of proper due diligence. Rationalizing the portfolio should include revising priorities, adding new features and reassessing risk profiles and existing project scopes.

Process Re-Engineering
Banking executives have been under tremendous pressure recently to quickly implement non-standard procedures, all in the name of uninterrupted service during socially distanced times.

Though many working models will see permanent change, it is critical to optimize these processes early for long-term efficiency, security and customer experience. As the digital curve steepens, banks will need to map out the customer journey across all digital channels to remain competitive. Some process re-engineering methods include eliminating workarounds, streamlining processes and updating legacy policies that are no longer relevant.

Intelligent Automation
Banks are increasingly leveraging technologies classified under the umbrella of intelligent automation. These include machine learning, robotic process automation and artificial intelligence — all of which have become especially relevant to deal with multiple types of high-volume, low-value transactions. Automated workflows remove the clerical aspects of the process from the experts’ plates, allowing them to focus time and energy on more high-value activities. When executed well, intelligent automation works alongside humans, supplementing their expertise rather than replacing it. For example, areas like fraud and underwriting are becoming increasingly automated in repetitive and known scenarios, while more complicated cases are escalated to personnel for further analysis.

Supplier Contracts
Auditing invoices for errors and evaluating vendor contracts might be the last place a banker would look to establish a quick win. However, our benchmarks suggest they can be a critical stepping-stone to bottom-line opportunities. Existing vendor contracts often include inconsistent clauses and undetected errors (such as applications of new pricing tiers missed, etc.). Eventually, minor errors can creep into the run rate that adds up over the years to significant dollar discrepancies. With extensive due diligence or someone in the know, it’s possible to find a six to seven figure lift, simply by collecting intelligence on the prevailing market rates, the available range of functionality and reasonable expectations for performance levels.

While the financial services industry has been keeping operations running uninterrupted, there is no time like the present to optimize operating processes. Accomplishing a few results early  on can free up resources and support long-term gains. Executives should take the time now to optimize operating model structures in order to brace for what comes next. Looking into the increasingly digital future, consumers will continue to expect banks to reinvent and build up their operating models to greater heights.

How FIs Can Take the Speedboat or Extensibility Approach to Digital, Accelerated Financial Services

In a post-pandemic world, legacy financial institution must accelerate their digital processes quickly, or risk ceasing to be relevant.

With financial technology companies like Chime, Varo Money, Social Finance (or SoFi) and Current on the rise, change is inevitable. Alongside the nimble fintech competition, banks face pressure to rapidly deliver new products, as was the case with the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loans. While most legacy institutions try to respond to these business opportunities with manual processes, companies like Lendio and Customers Bank can simply automate much of the application process over digital channels.

Legacy institutions lack the access to the latest technology that digital challengers and fintechs enjoy due to technology ecosystem constraints. And without the same competitive edge, they are seeing declining profit margins. According to Gartner, 80% of legacy financial services firms that fail to adapt and digitize their systems will become irrelevant, and will either go out of business or be forced to sell by 2030. The question isn’t if financial institutions should evolve — it’s how.

To fuel long-term growth, traditional banks should focus on increasing their geographic footprint by removing friction and automating the customer’s digital experience to meet their needs. Millions of Generation Z adults are entering the workforce. This generation is 100% digitally native, born into a world of vast and innovative technology, and has never known life without Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok or Robinhood. In a couple of years, most consumers will prefer minimal human interaction, and expect fast and frictionless user experience in managing their money, all from their smartphone.

Some solutions that traditional banks s have undertaken to enhance their digital experience include:

  • Extending on top of their existing tech stack. In this scenario, financial institutions acquire digital/fintech startups to jump-start a move into digital banking. However, there are far fewer options to buy than there are banks, and few of the best fintechs are for sale.
  • Totally transforming to modern technology. This option replaces the legacy system with new digital platforms. It can come with significant risks and costs, but also help accelerate new product launches for banks that are willing to pay a higher initial investment. Transformations can last years, and often disrupt the operations of the current business.
  • Using the extensibility approach. Another way forward is to use the extensibility approach as a sub-ledger, extending the legacy system to go to market quickly. This approach is a progressive way to deliver fit-for-purpose business capabilities by leveraging, accelerating and extending your current ecosystem.

Institutions that want to enter a market quickly can also opt for the speedboat approach. This includes developing a separate digital bank that operates independently from the parent organization. Speedboats are fintechs with their own identity, use the latest technology and provide a personalized customer experience. They can be quickly launched and move into new markets and unrestricted geography effortlessly. For example, the Dutch banking giant ABN AMRO wanted to create a  fully digital lending platform for small to medium enterprises; in four months, the bank launched New10, a digital lending spinoff.

A speedboat is an investment in innovation — meant to be unimpeded by traditional organizational processes to address a specific need. Since there is a lot of extensibility, the technology can be any area the bank wants to prioritize: APIs, automation, cloud and mobile-first thinking. Banks can generate value by leveraging new technology to streamline operations, automate processes and reduce costs using this approach.

Benefits include:

  • Being unencumbered by legacy processes because the new bank is cloud native.
  • The ability to design the ideal bank through partners it selects, without vendor lock-in.
  • Easier adaption to market and consumer changes through the bank’s nimble and agile infrastructure.
  • Lower costs through automation, artificial intelligence and big data.
  • Leveraging a plug-and-play, API-first open banking approach to deliver business goals.

By launching their own spin-off, legacy banks can go to market and develop a competitive edge at the same speed as fintechs. Modern cloud technology allows banks to deliver innovative customer experiences and products while devoting fewer resources to system maintenance and operational inefficiencies.

If a financial institution cannot make the leap to replace the core through a lengthy transformational journey and wants to reach new clients and markets with next-generation technology, launching a speedboat born in the cloud or opting for the extensibility approach opens up numerous opportunities.

Marketing Campaigns Go High Tech

For years, community banks had to sit on the sidelines while the biggest banks rolled out sophisticated marketing and revenue-generating programs using artificial intelligence.

That’s no longer the case. There are now plenty of financial technology companies offering turnkey platforms tailored for community banks who can’t afford to hire a team of data analysts or software programmers.

“It’s amazing how far the industry has come in just five years in terms of products, regulatory structure and what banking means to customers,” says Kevin Tweddle, senior executive vice president for the Independent Community Bankers of America. Banks and regulators have gotten quite comfortable doing business with fintechs, choosing from a grocery cart full of options, he says.

One of the best examples of this is Huntsville, Alabama-based DeepTarget, which topped the operations category in Bank Director’s 2021 Best of FinXTech Awards. The category rewards solutions that boost efficiencies and growth.

The finalists and winners recognized in the annual awards are put through their paces in a rigorous process that examines the results generated by the growing technology provider space. For more on the methodology, click here.

DeepTarget’s 3D StoryTeller product delivers customized marketing content using 3D graphics that can be produced by a small bank or credit union without an in-house graphic design staff. Marketing messages resemble the video-rich stories on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, allowing the smallest financial institutions to compete with the biggest companies’ marketing campaigns.

The Ohio Valley Bank Co., the $1 billion bank unit of Ohio Valley Banc Corp. in Gallipolis, Ohio, has been using DeepTarget’s 3D StoryTeller software since October 2020, says Bryna Butler, senior vice president of corporate communications.

The bank used 3D StoryTeller to market an online portal where people could shop for cars and then apply for an auto loan through Ohio Valley Bank. From January to September of last year, that car-buying website generated just four loans. But after Ohio Valley Bank used DeepTarget’s 3D StoryTeller, the site saw a 1,289% increase in traffic. Using 3D StoryTeller translated into loans, too. Ohio Valley Bank generated 72 loans through the Auto Loan Center from October to December of 2020. Butler believes the response would have been even higher if the bank hadn’t been undercut by competitors with lower rates.

3D StoryTeller is a recent addition to DeepTarget’s line up; Ohio Valley Bank has been working with the company for about a decade. DeepTarget uses performance analytics among other options to recommend specific products and services that it believes will cater to each customer’s interests, similar to the way Facebook targets ads based on its knowledge of its users. “It’s not just scheduling ads,” Butler says. DeepTarget reports the return on investment for each campaign to the bank every month, including how many clicks translated into new account openings.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020 and the bank put its marketing plans on hold, the graphics program easily adjusted to feature messaging on how to use the bank’s digital banking or drive-thru customer service.

Although DeepTarget integrates with several cores, Butler says the software is also core-agnostic, in the sense that she can pull a CSV file on her customers and send that securely to DeepTarget.

Ohio Valley pays a small monthly fee for DeepTarget, but Butler says the software pays for itself every year. Other Best of FinXTech Awards finalists in the operations category include the marketing platform Fintel Connect, which tracks results and connects ad campaigns to social media influencers, and Derivative Path, a cloud-based solution that helps community banks manage derivative programs and foreign exchange transactions.