In a rapid succession in the space of two weeks, two major Australian banks raised a red warning flag signalling their deep concern of what could be their biggest existential threat. The threat comes from not from the Bank of America, or Citibank, HSBC or Bank of China, but from unexpected sources, in form of nimble technology companies from Silicon Valley.
Commonwealth Bank CEO Ian Narev expressed this view at the G100 Congress in Sydney in May this year.
The new competitors are “the Apples, the Googles, the Samsungs, the PayPals, the credit card companies, who can pick particular slivers as a result of the application of technology into financial services and compete. We need to be prepared for that.” he said.
Ian Narev alluded that regulations have to be adapted to reign in a new type of competition. The trouble with this competition is that there is no precedent. Disruptive innovators create solutions that address needs outside the boundaries of traditional models before invading the established markets threatening to displace the incumbents. What to do?
Take for instance the case of Dwolla. Founded by a 28yo young entrepreneur from Des Moines, Iowa, USA, Ben Milne, Dwolla is a 12-person startup that invented an online payment system that bypasses credit cards completely. This startup is onto something because large financial institutions are very interested in this idea. Venture capitalists are backing the company with money. Just last month Dwolla received $16.5m in funding, its biggest investment yet. It is hard to predict the impact of Dwolla and other similar innovators on the banking system in the near future if the momentum continues.
A couple of weeks ago, the ANZ chief executive Mike Smith described the technological innovation wave that is about to hit the financial industry as “terrifying”. Smith made this statement to the board based on information received following a study undertaken by the bank during a tour in California. “Much of it is being driven by small companies that are very active in payments but very well-funded, and they are moving very quickly.” It is interesting how quickly ANZ followed Commonwealth to look at what is happening in the Silicon Valley. Something must make them nervous.
Reputable banks have some of the deepest moats protecting their business from new competition, something that Warren Buffet always liked about banks. But rapid changes can ruin that assumption. The transformation will go beyond improvement of operations. It’s about service, it’s about having a different presence in the peoples’ lives, with new perceptions. If a “normal” bank is still something that brings to mind images of prestigious physical old buildings (you-come-to-us), the new banks need to become virtual, quick, creative and very social (we-come-to-you).
Will the disruptive innovation brought by super-smart technology companies become a systemic threat to the traditional banking system? Maybe not, not entirely that is. It is more likely that a wave of restructurings, consolidations, and small bankruptcies will re-shape this business. Banks that “read” the market signals will either buy some of the successful fresh innovators, or innovate themselves, or establish alliances to surf this new wave of opportunities and reap the benefits. Others that refuse to see the threat may well as disappear.