Neobanks need to own their niche

Currently there are somewhere around 256 neobanks in existence, according to Exton Consulting. These brands offer a digital-only experience that are perceived as customer-centric and easy to use, as in opening an account only takes a few minutes. They are also lower cost to use than their physical banking counterparts.

However, only a small handful of these banks have achieved substantial profitatbility. Their names will be familiar: Revolut, N26, Monzo, Nubank and Chime amongst them. The others, which are significant in number, are unlikely to be profitable for the foreseeable future, according to Accenture research, which revealed “the average UK neobank loses $11 per user yearly.”

Part of the problem is the rising cost of providing a service, whilst the margins generated per customer remain low. Finextra correctly reminds us that disrupting the traditional banking market was always going to be a long-haul business, and that it really needs large amounts of venture capital investing to keep the LTV/CAC ratio in good shape.

CAC is ‘customer acquisition cost’, and LTV is Life-Time Value in this case. The LTV is a measurement of the average revenue generated by a customer in a 1, 3 or 5 year period. Clearly, neobanks want this to be as high as possible, but it is one area where they are being challenged, as the average is around 15€ per customer per annum. Banks like N26 and Monzo obtain revenue mainly from “the low debit card interchange fees,” but this results in very low LTVs. Less travel and smaller purchases during the 2020 pandemic has had a big effect on this.

The CAC is calculated by taking the total money spent on customer acquisition and dividing it by the number of new customers. Neobanks do much better than traditional banks in this regard, “with an average CAC of neobanks around 30 euros versus 200 euros for incumbent banks,” Joris Lochy reports at Finextra.

Lochy says that what we are going to see this year is a switch from chasing growth to increasing profitability. Neobanks are being strongly encouraged by VC investors to provide more profitable products, such as investments and credit: products such as credit cards, overdrafts, salary advances and purchase financing. They are also likely to chase small business customers, and provide Banking-as-a-service services to other Fintechs or even banks.

It also follows that some neobanks will stop offering free services. They used these effectively to grow their customer base, but now they may need to charge more fees.

Threats are also coming from the incumbent banks, but perhaps the biggest threat is from Big Tech stepping into this space. As Lochy suggests, what the neobanks need to do is “find a niche where they can excel and not fight head to head with the large banks.”

Finding a niche

This is likely to come by restructuring and rethinking the product offering to provide an even more personalised service, probably in the credit sector. Some would also be better off by targeting a specific consumer group and tailoring their product offering to them. For example, the Longevity Bank is for Seniors, and there are ones focusing on women, freelancers and SMEs. Ultimately, what neobanks need to do to survive, is offer something that no other bank, credit union etc offers – that’s what ill really bring home the customers.

How hackers steal millions from bank accounts

The latest information from IBM Security Trusteer’s mobile security research team indicatesthat hackers have been using ‘mobile emulators’ to steal millions from financial institutions in Europe and the USA.

How they did it?

They set up a network of mobile device emulators that were behind thousands of spoof devices able to access thousands of compromised accounts. A set of set of mobile device identifiers was used to spoof an actual account holder’s device, and in each case it is likely that these accounts had been infected by malware, or collected via phishing.

The hackers have the victim’s username and password, and using an automatic process are able to “script the assessment of account balances.” They can then automate large numbers of fraudulent transfers. These are never large enough to trigger bank scrutiny at the time.

How does an emulator work?

It mimics the characteristics of several mobile devices. They are often used by developers to test applications, but in the wrong hands they are a crime tool.

According to Finextra: “IBM Trusteer says that the scale of the operation is one that has never been seen before, in some cases, over 20 emulators were used in the spoofing of well over 16,000 compromised devices.”

IBM added, “”The attackers use these emulators to repeatedly access thousands of customer accounts and end up stealing millions of dollars in a matter of just a few days in each case. After one spree, the attackers shut down the operation, wipe traces, and prepare for the next attack.”

IBM Trusteer’s intelligence team has also observed a trending fraud-as-a-service offer in underground venues, promising access to this type of operation to anyone willing to pay for it, with or without the required skill.

“This lowers the entry bar for would-be criminals or those who plan to transition into the mobile fraud realm,” says IBM, and is likely to become a growing trend amongst cybercriminals.

Neobanks grow in 2020

Some good news to come out of 2020 is the growth in neobanks. According to Finextra, Exton Consulting has produced data showing that there are currently 256 neobanks globally, and several more waiting to launch.

The data indicates that a new banking business opened every five days over the last three years, and that Europe is still the main location of innovation, with three of the five most advanced markets being in the region. They are the UK, which is recognised as a neobanking powerhouse, followed by France and Sweden. It also reports that 50 million people in Europe have opened a neobanking account.

Europe leads in neobank innovation

Other markets are catching up with Europe, most notably South Korea and Brazil, but there is also substantial movement in the USA. China is somewhat unique in its challenger bank development, but it is unrivalled in terms of its numbers of clients using the “financial super apps” available there.

On the downside, not all challenger banks have been able to stay the course. A significant number of players relied on payment interchange fees as a revenue stream, and there has also been vulnerability due to rising number of defaults on loans. As a result, more than 30 neobanks have been wound down since 2015, with Australia’s Xinja being and an example.

New routes to profitability

Exton says: “On their quest for monetizing customer relationships neobanks have learned a first lesson: payment transaction fees, premium account subscription fees, or open banking commissions from brokering 3rd party services will in most cases not be sufficient to generate profits or breach beyond operational break-even.” It added, “Our expectation much rather is that Neobanks will need to offer additional products to jump the gap to sizable profitability.”

Digital lending may be one opportunity where the neobanks can thrive. Another option is, “the morphing of the product outside of financial services via the development of a super app, ” and a third possible route to profitability “lies in providing investment services to the mass affluent market.”

Exton concludes, “Irrespective of which path neobanks will take, we remain convinced that they will need to shift into profitability mode quickly as investor patience will not be unlimited. But for those that select the paths right for them, stay focused on it and grow up as an organization, the future remains bright and full of opportunities.”

Can Google Plex win over banks and consumers?

It’s only a matter of days since I wrote about the relaunch of Google Pay. Now I turn my attention to Google Plex. With a beady eye on the way traditional banks are lagging in the mobile banking stakes, it has come up with a solution that enables the old boys to keep pace with the fintech challengers, or at least that is what it appears to promise.

Ron Shevlin quotes some observations from the Snark Tank, such as this summary of the Google Plex pitch: “You’re lagging in technology. Your current vendors are years behind. Consumers think you’re irrelevant. We’re hip, we’re cool, we have all the latest technologies, and boy have we’ve got data! Come partner with us on our new checking account!”

And to some extent the potential customers are buying it. Shevlin says “three big banks, four community banks, two credit unions, and two digital banks” have announced that they have formed partnerships with Google to use the Google Plex checking account tech in 2021.

Now let’s go back to Google Pay. Google Plex will be integrated into the app, which now has three new components.

First, it has a P2P and retail payments component that essentially mimics the Venmo model. This will allow users to, “Set up group payments, put multiple people in a chat and let them send and request money from each other. It will also track who has and hasn’t paid their share and let you tap a button to pester them,” according to The Verge.

Users can also use tap-to-pay, which is pretty old hat now, except that Google has added two new features – ‘Get gas’ and ‘Order food’. Apparently the latter refers to a food ordering system that will work with more than 100,000 restaurants. And consumers will be able to use the ‘get gas’ tab to pay for gas and parking via the app in 30,000 locations.

The ‘Explore’ feature will allow Google Pay app users to browse aggregated merchant offers, and they can receive merchant offers based on their spending activity. It sounds a little like Google ads and Facebook advertising all over again.

There’s also an ‘Insights’ tab which is described by Shevlin as “Google’s version of a personal financial management (PFM) tool,” similar to those available on other digital banking platforms.

Why is Google likely to win over banks to using Google Plex: It’s quite simple: Google has access to more data than any bank; Goggle has more merchant relationships, and it has more tech resources.

Of course, while the traditional banks might see Google’s offer as the fast and easy way to catch up with digital challengers, there is one critical factor to consider: will the consumer want a Google checking account?