Will Neobanks Reward Investors?

Venture capital firms have been flocking to invest in neobanks, and they must be hoping that they will see big rewards. Expectations are high, but it appears that some questions are being asked about whether or not the hype around fintech will yield the financial returns that everyone hopes for.

It is true that the neobanks are attracting plenty of customers; N26 and Revolut being two good examples of customer growth. According to Accenture, UK-based digital banks could add 35 million customers over the next year, and they have around 13 million at present. Its data also shows that in the first six months of 2019, the UK neobanks added five million customers, indicating that the sector is picking up momentum this year.

However, there are some challenges remaining. First, the traditional banks still occupy the biggest slice of the market, and then there are the financial regulators like the FCA, which are extremely averse to any finance related institution cutting corners. Plus, as John Detrixhe points out, we have seen that companies in other ‘disrupting’ sectors, Uber and WeWork, have demonstrated that big valuations and intense customer growth are not sure signs of success. He also says that the fintechs need to ask themselves if they will continue to be seen as a niche product, or will customers eventually see them as a one-stop financial service.

Hence, there seems to be some changes happening in fintech investment, with investors looking at fintech tools beyond neobanks that will prove to provide bigger gains. This move is based on the idea that digital banks will never really disrupt the traditional banks.

So, they are looking at fintech software, such as cloud-hosted software and systems that make it easier to sign up for a new account. In other words, there is a belief circulating that the incumbent banks can fend off the newcomers by adopting new technology that allows them to offer the same benefits as their digital competitors.

These fintech tools are not as sexy an investment as Revolut say, but they could perform better in the long term, because if the incumbent banks can provide the same service as Revolut, then why would customers switch?

The situation in Europe is different to that in other regions where there are millions of people who are unbanked. Europeans have fewer problems with banking access, but perhaps don’t always have a great customer experience. So there is still plenty of investor enthusiasm in the West. Detrixhe says, “Eighteen of Europe’s biggest fintechs are now valued at more than $1 billion, according to Richard Diffenthal, a partner at Hogan Lovells. Investors are lining up to give them even more money.”

The one advantage that neobanks have over the traditional banks is that the incumbents can’t just rip up their legacy and start afresh. They are having to implement change one small step at a time, and that will take time. The neobanks need to use this opportunity, i.e. the incumbent banks slow-moving change, to accelerate their position as a trustworthy alternative to the banks that have been trading for hundreds of years. Then they will provide the returns that make investors happy.

A bank you never heard of has died

How many of you can hold your hands up and say that you have heard of Raphael’s Bank?

It is one owned by an archangel by the way. It is Britain’s second oldest bank and it has existed for 232 years.

What happened to cause its quiet demise? It wasn;t on the news, because few people have heard of it, therefore there was no rush to get the government to bail it out. The bank, which was a leader in lending, sold its motor finance division in 2018 and stopped lending completely in April this year, as reported in Forbes by Frances Coppola. It has also now just closed its retail savings division. Its press release said,

“All savings account holders have been given sixty days’ notice, in line with regulatory guidelines, of the bank’s intention to return their monies to them and close their accounts.”

In 2015, the bank was an active lender, though it had no high street presence and operated mainly through brokers and third parties. Its main strength was in motor finance, including mobility scooters and such like, and it was known for its range of retail and small business loans. It was also a significant provider of pre-paid credit cards in the UK, and had a string of ATMs. Coppola says, “It was, in short, a small full-service bank. Just the sort of bank the highly concentrated UK banking marketplace needs.”

However, story of its death goes back to who owns it, because it wasn’t really an independent bank, despite its independent sounding name. It is owned by Lenley Holdings, which also owns the International Currency Exchange (ICE). And Lenley didn’t want to support a small British bank, so it put it up for sale in 2016.

The expectation was that Russian and Chinese buyers would leap at the opportunity, but none emerged. Meanwhile Raphael’s kept expanding its services, including becoming the banking partner for Transferwise in the UK. And it partnered with Vodafone and PayPal in their mobile money initiative in Germany.

In fact the bank was doing very well in 2017 and reported a profit of over £22m ($28.57m), which was a significant increase on the paltry £25,000 ($32,470) of the year before.

Some onlookers say that the Brexit fiasco spooked overseas buyers, which is likely true, but then in 2018 the bank reported a massive loss of nearly £4.5m ($5.84m). The chances of finding a buyer now were rapidly disappearing, which is why it closed its motor finance and asset finance activities, and sold its motor loan book. Therefore in 2019 it was judged that it couldn’t be sold as a going concern, so Lenley decided to liquidate it.

It is not a catastrophic situation for the banking community, but it is an interesting story for startup neobanks. Just remember, even though this bank opened for business before the French Revolution, in the end it was defeated by a combination of geopolitical events and a low Euribor rate that decimated its evolving payments division.

What is the point of a robot tax?

While browsing articles on Artificial Intelligence, I stumbled across a piece by Milton Ezrati at Forbes. Discussing the possibility of a robot tax? This idea had been proposed by Bill de Blasio before he gave up his bid to gain the Democratic presidential nomination. Ezrati thinks it is a dreadful idea, but he is aware that both Silicon Valley leaders and current government progressives are quite keen on it.

According to the article, a robot tax would have four parts: First, it would apply to any company introducing labour saving automation. Second, it would insist that this employer either find new jobs for the displaced workers at their same pay level or pay them a severance. Third, the tax would require a new federal agency, the Federal Automation and Worker Protection Agency (FAWPA) and fourth, it would require Washington eliminate all tax incentives for any innovation that leads to automation.

The assumption appears to be that workers displaced by automation will never again find work at a comparable wage. Elon Musk for one, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are amongst those who are worried about this aspect of it, as is Democratic candidate, Andrew Yang, who suggests the introduction of a universal basic income, “to substitute, he claims, for the incomes lost to robots and artificial intelligence generally.”

However, it is not proven that the introduction of AI and robots will disadvantage workers so substantially. As Ezrati say, “innovation, if it initially displaces some workers, always eventually creates many more new jobs even as it boosts overall productivity and increases output.”

And, as he also points out, “since the industrial revolution began more than 250 years ago, business and industry have actively applied wave after wave of innovation and yet economies have nonetheless continued to employ on average some 95 percent of those who want to work.”

In my opinion, and in this respect I am in agreement with Ezrati, we have focused far too much on what will be lost with the introduction of more robotics, and not sufficiently on what is to be gained. His analogy that uses the introduction of email and the Internet regarding typists’ jobs illustrates this. Whilst those working in admin, messenger departments and typing pools no longer had their current job, new forms of employment emerged for them.

Similarly, when the introduction of automatic teller machines threatened to throw thousands of bank clerks out of work, the machines created profits that meant they could employ more tellers, and these tellers, with the assistance of different technologies, could do more interesting, complex, and valuable jobs at higher pay than they received before the ATMs were put in place.

A robot tax would be counter-productive and stunt growth in innovation, hampering the possibility of finding new types of jobs and improving living standards. It’s a proposed tax that simply doesn’t make sense.

A New Fashion In Fintech Investment

Investment follows fashion in a sense. In the last few years venture capitalists have been pouring money into neobank startups thus creating a trend for other VCs to follow. However, John Detrixhe says,

“Questions are being raised about whether this fintech craze is another quixotic quest for market share that burns cash but doesn’t generate much profit in return.”

The most ambitious neobanks, namely N26 and Revolut, want, he suggests, to be the Amazon of finance, and they are proving to be very successful at picking up new customers. According to Accenture, digital-only banks operating in the U.K. could amass a total of 35 million customers globally within the next 12 months — up from 13 million today — based on current growth rates. The report also says, “Digital-only banks are also reaping the rewards of improving the customer experience as they gain an average Net Promoter Score of 62 compared to just 19 for traditional banks.”

Naturally, they are having to face the incumbent banks, which can’t offer the same service. But, we should be wary. As Detrixhe says, if you look at Uber and WeWork, for example, “these have shown that rapid growth and high valuations are far from a sure sign of success.” Furthermore, it is impossible to say if customers will continue to use them as niche providers of peer-to-peer payments or travel spending or fully embrace them as a one-stop-shop for financial services.

Some investors are now looking beyond the neobank buzz and are moving onto another fintech sector. For example, on hedge fund founder, Steve Cohen, thinks traditional banks won’t be disrupted by the unicorns. But, he does think the banks will have to learn some new tricks. He suggests “Older lenders need things like cloud-hosted software and systems that make it easier to sign up for a new account.”

And that is where the new investment opportunity lies; in software for digital account openings and machine learning systems to make recommendations to customers. It’s not quite as sexy as investing in a startup neobank, but these software startups could help traditional banks leap into the 21st century, and in that respect they could serve as neobank killers.