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Tech Disruption In Retail Banking: U.K. Banks Embrace The Tech Race

The U.K. banking sector is experiencing a period of significant technological diffusion as incumbent business models respond to increasing customer preferences for digital banking over traditional in-branch service. The U.K. is a global leader in the fintech space, supported by strong access to capital markets, a large talent pool, and a supportive regulatory framework. Indicative of the U.K.'s dynamic investment environment and London's position as a global financial center, in 2018 it received £1.7 billion of invested capital, more than the combined amount achieved by the rest of Europe.

We see a limited but sufficient window of opportunity for incumbents to react before the probable mass adoption of "Open Banking," a set of regulatory reforms to how banks share customers' financial data. We do not expect any material ratings impact from Open Banking over our two-year outlook horizon. Nevertheless, we see the potential for a structural increase in competition as the industry becomes more commoditized and brand loyalty is eroded. The viability of current business models could therefore become increasingly reliant on achieving sufficient scale and operational efficiency. Improved ease of comparison, switching, account aggregation, and data availability will increase the dynamism of core retail and commercial banking products. Over the coming decade, we foresee a more substantial impact on market positioning and profitability of the U.K. banking sector as the use of technology proliferates.

The recent earnings trajectory of the challenger banks demonstrates the difficulty that smaller lenders and fintech firms face in breaking the dominance of the six largest U.K. banks. A diverse range of traditional and digital-only challenger bank strategies achieved growth while the largest lenders were pre-occupied with restructuring and customer redress post the financial crisis. However, most have been unable to gain sufficient market share to counter more recent falling profitability trends. This year, for example, we have observed Tesco Bank and Sainsbury Bank exiting the mortgage market and consolidation with the merger of OneSavings Bank and Charter Court. We anticipate that a further round of consolidation lies around the corner.

TRIP Analysis Shows Relatively High Risks For Banks

We are illustrating our current views of disruption risk with our four-factor analysis of the U.K. banking system's technology, regulation, industry, and preferences (TRIP; see chart 1). Table 1 below highlights six examples of U.K. fintech banks.

Chart 1

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Table 2

Selected U.K. Digital Banks
Atom Bank Starling Bank Tandem Bank Monzo OakNorth Revolut
History Founded in 2014, obtained banking license in 2015. Founded in 2014, obtained banking license in 2016. Founded in 2015. Re-obtained banking license in 2018 (having lost it in 2017) after acquiring Harrods Bank. Founded in 2015, starting with a prepaid account. In 2017, received a full U.K. banking license and began rolling out full current accounts. U.K. banking license obtained in 2015. As of 2016, core systems are fully implemented in the cloud. Founded in 2015. European Banking License approved in 2018. The bank will start by testing the new license in Lithuania. Launched public beta in Australia.
Offer Digital-only bank offering fixed-rate savings, mortgages, and business loans through brokers. Digital-only bank offering current accounts, overdrafts, personal loans, international money transfers, and third-party financial services (through the launch of Marketplace). Digital-only bank offering credit cards, mortgages, unsecured personal loans, and savings accounts. Digital-only bank offering personal and business accounts and more recently overdrafts and loans and savings through third-party providers. Trialling mortgage switching through a broker. Digital-only bank offering savings products to retail and business customers. It provides business and property loans to SMEs. Digital-only bank offering electronic money and payment services through prepaid cards, currency exchanges, peer-to-peer payments and cryptocurrency exposure. Revolut for Businesses launched in 2017.
Customers 65,000 (reported as of October 2018) 356,000 (reported as of November 2018) 500,000 (published on the bank's website) Two million users (reported for FY2019). 28,000 (reported as of December 2018) Seven million (as reported for FY2018)
Funding £1.8 billion retail deposits and inaugural RMBS £400 million issuance completed in October 2018. £355 million from the Bank of England's Term Funding Scheme. £153 million of equity capital received in FY2018. £50 million raised in July 2019, £10 million grant awarded from the Capability and Innovation Fund in August 2019. £202 million in customer deposits. In February 2019 it raised £75 million and secured £100 million from the Capability and Innovation fund. £386 million of customer deposits. £50 million from the Bank of England's Term Funding Scheme. Customer deposits of £462 million as of February 2019. Raised £85 million in October 2018, £20 million in crowdfunding in December 2018, and £113 million in June 2019. £1.2 billion customer deposits as of December 2018. £74 million equity investment secured in March 2018, and £335 million equity investment secured in February 2019 at the holding company from Softbank and the Clermont Group. £133 million guarantee secured in March 2019 from the British Business Bank. Customer liabilities of £928 million (E-Money in issue and liabilities related to cryptoassets). Raised £181 million in 2018.
Assets Assets of £2.8 billion as of FY2019 (FY2018: £2.0 billion). Loan book of £2.2 billion in mortgage balances as of FY2019 (£1.1 billion in FY2018) and £183 million in business banking secured lending (£138 million in FY2018).    Total assets £235 million as of November 2018 up from £53 million in the prior year. Customer loans of £8.7 million. Total assets of £494 million as of December 2018 (2017: £492 million). Customer loans of £349 million, mainly comprised of mortgages and unsecured loans. Assets of £614 million as of FY2019 (FY2018: £140 million). Loans to customers of £16 million as of Feb 2019. Assets of £1.7 billion as of FY2018 (FY2017: £768 million). Customer loans of £1.3 billion (FY2017: £608 million). Assets of £1.1 billion in FY2018 (FY2017: £257 million).
Revenues and profits/losses Operating expense of £4.5 million as of FY2019. Loss after taxation of £80 million in FY2019. Revenues of £0.75 million (FY2018). Loss after taxation of £25.1 million as of November 2018. Revenues of £7.9 million as of December 2018. Loss after tax of £13.6 million at December 2018. Revenues of £12 million as of FY2019 (FY2018: £1.8 million). Loss after tax of £47.2 million loss as FY2019. Revenues of £60 million and profit after tax of £26 million (FY2018). Revenues of £58.2m. Loss after tax of £32.8m.

Regulation: Disruption Risk | High

We consider that a positive regulatory environment for Fintech has encouraged competition in the U.K., and has contributed to the U.K.'s position as a global Fintech leader.

U.K. regulation has a long history of pro-competition policy--both the PRA and FCA have specific objectives to promote effective competition in regulated financial services. The FCA has established an Innovation Hub and Regulatory Sandbox and supported over 500 fintech firms with applications and regulatory understanding. Since 2016 over 100 firms have participated in the Sandbox, which allows them to test ideas and products. The BoE established a Fintech Accelerator Project to support start-ups. In 2015, the UK government also created the Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) with the goal of promoting and supporting innovation. In addition, the PRA and FCA launched a joint initiative--the New Bank Start-Up Unit--to make the new bank license process easier and more supportive.

Table 3

Jurisdictions' Initiatives To Facilitate Innovation
Innovation hub: a place to meet and exchange ideas Accelerator: "boot camp" for start-ups, culminating a pitch presentation Regulatory sandbox: Testing in a controlled environment, with tailored policy options
Australia ASIC ASIC ASIC
Belgium NBB/FSMA
European Central Bank SSM
France ACPR/AMF BDF
Germany BaFin
Italy BOI
Hong Kong SAR HKMA HKMA HKMA/SFC/IA
Japan BoJ/FSA
Korea FSC FSC
Luxembourg CSSF
Netherlands DNB/AFM DNB/AFM
Poland FSA
Singapore MAS MAS MAS
Switzerland Finma Finma
United Kingdom BoE/FCA BoE FCA
Source: Basel Committee on Banking Supervision - Financial Stability Board survey.

Another initiative that is benefiting fintech firms is Open Banking. The project began in 2017 at the behest of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the initial phase of implementation started in early 2018. The CMA mandated the nine largest banks to create a standardized system that would give customers the option to share financial information with third parties. The end-result is that fintech firms are able to offer cheaper and better quality products, promoting competition and innovation in the sector. It also gives customers control over their financial data and empowers them to compare products and switch easily between them. The number of API (application programming interface) calls have increased exponentially through 2018-2019 (see chart 1).

According to the Open Data Institute, there are 135 firms approved by the FCA to provide open-banking related services.

Chart 1

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Table 4

Open Banking Summary Of Use Cases*
Live In testing In design
Account aggregation services Consumer lending Account sweeping and micro savings
Personal financial managers Automatic overdraft borrowing Product comparison services
SME financial management Credit file enhancement Protections for financially vulnerable people
Open Banking as a service E-commerce payments "Unanticipated innovations"
Identity verification
Debt advice
SME lending
*Categories are indicative only. Source: "Open Banking, Preparing for Lift Off," report by Fingleton and the Open Data Institute.

Further efforts from the government, as described in the government's "UK FinTech State of the Nation" report, include the launch of a Fintech Sector Strategy in March 2018. This strategy focuses on projects such as "regtech" (using technology to manage regulatory compliance in financial services), increasing access to talent, and encouraging fintech firms to partner with incumbents. Fintech Bridge agreements have been established with Singapore, South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Australia to encourage cross-country collaboration and ease access to international markets. The launch of British Patient Capital (through the British Business Bank) in June 2018, a £2.5 billion investment vehicle to support the development of start-ups, further demonstrates the U.K. government's initiative.

We consider that the government's commitment to innovation and maintaining the U.K.'s competitive advantage poses a risk to incumbent banks. We already see increased competition as neobanks and fintech firm continue to emerge, driven by a supportive environment. Incumbent banks are responding with significant technology investment programs to remain competitive. The Alternative Remedies scheme has promoted competition in business banking, with recipients including both challengers and neobanks. Metro Bank, Starling Bank, and the partnership of Tide and ClearBank are some examples. The U.K. banking sector also remains attractive and open to foreign firms (see the acquisitions of TSB by Sabadell, Aldermore by First Rand, and Ebury by Santander) as well as private equity players (such as Shawbrook). We see a risk that some challengers may fail to deliver on both the significant investment in digitalization and the growth required to thrive in the crowded U.K. market.

While many aspects of U.K. regulation are constructive for new entrants, we note that the BoE and FCA are clear that their regulatory approach to innovation will focus on the substance of the activity rather than just legal form. As such, we anticipate a proactive regulatory response to new entrants and innovations should they raise new financial stability risks. New entrants typically calculate regulatory capital charges according to the standardized approach and this can be a competitive disadvantage relative to incumbent banks' internal ratings-based models. In addition, capital requirements (MREL) also create a hurdle to exponential growth of new entrants as issuance typically disproportionately increases the cost of funding for banks operating with balance sheets larger than £15 billion-£25 billion. The anticipated maturing of the BoE's Term Funding Scheme through 2020 and 2022 is also likely to disproportionately increase cost of funding pressure on the smaller banks.

Technology: Disruption Risk | High

The U.K. is an attractive market for investors and the raising of fintech capital continues to set new records with first-half 2019 at approximately $2.6 billion. Between 2018 and the first half of 2019, for example, Revolut raised $250 million, Monzo $144 million, Starling Bank $211 million, and Funding Circle (a peer-to-peer lender) launched a £300 million IPO. The Capability and Innovation Fund has also provided funding to fintech firms, most recently Atom Bank, iwoca, Modulr Finance, and Currency Cloud Group. This emerging startup environment, despite challenging the incumbent banks' position, also provides an opportunity for collaborations and partnerships between banks and startups to facilitate the transformation process. Lloyds' strategic partnership with Thought Machine is an example, with the bank aiming to test a new core banking system built by the startup.

The U.K. benefits from comprehensive 4G coverage and is expected to have a significant 5G network in place by the end of 2019. The adoption of cloud computing by U.K. banks has been somewhat slower than in other countries--30% of financial institutions in the U.K. have moved to payments or collaboration in the cloud compared to 42% in Germany and 41% in France (Finastra). The Open Banking ecosystem is market-leading and has been critical in encouraging fintech innovation and investment in the U.K. Distributed ledger technology (DLT) is yet to be widely used, but regulatory support from the BoE and FCA has seen successful testing of DLT applied to debt issuance, fund transfers, digital currencies, and corporate governance activity. 

HM Land Registry is another example of the U.K. driving the application of new technology and developing blockchain capabilities. The strategic aim of automating 95% of daily property market transactions by 2022 is set to transform the industry. A number of U.K. banks are now adapting to interact with digital mortgage deeds and offer more efficient services to customers.

We see the increased need to adapt to the rapid technological changes as a high threat to incumbent banks. The six largest banks have invested heavily to adapt, and we see a significant risk for traditional challenger banks.

Chart 2

image

Preferences: Disruption Risk | High

U.K. customers tend to be tech-savvy and are rapidly adapting to the mobile and online world, reflecting a preference for convenience. Internet banking is amongst the most popular activities of internet users (see chart 4). Chart 3 takes a closer look at demographic trends within internet banking usage (a proxy for Open Banking adoption in the future). Unsurprisingly, the greatest proportion of internet banking users are in the 16-44 age range, with increasing adoption across all ages. When comparing demographic trends between savings and household debt, the older, less tech-savvy age groups dominate savings to a far greater degree than household debt (see chart 5). Over 85% of savings are held by people over the age of 45, and about 45% are held by those over 65, while household debt is concentrated in a far younger demographic, with over 50% of household debt in the 18-44 age bracket, about 45% with those over 45, and just 5% with those over 65. This observation contributes to our expectation of an increase in competition in the short term, but will present a greater threat of disruption via intensified competition over the longer term, and will be experienced on banks assets before liabilities.

Recent data from the Current Account Switching Service (CASS) indicate a moderate reduction in switching activity but an increase in "multi-bank" activity by younger age groups. Among under 25s, 37% use more than one bank, while just 17% of over 35s do the same. This is arguably more important than switching data as it offers a better proxy for banking commoditization and brand loyalty erosion.

Chart 3

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Chart 4

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Chart 5

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Changing customer preferences also represent a significant opportunity for incumbents to improve efficiency and reduce costs. We already see this shift occurring, with the U.K. ranked fifth in the EU's Digital Economy and Society Index 2018. The use of cash has rapidly declined to 28% of payments in 2018 from 60% in 2008, leaving the U.K. among the most cash-light economies globally (see chart 6). In 2017, debit cards overtook cash as the most frequently used payment method. Contactless payments continue to grow, representing 35% of credit card transactions and 50% of debit card transactions as of July 2019 (according to UK Finance).

Chart 6

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Chart 7

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It remains unclear whether the true competitive potential of Open Banking will ultimately be realized or if progress will be curtailed by retail customers' reluctant to share their financial data. The experience of other countries such as Sweden and China suggests that initial hesitancy will ultimately be overcome. We see a risk that a high-profile cyberattack or security breach could materially impact adoption rates. That said, such scepticism is reminiscent of criticism of first-mover online retail and internet banking offerings, and mass adoption has since been achieved.

A greater shift to digital product offerings and use of artificial intelligence (such as robot advisers) will enable further headcount reduction. Such a transition offers a significant source of cost reduction as staff costs still account for approximately 50% of total costs at the top six U.K. banks.

We note that greater use of Open Banking could also aid the development of ESG promoting banking products. Competition to provide more sophisticated data analysis apps and artificial intelligence (automated spending restrictions or reminders) can assist customers with financial decision making. Issues such as persistent debt, inadequate savings, and gambling addiction could be addressed more proactively to benefit the most vulnerable.

Industry Disruption Risk | Moderate

It is unlikely that digitalization of banking or the Open Banking reforms will materially disrupt the position of dominant players. Imitation will occur and the majority of incumbents will absorb the investment cost required. Charges related to payment protection insurance (PPI) litigation have largely been incurred, suggesting that incumbents have sufficient earnings capacity to cope with investment pressures. We see a risk that increased price competition will leave some smaller banks lacking the scale and efficiency to compete.

The U.K. banking sector continues to be dominated by six main players: Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds, Nationwide BS, RBS and Santander UK. The aftermath of the financial crisis intensified this concentration, as acquisitions of failing banks became rather common. Regulators have encouraged competition since then by putting in place simpler processes for acquiring a banking license. We have seen a number of new entrants, with the PRA authorizing 41 new banks since 2013 (as of March 2019) with four being digital-only banks. However, we see still see a high degree of concentration in the mortgage market space, where the top six banks have a combined market share of about 70%.

The emergence of digital banks is ongoing, with Monzo and Starling offering current accounts and Atom and Tandem focusing on mortgages and credit cards. Selling points have included lower prices on card-related payments, cheaper foreign exchange payments (Revolut), and improved money management services. These banks have focused on utilizing data effectively and providing better customer experience, partly as a result of Open Banking enabling customer information to be shared.

Incumbent banks are undergoing a phase of transformation, adapting to the changing nature of banking. This has meant changing their traditional business model, in which product lines functioned in isolation and legacy technology inhibited banks from looking at customer data in an aggregated way. Increased competition is incentivizing incumbents to improve their use of data, and has led to increased technology expenditure. We expect elevated cost-to-income ratios to persist in the short-term, in contrast to, for example, Sweden with about 44% in second-quarter 2019, where the transformation process began a decade ago (see chart 8).

Chart 8

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U.K. bank branch closures remain an objective for most as management looks to reduce cost and respond to customer preference. The market has already benefited from a reduction of about 50% in branch numbers over the last 20 years, with further reductions seeming likely. Reduced face-to-face customer interaction does risk accelerating the commoditization and personal current account unbundling of banking products, and weakening well-entrenched franchises. Should margins remain under pressure, the industry will remain highly motivated to deliver aggressive cost control as banks look to protect profitability. Given that most banks now target a cost-to-income ratio below 50%, it is worth noting that a 5% fall in revenue will require a 10% reduction in cost in order to leave profits unchanged.

We consider that, in the short to medium term, incumbents are well placed to compete by replicating the product offerings and functionality from neobanks and collaborating or partnering with fintech firms. For example, RBS has set up digital offerings Bó and Mettle, HSBC has Connected Money and has relaunched First Direct, and Goldman Sachs has raised over £8 billion in deposits for digital bank Marcus. Other incumbents are focusing on apps and online services, like Lloyds with its aggregation app, Santander UK with an online mortgage application service and app, and Barclays. Incumbents benefit, at least in the short term, from their longstanding, established position and customer loyalty. Having overcome the financial crisis and weathered events such as PPI claims and increased competition from challenger banks, incumbent banks have demonstrated their ability to cope with challenges and continue to dominate.

Whilst the neobanks have managed to attract millions of customers (Monzo has about two million and Revolut has seven million) revenues remain low and in many cases profitability remains elusive (see chart 9). None of the neobanks are present in the top 25 banks by revenue. According to Monzo, around 30% of active accounts are salary-funded (deposit at least £1,000 per month), which suggests that a large proportion of accounts are secondary. Having evolved in an economically benign period, it remains to be seen how they will perform through the entire credit cycle.

Chart 9

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Chart 10

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Big tech companies are potentially a bigger threat for traditional banks given brand awareness, established global digital ecosystems, and access to customer data. Regulatory constraints may curtail the ambition of such firms to enter core lending and deposit taking. However, we see an increased interest in the subject, with Facebook planning to roll out Libra, a digital currency, in 2020 and Amazon already providing extensive cloud-based services (AWS) to the banking industry. We could expect this to increase the risk of commoditizing and aggregating banking products in the future.

The U.K. has a particularly large number of nonbank financial institutions with a wide array of niches and formats, including a tendency to focus on the underserved or adverse credit markets. This well-established market has therefore historically generated high returns and is likely to continue to attract more neobank competition, particularly if the mass market imitates rapidly.

We believe that the main risk for incumbent banks stems from new business models providing customers with the option to efficiently search for better offers. The adoption of Open Banking APIs have the potential to improve ease of comparison and switching, thereby reducing barriers to entry and increasing the dynamism of core retail and commercial banking products. This could disrupt the traditional "in-house" multi-product brand loyalty of previous generations. The low rate environment, while far from unique to the U.K., also represents a motivator for digital users to more actively chase higher-interest-paying current and savings accounts.

U.K. Bank Ratings Are Generally Stable, With A Moderate Risk From Technological Disruption

Overall, the pace of investment in fintech and digitalization, combined with the customer-centric Open Banking architecture lays the foundation of structural change in U.K. banking sector. In the short term, we see a limited threat of disruption, beyond constrained profitability, given the proactive approach of most incumbents and their superior capacity to invest and weather macroeconomic deterioration, or a prolonged period of intense competition. In the medium term, we expect competition to intensify and profitability to fall until the cost and headcount reduction enabled by digitalization and AI are realized (in 2021 or beyond). Reduced profitability will result from more dynamic, price-led, brand-insensitive customer behavior and will place an even greater strategic importance on achieving economies of scale. We expect this to lead to further consolidation either between neobanks and those incumbents that are too slow to adapt, or among neobanks that fail to achieve sufficient growth to reach steady state profitability. The timing and sequencing of such themes will be directly influenced by the timing and severity of late cycle credit performance, and the pace of technological diffusion.  An economic downturn is likely to serve as the catalyst for more rapid change. 

Related Research

  • Limbo State Lingers For U.K. Banks, Aug. 28, 2019
  • Comparative Statistics: Top 25 U.K. Banks, June 24, 2019
  • The Future Of Banking: Will Retail Banks Trip Over Tech Disruption?, May 14, 2019
  • Tech Disruption In Retail Banking: China's Banks Are Playing Catch-Up To Big Tech, May 14, 2019
  • Tech Disruption In Retail Banking: German Banks Have Little Time For Digital Catch-Up, May 14, 2019
  • Tech Disruption In Retail Banking: France’s Universal Banking Model Presents A Risk, May 14, 2019
  • Tech Disruption In Retail Banking: Swedish Consumers Dig Digital--And Banks Deliver, May 14, 2019
  • The Future Of Banking: Research By S&P Global Ratings, May 14, 2019
  • Which Way Now: The U.K.'s "Challenger Banks" Reach A Fork In The Road, July 10, 2017

This report does not constitute a rating action.

Primary Credit Analysts:John Wright, London (44) 20-7176-0520;
john.wright@spglobal.com
Eugenia L Armas, London + 44 20 7176 0103;
eugenia.armas@spglobal.com

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