Blockchain: Beware the Hype

At Celent, we just published a new research report with the same title as this blog – Blockchain: Beware the Hype. Why such a title? Isn't blockchain the coolest technology out there at the moment?

It is. At Celent, we firmly believe that blockchains and other shared ledger platforms will be a powerful catalyst for change in financial services and other industries for many years to come. There are some very promising use cases, particularly in cross-border payments, corporate banking, and capital markets, and even outside of financial services, in identity management, trade logistics, healthcare, and many other sectors. Even if “blockchain” ends up being a small component of the ultimate solutions, it facilitates new thinking that forces organisations to reimagine how they work, both internally and externally. And that can only be a good thing.

However, we do caution against succumbing to the hype, which is inevitable for any new exciting technologies. Blockchain hype is particularly acute, given the complexities of the underlying technologies. Nobody wants to be left behind when proclaiming the benefits of blockchain, but not everybody truly understands how those benefits can be achieved.

Luckily, the investment going into shared ledger technologies is resulting in a growing number of individuals and organisations lending their collective resources to explore deeply how financial services can benefit from these technologies. Their efforts are directed at exploring practical use cases (e.g. Everledger, Ripple, Shocard), developing new technology and tools (e.g. Ethereum, Intel, Multichain) and building out infrastructure for blockchain initiatives (e.g. IBM, Microsoft), with a number of firms engaged across the board. And the collaborative efforts such as the Hyperledger project or R3 are also bearing fruit – for example, R3 recently announced Corda, a new distributed ledger platform specifically designed for financial services.

We do think that is the way forward: thinking carefully about suitability of technology for the business problem at hand, and deconstructing blockchain technology to its fundamental components only to assemble the most attractive features in a way that makes sense for financial services. That is what will ultimately help us all move beyond the hype.

Celent research clients can access the full report here.

Security, fraud, and risk Model Bank profiles: Alfa Bank and USAA

Banks have worked hard to manage the different risks across their institutions. It has been and will remain costly, time consuming and a top priority. Celent profiles two award-winning banks who have modelled excellence in their use of risk management technologies across their banks.

They demonstrated:

  1. Degree of innovation
  2. Degree of difficulty
  3. Measurable, quantitative business results achieved
(Left to right, Martin Pilecky, CIO Alfa-Bank; Gary McAlum, SVP Enterprise Security Group USAA; Joan McGowan, Senior Analyst Celent)

(Left to right, Martin Pilecky, CIO Alfa-Bank; Gary McAlum, SVP Enterprise Security Group USAA; Joan McGowan, Senior Analyst Celent)

ALFA-BANK: SETS THE STANDARDS FOR BASEL COMPLIANCE IN RUSSIA

Alfa-Bank built a centralized and robust credit risk platform to implement Basel II and III standards, simultaneously, under very tight local regulatory deadlines. The bank decided to centralize all corporate credit-risk information onto a single platform that connected to front office systems and processes. Using Misys FusionRisk, Alfa-Bank was able to implement a central default system with a risk rating and risk-weighted asset calculations engine. The initiative is seen as one of the most important initiatives in the bank’s history. The successful completion of the project has placed Alfa-Bank at the forefront for setting standards and best practice methodologies for capital management regulations for the Russian banking industry and Central Bank.

USAA: SECURITY SELFIE, NATIVE FINGERPRINT, AND VOICE SIGNATURE

The game-changer for USAA is to deliver flawless, contextual customer application services that are secured through less intrusive authentication options. The use of biometrics (fingerprint, facial and vocal) to access its mobile banking application positions USAA to be able to compete with Fintechs across the digital banking ecosystem and offer exceptional service to its military and family members.

USAA worked with Daon Inc. to provide biometric solutions paired with its “Quick Logon” dynamic security token technology, which is embedded in the USAA Mobile App for trusted mobile devices. Biometric and token validation focus on who the user is and who the verifiers are and it addresses increasing concerns around the high level of compromise of static user names, passwords, and predictable security questions from sophisticated phishing attacks, external data breaches, and off-the-shelf credential-stealing malware.

For more information on these initiatives, please see the case study abstract on our website.     

The diversity of payments in the US

As a payments geek, I am always curious about payment experiences in various parts of the world. In the last month I had a couple of trips to the US – to New York and to New Orleans – and they just reminded me how diverse the US payments environment is. And I am only talking about the physical POS; I haven't really ordered anything online or in-app while I was there.

First, a few observations around EMV. As I live in the UK, all my cards are Chip and PIN, and the US market has been migrating to EMV for a while now. Of course, the migration can't happen overnight – some merchants have already upgraded their terminals, but many haven't yet. Also, there is no mandate in the US to use offline PIN, so "chip and signature" EMV cards are common amongst the US issuers. As an end-user, I experienced a full gamut of payment scenarios:

  • Majority of merchants would simply take my card, swipe it and give it back to me straight away. Not one of them checked if my card is even signed, let alone if the signatures matched…
  • On a few occassions, I was asked to insert the card into an EMV terminal and enter my PIN. And then we waited. And waited more. And a bit more. I knew EMV transactions take longer in the US, but I didn't realise just how much longer… Not surprisingly, the networks had to do something about it and have announced software updates (e.g. Visa's Quick Chip for EMV and MasterCard's M/Chip Fast) to speed up transaction processing.
  • Not a single eating establishment I visited had a handheld EMV terminal. All of them just took my card and disappeared for a while in the "back of the room" – a practice that sends shivers down the spine for most Europeans 🙂
  • On at least one occassion, I entered the PIN, yet the salesperson was still looking for a signature box on the receipt and wanted me to sign it. I had to explain that PIN replaces the need for signature; of course, these things will disappear once merchants learn more about the EMV cards.

A number of merchants in New Orleans had a Clover POS station. It looked really sleek on retailer desks and transactions seemed fast and easy. I asked a couple of them what they thought of it, and they all said they were very happy with the device, its looks and ease of use.

As a side note, American Express cards seem to be far more widely accepted in the US. In Europe, I got into a habit to double check at new places if they take Amex; in the US, that seems unnecessary.

Of course, it's no longer just cards. US was the first market in the world to see the launch of Apple Pay, Android Pay and a number of other digital wallets. The challenge for many of these wallets is the lack of places where they can be used, as contactless terminals remain relatively rare, albeit growing. However, when they can be used, they work very well. The biggest advantage that I can see as the UK user of Apple Pay is that in the US I can use Apple Pay for any transaction, whatever the amount (as long as my issuer is happy to authorise it). I had no problem paying for a taxi ride from New York's JFK airport to downtown by Apple Pay ($70+ fare with the tip). In the UK, Apple Pay and Android Pay (which has just launched this week) are subject to the same contactless card transaction limits and can only be used for transactions of £30 or less. Again, we expect this to change, as contactless terminals get upgraded.

I was also intrigued to see a PayPal acceptance badge at one of the POS terminals. I asked the cashier if it was a popular payment method amongst their customers. The cashier said that it seemed new to him, and that he personally had yet to see anyone trying to use it. I must admit, I am a fan of the PayPal wallet and use it whenever I can, but nearly all of my transactions are online/ via a mobile app. This time, I only noticed the PayPal sign after I already started paying by card, so can't quite report on the actual experience…

And yet, cash remains hard to beat, with many places only accepting cash. I refrained from visiting any of the dodgier establishments on New Orleans' Bourbon Street, but I didn't even had to in order to experience the power of cash. Most sellers in the French Market clearly prefer cash; getting into (jazz) Preservation Hall is "cash only" at the door, and while not every place has the sign as artistic as the one in the picture below, "cash only, one drink minimum" was a common mantra of many bars with live music.

cash only

Clearly, there is a lot of payments innovation in the US. Various wallets and innovations in POS contribute to the diversity of end user experiences. Such diversity is a good thing and if anything, it will only increase, as customers will have increasingly more ways to pay. And as the migration to EMV continues, the undesireable kind of diversity should reduce as well.

Citi’s geolocation move

American Banker just ran an interesting article about Citi’s foray into the use of geolocation (beacons) as it pilots several use cases in its “smart branches.” Several thoughts immediately came to mind as I read Tanaya Macheel’s well-written article:

  • The use of beacons for cardless access to branch ATMs after business hours was the lead use case cited in the article. But, that’s just one of a growing number of potentially very useful applications for beacons in retail financial services.
  • Banks have barely scratched the surface in more usefully integrating digital and physical channels as they seek to maximize customer engagement.
  • Geolocation, in particular, is under-utilized by retailers (especially banks) and remains largely experimental.

My hat is off to Citi for its purposeful investment in developing expertise in this area and to American Banker for writing about Citi’s work. In my view, the most impressive aspect of this initiative isn’t so much Citi’s pushing the technology envelope; it’s the organizational effort that was likely required. Getting its branch operations, mobile product management, IT and LOB leadership aligned represents real commitment to innovation.

How far ahead of the industry is Citi?

Here’s one data point. In Celent’s inaugural Branch Transformation Research Panel survey in (June 2015), we sought to establish a benchmark on just how far and how fast NA institutions were pursuing branch channel transformation. Of course, several questions addressed planned technology usage. Out of a dozen examples of technology usage, geo-location ranked dead last in terms of the liklihood of usage in future branch designs – just 27% of surveyed institutions thought the use of beacons would be "somewhat likely" or "very likely".

Branch Tech Usage

Pretty far I'd say!

Why are credit unions changing vendors at a higher rate than banks?

Credit unions are almost twice as likely to change vendors as banks, with competitive churn rates of 7.6% compared to 2.7% for banks.  Churn Rate measures the number of institutions in a given time period that either change or drop a vendor contract.  Churn is broken down into two components: competitive churn, which measures the rate at which institutions are opting to change vendors, and consolidation churn, which measures uncontrollable factors like acquisitions or liquidations. The figure below (powered using data from FI Navigator) references total churn for the year ending March 31st, 2016.

FINPic

The figure reveals significant differences in churn between banks and credit unions.  But why is this difference so large? There are two possible drivers:

  1. Customer centricity: A focus on the customer could be a driver for higher churn. Banks and credit unions operate differently, and Celent has explored the variations in blogs and publications.  The mission statement of the credit union market has historically revolved around extreme customer centricity.  Over the last decade, mobile has become a critical component in quality customer service.  Emphasizing the needs of the customer could be driving credit unions to take more concerted efforts to maximize mobile/ digital, exploring competitive options more frequently than banks. Credit unions are low margin businesses that often give higher interest rates for products like auto-loans or deposit accounts through non-profit tax breaks.  Being member-owned, most of the smaller profits also go back into the business.  This creates a natural incentive to streamline the back-office, and credit unions have adopted cost effective technologies at higher rates. Thin margins combined with a focus on customer service could mean credit unions are more likely to evaluate provider options more frequently.
  2. Solution providers: Another perspective is that it’s the vendor market, not the CUs that are driving the churn. The vendor spectrum for credit unions in the US is much more diverse, with 43 vendors compared to 22 selling to banks.   This would reinforce the argument that competitive dynamics are more intense, and it would be reflected in sales cycles. With cost pressures that originate from their smaller size and lower margins, credit unions are more likely to look for alternative ways to provide products and services, leveraging mechanisms like Credit Union Service Organizations (CUSOs) to enhance the business.  Other similar joint ventures leverage cooperative arrangements to develop homegrown software products.  Consortiums not present in the banking market would introduce more competitors into the market, and as a result impact competitive dynamics.

Credit unions skew much smaller than banks (the mean credit union asset size is  $200 million vs. banks with around $2.5 billion), leading to a noticeably higher consolidated churn. Celent examined the pressures on credit unions here. As minimum viable institution size continues to get bigger, smaller institutions will be challenged to stay afloat. Vendors will face the risk that their customers are becoming targets for M&A activity resulting in more vendors competing for a shrinking demographic.

Credit unions need to think about how to best streamline their operations to remain viable.  This includes a mix of cost-effective customer service technologies like mobile banking.  Vendors need to have a better understanding of the competitive landscape into which they sell, as competition is intense.  Better data and detailed benchmarks can help vendors plan their strategy.

Celent is collaborating with FI Navigator to analyze the mobile banking market in financial services (in fact, FI Navigator wrote a great piece about credit unions and banks last year).  FI Navigator assembled a platform that leverages a proprietary algorithm to track every financial institution offering mobile in the US, as well as nearly 50 vendors.  Beginning with the first report at the end of April, Celent will be releasing a biannual examination of the mobile market. FI Navigator will also be making the platform available for further custom reporting and data analysis.  For more information on the nature of the collaboration and availability of data, go here.

The banking railroad of innovation: Follow the river

I'm a big fan of the old movie classics. The TMC channel was a loyal companion during my graduate school days at the University of Illinois, offering a comforting black and white backdrop to frequent all-day programming sessions, and today I frequently call on TMC to get me through my daily hour-long treadmill sessions.

This weekend TMC offered up Jimmy Stewart as railroad detective Grant McLaine in 1957's Night Passage. A classic Western, McLaine was fired in disgrace over a railroad robbery carried out by his estranged brother, only to be offered a second chance to prove his loyalty to the railroad by being the courier for a large cash payroll being sent to the workers at the rail head.

Night Passage Poster

Grant's companion during the critical train ride to the rail head was young Joey.  Riding with Grant on a flatbed car as the train twisted and turned through the Rocky Mountains, Joey asked Grant how the railroad builders knew the best route through the harsh terrain.  This question gives Jimmy Stewart the rare opportunity to showcase his singing and accordion-playing skills as he responds by singing a song called "Follow The River".  The song ends with the chorus:

"Follow the river,
Wherever you may be,
Follow the river back to me."

Just as the railroad builders used the river to guide the design and layout of the early railroads, bankers have used technology to guide how banking services are designed and built.  In an interesting bit of historical irony, the first use of machine-based bank processing was being rolled out by the Bank of America just as Night Passage was hitting the movie theaters.

The system was called ERMA (Electronic Recording Method of Accounting), a machine-driven approach to electronically reading checks and processing the bank's accounts.  ERMA was co-developed by Bank of America and the Stanford Research Institute, launched in 1958, and was able to process 50,000 accounts per day.  While ERMA's initial capacity was small by today's standards, in those days, it represented an outlandish number in comparison with 10,000 accounts per month that BOA estimated it could process using existing paper-based manual methods.

ERMA ushered in the era of Big Iron in banking (a term also used to describe railroad locomotives), as improvements in the speed and capacity of what we today call the mainframe computer facilitated the rapid growth of the large banks during the 1960s and 70s.  Mainframe computers running programs powered by Rear Admiral Grace Hopper's newly developed Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL) became the river that banks followed when planning and building new banking systems like Electronic Payments (EFT), Electronic Tellers (ATM), and others to meet emerging customer demands.

Mainframe computers are interesting from operational processing perspective in that data (specifically customer accounts and daily transaction data) takes a while to load, but once loaded accounts can be processed at a lightning-fast rate.  While ERMA could process only 50,000 accounts in a day, modern mainframes can process millions of accounts in a matter of a few hours.  COBOL itself as a programming language was scorned nearly from Day One by the computer science cognoscenti as a crude and unstructured way to build an enterprise system. 

In 1975, a respected Dutch computer scientist named Edsger Dijkstra made the famous comment that: "With respect to COBOL you can really do only one of two things: fight the disease or pretend that it does not exist, " before concluding, "the use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should therefore be regarded as a criminal offense."  Despite the withering criticism from academia, mainframe vendors and banks moved forward on the basis that the systems simply workedThroughput is the key to understanding how high-volume banking systems and today's railroad system works. 

A case in point is the Canadian National railroad's purchase in 2007 of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Line (EJE) to facilitate its rail connection of parts east and west through Chicago.  While the distrance from Gary, Indiana to Waukegan, Illinois is only 70 miles by car, CN now connects these points using EJE's 198 miles of track.  This makes no apparent sense until you consider that CN is now able to route cross-country trains around the busy hub of Chicago, where previously CN endured a variety of operational restrictions and traffic jams arising from the many at-grade crossings through the congested urban core.  To CN, routing traffic around Chicago rather than through Chicago resulted in more throughput and fewer train delays, more than compensating for the additional mileage.

And so it has gone for the banking processing. The use of oft-criticized COBOL and the unique operating characteristics of mainframe computers was tolerated as there were no other alternatives for banks requiring reliable processing at very high scale. That is, until recently.

Just as the river in Night Passage twisted and turned through the Rockies, the path of technological progress has twisted in an unexpected way to many bankers, as cloud services are now challenging the hegemony of mainframe-based banking systems. While a top of the line mainframe computer can be purchased with more than a 100 lightning fast processors, a bank can "rent" thousands, even tens of thousands, processors for 10 minutes, 10 days, or 10 years. Using software that is tuned to manage the distributed processing of bank accounts across thousands of virtual machines, banks can now meet and exceed the enormous throughput of their mainframe computers at a fraction of the cost.

The king of mainframe computing, IBM, clearly understands and has responded to the changing role of the mainframe in banking.  During the 50th Anniversary celebration of the mainframe in 2014, IBM rolled out its new vision of the mainframe as an uber-sized cloud server, allowing for the hosting of several thousand virtual machines at one time.  Last summer, IBM upped the ante with the annoucement of IBM LinuxONE Emperor, a z13-based server allowing for up to 8,000 virtual machines to be hosted on a single machine.

While banks have experimented with cloud services to varying degrees, most of the innovation has taken place at the channel services level, with new online and (particularly) mobile banking applications getting a technology refresh through the unique benefits of cloud services.  While each bank will need to build its own business case for the gradual porting of COBOL-based account processing systems to modern programming languges that are "cloud-ready", it is clear that cloud-based account processing will allow the level of agility in product development that is increasingly called for as channel and payment systems continue to evolve.

Cloud-backed innovation in back office systems has been slow to develop, with many banks citing security and the fear of regulatory issues as inhibitors to adoption.  As the recent two-part Celent report Banking in the Cloud:  Between Rogues and Regulators establishes, regulators in fact do not have any objections to banks hosting their banking services in the cloud, provided that banks follow the same standard of care (including encryption, access controls, data masking, etc.) that they manage for in their own data center.

In time, I expect that the banking railroad will continue to follow the river of innovation that is now leading us directly into the age of cloud services. The proven yet inflexible COBOL-based systems that have served the industry reliably for 50 years will be replaced with agile and cloud ready account processing platforms that will over time both reduce costs and the drive service quality improvements that banks will need to compete and survive in the increasingly competitive world of financial services.

Digital banking is ready to take off in Latin America

Digital is the new reality in Latin America. In a recent Celent survey 100% of the participants recognized that a scenario where all financial products get digitized needs to be addressed sometime in the next 7 years and 59% of them believe it needs to be addressed immediately. There is also a general consensus that […]
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I hate being wrong: A precise look at mRDC adoption in the US

mRDC HistoryNobody likes being wrong. I’m no exception. Sometimes it’s not so much being wrong as much as being inaccurate. Here’s an example of where my best-effort estimates have been a bit off. Mobile RDC (mRDC) has been a fairly hot topic and a mobile banking capability that has gained rapid and widespread adoption among US […]
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Top trends in corporate banking webinar

2016-04-18_15-40-50Please join me on Thursday, April 21st at noon EST for an overview of the 2016 edition of our Top Trends in Corporate Banking report, which was published in March. Corporate banks continue to place an enormous focus on investing in digital channels to meet the ever-increasing demands of clients for enhanced tools while boosting […]
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Congratulations to Celent Model Bank 2016 Winners!

Last week many of us at Celent were in New York attending our Innovation and Insight Day on April 13th. It is Celent's flagship event during which we announce Model Bank and Model Insurer winners and celebrate their achievements. In addition, the program includes keynote speeches from industry leaders and Celent analysts, plenty of opportunities […]
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