Why Branch Building (Sometimes) Makes Sense

The Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia capsized and sank after striking an underwater rock off Tuscany, in January 2012, resulting in 32 deaths. The ship, carrying 4,252 people, was on the first leg of a cruise around the Mediterranean Sea when the disaster struck. Did the captain of the Costa Concordia care about the average depth of the ocean when he ran his ship aground? Probably not. What he should have been more aware of was the depth under his keel while deviating from his planned route.

Industry reports (including many of Celent’s) make lots of “average depth of the ocean” observations. They are relevant and important – sometimes. In retail for example, there have been an abundance of headlines trumpeting the growth of digital commerce alongside struggling same-store sales at brick-and-mortar locations. Hence the store closings many say. But alongside these overall trends are localized bright spots. Dick’s Sporting Goods, for example, announced strong sales growth and plans to add 43 new stores this year. Considering the growth in digital commerce (average depth of the ocean), the move is nonsense. A more surgical analysis considering market-specific shopping trends tells a different story – and justifies the build.

In retail banking, everyone knows branch footfall has been in decline along with teller transaction volumes – and everyone knows why. Considering these (average depth of the ocean) observations, plans for new branch building is nonsense. More than one analyst and futurist has repeatedly taken this position. But as is usually the case, reality is more complex.

The branch boom in the US has been at the hands of large banks. A historic look at the number of bank branches by asset tier makes this clear. Celent published a report on the topic in 2013 that predicted a steep decline in branch density – something that is now underway.

Source: FDIC, Celent analysis

But, the decline will not be uniformly felt across the asset tiers. In a May 2017 survey of Celent’s Branch Transformation Research Panel, we found that a significant majority of smaller institutions (those with assets less than $10 billion) are planning to increase the number of operational branches over the next two years – just the opposite among larger banks.

Source: Celent Branch Transformation Research Panel, May 2017, n=39

Still not convinced that branch building sometimes makes sense? Kronos published its 2017 FMSI Teller Line Study. FMSI, acquired by Kronos in 2016, provides cloud-based workforce management (WFM) solutions to small banks and credit unions. One aspect of the value it provides clients is monthly benchmarking (since it hosts all the data for its clients). One noteworthy item in its 2017 study is the continuous measured decline in average monthly teller transaction volume from 1992 – 2012. More recently however, transaction volume trends have reversed. In both community banks and credit unions, the trends have been modestly upward  over the past several years.

Source: 2017 FMSI Teller Line Study

Never mind average ocean depth, many US community banks are navigating very different waters than the big banks – and they're planning to build branches. A recent Celent report goes into more detail. 

The Value in Payments: Forces Driving Commercial Card Adoption

Eighty years ago a group of major airlines implemented the first commercial cards. Since then, cards have evolved from addressing expenses for travelling employees to eliminating friction across the business-to-business (B2B) financial supply chain. Banks are collaborating with B2B fintech firms to deliver innovative procure-to-pay solutions, bringing consumer digital experiences into traditional procurement, finance, and treasury processes.

Contributing to the adoption of commercial cards are four forces: working capital optimisation, regulatory and compliance, fraud and control, and technology and innovation.

The benefits of commercial cards differ according to business need: enhance expense management, digitise the procure-to-pay process, streamline payables, and improve cash flow. Where companies once used corporate cards exclusively for employee travel expenses, those firms now rely on cards primarily for purchasing goods and services, as evidenced by purchasing card spend growing over 900% since the 1990s. However, purchasing cards only represent a sliver of all global commercial flows and have the potential to become even more of an indispensable tool in the treasury/procurement toolbox.

As corporate treasurers prioritise working capital management during challenging economic times, commercial cards can defer payments while offering early payment to suppliers. Card programmes help to standardise processes and controls, improving safeguards and standards. Cards offer a range of controls, and other protections to increase security and control. Administrative dashboards and analytics technology support detailed transaction data with merchant category codes, unlock opportunities for supplier negotiation, and promote processing cost savings.

As discussed in the new Celent report “The Value in Payments: Forces Driving Commercial Card Adoption," incorporating cards into your overall working capital and payments strategy ensures an integrated approach across payment types and digital channels. Further integration arises from detailed transaction reporting and analytics flowing into treasury, procurement, and other financial management systems. Corporates need tailored, customised card solutions, developed in collaboration with their banking partners. The right bank can deliver a full suite of payment options across a firm’s geographic footprint, adapting and customising the programme in line with your company’s objectives. This report is the seventh in an ongoing series of reports commissioned by HSBC and written by Celent as part of the HSBC Corporate Insights program.

The Expanding Role of the Corporate Treasury

The Association for Financial Professionals (AFP) recently published its 2017 AFP Strategic Role of Treasury Survey supported by Marsh & McLennan Companies’ Global Risk Center.  The survey confirms that treasurers’ roles in most organizations are expanding, with their departments increasingly called on to support the execution of corporate strategy. Many now serve as strategic advisors across their organizations, taking on diverse responsibilities such as long-term borrowing, investing, payments strategy and execution, and counterparty risk analysis and enterprise risk management. The key reason behind treasury’s strategic role? Senior management’s focus on liquidity and risk exposures, along with the call to improve cash management and forecasting.

The report analyses how treasury’s level of maturity impacts how well it can serve as a strategic partner to an organization, the C-suite and Board. To help organizations gauge the level of maturity of their treasury function, AFP and other treasury experts developed a treasury maturity model which defines five stages of maturity:

Technology and automation are enabling treasurers to focus on higher value-added work. But nearly half of respondents either disagree or are noncommittal about whether technology is being used effectively by their organization’s treasury to manage risk and increase its contribution to an organization overall. Organizations positioned on the farther (more mature) end of the maturity spectrum are using technology more effectively than are those at the other end.

Strategic banking partners can help companies ensure they have the treasury technology tools to accurately forecast cash positions, assess capital allocation, and manage financial risk. Banks that provide integrated liquidity and investment platforms can also help treasurers reduce borrowing costs, hit liquidity targets, and increase risk management effectiveness through automation and digitization.

The road to an advanced treasury operation is a journey and these survey results can help develop a roadmap for treasury’s continued evolution. If you are a corporate banker or treasury management professional, I highly recommend a reading of the The 2017 AFP Strategic Role of Treasury Survey.

Takeaways from the Latest Research in Consumer Financial Decision Making

Once a year I take a break from industry conferences and vendor analyst days by going to the Boulder Summer Conference on Consumer Financial Decision Making, hosted by the Center for Research on Consumer Financial Decision Making at the Leeds Business School at the  University of Colorado Boulder. Academics, regulators, central bankers, and a handful of private sector people (like me) gather to discuss the latest research in the field. For many bankers much of the content is, frankly, too academic, but there are always some nuggets worth passing along to those who are interested in forging closer connections with their banking customers. My key takeaways follow.

Consumer data is valuable; advertisers & consumers don’t get their fair share

We all know that data is valuable; The Economist has even called it our most valuable resource, the new oil. Banks have historically not done a great job of monetizing the data they have, but neither have consumers. Consider a three-actor model for internet advertising consisting of an advertiser, an ad exchange, and the consumer. In different scenarios (which vary by who has how much information on consumer demographics), the ad exchange typically is the big winner, the advertiser comes in second depending on how much data they have, and the consumer rarely gains any of the economic benefit. Who’s going to step up and design a business that helps consumers monetize the value of their data?

Scope Insensitivity can be used for good

I’ll admit that this is a new concept for me, and one that is completely counterintuitive. Here’s an example from a site called LessWrong:

Once upon a time, three groups of subjects were asked how much they would pay to save 2,000 / 20,000 / 200,000 migrating birds from drowning in uncovered oil ponds. The groups respectively answered $80, $78, and $88. This is scope insensitivity or scope neglect: the number of birds saved – the scope of the altruistic action – had little effect on willingness to pay.

Researchers studied this phenomenon with credit card bills. They found that a group of people struggling with debt tended to pay roughly the same (rounded) amount on their credit card bills each month, regardless of the balance, a classic case of scope insensitivity. Here’s the clever part: it turns out that if people are paying, say, $50 once a month, they’re generally willing to pay roughly that twice a month, thereby improving their financial position over time.

Getting people to take action, let alone change, is really tough

An experiment in the UK tried five different ways to let consumers know that they could earn a higher rate of interest with a different kind of savings account at their existing bank. In the best case, only ~10% of those notified acted on the offer. There were a variety of hypothesized reasons, and there was certainly a great deal of consumer inertia at play, but I was frankly surprised at the low take up rate. The most successful scheme used a form that a customer could sign and mail back in to make the switch. It was familiar-looking and relatively simple, but still had a low acceptance rate. I’d bet that a lot of people were suspicious of the offer; it simply looked too good to be true, and why would my bank offer to switch me into a product where I’d be earning more?

I also liked the categorization of three flavors of switching costs. Paraphrasing, they’re ignorance, inertia, and inattention. While it may be difficult to rank the relative importance of each, bankers seeking to change behavior should be clear about which obstacle they’re trying to overcome.

Using Prepaid Accounts to set aside funds shows some promise

I’ve long advocated that banks and credit unions consider taking a portion of their marketing dollars and use them to pay consumers directly to encourage better financial behavior. An experiment tested various methods to encourage consumers who held the American Express Serve prepaid card to save. There are now some early indications that incentivizing consumers by paying them $10 to try out the savings feature is an effective strategy. More details are available at a landing page for the study here; it contains a link to the full report.

As the research from the CFPB states,

The results emerging from this pilot suggest that incentivizing prepaid card customers to save, and providing an opportunity for them to do so using a savings feature that keeps funds dedicated for saving separate from those used for spending, could provide tangible financial benefits. Consumers in this pilot demonstrated a willingness to take up the savings feature, indicating interest in alternative savings vehicles, and some customers also reported actual changes in their financial behavior.

Financial Education, done right, can work

Much work at prior Boulder conferences has examined the failures of financial education / literacy programs to make a significant difference. My hypothesis has been that many of them simply weren’t very good, so they didn’t work. To simplify, it’s the difference between having a good teacher guiding a well-designed course vs. a bad one teaching crummy material. As program designers learn what makes a program good, they’ll design better offerings, and efficacy will improve. An interesting pilot on 529 enrollment used parent education via a 45 minute session, together with targeted incentives and a thoughtfully designed curriculum, showed promising results. So, too, did an experiential program called My Classroom Economy that incorporated elements of financial education into classroom settings throughout the day, regardless of the course, and without having dedicated lessons set up specifically to teach financial literacy.

Like the American Express experiment, the use of a $50 offer to seed the 529 account was critical in enticing people to take the time to open the account before they left the education session. Immediate action to overcome inertia, together with a financial incentive, was critical.

Caveats and wrap-up

Let me end with a caveat: the researchers are much more precise, measured, and nuanced than I am in their reporting of their findings. They are extremely careful to note the limitations of their research and circumspect about its broader applicability. I may be overenthusiastic in my interpretation, and have not taken the time to caveat my interpretations of their research as carefully as they would. Nevertheless, the insights that these and other researchers continue to generate have potentially-far reaching implications as banks try to improve their relationships with customers and generate win-win outcomes.

Robots Offer Helping Hand to Fraud Investigators

Banks continue to be plagued by extremely high false positives. (They report anywhere between 75% and 90% false positive rates across their fraud and AML transaction monitoring systems.) False positives trigger alerts that then have to be resolved by fraud investigators. It is long standing and frustrating problem. Treating false positives, which in essence are low level alerts, require daily repetitive work by highly specialized employees. For each alert, the investigator has to toggle across multiple internal and external sites copying and pasting links and taking screen shot of information as evidence. It is a humdrum and error prone task. And, more crucially, it takes valuable time away from the investigation of high risk alerts.

So it’s good to see yesterday’s press release from @NICE_Actimize introducing robotic process automation (RPA) into the world of financial crime investigations. Actimize has integrated RPA into its case management solution. The solution deploys attended and unattended robots onto the investigators' screens to automate routine tasks involved in resolving alerts and cases.

I must note that @Pegasystems offers an RPA solution for repetitive back office processes for fraud resolutions. Several other vendors have RPA for financial case management on their roadmaps. However, it is far from being a mainstay of a bank’s financial crimes technology stack.

RPA is a low cost technology that has the potential to substantially increase the productivity and accuracy of AML and fraud investigations. Actimize’s ambitious goal is to potentially increase investigator productivity up to 50%. Whatever the percentage, the end result should be that investigators have the wherewithal to be proactive in the deterrent of suspicious activities.

It is not a stretch for banks to deploy RPA together with machine learning and natural language processing to automate not only repetitive tasks but to carry out simple, judgment-based tasks in the resolution of cases or filing of SARs/CTRs.

Actimize’s solution offers both attended and unattended robots. Attended robots are accessed by a tab on the investigator’s screen and, when required by the investigator, can support their daily tasks. Unattended robots are deployed in the background to quietly and quickly complete predefined routine tasks.

Unattended robots can perform checks on the queue of alerts to ascertain which alerts can be closed without exceptions. In most banks this can be up to 50% of the alerts in the queue. An unattended robot can automatically call or message the customer for further information and perform the process fulfillment activities of the outcomes of investigations such as issuing a new card or sending a letters.

Attended robots can be used on demand for such tasks as copying and pasting or navigating between systems and screens to help the investigator complete the evidence gathering processes.

As banks focus on operational efficiencies across risk platforms, it seems to me that Actimize’s goal is doable.

 

Paying with Google: An Exciting Prospect, Again

Last week in the Google I/O developer conference, Google made a number of interesting payments-related announcements. I would encourage anyone interested in this to look at the full video online, but here are some highlights and my takeaways. Google has discussed:

  • Google Payment API, which enables merchants to let their customers check out via any cards stored with Google. When the customer is ready to check out, they hit a "Pay with Google" button and are presented with the available payment options – any cards they have in their Google account they may have registered to pay for apps and services in Google Play or YouTube. Importantly, it also includes cards registered via Android Pay. Google is piloting this API over the the next few months and is partnering with the leading payment service providers, such as Braintree, Stripe, Vantiv, ACI, Adyen, First Data and Worldpay, to take it to market. This will work in-apps, via the browser, and via Google Assistant.
  • Google Shopping API to integrate into Google Home, and ability to build Purchase Actions with Google Assistant. In the example shared by the executives on stage, customers can talk via the Assistant to Panera, request an item, and pay for it via a card stored on the Google account while authenticating with their fingerprint. They also showed how the Gmail Send Money function can now be triggered via a voice command, bringing P2P payments capability to the Assistant. In the future, there are plans to onboard other P2P providers.
  • Loyalty enrollment, engagement and redemption support for in-store merchants. Participating merchants will allow customers to save their loyalty programs directly to Android Pay, get notifications of available offers via Android Pay, and redeem via Smart Tap, a service for which Google partnered with First Data and its Clover platform.

At the foundational level, Android Pay continues to make international inroads. It is already available in 10 markets, and is launching soon in Brazil, Canada, Russia, Spain, and Taiwan. Also, one of the most important features (in my view) is something that is already available today, yet perhaps didn't get enough acknowledgement in the market when launched – the push provisioning API. Issuers that integrate push provisioning API allow their cardholders to add cards into Android Pay directly from their mobile banking apps. More importantly, the user can get all the benefits of Android Pay without having to download and set up the Android Pay app itself. Certainly, that's one adoption barrier less to worry about. Bank of America, bnz, Discover, mBank, USAA, and Westpac are among the first banks that have integrated push provisioning API.

This is not the first time that Google made interesting announcements around payments – back in 2011, Google Wallet generated a lot of excitment among all of us following mobile payments. It appears that the latest API-driven approach with Android Pay as the foundation makes 'paying with Google' an exciting prospect again.

Internet of Things: Why Banking and Payments Professionals Should Care

There is little doubt that Internet of Things (IoT) is transforming many industries, from manufacturing to insurance. Celent's Insurance practice has been at the forefront of IoT research since 2014 and has published many insightful reports. At first glance, IoT’s impact on banking is less obvious. And yet, in a new research report published this […]
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Reflections of Nacha Payments 2017

Analysts have definite fixed points in our year. For me, one is the spring conference season, and which nearly always includes Nacha Payments, the big US payments conference. I was unable to attend last year, so I was particularly looking forward to returning this year. Indeed, there are groups of people I often only see […]
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Going to Germany? Don’t Forget Your Cash!

We analysts travel quite a bit to different places around the world. As someone who is always interested in what's going on in the payments world, I have a keener eye on my payments experiences than probably most people. I shared some of my observations about those experience on these pages in the past. Most […]
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Improving the Banking Customer Relationship: One Simple, Non-Technical Solution

We’ve seen that banks are focusing intensely on the customer experience, and very often they’re using technology to try to make that happen, whether it’s through predictive analytics, bots, or new branches. There’s another tack to take that can complement these laudable efforts: just be more human – and mean it! I travel a lot, […]
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