Picking a Path to Digital Banking

Consumer transition to digital channels for everyday banking needs reached a tipping point in 2019. A recent ABA/Morning Consult survey found that 73% of Americans access their bank accounts most often via online (37%) and mobile (36%) channels. And more consumers are also now embracing digital channels for more financial activities, from buying new financial products and services to securing financial advice.

Responding to this trend, and the march towards improved efficiency, many financial providers are “chasing digital” from the boardroom to the back office. Some take an incrementalist strategy, doggedly adding functionality or product sets to online and mobile platforms. Some have bought or built standalone digital brands, or layered digital over thin branch networks out of footprint. And, of course greenfield revolutionaries continue to dive in to the fray. We look at four models that are working, and what marketing mix and methods matters most for each.

All banking roads lead to digital these days–which path is right for you?

National Banks Double Down on the Human-Digital Model

Banks with a national or quasi-national branch footprint and strong brand equity – including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo – have focused less on driving digital deposit growth to date and taken evolutionary approaches to driving digital banking. Take Erica, for example, Bank of America’s AI-based personal assistant, launched in June 2018. Over the past 18 months, Bank of America has systematically expanded Erica’s capabilities, and methodically marketed it to customers. The platform recently reached 10 million users.  The same month that Erica appeared, JPMorgan Chase launched Finn, a standalone digital banking platform designed to appeal to a younger demographic. Just one year later Finn was shut down in a “fail fast” move, and Chase now appears to be doubling down on both digital banking evolutionary enhancements and selected branch expansions.

  • These national banks have significant technology budgets, and they are using them to launch a steady stream of new digital banking capabilities, citing increased customer satisfaction, higher share of wallet and reduced attrition. Bank of America calls it “moving from digital enrollment to digital engagement.”
  • Bigger banks are also pointing marketing budgets at digital adoption. We see an increasing number of multi-channel programs promoting digital capabilities and driving trial, including broadcast advertising, online banking ads, in-branch demos, social media and more.
  • While technology and marketing budgets are driving results, national banks will benefit most from a long-term channel-agnostic approach that emphasizes the strength of physical channels in acquisition, advice and complex product sales. Treating the digitization of human channels with the same attention as customer capabilities will yield higher return for banks with big branch horsepower. Too often, the glamour and appeal of digital banking pushes training and tooling for branch and contact center staff down the annual project queue. Putting next-best product predictors, automated diagnostic tools and intuitive digital solution finders in the hands of client-facing humans has high ROI.

Regional Banks Expand Reach with Digital Models

Regional banks by definition are deep in their footprints, and see digital banking as a lower-cost geographic expansion play–in some cases supported by a thin physical network.  This strategy typically starts with a high-yield savings account, then adds other products (e.g., checking, lending) and digital tools. Whether regionals find the equation to manage cost of acquisition, driven by high marketing costs and NIM pressure, will be key to delivering on the promised cost-efficiency plan. 

Regional banks leading the digital bank charge include:

  • Citizens Bank: With national aspirations and low brand equity outside of its Northeast and Midwest footprint, Citizens Access offers this high-performing regional a “nationwide digital platform.” Launched in June 2018, Citizens Access had generated $5.8 billion in new customer deposits by the end of 2019. Next up, Citizens is talking expansion into business savings and digital lending.
  • PNC expanded its digital banking capabilities in October 2018, leading with a high-yield savings account. Like several others, PNC has articulated a “thin network” strategy–combining digital bank investments with lean branch buildout in a few high-opportunity markets (in PNC’s case, Kansas City and Dallas).
  • Union Bank: Another thin network player, MUFG Union Bank introduced a “hybrid digital bank” under a separate brand, PurePoint Financial, in 2017. With a NYC headquarters setting it apart from Union Bank’s West Coast heritage, the PurePoint positioning emphasizes its parent Mitsubishi’s size and global scale, and its 22 locations in Florida, Texas and Chicago. The requisite high-rate savings and CD offers are complemented with heavy financial education. 
  • Santander Bank recently announced plans for a digital bank later this year, but unlike others, plans to pilot in its Northeast footprint.

Monolines, Specialized Lenders Turn to Digital for Diversification

This category of financial firms includes dedicated credit card issuers with no branch presence (e.g., American Express, Discover), as well as banks with a strong heritage in card or other lending and who have a limited retail banking footprint (e.g., Capital One, Citi, Ally, CIT).

Marketing Priorities and Challenges:

  • These banks have national lending franchises and strong brand equity. However, as their brands are often strongly associated with their lending operations, a key marketing challenge will be to expand consumer awareness of the bank as a provider of other banking and financial solutions. 
  • They will need to focus on data analysis, targeting, offer development and messaging to effectively cross-sell deposits and other products to their existing card/other loan client bases. This approach will also involve significant cooperation among different business units. Citi has been at the forefront in marketing deposit accounts to its 28 million credit cardholders and generated $4.7 billion in digital deposits in the first 9 months of 2019: two thirds of the deposits came from outside its six core banking markets.

Fintech Disruptors Continue to Emerge

Widespread availability of venture capital and private equity money continues to fuel a spate of fintechs entering the market, including Chime, N26, Radius Bank and Monzo.  Many predecessor neobanks have been challenged to achieve scale, as the cost of customer acquisition in digital banking has continued to rise. Fintechs typically partner with a small bank or servicer to offer deposits, but some (such as Varo Money) are now looking for independent bank charters.

Marketing Priorities and Challenges:

  • The digital bank upstarts tend to appeal to younger age segments who are both more accustomed to using technology to manage their financial needs and less loyal to traditional banks. These companies need to clearly understand how these younger segments consume media and make financial decisions and tailor their marketing investment and messaging accordingly.
  • As “new kids on the block,” fintechs will need to develop solutions and marketing to differentiate themselves from both traditional banks and other challenger banks.
  • The design and ongoing review of the digital user experience is critical, as this is the only platform consumers will have to interact with the bank. Some digital banks are not even offering phone-based customer service.
  • While challenger banks have a number of advantages over traditional banks (such as higher rates on deposits), there are other areas where these newcomers are seen as inferior (for example, a recent Kantar study found that 47% of consumers completely trust traditional banks, but this falls to 19% for challenger banks). Challenger banks need to develop messaging to directly address these areas of vulnerability, and communicate consistently through all consumer touchpoints.

Issuers Report Strong Credit Card Loan Growth Across FICO Segments in 2017

According to the latest FDIC Quarterly Banking Profile, U.S. credit card loan growth accelerated in 4Q17, rising 8.2% to $865 billion.

Given the strong overall growth in credit card receivables, are issuers focusing their growth ambitions on particular FICO Score categories? To address this question, EMI analyzed 10K SEC filings for leading credit card issuers.  Overall, we found that issuers reported strong credit card loan growth across their FICO Score segments. We also studied trends in different issuer categories.

  • In the aftermath of the Financial Crisis, the three leading issuersChase, Bank of America and Citi—focused attention away from near-prime and sub-prime segments and towards superprime consumers.  This led to significant declines in both outstandings and charge-off rates.  More recently, as economic growth and consumer confidence returned, these issuers have refocused on loan growth and are once again targeting lower FICO Score segments.  This is seen in the chart below that shows changes in outstandings by FICO Score segment between end-2016 and end-2017.  As these issuers are pursuing loan growth, their credit card net charge-off rates have also increased (+26 bps y/y at Bank of America, +30 bps to at Chase, +59 bps at Citi-Branded Cards North America).  However, charge-off rates remained below 3% for each of these issuers in 4Q17, and issuers should continue to focus on loan growth while charge-off rates continue at these low levels.

  • Second-tier national credit card issuers—Discover, Capital One and Synchrony—reported relatively strong growth, but with different FICO Score segment trends.  Discover reported 9% y/y growth, with no y/y change in share of outstandings for the <660 and 600+ segments.  Capital One had a similar overall growth rate (8%), but this was driven in part by the acquisition of the Cabela’s card portfolio, which boosted the >660 FICO segment’s share of outstandings.  It is also worth noting that the <660 FICO segment accounted for 34% of Capital One’s credit card portfolio at the end of 2017, compared to 25% of Synchrony’s portfolio, and 18% at Discover.

  • Regional credit card issuers present a mixed picture when it comes to the FICO Score segment composition of their credit card portfolios. This is driven by a number of factors, including a large variation in portfolio sizes, as well as their credit card underwriting standards.  Most issuers report growth across their portfolios, with strong growth rates in the low FICO Score segments.  Fifth Third reported very strong growth for its <660 segment, but this segment only accounts for 3% of its portfolio.  Regions’ 20% growth in its <620 FICO segment was driven by its launch of a credit secured card in July 2017.

Finally, as most issuers reported strong growth in their credit card portfolios in 2017, charge-off rates are also on the rise, growing 45 bps y/y to 3.61% at the end of 2017.  While the overall charge-off rate has risen from a low of 2.19% in 3Q15, it is down both from post-recessionary highs of 13.13% in 1Q10, and even the 4% levels in 2007, prior to the Financial Crisis.  With charge-off rates still below 4%, the leading issuers continue to be comfortable with promoting credit card loan growth.

Credit Card Issuers are Growing Outstandings…and Charge Offs

Most of the leading U.S. credit card issuers—portfolios of more than $500 million— reported y/y growth in their average credit card outstandings in the first quarter of 2017.

However, all of these issuers are also experiencing significant growth in credit card net charge-offs (gross charge-offs minus recoveries).  Of the 19 issuers:

  • 10 reported y/y charge-off increases of more than 20%.
  • For 17, charge-off rises outpaced outstandings growth.

These recent significant increases in charge offs follow an extended period of declining charge-off rates in the aftermath of the 2008-9 Financial Crisis.  During the 2010-2015 period, issuers tightened up their credit card underwriting considerably, and consumers moved away from racking up high levels of credit card debt.  According to the FDIC, the credit card net charge-off rate fell from a recessionary high of more than 13% in 1Q10 to less than 3% in 3Q15.  Since then, the rate rose slightly—to 3.16% in 4Q16—but still well below levels seen prior to the Financial Crisis.  And five of the issuers in the chart above (Chase, Bank of America, Discover, BB&T and SunTrust) still had net charge-off rates of less than 3% in 1Q17.

Even though current charge-off rates are low by historic averages, issuers must be careful not to allow charge-off momentum to grow to a problematic level.  One area of potential concern: many leading credit card issuers are reporting strongest outstandings growth for their low FICO Score segments, which tend to have significantly higher credit risk profiles.

Of course, when focusing on growing credit card loans, issuers accept that charge offs will rise.  However, they can help to ensure that these charge offs remain at a manageable level by:

  • Maintaining underwriting discipline
  • Avoiding a race to the bottom in credit card pricing; it’s notable that, according to CreditCards.com, the average credit card APR reached a record high of 15.80%)
  • Providing content and tools to educate consumers on how to use credit cards responsibly
  • Continuing to market credit cards as both payment tools and sources of credit