The times for banks they are a-changin'

2013 was not great for financial institutions: The British Social Attitudes report revealed that only 19% of the UK population think that financial institutions are well run. This makes the banking sector bottom of the league and is a far cry from 1987 when public trust in banks was higher than 90%, writes Robert Roessler

2013 was not great for financial institutions: The British Social Attitudes report revealed that only 19% of the UK population think that financial institutions are well run. This makes the banking sector bottom of the league and is a far cry from 1987 when public trust in banks was higher than 90%, writes Robert Roessler

It is too simplified to blame Lehmann, Libor and PPI mis-selling alone. Regulators with a focus on increased competition have also created an environment for non-banks to enter financial markets. They connect people and enable them to conduct financial transactions directly with each other, with no more need for a bank to be involved.

There are many examples where this has happened. Leading UK payday lender Wonga has revolutionised access to money at short notice, and in 2012 the company lent £1.2 billion in four million loans, which generated profits of more than £1 million per week. Peer-to-peer lending platforms go one step further and cut out the middle-man completely by enabling individuals to lend money to other individuals. These platforms – the most popular ones in the UK are Zopa, Funding Circle and Rate Setter – have created a win-win situation: they offer better rates to borrowers than banks as well as attractive returns for lenders.

Traditionally, financing a project or business required asking one or a small number of banks for a large sum of money. Crowdfunding reverses the approach by asking a large number of people each for a small amount of money. Even though many projects fail to get funding, there are many success stories. In 2012 an estimated £200m was raised in the UK through crowdfunding, this is likely to increase many-fold this year and the years to come.

Peer-to-peer exchanges such as Kantox and Transferwise have similar positive growth prospects. They enable individuals and companies to buy or sell currencies to counterparts directly, without a central institution exchanging one currency into another before making a payment. They are highly attractive as they charge a fraction of banks’ rates, which typically include commissions, transfer fees and receiver fees.

With rising interest in these services, the question is what the banking sector is going to do. Currently they are less concerned: Transferwise’s 20-30 percent growth per month and daily transfers of £1 million is impressive, but with global currency markets exchanging trillions each day this is a small drop in a very large ocean. However, disrupting technologies in combination with regulation have the potential to change an industry for good: The EU’s Payments Service Directive paved the way for non-banks to offer payments services, and enabled companies such as PayPal to rapidly gain a large share of the market.

The landscape will continue to change, but banks will not give up. They will focus on core areas such as private and investment banking, as well as services such as mobile banking which they will market aggressively to increase customer loyalty. But traditional banking areas such as lending and payments will see even more alternatives to banks. And ultimately the financial revolution will encroach on an area which is so inherently linked to banks that it is hard to believe it will ever be separated: money.