Big banks continue slow digitalization

Mobile online banking

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Major banks’ effort to reach customers digitally continues to grow, slowly, against the rise of other businesses using technology to offer new kinds of financial services.

Bank of America dedicated an entire slide of its third-quarter earnings presentation this week to “digital banking trends,” while JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo mentioned mobile user trends in their latest earnings reports.

Bank of America is “investing a lot of money in making sure they can maintain digital banking trends,” said Erik Oja, equity analyst at CFRA Research (formerly S&P), which has a buy recommendation on the stock.

The bank is trying to find ways to lower expenses and generate revenue in a world of low interest rates, he said.

“I think technological innovation plays into those themes … and they have the resources, much more resources than European banks or community banks,” Oja said. “All the major banks are working at this.”

In the BofA presentation, the bank said digital accounted for 18 percent of total sales. The bank also came out first in tech research firm Forrester’s 2016 ranking of U.S. mobile banking functionality and 2015 study on U.S. bank digital sales functionality.

“Bank of America would be right to think they are in a good position and they are leading when it comes to offering digital experiences among their traditional competition set,” said Peter Wannemacher, senior analyst at Forrester Research, which compiled the studies. “But their traditional competition set is not all that matters.”

Mobile banking apps increasingly allow customers to conduct basic tasks, such as depositing a check, transferring money between accounts or setting up appointments with banking professionals. But competition has been rising with the growth of nonbank apps such as Venmo, which allows users to send money to each other, or TransferWise, which facilitates international transactions.

More than half of American adults believe technology providers are more secure or as secure as banks, according to consumer research of more than 1,000 U.S. adults last December by YouGov and TransferWise. Looking out over the next decade, more than three-fourths of Americans in the study said they would trust a technology company with at least some of their financial services needs.

“Any bank that has a huge percentage of its business from retail banking or consumer-facing products, they’ll want to have strong digital” products, said Joe Cross, general manager of North America at TransferWise.

“It is very easy now for customers to shift between banks,” he said.

For now, customers appear to be conducting more business digitally with banks such as Bank of America. The second-largest U.S. bank by assets said Monday that digital transfers and bill payments totaled $243 billion in the third quarter, up from $229 billion in the period last year.

“What they’re seeing is proof that banking is still valuable and important to people,” Wannemacher said. “We’re not yet 15 years down the road. Serving customers through digital channels … has a positive impact on business outcomes.”

Bank of America also said digitally made appointments for visits to the financial center jumped to 343,000 from 161,000 last year.

“Why are they coming? Usually for a much more important financial transaction to them then handing us a check for deposit, and so it’s quality versus quantity and making sure we understand that,” CEO Brian Moynihan said on the bank’s conference call Monday.

JPMorgan said in its third-quarter earnings report that active mobile customers rose 17 percent from the same period last year to 26 million. And in a breakdown of impact to customers from its sales scandal,Wells Fargo said total digital online and mobile secure sessions still rose 13 percent in September from last year.

The other major banks have less of a consumer-facing business but digital technology was a topic of their third-quarter conference calls.

Goldman Sachs Chief Financial Officer Harvey Schwartz said Tuesday that the firm’s technology strategy was focused on client engagement. Last week, the bank launched an online consumer lending business called Marcus.

The digitalization of finance has picked up more quickly in Asia, whereCiti said it is the largest credit card issuer and 1 in 4 credit cards is now acquired online. Ninety percent of Citi customer transactions in Asia take place outside a branch, the bank said.

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