A little over halfway in and the year in fintech is already remarkable. Though COVID-19 dominated most of the news, the world of financial services didn’t rest on its laurels, making a splash with big announcements and deals. In no order of importance, here are the biggest stories so far.
The Wirecard Saga
Until recently, consumers had likely never heard of Wirecard. The company worked in the background of e-commerce helping merchants collect payments. Over the past decade, it expanded rapidly through acquisitions and a large cash infusion from Softbank. Its fortunes took a turn for the worse when auditor KPMG revealed in April that it could not confirm the authenticity of profits from 2016 to 2018. This led to a chain reaction of bad news with a police raid of the company’s offices, criminal investigations against management, an admission of missing billions and finally insolvency.
The Financial Times, which has been investigating for years, has a great timeline of events leading to Wirecard’s collapse.
Consolidation swept the industry with big-dollar transactions, the payments sector seeing the bulk of the action. Among the biggest deals included:
Visa bought Plaid, a company that helps fintechs connect with financial institutions through APIs.
Payments processor Worldline bought competitor Ingenico, potentially creating the fourth largest global player in payments.
Peer-to-Peer lender Lending Club bought Radius Bank to access cheap funding in a deal characterized by the buyer’s chief executive Scott Sanborn as a “no-brainer”.
Morgan Stanley bought E*Trade as trading commissions came under pressure from companies like Robinhood offering zero commissions. Remarkably, this was the largest deal by a major Wall Street player since the crisis.
Intuit bought Credit Karma, a start-up that grew to fame with free consumer credit scores.
SoFi bought payment processor Galileo to capitalize on the shift to digital payments.
Mastercard bought Finicity in a deal reminiscent of the one Visa concluded months earlier.
Digital Banking Push
Even before the pandemic struck, foot traffic at branches was on a decline. The trend was exasperated with the breakout of COVID-19 as branch closures forced consumers to digital only channels. Unsurprisingly, banks saw record usage of their platforms which led to outages for some.
Over in Asia, digital banking continued to dominate conversations on financial services. With three having gone live earlier in the year, consumers in Hong Kong are prepping for the remaining licensees, the hope being that all 8 launch by year end. This is remarkable given the backdrop of protests and COVID-19 forcing emergency measures.
Not to be outdone, fellow regional jurisdictions continued on their own digital banking agendas. Malaysia, Philippines and China honed their licensing guidelines while Singapore shortlisted 14 applicants to move to the next round of evaluations. The cohort includes a joint venture between regional super app Grab and telco Singtel as well as a group including gaming hardware maker Razer.
And on a lighter note, Goldman Sach’s Marcus digital bank became so popular in the UK that it was forced to stop accepting new customers for fear of breaching regulatory limits.
But it wasn’t all roses. In the UK, digital bank Monzo suffered through a down round in its fundraising effort amidst the economic uncertainty created by the pandemic. Fellow digital bank N26 exited the UK citing difficulties created by Brexit while RBS’ challenger bank Bó closed only a few months after launch.
Talk of big tech entering financial services continued to snowball in early 2020.
In e-commerce, Shopify introduced Balance. The product targets small businesses with a conventional checking account, a debit card for spending on everyday needs and ATM access as well as a rewards program with cashback and discounts.
Next, Amazon inked a deal with Goldman Sachs to offer a digital credit line for U.S.-based merchants. Though the company is renown for its use of data, the partnership marks the first time a financial institution makes underwriting decisions on its behalf. Even more surprising, Amazon won’t have access to data that Goldman collects for its qualification process.
Finally, there’s Samsung Money by SoFi, a no-fee high-interest cash management account from the global tech company and the US fintech firm. Like the credit card from rival Apple, users can apply directly from their device via Samsung Pay and will be issued both a virtual and physical debit card by Mastercard. There’s also access to a large ATM network as well as rewards points redeemable against future Samsung purchase.
Not so Fast on Cashless
Last October, I was inspired by a trip to New York to write about the pitfalls of a cashless society. Essentially, it limits options and is exclusionary, disproportionately affecting the underprivileged and/or underbanked.
COVID-19 set a new tone. In the early days of the virus, the move to cashless became predominant, justified by the health benefits of contactless payments such as debit/credit cards and e-wallets.
Powerful voices however warned against moving too fast. The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority published guidelines on branch and ATM closures, with a spokesman insisting that access to cash remains a priority for the regulator. This followed the government’s promise to protect cash by legislation. Similarly, the bank of Canada asked retailers to continue accepting cash.
Brazil stopped Whatsapp payments a week into launch
Open banking came to Australia
Uber reconsidered its financial services ambitions
The Libra wallet went from Calibra to Novi.
Buy now, pay later schemes gained steam as alternatives to credit cards
Nubank hit its stride after reaching 25 million customers.
Reach out to me to discuss any of these points in greater detail.
As always, thoughts are my own.