Because money is so central to our lives it is little wonder that these predictions have covered that topic in detail. We have heard everything from the demise of paper money to the demise of money itself.
Where does that leave you if you’re a traditional bank?
In South Africa, we lived, for a long time, with four big banks (Standard, Nedbank, Absa and FNB). While some spectacular specialist bank successes (Investec, RMB) made life a bit more interesting, the reality is that these four players with their colour-coded marketing dominated the financial sector.
Recent years have seen two major disruptions to this cosy pie chart. First, the rise of Capitec Bank, which understood the mass market in a way the others had missed, and is now the second-largest bank in the country. And second, indeed, is the impact of digital.
There are now 19 registered banks in the country – and some, like TymeBank and Discovery Bank – are heavy digital plays. By which I mean they use technological superiority, customer experience and a digital-age message to position themselves.
But this undersells the complexity of the picture. From a service offering perspective, banking includes four main areas: home loans, vehicle loans, savings/credit and commercial banking. However, the consumer sees banking or financial services more broadly to include anything to do with money – wherever money is spent, invested, borrowed or exchanged.
This opens the field to many non-banking players. In Africa, a lot of money is exchanged via cellular – data. Services such as PayPal, Zapper and Apple Pay – while not directly challenging banks – change the way money flows and capture some of the fees along the way. And on the most radical end of the spectrum are new currencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and (perhaps) Facebook’s Libra, which are trying to re-invent money without the need for banking (although they cannot replace the most profitable part of banking, which is credit).
With this as background are traditional banks doomed?
Well, let’s circle back to that word again. When it comes to money nothing matters more than trust. It’s a cliché but it’s also baked right into the concept: money is, after all, a pretend way to store value based on the trust that that pretence will be believed by whoever you are handing the money to in exchange for non-pretend things. And trust is earned, slowly and with difficulty. What the big banks have – and one must include Capitec on this list now – is the trust of banked South Africans. You give the bank your money, they’ll look after it and give it back when you want it. That’s no small thing. In fact, it’s everything.
Capitec was able to succeed because it brought many people who were not banking into the circle of trust. On the back of that, they were able to start pillaging other banks for customers. It’s worked but it’s no easy matter to repeat this. It’s little wonder that one of the main challengers is Discovery – a company that is, although a love/hate brand for many, at least established.
There is no doubt that we have become more trusting with our money in the digital era. E-commerce was once thought to be a bridge too far for most consumers. And indeed, online transactions have opened up a wealth of new fraud options and scams. But in the end, this has not deterred millions of people from transacting on the internet and making companies like Amazon, global super-corporations.
But trusting a merchant to deliver a product is different to trusting someone to hold, grow, look after and manage your money. The 2008 financial crisis showed just how cavalier some of these institutions were with people’s trust (and their money) and plunged a lot of countries and their populations toward a fiscal precipice.
South Africa was largely shielded from that particular crisis and overall enjoys an incredibly healthy, well-run and trustworthy banking sector. We have progressive banking legislation and excellent institutions.
Does this mean they are immune from disruption?
In the short term, yes. South Africans are not big risk-takers with their money and it would take a catastrophe to shake the trust these banks have spent decades building.
However, in the longer term these are three things I believe South African banks need to do to be able to stay competitive:
Of course, some new competitors can offer clever new features and, indeed, some lower costs, but only the established banks can put the nail of self-doubt in their own coffins. FNB under Michael Jordaan proved that re-invention is possible. Now is not the time to cower. BM
"Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t." ~ Erica Jong