Barnett and Company

Silicon Valley Invades Financial Services

When was the last time you waited in a long line at a traditional bank to speak with a teller? Chances are, your branch experiences are far less crowded these days, thanks in part to fintech.

Financial technology or “fintech” is shorthand for the leveraging of computing, cloud, mobile and artificial intelligence capabilities in the world of traditional financial services. Most Americans, and especially most financial firms, either have been or will be profoundly affected by this accelerating trend in how consumers do business. In fact, chances are you’re already in the club.

The application of computing power originally focused more on the back-end of financial services, automating and accelerating transaction processing. But over the past decade, fintech has come to the consumer, providing access to a wide range of services from buying a latte to building an investment portfolio all from the smartphone in your pocket.

By far the most pervasive application for most consumers involves payment processing. Paypal allowed us to complete online purchases without entering a credit card each time. Today a number of apps like Venmo facilitate instantaneous interpersonal money transfers (think of a virtual Western Union). Digital wallets like Apple Pay or Google Wallet make point-of-purchase checkout a breeze, and commercial apps like Square replace the old cash register for thousands of small business. It is estimated that last year 64% of smartphone users utilized at least one mobile payment service.

Cryptocurrency, a form of money that exists only electronically, is another intriguing outgrowth of fintech. Utilizing a computing technology called blockchain, virtual currencies like Bitcoin, Etherium and Litecoin allow consumers to seamlessly transfer money with a high level of security (although cryptocurrencies are not yet ready for prime time as a replacement for dollars). Additionally, blockchain technology is gaining acceptance as a secure mechanism for verifying traditional financial transactions like wire transfers and securities transactions.

Technology is invading the world of saving and investing as well. Beginning with budgeting apps and simple utilities like Acorns that rounded up purchases and automatically deposited the difference, full-blown online banking has come to our phones. A number of new players like Chime and Simple offer traditional services like direct deposit, free checking and debit cards but no buildings. And the big legacy players are adapting as well, with most large banks now bringing enhanced digital offerings and more versatile mobile apps to the party.

Speaking of banks, the lending landscape is shifting as well. A host of so-called “crowdfunding” companies like Kabbage and Prosper have sprung up that raise capital from private investors and make loans to businesses and individuals, often utilizing streamlined approval algorithms incorporating credit metrics gleaned from transaction history or even social media data outside the normal FICO ratings. 

Wall Street is hardly immune either. A host of startups now offer a variety of investment capabilities that encourage and automate the process of investing through preset allocation models, helping nudge investors to overcome their worst enemy: inaction. These so-called “robo advisors” include upstarts like Betterment and Ellevest but also established players like Schwab and Vanguard.

Even insurance is getting a fintech makeover: not only can you access automated quotes and purchase a policy from your local Starbucks, but several carriers like Allstate and Progressive now adjust premium rates in real time based on driving patterns transmitted by telematic devices plugged into your car. Hands at 10 and 2 please.

Financial technology is reshaping how business gets done in every corner of the financial services industry, adding convenience and choice while compressing fees and expenses and challenging conventional players to adapt. Change is the only constant.

Christopher A. Hopkins, CFA