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How Banks Help Customers With FinTech

Lou Carlozo

A storm is sweeping the banking world, happening faster than you can grab a fistful of 20s from the ATM. But to the average consumer, and even the above-average investor, it remains as mysterious as whatever lies behind that ATM screen.

So what's the force powering these changes? It's known as financial technology -- FinTech for short -- and it has left big public companies to grapple with feisty startups that are, to a large extent, private ventures.

To be sure, many major bank stocks have performed modestly or unimpressively thus far in 2017 after their post-election bounce. Citigroup (ticker: C) is up about 6 percent to $46 per share; JPMorgan Chase & Co. ( JPM) flat at $87; Wells Fargo & Co. ( WFC) down 4 percent to $54 and Bank of America Corp. ( BAC) up 5 percent to just shy of $24.

Meanwhile, how big banks and their community bank brethren will thrive or struggle in the next decade depends largely on how they adapt to and adopt FinTech. You'll find nothing in the banking world so spectacular as SoFi, a peer-to-peer lending service formed by Stanford University graduate students in 2011, first as a pilot program backed by 40 alumni to the tune of $2 million.

[See: The 7 Best Bank Stocks to Buy for 2017.]

In roughly six years, the scrappy startup based in San Francisco has branched out from student loan refinancing to mortgages and personal loans. It's funded more $19 billion in loans, and in the process has earned a AAA rating from Moody's -- the first online startup to do so.

"A lot of FinTech activity has centered on the digital lending process," says Steve DuPerrieu, vice president of channels and analytics for Computer Services, a banking technology firm based in Paducah, Kentucky.

Yet many such lenders, at some point, will need to team up with traditional banks to expand their reach. DuPerrieu points to Prosper's partnership with Western Independent Bankers to offer community banks digital lending capabilities.

"I think Prosper realized that they still need banks for the financing and underwriting, credit analysis, loan servicing and more, so it's turned out to be a great partnership," he says.

Another area where banks seem to be losing ground -- but still in the hunt to regain it -- centers on mobile payments. Here, companies from Facebook ( FB) to PayPal Holdings ( PYPL) have moved the ball forward. And upstarts such as Venmo (a service of PayPal) have taken off with millennials in a way to make traditional players envious.

"Venmo has grabbed banking market share because they have made it extremely easy to send money from one person or business to another at the touch of a button," says George Csahiouni, managing director and co-founder of TransMerit Merchant Service in Los Angeles. "The funds are also made available immediately."

Compare that to fighting traffic to hit a bank branch for a deposit, then waiting three days for the check to clear.

"Traditionally banks have often been tied to legacy systems which have reduced their capacity to keep pace with technical innovation," says Matthew Dixon, assistant professor of finance and statistics at IIT's Stuart School of Business in Chicago.

In part, it's a question of corporate values.

"Their cultures are generally not wired for top technical talent to thrive and they often rely on ad-hoc external consultants, with little or no incentive to bring long-term change," Dixon says.

[See: 11 Ways to Buy Bank Stocks.]

Yet banks still hold a distinct advantage over FinTechs in that they know their way around thorny issues such as federal regulation and compliance.

"Banks are critical to helping financial technology companies because they have invested billions of dollars over the years on compliance, systems and research," says Jake Skinner, vice president of strategy at FastPay.

Skinner knows from where he speaks. FastPay, which provides lending and financial workflow solutions, received funding from Citi Ventures in late 2016. It's also entered into a lending relationship with Wells Fargo that he describes as "amazing" as it has "allowed us to solidify our credit models."

Banks also hold valuable and perhaps impregnable turf when it comes to in-person counseling. Just as a roboadvisor in wealth management can't sit down with you to have an intimate financial discussion, online lenders can at best engage you by a phone call. And that pales in comparison to sitting down with a bank branch employee.

In fact, that same millennial segment that loves Venmo so much has been shown in survey after survey to want the personal attention that branch bankers can offer them. Online FinTechs excel at moving and reshuffling money with speed and convenience. But the chances of finding an algorithm or data formula to replace human contact? You do the math.

Still for banks and their investors, that doesn't erase the financial line in the sand between the bottom line and bottoming out. After all, banking regulations under the current administration appear headed for change, with the dismantling of the Dodd-Frank act on the GOP agenda.

"The imperative of digital transformation is driving banks of all sizes to more quickly adopt new technologies to reduce costs, improve agility, increase customer satisfaction levels and defend against competition," says David M. Wallace, global financial services marketing manager at SAS near Raleigh, North Carolina.

To that end, the majors have not been resting on ink-and-paper laurels. Wallace points to JPMorgan Chase's recent $3 billion investment in areas such as machine learning and big data. They're also diving into blockchain (the home of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin), as is Citigroup.

[See: High-Tech Investing: 7 Sectors to Watch.]

"The banks are trying to catch up and realize that technological innovation is not their core competency," says James Heinzman, executive vice president, financial services solutions for ThetaRay, a cyber security and big data analytics company.

Thus banks that once found themselves in a race against each other are just as much running a race against time. And investors will want to pay close attention as financial technology braces to take off like never before.

"If banks want to compete, they must be able to provide the kinds of services and products the new economy is demanding," Heinzman says, adding: "This is really the next wave of innovation -- and it's accelerating at an incredible pace."

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