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Three questions for incoming virtual banks

CEOs from three licensed startups in Hong Kong highlight issues they are still working through.

Frederick Lau, Airstar

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Many Hongkongers are eager to sample services from among the eight virtual banks that have been licensed. That’s according to a survey by KPMG of over 2,000 residents, most of whom express readiness to give virtual banks a try, says the consultancy’s head of fintech, Avril Rae.

The promise is new banks that solve real pain points, not just serving up a snazzy mobile app: fast and easy account opening, services to help people organize their finances, and blending banking in with lifestyle activities, among other things. They are doing so by leveraging artificial intelligence, big data analytics, cloud computing, and open APIs, to ensure a widely accessible, 24/7 business.

But there remain plenty of questions as to how to actually implement a virtual bank – which is probably why several V.B.s have been reportedly warning their launches will be delayed well into 2020. The noise around this is acute enough to prompt a statement yesterday from Arthur Yuen, deputy CEO at Hong Kong Monetary Authority. He told the audience of the Hong Kong Institute of Bankers – gathered for HKIB’s annual conference – that there never was a launch period mandated by the regulator.

“Our objective is to ensure that virtual banks are prepared,” he said, adding that he expects a few will soft-launch basic services before the end of 2019.

Question 1: regulation

On paper, there should be no question marks about regulation. The law is clear: virtual banks have the same capital requirements and the same legal obligations as convention ones, with the single exception that they must be branchless.

The HKMA is keen to see these new players provide better tailored services to retail customers and small businesses, to better drive competition and keep Hong Kong’s banking industry relevant. Its supervisory stance is “risk based and technology neutral”, which sounds the same as how it treats conventional banks.

But it’s clear already that regulating V.B.s is not at all like regulating conventional banks. There is a greater focus on technology risk management and data privacy, as well as ensuring anti-money laundering and other compliance checks.

Customer protection is an even greater challenge for virtual banks

Arthur Yuen, HKMA

“Customer protection is an even greater challenge for virtual banks,” Yuen said, “as they use behavior data analytics as they design and market products and services. That raises very different protection challenges,” notably data privacy.

Yuen sited the government’s Privacy Commission as a font of ethics and best practices. Those are indeed fairly well developed. But they are also voluntary, and the Privacy Commission lacks enforcement powers.

Question 2: compliance

The flip side to HKMA’s concerns about supervising virtual banks is how they themselves approach issues around compliance.

Frederick Lau, CEO of Airstar Bank – owned 90% by Xiaomi and 10% by AMTD, where Lau also works – says meeting regulatory standards is not straightforward.

“Doing implementation with our vendors, we encounter a big number of [projects] that are not up to our [banking] standards or up to the regulator’s standards,” he told the HKIB forum. “We have to go back and forth to keep improving the final products.”

He says this is not unique to Airstar. Miscommunication stems from differing expectations. Virtual banks are new, for the industry and for the HKMA, which hasn’t issued a big banking license for decades. These may be “virtual” banks but they still must submit small mountains worth of paper documentation.

Moreover, with eight V.B.s on the drawing board, there is fierce competition for hiring in I.T., risk management, and compliance. Hiring bottlenecks impact the pace of other aspects of building the bank.

Running a technology company is different from running a bank

Frederick Lau, Airstar Bank

But the biggest challenge, at least internally, is that most of the leading shareholders of V.B.s are not banks. Of the eight, only two have major bank owners (Bank of China and Standard Chartered), while local fintech WeLab has been operating electronic marketplaces for several years.

“Running a technology company is different from running a bank,” Lau said. “When Apple launches a new version of the iPhone, it’s not perfect. There may be bugs. But they want to launch their product fast and grab market-share. In banking we cannot do that. We have to do everything 100 percent perfectly, to reach our standard and the HKMA’s standard.”

Which is a way of saying the tech shareholders in V.B.s still need time to better understand what is expected of a bank in Hong Kong – in a way that doesn’t compromise the innovation that’s at the heart of these new businesses.

Question 3: metrics

Tat Lee, alternate CEO at WeLab, says the newness of virtual banks means equipping the bank’s teams, including its bankers, with a tech mindset.

“When we build a virtual bank, we want to change the traditional way to build a bank,” he said. “It’s not a business-driven bank. Business is important, but technology is a key success factor. Everyone needs that mindset.”

Internally that means moving away from traditional decision-making processes (such as waterfalls, that is, sequential and hierarchical decisions) and more inclusive formats that encourage innovation.

“Compliance and risk-management people need to be trained, to combine their traditional wisdom with the technology,” he said.

We want to change the traditional way to build a bank

Tat Lee, WeLab

But where does the business side – revenues – come in? And if it’s not the main driver (at least not for the next few years), how do banks intend to benchmark their progress?

Deniz Güven, CEO of Standard Chartered’s virtual bank, says traditional metrics won’t work. Everyone gives lip service to the “customer-first” proposition but he doubts that’s how banks actually operate. But customers will really be the first priority among virtual banks (aside from necessities such as security).

“I tell the board and our shareholders, our first KPI is heartshare, not marketshare.”

Which makes for a great soundbite, but what does it mean? When Anthony Thompson launched Metrobank in the U.K., he too had a single KPI for all of his staff, which was customer satisfaction, as measured by net promoter scores. If Güven is implementing metrics for happiness, he isn’t sharing what those are.

“Of course we can talk profits and customer numbers,” Güven said, but then declined to do so.

To be fair to Güven, the other V.B.s aren’t talking such numbers either – and it may be a while before this becomes relevant. All the newcomers share the goal of making their customers happy and winning their trust, and that is going to take a few years.

But that doesn’t mean metrics go out the window. There will still need to be business models against which these banks are judged – and it’s not clear what any of those will be.

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Three questions for incoming virtual banks