Financial services industry outlook
Volume 8, Summer 2021
As the U.S. economic recovery is set to accelerate, financial services firms are assessing the shifts of the last year and how they will impact business strategy moving forward. Banks are reevaluating the purpose of branch locations, insurers are using data in innovative new ways to keep up with changing consumer demands, and more growth is expected from the “buy now, pay later” boom. Secondary funds have gained in popularity, the renewed focus on clean energy brings new opportunities for lenders, and decentralized finance has shown signs of growth.
KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THE SUMMER 2021 FINANCIAL SERVICES INDUSTRY OUTLOOK
- As the economy picks up steam, bank leadership teams may determine that branch reduction or consolidation makes sense. But the decision cannot be made in a vacuum and executives need to consider a broader scope of factors.
- As insurers use emerging technologies in new ways, the roles of chief information officer, chief technology officer and chief data officer are also evolving to be more data-driven.
- The financing of residential solar installations is an emerging category of interest for lenders, and one that is forecast to grow significantly.
- “Buy now, pay later” options still represent a small percent of total e-commerce spending in the United States, but the segment is growing.
- We expect secondary funds will become a bigger feature of private capital funds.
- The use of decentralized finance is growing at a rapid pace. To understand DeFi as a whole, it’s crucial to understand the concepts of the smart contract, the token, and the exchange.
As bankers have sought to address barriers to growth and increasing operational costs in recent years, many have historically turned to eliminating branch locations as a way to manage the bottom line, whether through a merger or acquisition or otherwise.
Then, a global health pandemic hit.
To be sure, banks were shuttering branches at a significant pace prior to the pandemic. But data from S&P Global Market Intelligence indicates the pandemic likely created an acceleration in branch consolidations and closures.
Between 2012 and 2019, banks eliminated approximately 2,700 branches a year. In 2020, as the global health pandemic set in, banks shuttered more than 3,500 branches. And if the pace of branch closures—more than 1,700 so far in this calendar year through May—continues to hold, 2021 could see more closures than 2020.
With the onset of the pandemic, banking operations went almost entirely remote overnight. Now with branches around the country beginning to gradually reopen, the only meaningful number of “regulars” returning to the branch are the employees. Consumers and borrowers have continued to stay home.
And since the beginning of the pandemic, countless organizations and groups have surveyed bank customers to not only gauge when or if they will return but what type of banking activities they might return for.
One such survey, performed by S&P Global Market Intelligence in February and March 2021, indicated that of the more than 3,800 people surveyed, 52% of respondents were visiting branches less frequently than before the pandemic.
The survey also noted that only 36% of respondents had visited a bank branch in the last 30 days, compared to 100% of respondents indicating they logged into their bank’s mobile app in that same 30-day period. The trend in mobile usage during the pandemic is likely to stick, as 88% of respondents indicated they were using their mobile app more frequently and would likely continue to do so or increase their usage once the pandemic is over.
Still, to say cost management as a result of the pandemic is the sole, or even major, reason more branches were eliminated in 2020 compared to prior years would be inaccurate. More and more, a significant contributor to branch consolidations and closures is the increasing acceptance by bank consumers and borrowers of digital channels, such as mobile and internet banking.
The evolving digital journey
As customers and borrowers look to continue using digital banking channels, the ability to reduce branch count while simultaneously increasing engagement creates a real and profitable opportunity for banks.
As banks look to the next normal, here are three important questions for leadership teams to ask when considering a branch reduction strategy:
What is the data telling us?Analyzing branch foot traffic and the type of transactions being conducted in those branches is incredibly important. So is analyzing the vast amount of data available about how—and how frequently—customers are using digital channels. Further, gathering input through surveys, or even through conversations with customers in the branch, can help inform which services can be provided digitally versus which benefit from in-person interaction.
Do we have the right technology in place? Driving growth through new-customer acquisition even while closing branches will require an extensive review of the digital banking technologies customers use, as well as the technologies used by frontline workers and back-office support in the performance of their jobs. Closing a branch can drive growth while concurrently reducing expenses only if the appropriate technologies are in place to optimize or improve existing processes, and if paired with capable digital banking channels.
If we need the branch, does it need to be full service? If reducing branch count is not a viable means for a given company to allow for growth while reducing costs, senior leadership should determine whether the business needs to offer every service at every branch. A branch may be able to “shrink” without disappearing altogether.
Branch strategy in action
As consumer preferences have shifted and the use of digital technologies has grown across all industries, the ripple effects continue. Huntington National Bank and People’s United Bank both announced in early 2021 that they would be closing more than 330 combined branches in grocery stores across their banking footprint. In Q4 earnings calls held in January, executives at both Huntington and People’s cited declining traffic in these branches along with increasing adoption of digital banking solutions as key reasons why the branches no longer made financial sense.
As customers and borrowers look to continue using digital banking channels, the ability to reduce branch count while simultaneously increasing engagement creates a real and profitable opportunity for banks.
This shift in strategy fits with customer behavior. Bank of America reported that of its 66 million customers, more than 52 million have signed up for mobile or online banking, with roughly 40 million reportedly using these digital banking services frequently, according to a June article in American Banker. This increase in digital adoption has led to roughly 40% of all deposits customers make with Bank of America being done through the bank’s mobile channel.
But just because digital channels are seeing increased use doesn’t mean the branch will become obsolete. There are opportunities to deliver a positive client experience by shifting branch services or interactions. For example, while both U.S. Bank and PNC Bank have reported branch closure plans in 2021, they have also rolled out their new branches of the future—which put less emphasis on a transaction (such as making a deposit) and more focus on a solution (how to utilize digital technologies for banking or planning for retirement). Such pivots create new uses for branches by providing a more tailored customer experience.
With net interest margins remaining compressed, bank consolidation restarting after a pause, and digital channels continuing to see broad acceptance, leadership teams will look to branches even more so than before for cost control measures as the economy picks up steam. But simply looking at branch consolidation or closures as a means to improve the bottom line without considering the impact on other areas of the bank and its potential growth could have unintended negative consequences.
Through analysis of branch activity and other branch-related data, as well as the use or implementation of the appropriate technologies, shrinking the size of a branch or even reducing branch count may make sense. But the decision cannot be made in a vacuum, and executives need to consider a broader scope of factors, not just those centered on expense management.
Data is like oil: Unless refined, it has no value. To serve their customers profitably, insurance executives understand that optimizing the huge amounts of data within their systems to realize the full value of emerging technologies is key to making better-informed decisions and better allocating resources. Insurers of all sizes are searching for sustainable solutions—technology that can allow the business to scale and keep up with changing customer demands, while maintaining a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Insurance companies have been focusing more on data transformation in the past decade, in the hopes of laying a solid data foundation to transition from a traditional business model to providing a defined omnichannel approach tailored to customer needs.
Here are five crucial ways data is changing insurance:
1. Treating data as an asset: Insurers’ data collection has expanded beyond policy and claims data, thanks to the rise of telematics, usage-based insurance products, and smart devices. Companies are beginning to use modern, self-service analytics tools to empower business users in order to operationalize this data. This expanding data ecosystem provides an ideal environment for insurers to increase revenues and accuracy, while reducing operational costs. Companies can leverage artificial intelligence technologies and predictive modeling tactics to improve capabilities such as:
- Pricing and risk selection
- Fraud prevention
- Claims triage
- Trend and forecast analysis
2. Evolving role of the CIO, CTO, CDO: As insurers use emerging technologies and advanced data analytics in new ways to identify risks, detect fraudulent claims, and settle reconciliations (to name just a few applications), existing roles in technology and information management are also evolving to be more data-driven. Chief information officers, chief technology officers and chief data officers need to understand this landscape to make better, data-informed decisions.
3. Enterprise information management as part of data strategy: As artificial intelligence has improved over the years, the predictions it can deliver have also become more powerful for business applications. Executives can use this predictive power—which can help reduce the influence of human-user biases—to improve and develop a data strategy that increases data efficiencies and provides accurate and timely information to enable real-time decision-making.
4. Shifting cloud strategies: Overcoming data security and management challenges of legacy systems is not a trivial exercise for insurance companies, but such challenges should not be an impediment to moving to a cloud environment. Historically, companies have made significant investments in data foundation and data management in order to securely extract data from legacy IT systems, migrate data to the cloud, and transform the information into usable data assets. It is no longer a question of if a company will move to the cloud, but when. For cybercriminals, the return on investment for attacking financial institutions is too great to resist. With a cloud environment, information can be accessed securely, providing the right combination of connectivity to data and data access controls.
5. Advanced analytics for middle market: Advanced analytics enables insurers to improve the customer experience and reduce costs. Companies can utilize it to mine big data for relevant insights used in predicting claims and assessing customer behavior and preferences to better mitigate risks and personalize bundled offerings and loyalty programs. Advanced analytics in insurance is rapidly enabling drastic innovations in product offerings, operating models, and customer service across the entire value chain.
Establishing a data foundation starts with process
Before a company can apply transformative technologies, it's important to understand what the data is saying. Process intelligence is a growing platform that allows organizations to understand what they do and how they do it. It is the first step to analyzing transactional data to better understand workflows, visualize patterns, and identify gaps. This is how an organization begins to connect the dots to know where to apply automation, predictive analytics, and other technologies.
In the years ahead, insurance companies will greatly expand the universe of data they work with—whether through partnerships or acquisitions—and in turn will have access to new pools of potential customers. To capitalize on the resulting opportunity, insurers need to deliver an exceptional customer service experience. Breaking through data management barriers and harnessing the full potential of advanced analytics will be central to providing that optimal experience.
The United States is in the midst of an energy revolution as the Biden administration prioritizes the shift from fossil fuels toward clean and renewable sources of energy. The transition to solar power in particular presents opportunities for lenders and investors to join in this revolution. As demonstrated below, the Invesco Solar ETF—an exchange-traded fund that includes securities in the solar energy industry—has generated a return outpacing the S&P 500 index over the last 17 months, highlighting the growth and opportunities in this sector.
There have been many catalysts for the recent growth in solar energy, including improvements in technology that make solar more cost-effective; political support for clean energy sources; investment and renewable energy tax credits; growing environmental, social and governance investment opportunities; and concerns around the sustainability of the traditional power grid as magnified by the widespread power outages in Texas in February. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 39% of new electricity generating capacity in the United States in 2021 will be solar powered, which is greater than any other energy-generating source. This expansion presents opportunities for specialty lenders to play a role in financing this growth.
The cost of a residential solar installation can range up to $50,000, depending on size, creating the opportunity and need for installers to offer financing options for residents. The residential solar loan market more than tripled from $1.4 billion in 2016 to almost $5 billion in 2020, according to Kroll Bond Rating Agency. The asset-backed securitization market for solar loans has also increased; KBRA rated public and private deals totaling $3.6 billion in 2020, up 22% from 2019 despite deal volume for most asset classes being disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
So what makes the solar loan market an attractive venture for specialty lenders and investors in solar loan asset-backed securitizations? Below are two key characteristics that distinguish this market from other forms of financing and make it an attractive segment.
Collateral: Solar loans are similar to home improvement loans, except that the latter are generally not secured by a security interest in the property. Solar loans are secured by the solar energy system, which typically includes the solar panels, inverters, energy storage and charging equipment, monitoring equipment, prepaid maintenance arrangements, and certain installation costs. The loan is also typically secured by a Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) filing. The nature of the collateral, and the security interest available to the lender, make this an attractive loan when compared to unsecured consumer credit or loans collateralized by personal property or automobiles where the collateral is more susceptible to damage and may be harder to secure or locate upon nonpayment.
Compared with other types of consumer lending, solar loans tend to have higher recovery rates because creditors have the ability to disconnect service for delinquent borrowers. Residents therefore have the incentive to remain current on this obligation. Furthermore, the UCC filing will appear on any title search, requiring the borrower to resolve any delinquent or defaulted solar loan prior to selling the residence.
Value proposition for customers: Other forms of consumer lending represent incremental debt and an additional monthly obligation to the borrower. Conversely, solar loans replace one of the borrower’s existing obligations: their monthly utility bill. Electricity is viewed as an essential service, and solar loans are designed so that the monthly payment is less than the customer’s preexisting monthly electricity payment. Homeowners who purchase qualifying solar energy technologies may also be eligible for the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit, which is based on the cost of the solar energy system and may be used to offset the homeowner’s federal income tax liability. The tax credit was initially intended to be phased out by 2022, but Congress passed an extension in December 2020 whereby the credit will now be phased out by 2024 for residential installations.
The financing of residential solar installations is an emerging category of interest for lenders, but one that is forecast to grow significantly as society continues to focus on clean, renewable forms of energy. Specialty lenders can play a role in financing this transformation.
“Buy now, pay later” (BNPL) installment plan options for online purchases have grown during the pandemic and because of shifts in how younger consumers think about credit. But is the trend here to stay?
BNPL offers consumers the option of paying for a purchase in typically three to four installments and has grown because the pandemic forced many people—even those who enjoy brick-and-mortar experiences—to shop online. The use of BNPL resulted in $1.1 trillion in e-commerce sales in the United States in 2020, according to the 2021 Global Payments Report from FIS. This reflects a 78% increase from the prior year and translates to 1.6% of total e-commerce spending. Additionally, despite the reopenings happening across the country and the continued vaccine rollout, that figure is expected to grow to $1.78 trillion by 2024, which signals the trend is here to stay.
Also fueling the trend is the generational shift toward the use of debit cards instead of credit cards, the move away from cash as a method of payment to noncash options, and the rise of digital wallet payment options. Research from various traditional financial institutions shows that younger generations are less comfortable using a credit card to finance a purchase. Credit card use as measured by volume in 2020 dipped 10% from 2019 levels. At the same time, the use of debit grew by 4%. The Global Payments Report from FIS also shows that the use of mobile wallets at the point of sale grew 60% last year, from 6% in 2019 to 9.6% in 2020.
There’s no doubt that Americans still prefer to pay for online purchases with credit cards. But BNPL stands to gain more market share because it offers customers access to credit at the time of need, the approval process is fast, and it lessens the burden of a large purchase. BNPL also increases the chances of a company making a sale, and basket sizes grow. Additionally, engaging with a BNPL provider, such as Affirm, can be a way to gain new customers. For example, if a user—typically a millennial or Gen Zer—is looking to buy a new pair of running shoes, they can go to the Affirm app and select one of the many retailers featured there. Suppose they select Adidas and select “shop now,” which takes the user to the Adidas site. The user is usually pre-qualified by Affirm ahead of the purchase, and then pays for the shoes via Affirm. In this example, Adidas doesn’t spend a penny acquiring the new customer, but rather gets exposure through Affirm’s two-sided platform.
According to a recent company earnings call, Affirm has over 12,000 merchants on its platform and more than 4.5 million users. These are customers who might be looking to engage in revenge spending—people eager to shop again after a pandemic-induced hiatus—and are looking to do so online. Afterpay, another BNPL provider, directed an average of 27 million leads to its 75,000 retail partners in December of last year, the company said during an earnings call in February. On the merchant side, it is more expensive to use a BNPL provider instead of a traditional credit card. But the benefits of lead generation, access to new-customer demographics, and the ability to offer credit without actually being a credit card issuer offset the additional cost. The numbers reflect it: for Affirm, gross merchandise volume grew 83% in the company’s FY 2021 third quarter, compared to the same period in FY 2020. Similarly, Afterpay’s sales grew 106% in the first half of 2021 compared to the first half of 2020.
“The use of ‘buy now, pay later’ installment plans resulted in $1.1 trillion in e-commerce sales in the United States in 2020, according to the 2021 Global Payments Report from FIS. This reflects a 78% increase from the prior year.”
Without a doubt, BNPL is credit at the point of sale, but because the option to use it appears in a consumer’s online checkout, plenty of people see it as harmless. Consumers might view this as a preferable option to a credit card because they can use BNPL for specific purchases rather than opening a larger line of credit, and terms for interest and late fees might be more favorable and clearly disclosed. But the potential risks to consumer credit scores are worth tracking. Any time another party gets added to the mix of a transaction, there are potential data security and privacy implications, and consumers should be aware that another company—in this case the BNPL platform—will also have access to their information.
BNPL still represents a small segment as a percent of total e-commerce spending in the United States, but it is growing. What’s more, these companies are looking to become a bigger option for in-store purchases to meet customers where they are, especially as the economy reopens. At Home Depot, for example, customers can use PayPal’s BNPL option to pay, and stores such as American Eagle and Nine West now accept this type of payment as well.
Given this growth, merchants should assess the type of customer experience they’re offering. Is it frictionless? Is it attracting millennials and Gen Zers (two key tech-savvy demographics whose earning power will continue to grow)? If the answer is no, merchants leave money on the table. Traditional financial institutions, whether payment providers or issuers of credit, also need to think about rolling out products like BNPL to cater to younger demographics who are digitally oriented by default.
Private equity is generally recognized as an illiquid investment strategy best left to those with investment horizons distant enough to tolerate the lockup period. Secondary funds (known as “secondaries”) that acquire private equity interests from limited partners in private equity funds who wish to exit their investment before the end of a fund’s term have long been a feature of private equity investments. As assets in private equity have grown, secondaries have also gained popularity, but they have continued to be a small segment of private capital assets. This is expected to change going forward as the evolving landscape of private equity makes secondaries a more prominent feature of private capital markets
Capital flowing into private capital funds should continue to increase given its track record of outperforming public markets, the current low interest rate environment, and—on a transient basis—the recent concerns about inflation. As more investors seek exposure to private capital funds, the growth in assets will be accompanied by an increasingly diverse profile of investors which can only spur a greater need for more liquidity in the asset class. Secondary funds meet this need by providing liquidity to investors in primary funds. An established secondary market in private equity should be the culmination of a maturing marketplace as private capital markets continue to grow and evolve.
Secondary funds also cater to investors with different needs for the timing of cash flows because they generate cash sooner relative to primary funds. By investing in primary funds that are in the later stages of their life cycle, secondary funds acquire interests that are typically in the harvest stage and are already returning cash to underlying investors. This alters the risk-return, duration and cash-flow profile of exposure to private equity, which can be attractive to a different universe of investors.
As assets in private equity have grown, secondaries have also gained popularity, but they have continued to be a small segment of private capital assets. This is expected to change going forward as the evolving landscape of private equity makes secondaries a more prominent feature of private capital markets.
Secondaries had a record fundraising year in 2020. COVID-19 may have had some part to play in this. Given that secondary funds can provide liquidity to investors that may be forced to sell in a distressed environment, expectations for this to happen in the aftermath of the pandemic might have attracted investors to the strategy. The large publicly traded private equity asset managers have increased their focus on secondaries in recent years and drove much of the fundraising success in 2020 with a number of mega-fund launches, resulting in the growth in capital raised while the fund count dropped.
The quick economic recovery has meant that the opportunities that secondary funds may have been expected to cash in on might not have materialized as expected. However, the increasing popularity of secondaries should endure as focus shifts to secondary funds that are led by general partners of private funds (GP-led secondaries) instead of secondary funds created by independent fund managers to buy interests from limited partners wishing to liquidate their holdings in existing private funds (LP-led secondaries).
GP-led secondary funds have gained in popularity, primarily through the creation of continuation funds by general partners seeking to achieve two goals. The first is to give liquidity to existing limited partners that cannot go beyond the fund’s term in a maturing fund and need to cash out their investment. The second goal is to allow investors that have the ability to endure a longer holding period to renew their commitment to a portfolio of companies that would benefit from staying in the general partner’s portfolio for a while longer.
General partners with high-performing or high-potential assets in their portfolio that have room to appreciate further may find themselves forced to sell these assets prematurely if the fund is nearing the end of its life. Continuation funds and GP-led secondary processes have gained in popularity as they solve this problem by allowing the general partner more runway to capture this additional value for themselves and their limited partner base. For example, companies that have strong long-term prospects but were severely impacted during the pandemic and are expected to rebound as the economy recovers would be prime candidates for a GP-led secondary process via a continuation fund.
Secondaries bring liquidity to private equity investment, an alternative way of gaining exposure to private equity and faster access to some prized private equity assets. These features make this strategy an important supporting feature of a growing asset class and a compelling investment proposition for investors with a certain profile. As a result, growth in secondary funds is expected to persist.
MIDDLE MARKET INSIGHT
While currently dominated by larger asset managers, this trend is also expected to take hold among midsize asset managers driven by the increasing flow of capital into private equity across the size spectrum and as the type of investors seeking exposure to private equity as an asset class continues to expand and diversify.
Decentralized finance (known as DeFi) refers to a new financial infrastructure—built on blockchain technology—that allows for transparent, permissionless and borderless financial interactions in which the fees traditionally charged by intermediaries are fed back to the DeFi participants. Using distributed ledger technology and smart contracts, decentralized applications built on blockchains like Ethereum enable trustless, peer-to-peer financial transactions that remove centralized entities and intermediaries. From simple prediction markets to the tokenized factoring of trade receivables, DeFi is booming.
To understand DeFi as a whole, it’s crucial to understand the concepts of the smart contract, the token, and the exchange. This piece is the first in a series that will explain these elements of DeFi, explore their transformational potential, highlight associated risks and consider the impact DeFi may have on traditional market structure.
The backbone of DeFi is the smart contract. Unlike the Bitcoin blockchain, Ethereum and other smart contract-enabled blockchains run like a large decentralized computer with network participants that process transactions of Ethereum’s native currency ether (ETH) and also run the lines of code for smart contracts and to power decentralized applications. Smart contracts can range from a simple “if this, then, that” self-executing contract, or they can run complex computer programs and replace centralized broker-dealers.
Tokens, another key element of DeFi, are created and managed with smart contracts. They allow for assets other than ETH to be traded on top of the Ethereum network. Tokens come in many different flavors, from utility tokens that operate as a form of payment within their own unique ecosystem to tokens that intend to represent an asset in the physical world.
One example of the latter is stablecoins, which are central to the DeFi ecosystem. Most commonly pegged to the dollar, stablecoins can maintain their peg through centralized reserves held by the issuer or programmatically with a smart contract. Over the past 18 months, the market cap for stablecoins tied to the U.S. dollar has grown from $5 billion to over $100 billion, according to Coin Metrics. In a mid-July meeting of the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen stressed the need for a U.S. regulatory framework for stablecoins. The working group “expects to issue recommendations in the coming months,” according to the Treasury Department.
The third piece of critical infrastructure for the DeFi economy is the exchange. DeFi has largely replaced the functions of centralized entities with smart contracts. With a decentralized exchange (DEX), a smart contract operates the platform and enables the trading of tokens. The largest DEX, Uniswap, launched in November 2018 and its trading volume grew from $330 million in June 2020 to a peak of $83 billion in May 2021, according to data from CoinGecko and The Block.
DeFi’s growing impact
The use of DeFi is growing at a rapid pace. The share of DEX trading volume compared to centralized exchanges has risen from 1% in January of 2020 to over 9% as of June 2021, according to CoinGecko data. Another sign of growth is that the gross value of assets locked in Ethereum smart contracts has swelled from $845 million on June 1, 2020, to $57.1 billion one year later, data from DeBank and The Block shows. DEX trading volume was $162.5 billion in May, but that number is a drop in the bucket compared to the $10.9 trillion in U.S. equities trading volume for the same month, according to data from Cboe.
DeFi is also rapidly expanding beyond lending and exchanges. The recent rise of non-fungible tokens has broadened DeFi into the world of collectibles and art trading. DeFi is also expanding into more complex financial instrument markets as well, from derivatives, futures, and swaps to complex platforms enabling the tokenization of factored trade receivables.
The question remains as to whether DeFi can continue its rate of capital inflow. While attention from traditional capital market participants is likely to fuel continued DeFi growth, in order to maintain its exponential rate of growth DeFi will need to overcome some of its traditional limitations.
One criticism of DeFi has been its inefficient use of capital; historically most decentralized lending apps have required 150% to 200% overcollateralization. Newer platforms such as Liquity are offering stablecoin loans with as little as 110% collateral. Uniswap has even recently launched a new version of its app to allow liquidity providers to make their capital available within specific price ranges rather than among all possible prices, thus enlarging their percentage of the liquidity pool within their specified price range and allowing them to earn more in terms of trading fees.
What to do?
It is difficult to gauge whether DeFi will ultimately become a significant disrupting force to the traditional capital market structure. Given its rapid growth, it is likely worth some level of attention, and those active in the current capital market structure will likely see some effects from this growth. Continued education on more advanced DeFi topics may yield insights and opportunities to leverage this innovation into a first-mover advantage. Those with just a passing interest may want to simply stay alert for news coverage of DeFi trends, and evaluate when a more serious study may be necessary.
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