Big banks shift fintech strategy

By Jon Marino for CNBC

Wall Street is looking for M&A or partners, and fewer investments, as fintech funding grows.

Big banks’ fintech investing strategies are shifting at a crucial time in the nascent industry’s development.

This year, big banks seem more eager to partner with or buyout startups challenging crucial lines of business in the financial services industry. It comes after years of banks’ simply being willing to buy in as minority stakeholders in startups. Fintech, or financial technology, is used to make financial services more efficient.

More recently, banks are committing big bucks to buyouts. It comes after a year in which fintech funding hit new highs. Ally Financialbought online brokerage TradeKing Group, the firm announced earlier this month, in a $275 million deal. BlackRock also decided to tap into fintech, last August, with the $150 million acquisition of online investment firm FutureAdvisor.

Banks aren’t always spending to buy startups with big-name investors — or big price tags. When Goldman Sachs last month bought Honest Dollar, the Texas-based online retirement planning service, the startup had raised just $3 million in venture funding, according to Crunchbase. The bank didn’t disclose its purchase price and didn’t comment on the deal. TradeKing, as well, raised less than $10 million in venture funding, according to Crunchbase.

It isn’t just U.S. banks eager to beat back the rising tide of disruption. Spanish bank BBVA bought out Finnish banking startup Holvi last month, and didn’t disclose terms — it also wasn’t BBVA’s first deal in that sub-sector. BNP Paribas earlier this month announced a partnership with SmartAngels, a direct investing platform for crowdfunding deals, as well.

“Banks are partnering to keep in the game and keep relevant,” said Alvarez & Marsal managing director David Gibbons. “I think they’ve caught up fairly well.”

Finding partners, rather than M&A targets, is especially helpful to banks that have been squeezed out of some financial services businesses like small business lending. One investor, who asked to not be quoted, said many banks have a difficult time profitably originating small loans.JPMorgan Chase partnered with On Deck Capital, an online lender that has struggled since its late 2014 IPO, to generate loans to the bank’s customer base.

“Banks are already well down the road to partnering with marketplace platforms for unsecured lending,” said PricewaterhouseCoopers fintech co-lead Haskell Garfinkel. “The biggest challenge right now is to consume it, integrate it and monetize it.”

And while big banks are trying to integrate partners and investments, some may shut other startups out of customer accounts and financial data. In his annual letter to shareholders this month, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon noted unnamed third-party apps take more data than they need, and said they are “doing it for their own economic benefit.”

If banks again starts throttling apps they believe are abusing access, reverberations might have a lasting impact in Silicon Valley, where mobile banking and finance management apps are often dependent on real-time access to customers’ bank accounts. As banks sift out which businesses they must buy, which they may partner with and which they can duplicate independently, various segments of the fintech ecosystem are likely to encounter different treatment.

While financial services investors have put money into startups like MobiKwik and Square, M&A for payments-focused companies has been rare. Considering that a number of big banks banded together in February to establish the clearXchange network, which allows consumers to process transactions between smartphones without a third-party app, payments is one sub-sector of fintech that could see continuing competition from legacy players.

“It’s a race to the bottom,” said Mariano Belinky, managing partner of Santander InnoVentures, a $100 million fund operated by the Spanish bank of the same name. “We’re going to end up with payments as a free service.”

First appeared in CNBC