Chinese retail banks under pressure to embrace new technologies

The lack of innovation in retail banks is holding them back, experts say, with many institutions finding it hard to attain even moderate growth

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 June, 2013, 5:20am

Once you step into the bank outlet, the chip installed inside your credit card is recognised by a device that passes your personal information - including monthly income and outlays - to a customer manager.

You pick up a brochure on gold trading randomly, and glimpse at a television when a car advertisement flashes up on a screen. Your moves are captured by the bank in real time. Your interests are analysed and turned into recommendations for related bank products later when you meet your wealth manager.

Is this the face of retail banking in the future? Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, is trying to convince mainland banks to embrace technology innovations to sharpen their competitive edge in retail banking.

"It is time for retail banks to change," said Sushil Saluja, a managing director of Accenture's Asia-Pacific financial services. "Faced with a daunting array of market, regulatory, customer, cost and operational challenges, many banks are struggling to post even moderate growth."

On the mainland, banks are being forced to change from focusing on corporate clients to providing tailored services to individuals as competition becomes fiercer with interest rate deregulation and the entry of new rivals.

Every week, Accenture's Financial Service Innovation Centre receives executive visitors from mainland banks, seeking new ideas. The centre, set up last November, showcases technologies in retail banking from mobile communications to data analysis, social media, outlet design, payment technology and biometric recognition.

While there is a need to boost revenues by increasing service availability and knowledge about their clients, the capability of banks to apply technologies to ensure growth is still under question, analysts said.

On Sunday, a system glitch in Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), the world's largest lender by market capitalisation, meant counter services, automatic teller machines, phone banking and online services in various areas including Beijing and Shanghai were interrupted for nearly an hour.

ICBC said a computer system upgrade exposed flaws in the new version of a database, resulting in interruptions when businesses surged.

The glitch, following gold and foreign exchange trading system breakdowns in other major banks in recent years, prompted criticism of mainland banks' inability to use basic technologies.

"Chinese banks have invested heavily in the past few years to install ATMs and launch online and mobile banking. This is necessary because expansion of physical outlets is costly and has limitations," said Yuan Gangming, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"Large state-controlled banks are still not highly motivated. The pioneers will be private firms which are eager to enter the lucrative but highly concentrated financial market and to win."

Alipay, owned by e-commerce group Alibaba, last week launched a "Yu E Bao" service, allowing customers to subscribe to mutual funds by using idle money in their Alipay accounts. Alipay is the largest third-party payment platform in China, with more than 600 million users. The move gives customers a new channel to access mutual funds.

Jack Ma Yun, founder of Alipay, says there are two big trends shaping the financial sector: financial institutions embracing the internet and internet companies doing financial business.

"In many industries innovations are brought by outsiders. The financial sector needs newcomers to pave the way for innovations and evolution," Ma said in People's Daily last week.

Xiao Shaolin, a managing director of financial services, Greater China at Accenture, said senior and middle-level management at banks have felt the pressure of tech competition.

"The development of technology has lowered the threshold of becoming a bank. To Alibaba, the existing banks are just a channel selling financial products, and Alibaba could do better based on consumer behaviour data it obtains through its e-commerce business," Xiao said.