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Wall Street banks move across the pond in new threat to British lenders

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·6-min read
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Bull - REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Bull - REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

For decades, executives at Britain’s largest banks enjoyed a life of luxury.

RBS, now known as NatWest and once the world’s biggest bank, reportedly had its own scallop kitchen, an office adorned with hand-painted silk wallpaper and fruit flown in daily from Paris.

Chefs were said to have been sent on a 250-mile round trip to find pies for executives after a rugby match, while staff were allegedly ordered to buy four car parking spaces in Edinburgh airport so that top executives didn’t have to walk too far from their private jet.

That, of course, was before Sir Fred Goodwin, RBS’s chief executive at the time, oversaw the worst balance sheet in the company’s history, forcing it to be bailed out by the taxpayer at the height of the financial crisis in 2008.

Today, none of the top five global banks are British. Anyone working for a European bank now counts themselves lucky if they are offered any free fruit at all (Deutsche Bank axed its daily fruit bowls amid cost cutting in 2018).

By comparison, US banks such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan have grown more powerful, with chief executives still flying private jets and taking home £23m a year.

Dominant in UK investment banking, one London banker says the hierarchy is obvious and there’s “huge snobbery” in the industry against non-US banks. Yet the big four UK British lenders – NatWest, Barclays, HSBC and Lloyds – have managed to retain their stranglehold in the much less profitable area of retail banking.

Politicians have for years tried to increase competition in the market with various initiatives geared at trying to make it easier for people to switch banks. For instance, Open Banking, launched by the Competition and Markets Authority in 2018, was meant to reduce the advantages of incumbent lenders by giving challengers access to customer data.

But behaviours have not changed and smaller, challenger banks have failed to take any meaningful market share from the big players.

Now Wall Street wants to give it a go. Despite record low interest rates, tight regulation and the ongoing Covid crisis, America’s biggest banks have decided that they want to win over ordinary households in Britain.

JP Morgan, America’s largest lender, plans to launch a new online retail bank in the UK this autumn and agreed to buy London-based robo wealth manager Nutmeg earlier this month. Nutmeg will “form the basis of the bank’s retail wealth management offering internationally over the long term”, JP Morgan said.

Its arch-rival Goldman Sachs has similar ambitions, planning to expand its UK savings arm Marcus later this year. Last week, it unveiled the launch of a new unit offering UK companies day-to-day treasury operations.

The move will see two goliaths, with respective market caps of $460bn (£330bn) and $124bn, try to shake up a crowded market as they expand beyond investment banking.

Those aware of JP Morgan’s plans believe the bank has what it takes to seriously win over UK households. It has the “trust factor” due to it being one of the biggest companies in the world, while boasting an $11bn annual tech spend and 50,000 IT specialists.

It had secretly been working on its online bank for two years before it unveiled the move publicly in January, quietly hiring 400 extra UK staff to work on it over that time.

“They were right under everyone’s nose – it’s a big building,” says a person close to the project. “If you’re going to pick a market outside the US then this is the place to do it as it is such a well-banked market, so you’ve got to be really good [to crack it].

“This could be the first effective start-up where customers put their salaries, because they know it’s a large institution that’s well-capitalised.”

The bank, which in the last year has hired former Labour MP Chuka Umunna and ex-chancellor Sajid Javid, plans to initially offer current accounts in order to grab as many customers from rival lenders as possible.

It then wants to follow Goldman, which launched a digital savings bank in the UK three years ago, and expand into areas such as savings.

Ex-Barclays chief Antony Jenkins is working on the project through his tech company 10x Future Technologies, sources say. The aim is to beat big UK lenders weighed down by clunky IT and costly branches.

Goldman has set itself a similar challenge. The idea behind its UK transaction banking arm, which offers companies cash management services such as payment processing, is to win over those who are fed up with UK banks’ “old fashioned, frustrating-to-use systems,” says one source.

It also wants to target more British households through its savings arm Marcus, which will expand later this year. The long-term ambition is to be a “full serviced [retail] bank,” the person adds.

But some in the City remain sceptical of Wall Street’s ambitions.

Bank veteran Anne Boden, the founder of online bank Starling, put it bluntly: “Why would a British customer leave Barclays to join JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs? It’s just the same thing in a different colour?”

NatWest shareholder Alasdair McKinnon, a fund manager at Scottish Investment Trust, says he is not particularly concerned about Wall Street’s newfound interest in competing with the likes of NatWest.

“Just think about the nightmare process you’d have to go through to switch accounts,” he says. “It requires a very big incentive to change.”

Sir Philip Hampton, the former chairman of NatWest, agrees: “They have a reasonable chance, but it’s also quite tough. People don’t change banks often,” he says. “Banks make most of their profits from well-off customers, for whom fees and costs aren’t usually a big issue, and customers who aren’t well off at all and feel obliged to borrow expensively. The profits from the middle bulk of people are less good. I assume JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs will target the former – wealthy people.”

The number of customers switching accounts has been lacklustre for years, but the pandemic has made the problem even worse. Figures from the Current Account Switching Service (Cass) show that there was a 65pc drop in the number of current account switches between April and June 2020.

The Bank of England also started to lose patience with some of the banking industry’s newcomers last summer, with its supervisory arm arguing that many new banks had underestimated the development required to become successful and should now focus on making a profit. There is little doubt that Goldman and JP Morgan, which trades in the US consumer market as Chase, will have huge advantages over the start-ups that have tried to challenge the UK banks in recent years. But the pair will face many of the same issues when it comes to grabbing the nation’s attention and making money.

JP Morgan has been burned in the past, being forced to close its US online bank Finn in 2019 barely a year after its debut.

“It depends what Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan offer – if it’s a current account that’s basically the same as what the UK incumbents currently offer, inertia will continue to prevail,” says banking veteran Paul Lynam.

“[Banks such as] Monzo claim to have huge numbers of accounts but it’s obvious people continue to pay their salaries into accounts with the incumbents not the insurgents.”

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