The island’s tight financial oversight may/may not put digital banks at an advantage compared to the rest of the region.

Now that Singapore has started the digital banking ball rolling with the issuance of licenses to four contenders, what may lie in store for the banking landscape in Singapore and the region?

According to Tom Mouhsian, a principal analyst at Forrester, the pertinent questions and answers are as follows:  

DigiconAsia: How will new digital banks change the market landscape in Singapore? 

We will see a further fragmentation of the market. First, there will be an outflow of customer deposits from existing banks when customers initially fund their new bank accounts. Second, the new digital retail banks will launch new and simple lending products like credit cards and begin to generate interest income. If these new players can garner substantial deposit and credit balances, then there may be a serious effect on the competitive landscape in Singapore, but that will likely take time. 

DigiconAsia: As newly-minted lending institutions in Singapore, how can the digital full banking (DFB) license recipients succeed? 

Acting as banks, they must earn as banks, and that means: net interest income. Let us dissect this.

In order to give out loans, banks rely on customer-held deposits as well as external financing that costs them a certain interest expenses which drags on profit. It is always better to maintain a relatively high proportion of customer deposits because they are safer and cheaper, allowing the banks to earn higher margins and therefore, more profit.

For traditional banks like DBS, OCBC and UOB the proportion of such customer deposits on their balance sheets is roughly 90% which means they are largely customer-funded—good for them. For the new digital banks to succeed financially, they would need to become prolific in their deposit taking from regular customers and their overall funding strategy, which is not so easy to do, given the level of trust and security that customers associate with the well-established banking brands

DigiconAsia: Will customers make new digital banks their primary bank? 

Digital-only banks will leverage a potentially better user experience as well as smart engagement tactics to win new customers. However, there may still be initial hesitation by the customers to consolidate all their financial holdings at the new banks.

For instance, one can safely assume that customers will not immediately decide to transfer their salaries and their life savings to the new digital banks, at least not until they feel a certain level of trust with these entities. Over the next few years, traditional banks will still have a strong advantage built up by decades of reputation and customer trust. But ice melts and rivers flow and that is a fact of life that the Singapore banking market will experience after gifting the consumer added choices. 

DigiconAsia: How will the arrival of new digital banks impact the bank branch? 

In one recent survey we found that 55% of Singaporean customers said they were not going to have a bank account with somebody who does not have a branch, while only 9% actually preferred using a bank branch for their day-to-day needs. This is an interesting dichotomy because on the one hand customers are holding on to their old ‘safety net’ represented by brick-and-mortar institutions, while clearly adopting new habits that are more aligned with digital banking.

The way this plays out after the wave of new incoming digital banks would ultimately decide the fate of the ‘bank branch’: whether the role of the branch will weaken faster or whether it acquire a new mission. 

DigiconAsia: What challenges will digital banks face? 

Let us split the answer to this question into three parts.

  1. The initial challenge is how to roll out the banking operation, which first and foremost would require expertise held by people that will manage and run the new entities. I suspect that all new licensees are going to be on a hiring spree for experienced bankers who can contribute their technical knowledge to the new enterprise. 
  2. The second challenge is going to be the procedures and processes in order to operate and govern the banks, including compliance with the regulations set by the MAS. Remember, because these are brand new financial institutions with no prior track record, they will be under tight oversight by the MAS and other regulatory bodies. 
  3. The third challenge is about technology, data as well as privacy. There are tremendous amounts of technology, data management and risk management capabilities that need to be set up rather quickly before even Day-1 starts. Going well beyond e-commerce features and functionality, banking transactions and reporting requirements alone can be stifling. However, I think tech companies will probably excel in this area faster than the previous two, given their substantial technological and innovation capital. 

DigiconAsia: How should digital banks differentiate themselves in terms of CX? 

The last but arguably most important piece of the puzzle will be about customer care and experience. Customer care has to be humane, empathetic and it needs to be of top-notch quality in order to differentiate the new digital banks from the incumbent competition. What made companies like Grab and Shopee (part of SEA Holdings) successful in the past—such as lightning speed service, real-time order tracking, inventory visibility and instant resolution of customer complaints—need to be ported into their new banking customer care operations with the same or even higher level of quality.

If their customer care fails and if trust is lost, there will be nothing stopping customers from walking away and going back to the old brands that they could trust despite whatever CX shortcomings. 

In the new digital banking age in Singapore, customers will be even more empowered, more ready to voice their feedback, and more powerful with their wallets.