Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Future of Retail Banking

Future of Retail BanksUSA Today ran a story in March on the changing nature of retail banking in America.  This sounds kind of boring, perhaps, but it has broad implications both for bank clients and, potentially, for investors.  The gist of the story is that banks are closing retail branches in small towns.  A lack of traditional banking services is not a rural phenomenon, however, with substantial populations of people in urban areas who do not use traditional banks.  For an informative interactive tool that allows you to explore the populations of people lacking key financial services, see here.  There is a substantial population of people who have little or no access to traditional bank services (the under-banked or the un-banked), and it would seem that this population is likely to continue to grow if banks close their smaller retail branches.  The solution, I believe, is that online banking services will serve the under-banked and un-banked, just as they have in the developing world.

In general, poorer households hold little if any assets in savings accounts and primarily use banks to cash checks.  Banks don’t make money from check cashing, so they have a hard time profitably serving these customers.  With interest rates at or near record lows, even bank clients with meaningful levels of savings provide little in the way of income to banks.  And banks, not surprisingly, are focusing on wealthier clients as the way to boost revenues.  The goal is to sell more profitable investing and financial planning services to wealthier clients.  As the large banks try to move up-market in terms of products and services that they offer, it seems likely that an increasing number of less-wealthy Americans are quite likely to have less access to traditional bank services.

What does the future of retail banking look like?  First, it seems inevitable that serving less-wealthy clients in physical branches will continue to be a relatively unattractive business.  Second, check cashing and payday lending businesses—alternatives to traditional banks–will probably continue to grow.  Lisa Servon, a professor of Urban Policy, argues that payday lenders provide a valuable service and that the industry is unfairly demonized.  If people need to borrow money and don’t have access to a traditional bank, a payday loan may be worth the cost.  Third, the increasing role of online banking and bill payment among the middle class reduces the time that customers spend in physical branches.  There are a range of perspectives on the future of retail banking (see here and here).

My belief is that physical retail bank branches will largely disappear.  If you really want or need to go to a physical branch – to access your safety deposit box, for example – you probably don’t mind driving.  Otherwise, what does the retail bank really provide that you cannot get online?  Bank analyst Dick Bove actually makes the case that quality customer service at branch locations is not necessarily even a good sign for investors.  He posits that bank employees generate more revenue for the bank by spending their time “selling products”, rather than by trying to solve problems for customers.

As the systems for mobile banking expand, this could dramatically help the un-banked and under-banked as well as displacing retail banking services for the more affluent.  In the developing world, for example, mobile banking (banking services provided via mobile phone) is already a dominant force.  Businesses can pay their employees via mobile banking, entirely removing the need to cash a physical check.  The M-Pesa mobile payment business now serves seventeen million people in Kenya alone.  Mobile payments were the fastest growing form of payments in China in 2013, totaling $1.6 Trillion.  There are also a host of non-banking firms that are providing services that look like banking. There is no obvious reason that some or all of these types of services cannot expand into the U.S. to serve the un-banked and then move up-market to replace some or all retail banking services to more affluent customers.  The current situation reminds me of a number of cases of technological innovation discussed in The Innovator’s Dilemma, the ground-breaking book by Clayton Christensen.  The book argues that new technologies first succeed not by displacing entrenched providers, but rather by first meeting the needs of an un-served population.  After the new technology has proven its worth, it then moves up-market to disrupt the traditional business model.  The current state of mobile banking is in serving the developing world, where people often have little or no access to traditional banks at all.  The enormous growth in these businesses suggests that the future is to move up the food chain.  Mobile payment technology and usage is growing in the U.S., albeit slower than expected.  Accenture projects that as much of 35% of retail banks’ revenues could be lost to a range of online services providers by 2020.  Given that retail banks in the U.S. are seeing their traditional businesses struggle along with  less use of their branch offices, coupled with a growing population of potential clients who the retail banks do not serve at all, mobile banking looks to me like the future of retail banking.

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Goldman Sachs Predicts 4.5% 10-year Treasury Yields

Treasury BondGoldman Sachs just came out with a prediction that 10-year Treasury bond yields will rise to 4.5% by 2018 and the S&P 500 will provide 6% annualized returns over that same period.  The driver for this prediction is simply that the Fed is expected to raise the federal funds rate.

Because rising yields correspond to falling prices for bonds, Goldman’s forecast is that equities will substantially outperform bonds over the next several years.  If you are holding a bond yielding 2.5% (the current 10-year Treasury yield) and the Fed raises rates, investors will sell off their holdings of lower-yielding bonds in order to purchase newly-issued higher-yielding bonds.  If Goldman’s forecast plays out, bondholders will suffer over the next several years, while equity investors will enjoy modest gains.

Historical Perspective

This very long-term history of bond yield vs. the dividend yield on the S&P 500 is worth considering in parsing Goldman’s predictions.

Bond Yield vs. Dividend Yield

Source: The Big Picture blog

Prior to the mid 1950’s, the conventional wisdom (according to market guru Peter Bernstein) was that equities should have a dividend yield higher than the yield from bonds because equities were riskier.  From 1958 to 2008, however, the 10-year bond yield was higher than the S&P 500 dividend yield by an average of 3.7%.

Then in 2008, the 10-year Treasury bond yield fell below the S&P 500 dividend yield for the first time in 50 years.  Today, the yield from the S&P 500 is 1.8% and the 10-year Treasury bond yields 2.5%, so we have returned to the conditions that have prevailed for the last half a century. But the spread between bond yield and dividend yields remains very low by historical standards.  If the 10-year Treasury yield increases to 4.5% (as Goldman predicts), we will have a spread that is more consistent with recent decades.

Investors are likely to compare bond yields and dividend yields, with the understanding that bond prices are extremely negatively impacted by inflation (with the result that yields rise with inflation because yield increases as bond prices fall), while dividends can increase with inflation.  During the 1970’s, Treasury bond yields shot up in response to inflation. Companies can increase the prices that they charge for their products in response to inflation, which allows the dividends to increase in response to higher prices across the economy.  The huge spread between dividend yield and bond yield in the late 70’s and early 80’s reflects investors’ rational preference for dividends in a high-inflation environment.

What Has to Happen for Goldman’s Outlook to Play Out?

To end up with a 4.5% 10-year Treasury yield with something like a 2% S&P 500 dividend yield, the U.S. will need to see a sustained economic recovery and evidence of higher prices (inflation) driven by higher employment and wage growth.  In such an environment, investors will be willing to accept the lower dividend yield from equities because dividends grow over time and tend to rise with inflation.  This has been the prevailing state of the U.S. economy over the last fifty years.  Most recently, we had 10-year Treasury yields in the 4%-5% range in the mid 2000’s.  If, however, we continue to see low inflation and stagnant wages in the U.S. economy, bond yields are likely to remain low for longer.

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