Seven ways for financial institutions to react to financial-technology companies

Financial-technology companies are changing the face of finance. Over the past ten years, what started mostly as disruption in the payments space has expanded to every corner of finance. Even areas once assumed to be safe are seeing new entrants and competitive threats. Wealth and asset management, wholesale banking, capital markets, regulation and risk (“regtech”), and trade finance are just the most recent areas to see innovation driven by small technology-first players.

Whether fintechs ultimately win or lose significant market share may be beside the point; they are redefining customer expectations and continue to create new business models. As fintechs are frequently building their entire technology stacks from the ground up, they are highlighting incumbent financial institutions’ weaknesses not only in digital user experiences but also in operational efficiency. Whether a new digital brokerage wins or loses may not matter when customer expectations around brokerage fees change. A retail foreign-exchange fintech having 5 or 50 percent of the market may matter less than retail FX margins disappearing for everyone. Whether the next crops of “neobanks” disrupt retail banking may be less important than their highlighting for users and customers the possibilities of a modern, digital-first experience.

As we counsel the leaders of incumbent financial institutions, we often turn to seven potential reactions they can consider. Leaders can seek to pursue a combination of      these options:

  1. Buy a fintech. Strategic through-cycle M&A can be a powerful driver of growth even as valuations remain high, particularly among the most successful and largest fintech companies. Whether incumbents purchase a company for its traction (customer base, loan book), technology (user experience, core system, advanced data capability), or talent (engineering, product management, executive leadership), we frequently find that success depends on their developing strength in post-acquisition integration.
  2. Partner with a fintech. A carefully designed partnership can enable faster time to market and cost-efficient implementation, with the ultimate goal of enable enabling bottom-line business impact from accessing new customers or improving back-office processes.
  3. Invest in fintechs. Investing in fintech companies is frequently a way to learn more about the space and to hedge some of your downside potential from disruptive threats. Incumbents can choose to invest in companies they partner with or to focus on areas they know well or interesting adjacencies. We frequently advise clients to find ways of keeping corporate venture-capital groups slightly at arm’s length to attract skilled managers, and we recently have seen increased interest in investing in established outside managers who focus on financial technology.
  4. Transform yourself to be more like a fintech. Digital transformation is a difficult but necessary process for most incumbent financial institutions. Redesigning core infrastructure to be more modular and dynamic, driving a new agile operating model, and upgrading technology and workforce skills are all necessary to compete with outside threats, fintech and otherwise.
  5. Build your own (internal) fintech. The road for transformations is normally measured in years, but the competitive threat from fintechs is today. Increasingly, we are seeing financial institutions try to beat fintechs at their own game or self-disrupt areas of their business before others can. The key to success in new digital business building is to combine the agility, speed, and talent of a start-up with the “unfair advantage” of an incumbent by leveraging existing assets (e.g. customers, distribution, or infrastructure).
  6. Serve the fintechs. A few financial institutions can find their competitive advantage in creating scaled, efficient technology and operations to enable others to embed financial services in their customer experiences. This “banking as a service” business model depends on finding a profitable path to white labeling but draws on the inspiration of large tech platforms. Enabling the customer experiences of others has quickly moved beyond just enabling fintechs to also working with big technology companies, retailers, telecommunications companies, and beyond.
  7. Ignore fintechs. Although ignoring the competition is rarely the right choice, some businesses are built on moats—frequently regulatory—that are difficult to disrupt or they play within narrow markets. Companies should prioritize where they need to focus and in doing so know when they need to pay attention and when they need to avoid the distraction of disrupters.

Critically, the right answer is usually not any one of these options but some mix of them. Each presents complexity and requires careful planning and implementation. Over the last few years, we have seen the most successful incumbent financial institutions move from an exclusive focus on internal transformation and partnerships to an increasing interest in M&A and internal digital-business builds.

Ultimately, though, each financial institution is different and should seek its own best strategic response to these competitive threats. One thing is the same, though: fintechs are coming for the value pools throughout the sector by taking full advantage of increased digitization, heightened customer expectations, and operational efficiencies.

Alexis Krivkovich is a Senior Partner and Zac Townsend is an Expert Associate Partner, both in McKinsey’s San Francisco office.