HOW TO COMPARE CHALLENGER BANKS
by Jason Tassie , Director ,NerdWallet
The banking landscape has transformed over the last few years with the emergence of new providers, largely thanks to the vast growth of technology. Even as little as 10 years ago, the ‘big four’ high street banks dominated the banking market and were the only real choice for people looking to open an account or use their other services.
Over the last few years, however, a range of ‘challenger banks’ have appeared that are changing the way we bank. As well as being new names, what separates these challengers from the traditional banking providers is their online and digital nature. Rather than having a physical branch that customers can visit, these challengers tend to operate solely online, particularly via mobile apps, although some do have premises customers can visit such as Metro Bank and Virgin Money. However, this article will be looking primarily at the digital-only banks that are growing increasingly popular, especially among the younger generations. The use of fintech by these banks makes them more efficient, adaptable, and responsive to change so they can cater for the specific financial needs of their customers.
Digital challenger banks come with a range of additional features that many traditional banks don’t provide, even if they too have a mobile app. Of course, as a standard, most banks would offer current accounts and enable customers to perform several basic services such as transferring money, receiving payments, and withdrawing money. However, mobile challenger banks also come with other features that can help customers to manage their finances and achieve their spending or saving goals.
Depending on how individuals plan to use a challenger bank account and what their priorities are, they will be looking at some of the following features.
Not every challenger bank offers the same services and functions, so it is worth double-checking what each one provides. Most will allow you to transfer money in and out of your account, but not all of them will enable you to set up direct debits or standing orders, and some may charge fees for cash withdrawals.
Many challenger banks also have real-time spending notifications so you can see immediately when money leaves your account. This is not only helpful to keep on top of how much you spend, but also to quickly identify if anyone uses your account fraudulently.
Although there are some exceptions, the majority of challenger banks offer a bank card alongside their digital service, which customers can freeze/unfreeze via their mobile if it gets lost or stolen. Customers should be aware that they may need to pay a small, one-off sum to receive their card.
A key attraction of mobile challenger banks is their ability to help customers control and manage their finances. For example, some may categorise your spending into eating out, leisure, bills, travel, and more, which enables you to identify where you could afford to cut down your expenditure. They may also offer a ‘spending report’ or ‘spending projection’ which further highlights how you could manage your money more effectively, whilst some may give you the option of setting spending limits.
If you’re looking to increase your savings, some challenger banks offer further tools that can help. For example, some have ‘savings pots’ where you can easily transfer money from your main account, schedule monthly deposits, and round up transactions to put any spare change into savings. These savings pots are not the same as a savings account.
Most traditional banks will offer an overdraft facility to its customers, but this is not necessarily something provided by all challengers. If an overdraft is something you think you need, then it is worth looking into whether you can get a prearranged overdraft with a challenger bank and what, if any, fees would apply.
Whilst many challenger bank accounts are free, customers should always look out for potential fees. As discussed above, getting a bank card or overdraft may incur fees, but some challengers may also charge for cash withdrawals and for any of their ‘premium’ accounts which offer additional features.
If you travel a lot, it is worth checking out what overseas functions the challenger bank can provide. For example, some banks may not place any fees on transactions or withdrawals made abroad, whilst some will.
Safety and protection
Particularly with new and unfamiliar names, it is important to do some research to make sure they are a legitimate bank. Every provider should be regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), and many will also be part of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS). This latter scheme protects the first £85,000 of your savings, ensuring you will receive compensation should anything happen to your provider.
Unlike with a traditional bank, if you have a problem, you can’t just go into your local branch to resolve it. All queries and issues will be dealt with online through the app, and many will provide a 24/7 live chat service, which goes beyond what many high street banks can offer.
What else can challenger banks offer?
Originally, these challenger banks were primarily focused on providing current accounts and helping people manage their everyday banking needs. Now, however, many are expanding into other banking areas, such as savings accounts, mortgages, loans, and more. These extra functions are not offered by every challenger bank, so customers should consider exactly what they currently want from their bank, as well as their potential future needs, to help them decide which provider to choose.
Top banking trends of 2023 and global outlook of banking and fintech for the year ahead
Author: Professor Marco Mongiello, Pro Vice-Chancellor, The University of Law Business School
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the global outlook for banking and fintech will be dominated by the usual suspects:
Artificial Intelligence – AI plays an increasingly prominent role in banking and fintech by enabling personalised services, fraud detection, predictive analytics, use of chatbots and robo-advisors.
Blockchain and Cryptocurrency – the secure, decentralised and swift system for financial transactions that blockchain has brought to the fore a few years ago, is now becoming ubiquitous. An increasing number of transactions are recorded through blockchains technology, primarily in the cryptocurrency market.
Digital Banking and fintech – accelerated by COVID-19 pandemic, the adoption of digital banking is a trend that will persist as customers have become accustomed to the convenience and efficiency of digital banking. Moreover, fintech enables access to financial services for previously underserved populations in developing countries or less affluent social groups in more affluent societies. This includes mobile banking services, peer-to-peer lending platforms, and microfinance solutions.
Open Banking – another global trend is the use of open APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that allow third-party developers to build apps to facilitate customers’ access to financial data and services from banks.
Nonetheless, the challenges posed by these rapid changes are reminders that banking, an industry that by its very nature needs to be conservative, risk averse and solid, wobbles on the unchartered grounds of fast and turbulent innovation, where entrepreneurship instead thrives. The underlying rationales of banking and fast digital innovation are not incompatible but do need solid operations and thought-through decision-making to avoid causing catastrophic collapses.
The recent examples of Silicon Valley Bank, Silvergate, FTX and Wirecard are stark reminders that digital entrepreneurship applied to banking doesn’t just bring to customers the visible transformation of valuable new services, but also dents (perhaps as an unexpected consequence) the rationale itself of the role of banks in the global economy. Moreover, the central banks’ ability to contain the effects of single banks’ defaults is no longer a certainty, as experienced just over a decade ago and more recently. The markets’ sentiments are hardly reassured by the commitments of even the most coveted players, such as the European Central Bank, the Federal Reserve, and the President of the United States himself.
Regulators are lagging behind and their attempts to catch up may cause further seismic shocks to the global banking system. For example, another trend that is emerging is one of artificial intelligence decision-centres (i.e., decentralised offices of banks which take autonomous decisions on behalf of investors) outside the most stringent regulatory environments, enabling banks to operate globally more efficiently and more competitively. And we can expect that regulators will close the gap either abruptly, as it is currently happening in China, where private banks are subject to an escalation of regulatory and monitoring restrictions, or more gradually as it is happening in Europe and in the US.
The questions we face, as individual or trade customers of our high street banks, as direct investors or clients of managed funds, are whether banking will become more user-friendly yet, for our daily use but riskier, too, or is it simply becoming more efficient, transparent and also safer.
I’m afraid that the answer is by no means an obvious one. Therefore, caution, level-headed decision- making and critical thinking have never been as important as these days. Whether you are looking after your family savings or growing your pension reserve, the imperative is that you keep updated about the providers of the financial services you rely upon as well as about the general regulations that apply to your financial transactions. This is where, for example, you need to be familiar with your rights in case of cyber fraud, as well as learning how to minimise the risk of becoming a victim thereof. Also, taking additional steps to evaluate the credibility, solidity and reliability of the online provider of that app that was recommended by a trusted friend, may prove a very good move.
Similarly, whether you are the CFO of a medium or large company, or are a sole trader wrestling with your own business’s finances, you need to reflect on what you really want from your bank in the first place. That is before you started to be swayed by the whirlpool of offers of ‘opportunities’ to multiply your financial investments. Chances are that your initial approach to your bank was dictated by either a need for financing your working capital, as per your budget and strategic plans, or to find a safe place for your temporarily idle liquidity. Perhaps you were also after some basic treasury services such as swift payments and debt collection. Maybe some other financial services closely related to your business operations, e.g. factoring. The advice is to give very careful consideration to services that are more remote from your business, because the trend for the next years is that more and more of those will be offered to you. But many new services will disappoint those who, sadly, cannot afford financial mishaps as they look to run and grow their business.
Will ‘Britcoin’ change the way we bank?
The Treasury and Bank of England recently announced a state-backed digital pound is likely to be launched in the UK later this decade, following the popularity of cryptocurrencies. However, the ‘Britcoin’ will be backed by the central bank, ensuring the digital pound will be much less volatile than its sister, cryptocurrency. Could a digital pound backed by the central bank be the answer to utilising technological developments in the finance system for the better?
Ross Thompson, Accountancy and Finance Lecturer at Arden University, considers what we can expect from ‘Britcoin’, how this will impact consumers, businesses, and the economy, and whether ‘Britcoin’ could be the revolution to restore our confidence in the banking system.
Trust in our financial system hit an all-time low post the 2008 financial crash. Even ten years on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a survey found 66% of adults in Britain still don’t trust banks to work in the best interests of society.
This means there remains to be apprehension for people to sign up to and use a bank to help manage their money. The UK doesn’t seem to struggle too much in this arena, however, as according to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), most UK consumers (96%) have a current account from a bank or building society. Regardless, there is still a significant number of adults who do not have a bank account or are what is known as ‘unbanked’.
The lack of trust plays a big part here. More people want better control over their money and to cut out the middleman, hence why cryptocurrencies and blockchain became a tempting option, as it can potentially remove the need for banks for any transactions. However, the volatility of these currencies has been a cause for concern for many investors and regulators.
Blockchain and cryptocurrency are gaining more traction and are becoming more of a viable option for businesses, especially due to talks of regulations coming into fruition. This is especially true with cryptocurrency, with the government announcing crypto assets will be subject to FCA rules in line with the same high standards that other financial promotions such as stocks, shares, and insurance products are held to.
The “Britcoin” aims to solve the issues traditional Bitcoin presents. It would be backed by the central bank, which would ensure its stability and reduce its volatility, making it a more attractive option for investors and providing greater confidence in the stability of the financial system. Britcoin will be as stable as the inherent stability of the British economy and political system. It would also provide an opportunity for the UK to stay at the forefront of technological developments in the finance system – a system in which it can sometimes be slow to react.
One of the key benefits of a digital pound is that it would be much faster and more efficient than traditional banking systems. Transactions could be completed almost instantly, regardless of where the parties involved are located. This would make cross-border transactions much easier and could even help to boost international trade.
The Bank of England’s Governor, Andrew Bailey, stated: “a digital pound would provide a new way to pay, help businesses, maintain trust in money and better protect financial stability”, pointing toward the other advantage of a digital pound. It would offer more security as transactions would be recorded on a distributed ledger, which would make it much more difficult for hackers to tamper with the system. It would also provide greater transparency, as all transactions would be recorded on the ledger and could be easily traced if needed.
However, there are also some potential drawbacks. One concern is that it could lead to a reduction in the use of cash, which could have implications for those who do not have access to digital technologies or who prefer to use cash for privacy reasons. There are also concerns that a digital pound could be used for illicit activities, such as money laundering or terrorism financing. On top of this, more details are required in relation to the levels of personal account privacy; the potential to usher in ‘big brother’ banking systems is a growing a concern regarding state digital currencies.
Around 85 central banks are currently engaged in projects to create digital currencies, according to figures from the Bank for International Settlements. But as it stands, many feel there is probably little need for a digital pound; with a growing amount of people using their debit cards, phones and watches to fulfil the same function, a digital pound is deemed unnecessary. On top of this, many of the public fear that a government digital currency could potentially infringe on their privacy – despite the BoE stating the currency would be subject to rigorous standards of privacy and data protection.
And in countries where a digital currency has already been established, there has been little uptake – widely due to the lack of trust between central banks and citizens. It seems gaining users’ confidence should be the Bank’s first priority. The House of Lords economic affairs committee stated last year that a digital pound would pose “significant risks” such as state surveillance, financial instability as people convert bank deposits to CBDC during periods of economic stress, an increase in central bank power without sufficient scrutiny and could be exploited by hostile states and criminals; it is safe to say that the nation’s ‘Britcoin’ will need to be very well thought out.
It has the potential to revolutionize the finance system, however, and could provide significant benefits to investors and consumers alike. However, the potential risks and drawbacks must be carefully considered before any decision is made to launch such a currency. Having said that, if it is implemented correctly, a digital pound could be a powerful tool for utilising technological developments in the finance system for the better.
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