NAB will buy 86 400 for up to $220 million, leaving Australia's neobank experiment looking shaky

86400 CEO Robert Bell and chair Anthony Thomson (Supplied)

National Australia Bank has announced it will acquire neobank 86 400 and will fold it into digital offering UBank – leaving Australia’s fledgling neobank experiment looking very feeble indeed.

In an announcement to the ASX on Friday morning, NAB announced it had entered a deal to acquire all of 86 400’s shares for up to $220 million, subject to approval by shareholders and regulators.

NAB already had an 18.3% stake in the neobank, and said it had commenced discussions about a total acquisition in late 2020.

“Bringing together UBank and 86 400 is consistent with NAB’s long-term strategy and growth plans and will enable us to develop a leading digital bank that can attract and retain customers at scale and pace,” said NAB chief operating officer Les Matheson in a statement.

In its announcement, NAB said 86 400, which was founded in 2019 by payments provider Cuscal Pty Ltd and led by CEO Robert Bell, had more than 85,000 customers, $375 million in deposits, $270 million in approved residential mortgages, and 2,500 approved brokers.

“From day one, our purpose has been to help Australians take control of their money. We’ve just rounded out an incredible year, delivered by our phenomenal team of only 120 people, and we’re only just getting started,” said Robert Bell, CEO of 86 400.

“This will significantly fast-track our growth, propelling our business, customer numbers and balance sheet to a position which would’ve otherwise taken five years.”

A rough time for Aussie neobanks

Pitched as disruptors which would force the big four banking oligopoly to compete, Australia’s neobanks have had a rough trot of late.

In December, early darling Xinja announced it was shutting up shop and returning deposits to customers, after a year it spent haemorrhaging money on a generous savings interest rate without any lending product or revenue stream.

As 86 400’s CEO, Bell was one of the mourners at Xinja’s graveside, telling Business Insider Australia at the time that its collapse was a sad blow for “choice”.

“While there’s always been healthy competition between us and the other neobanks, we all agree that choice is a good thing,” Bell told Business Insider Australia. “Australians are crying out for new and smarter ways to manage their money. It’s sad to see a little less choice in the market today, but it underlines the importance of what we’re building.”

Indeed.

While UBank, 86 400’s stablemate-to-be, has occasionally been mentioned in the same breath as other neobank competitors, it hardly fits into the vision of a plucky startup sticking it to the big dogs. It fully operates under NAB’s licence, offering little more than a shiny digital shopfront for the same balance sheets and banking infrastructure.

Back in October, the CEO of neobank Douugh told Business Insider Australia that the industry model was “broken”.

“If you look at Australia’s neobanks right now, they’re not building anything, they’re not solving a problem and their business model does not allow them to because they’ve got to get straight into lending on the mortgage side, and you can see they’re struggling,” Andy Taylor said.

The fundamental problem looks increasingly hard to deny.

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