“The big information void we’ve continually come up against in this space is, is anyone actually using this stuff?” — Imran Gulamhuseinwala, EY.
Fintech, or financial technology, is arguably one of the hottest areas of investment and startup activity at the moment, with billions flowing into the sector.
Evangelists believe that technological advances like cloud computing and the rise of mobile can combine with a distrust of banks to create startups that make finance cheaper and more accessible to a new generation of consumers. Think peer-to-peer lenders like Funding Circle and online money transfer services like TransferWise.
But at a Westminister Business Forum event on fintech this week there was an air of self-consciousness among those in the room representing the startups. Many of them felt they had to justify the hype to the more old-school finance types in the room.
As Tony Craddock, director general of the Emerging Payments Association, put it in his speech: “To what extent are consumers actually adopting this stuff?”
The problem is that while there’s plenty of data on funding, volumes, and startup activity in the sector, there’s much less information on the people actually using these services.
Gulamhuseinwala, the head of fintech at “Big Four” accountant EY, put it this way: “There is an awful lot talked about the fintech space. There are a lot of column inches written about the fintech space. And there’s an awful lot that’s been invested into the fintech space. We believe something in the order of $12 billion has been invested into the fintech space in the last year, next year it could be circa $15 billion.
“But I think the big information void we’ve continually come up against in this space is, is anyone actually using this stuff? There’s a lot of activity on the supply side but on the demand side, are these businesses getting traction?”
Many fintech businesses appear to be doing well but it remains to be seen if they can really deliver on their promise of democratising finance and giving the banks a run for their money. Data from boutique investment bank Liberum suggests that in peer-to-peer lending, for example, is growing thanks to early adopters putting more money onto platforms and institutional money flowing in — not because it’s breaking into the mainstream.
EY is trying to address this “information void” by recently launching a Fintech Adoption Index. The company surveyed 10,000 “digitally active consumers” — people already using digital services like Amazon, say — across Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
What they found in the UK is that 14.3% of people surveyed already use some type of fintech service, defined as having used a fintech product like online payments or peer-to-peer loans in the last 6 months. That’s slightly below the international average of 15.5%.
Those percentages look small compared to games or social media or messaging, where a solid majority of people are users. The sector appears to be years behind when it comes to adoption, which partially explains the “void.”
But Gulamhuseinwala is upbeat. “This we felt was actually quite a high number — 1 in 7,” Gulamhuseinwala told the crowd on Wednesday. “In cities, urban dwellers are much more likely to be using fintech products. In London we found that a quarter were already using fintech propositions of some sort.
“Our findings did reinforce something that probably a lot of people in this room already felt, and that is that adoption is highest amongst younger digitally active consumers and higher income digitally active consumers.”
Fintech is a pretty broad church so EY also drilled down a little deeper to figure out what services people are using.
Money transfer and payments services came out on top, with 17.6% of those who said they were using fintech pointing to this product. This is one of the hottest areas of investment in the UK, with online international transfer business TransferWise reportedly one of the country’s few “unicorns.”
The second most popular service was savings and investment products — peer-to-peer lending, crowdfunding, online investment advice — at 16.7%. Then there’s a big drop-off, with insurance coming in third at 7.2%.
EY also asked consumers who weren’t using fintech if they intended to start using it and roughly 15% said they did. TransferWise this week also release a survey conducted with YouGov that concluded 25% of Brits will use technology companies for half their banking needs or more by 2020.
Gulamhuseinwala acknowledged that asking people what they’re going to do is “a notoriously difficult question to ask,” but added: “We feel that if 1 in 7 consumers are already using fintech products and a further 1 in 7 intend to, that’s a really interesting proposition and probably does warrant the attention. The old adage of follow the money is probably well served in this case.”