Tech start-ups snap at the heels of Asian private bankers

  • TECH
  • Monday, 11 Apr 2016

New generation: UBS employees demonstrate how their eye movements are being tracked to provide feedback on the interface design of a banking application on a tablet computer in Singapore in March. — Reuters

SINGAPORE: Scanning a bank statement into a computer may not sound particularly high-tech, but it's unsettling some of Asia's private bankers.

By aggregating all the monthly statements mailed to high net worth individuals on the multiple accounts they hold at different institutions, Singapore start-up Mesitis offers clients a single window on their holdings.

"There's a need for this," says Pooja Gurbani, a Singaporean in her 30s who handles tens of millions of dollars of family money. "It makes us see more, it makes us more intelligent investors."

With 4.7 million high net worth individuals – typically those with US$1mil (RM3.9mil) in liquid financial assets – Asia-Pacific is the largest and fastest growing wealth region, according to Cap Gemini and RBC.

But its private banking industry is only slowly waking up to the demands of a new, tech-savvy generation of wealthy clients and family offices, creating opportunities for financial technology, or fintech, start-ups.

Gurbani said she was so impressed with the Mesitis service that she ditched her private banker and even invested in the firm, one of a handful of start-ups across Asia looking to disrupt the traditional wealth management business.

For sure, sending statements to a third party and viewing holdings online won't appeal to everyone, especially ultra high net worth individuals – those with at least US$30mil (RM116.95mil) of investable assets – and Mesitis says it is not regulated.

Digital integration 

Feeding paper statements into a scanner may seem low-tech, but it gets around the lack of application programming interfaces (APIs) that many banks and financial institutions in the United States offer to allow third-party access to data.

That level of digital integration hasn't taken off in Asia, prompting regulators such as the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to prod banks to do more.

"You don't really have a choice because we're already here," Mesitis' co-founder and CEO Tanmai Sharma told a recent banking event hosted by the MAS. "This is do-able and absurdly easy."

Sharma's company is now running trials at three private banks to integrate its software into their systems, but he says most of his firm's business is directly with banks' clients.

Private banks are cautiously taking note. Clients in Asia are digitally tuned-in and the region's billionaire wealth will overtake that of the US within a decade, a UBS study predicts.

UBS, the world's biggest wealth manager, is evaluating Mesitis' Canopy service, Ketan Samani, chief digital officer at UBS Wealth Management APAC, told Reuters.

Indeed, UBS and others such as Standard Chartered are building their own fintech teams. Inside a colonial-era building that once served as the British military headquarters in Singapore, UBS is lab-testing new technologies to serve its wealthy clients in Asia. Credit Suisse has a mobile app tailored for its Asia-Pacific private banking clients.

Samani sees the main threat from so-called fintech disrupters in payments, lending and credit cards. "All those are under attack now. Non-traditional players have come in and the barriers have lowered to some degree," he said.

But UBS and other private banks hope their core advisory business – built around face-to-face meetings – will escape the onslaught.

"We are moving towards being paid for advice, with new products coming in regardless of the number of transactions the clients are making and so on," said Geoffroy De Ridder, operating head for UBS Wealth Management in Asia Pacific.

Chipping away 

Offering advice may not, however, be as safe as it looks.

So-called "robo-advisers" automate wealth advisory roles, calling into question the value of traditional banker/client meetings, and potentially threatening an important source of bank income.

Some Asian bankers are dismissive. "They're kind of just algorithms in the sky, they’re pretty dumb," said Neal Cross, chief innovation officer for DBS, a Singapore bank which spends close to US$700mil (RM2.73bil) a year on technology. He was speaking in December.

Mesitis' Sharma, a former managing director at Deutsche Bank, believes the opposite. He says start-ups will chip away at both businesses by aggregating customers' data and offering smarter insights on their investments.

"Robo is a logical offshoot of the aggregation business we do," said Sharma. "We have the data anyway, so using that data to make efficient investment portfolios is a logical next step." — Reuters

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