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Digital banks: Feature, product or business?

October 21, 2020, 4:04 PM UTC

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Good morning, Ledger readers. I’ve been thinking about a question popular in Silicon Valley investor circles a few years back—“Are you a feature, product or business?”—and how it might apply to the glut of so-called challenger banks competing for U.S. customers.

Challenger banks—some call them digital banks or neobanks—took off several years ago by exploiting customer frustration with the abusive fees and lousy mobile experience offered by incumbents. The upstarts grew by means of asset-light operations (no branches, no tellers) and a savvy strategy of acquiring customers by social media and word-of-mouth.

The most prominent of the challengers is Chime, which recently notched a $14.5 billion valuation, but other would-be disruptors include Varo, Revolut, N26, Monzo, Dave, HMBradley and MoneyLion. The list goes on.

The question I have is how many of these names will be around two years from now. My hunch is not many. Going back to the “feature, product or business” query, a lot of these players look a lot more like features than full-blown financial companies. The perks that once defined them, like overdraft notifications or spangled debit cards, have been copied not only by their upstart competitors but some old line banks too.

Meanwhile, their business model faces major headwinds. In an astute essay, Andreessen Horowitz notes that the Federal Reserve’s low rate policy means it’s no longer viable to offer high interest savings rates to poach new customers.  The venture capital firm also notes that the pool of clients that can be acquired on the cheap is shrinking, while fewer of those customers are transferring their direct deposits over to challenger banks.

So how are all these upstarts going to make money? The most likely answer is they’re not. Challenger banks can earn a trickle of revenue from merchants when customers swipe their debit cards, but not enough to thrive in the long term. To be a business not a feature, they will have to do what successful banks have always done: take deposits and loan them out at a profit. But that’s no easy feat given that competitors already have their hooks in the most credit-worthy customers, and that the regulatory costs of being a full-blown lender are steep. So what happens next?

“It’s a really crowded space, and I think a lot of the smaller players will go out of business. Those with a good customer base will get acquired,” says Robert Le, an analyst with PitchBook. He predicts we’ll soon see a winnowing in which the likes of Chime and SoFi obtain a federal banking charter (Varo already has one) and become fixtures of the financial world, while the minnows disappear or get gobbled up for their, well, features.

Makes sense to me. One more thing to ponder: If Le is right and consolidation is coming, will any of the acquirers include the big crypto players like Coinbase, Kraken or Gemini? These companies have been active in M&A, and snapping up a neobank could let them expand their financial footprint and provide an easy way to introduce millions of customers to Bitcoin. Just saying.

On a final note, we’re delighted to announce the return of Balancing the Ledger, our bi-weekly show where we welcome the biggest names in fintech and crypto. You can find more about the latest episode, featuring Binance’s maverick CEO CZ, below. And if you have suggestions for who we should bring on, we’d love to hear them.  

Jeff John Roberts

@jeffjohnroberts

jeff.roberts@fortune.com

DECENTRALIZED NEWS

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Debits

Goldman Sachs nears agreement for $2 billion fine in 1MDB scandal ... India's Paytm butts heads with Google ... TD Bank sues Plaid for trademark infringement and false advertising ... FinCEN hits cryptocurrency 'mixers' with $60m fine ... Bitcoin critic Peter Schiff's bank faces tax evasion probe ... Airline loyalty programs are valuable to airlines because they're not great for consumers.

BALANCING THE LEDGER

Binance CEO Changpeng Zao (CZ)

Binance CEO CZ joins us to talk about central bank digital currencies, the implications of recent U.S. actions against his competitor, BitMEX, and other burning issues.

FOMO NO MO'

Filecoin’s block rewards – about 10 FIL per block – are not released to miners immediately but are vested to them linearly over a window of 180 days. For Li at 6Block, a suitable strategy now is to wait and see how the market for FIL plays out.

Filecoin is a distributed cloud storage network that uses a crypto-token to incentivize ‘miners’ to provide storage. The network launched on October 15, but its so-called ‘crypto-economic’ model, the rules for how coins are distributed to miners, appears to have stumbled. The Block reports that top Filecoin miners are holding off on further investment in storage space, and even that there’s talk of forking the system. Filecoin pushed back against claims that its model is flawed, emphasizing that the network is still growing. But the episode illustrates how challenging it is to design a market-based system and convince participants it’s working for them.

BUBBLE-O-METER

$222 billion

PayPal's transaction volume in the second quarter of 2020 - money that will now be exposed to cryptocurrency purchase options as it passes through the service.

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A moment of truth as Polkadot, Filecoin, and Dfinity go live - Jeff John Roberts

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Bank of America had a weak quarter, but there were bright spots - Shawn Tully

How JPMorgan Chase plans to tackle climate change - Daniel Pinto and Ashley Bacon

MEMES AND MUMBLES

This edition of The Ledger was curated by David Z. Morris. Contact him at david.morris@fortune.com