Big Is Getting Even Bigger
By Jeff Liguori
Financial advice generally addresses the question ‘where should I put my money?’ It is a simple way of asking ‘what is the optimal investment for my hard-earned dollars?’ The more important meaning may be more literal: with today’s shifting landscape, where do I actually put my money?
The financial-services industry, which employs approximately 6.5 million people and is responsible for more than $123 trillion in assets in the U.S., has been rapidly changing over the past two decades. And the rate of that change is quickening. As with all industries, change may be the only certainty, but when it directly impacts our pocketbooks, it can create anxiety.
At the end of 2020, there were 4,377 FDIC-insured commercial banks in the U.S. That number is down from 6,519 in 2010 and more than 8,000 in 2000. During the same 20-year period, the dollar volume of loans generated by those banks has increased 127%, growing from $1.05 trillion to $2.38 trillion. Consumers seem to have fewer choices in terms of traditional banking.
Despite the number of banks being cut in half since 2000, there are more financial outlets than ever for depositors, borrowers, and investors. Finance has become a complex structure and confusing network of companies, from purely digital firms with a limited product offering, like PayPal, to massive financial supermarkets like Bank of America. Incidentally, in the past five years, the number of total active user accounts with PayPal has risen sharply from 165 million to 380 million, up 130%, with total annual transaction volume approaching $1 trillion.
“Finance has become a complex structure and confusing network of companies, from purely digital firms with a limited product offering, like PayPal, to massive financial supermarkets like Bank of America.”
The adoption of technology in banking is largely a function of age. At the end of 2020, nearly 50% of consumers ages 24 to 39 were making payments with digital or mobile wallets. That percentage decreases slightly up to age 54. But only one-fifth of consumers ages 55 to 73 transact digitally, and only one in 12 consumers age 74 or older are comfortable making digital payments. Focusing on younger demographics, ‘killer app’ technology has become a critical component of growth for companies in financial services. The number of financial-technology startups, or fintech, in North America has grown 90% since 2018.
Beyond technology, financial firms continue to expand their suite of products. For example, the five largest life-insurance companies measured by annual premium revenue are Northwestern Mutual, MetLife, New York Life, Prudential, and MassMutual, in that order. Those firms also have a significant presence in investment management, by way of mutual funds or wealth advisory or both. The same is true for the largest commercial banks, investment banks, and broker-dealers. Financial solutions are ubiquitous across the industry regardless of the type of firm.
Big is getting even bigger. It is an evolution in financial services, and not without precedent. Historically, consumers deposited their paycheck and took out their mortgage from the local bank. They obtained insurance through a local broker and invested with a local advisor. As these independent businesses got bought by larger firms, the relationship to the community slowly eroded. Meanwhile, our bank is connected to our PayPal account, directly pays our mortgage and car payments, and debits our monthly Netflix subscription. The idea of switching banks is enough to cause sleeplessness, even though our relationship manager works at a call center in Tulsa.
As with all trends, opportunities arise. The combination of an intricate financial landscape with rapidly changing technology and a greater access to products and solutions than ever before is exciting. Lost in the consolidation of banking is the local connection. In years past, a bigger institution had greater access, but that is no longer the case.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey was the frustrated local banker who single-handedly saved the town from financial ruin. He couldn’t compete with the wealthy industrialist, Henry Potter, who owned half of Bedford Falls. But George had one thing Mr. Potter didn’t, the trust of his neighbors. As financial products and services continue to multiply and digitize at a dizzying pace, it will ultimately be the local trusted banker or advisor who helps confused consumers make the right choices.
Jeff Liguori is the co-founder and chief Investment officer of Napatree Capital, an investment boutique with offices in Longmeadow as well as Providence and Westerly, R.I.; (401) 437-4730.