Like all businesses upended by the pandemic lockdowns, banks were forced to reorganise with little time. They managed to shutter large parts of their branch networks and to send most of their employees to work remotely. So far, the experiment has been largely free of glitches — and instructive.
By redeploying armies of staff, lenders were mostly able to adapt to the unprecedented surge in client inquiries that accompanied the rollout of emergency state-backed loans and mortgage holidays. On top of that, banks also got a glimpse of their digital future. Now comes the hard part: hanging on to the most useful changes as the lockdowns ease.
A survey of retail bank customers in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal and the UK, carried out by McKinsey & Co in mid-April, shows that online bank use rose in all of the countries, from a 7% increase in Italy to 19% in Portugal, with a similar pattern in mobile access. More than one in five customers in Spain and Britain tried online banking for the first time. A shift to digital use of this magnitude would probably have taken at least a couple of years without the Covid-related branch closures, according to McKinsey.
Equally telling is how notes and coins were easily replaced. Though largely imposed by the need to prevent the coronavirus’s transmission, the trajectory toward more digital payments has been set. In a BCG survey of UK clients that captured activity during three weeks in April, 63% of respondents said they’d reduced their use of cash since the start of the crisis, while 43% sent more payments through social media messaging apps.
What’s more, one in five respondents plans to do less in branches or to stop using them altogether after the crisis. For the more affluent customers, dealings with relationship managers jumped almost threefold, according to the BCG study. Why go to a branch if you can get the same advice on a video chat from the comfort of your home? For European lenders plagued by high expenses, declining revenue, an expected surge in pandemic-related credit losses and competition from fintech upstarts, the greater use of technology will be critical to controlling costs.
Under its Covid-19 recovery scenario, in which the euro zone’s gross domestic product would drop by 11% in 2020, McKinsey sees European banks suffering a bigger setback than in the aftermath of the financial and sovereign debt crises. Revenue may drop 40% once the cost of risk is included as loans sour. Banks may not return to their pre-pandemic revenue and profitability levels until 2024. Capital injections seem inevitable. Although some parts of banking will be more resilient than others, and the severity of credit losses will determine banks’ individual strategies, the industry as a whole will need to cut expenses while maintaining investments in technology — not an easy task.
Banks might consider acquisitions as a quick way to add new apps and services.