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Tech Disruption In Retail Banking: GCC Banks catching up

The main risk of technological disruption for retail banks in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is changes in customer preference

Retail banking in the GCC faces disruption in money transfer, foreign currency exchange, and payment services We expect regulators in the region to continue protecting the stability of their banking systems Large expatriate and youth populations will continue to drive deman

By: S&P Global Ratings 

S&P Global Ratings finds that, as in other banking markets, the main risk of technological disruption for retail banks in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is changes in customer preference.

This is the conclusion we drew from our four-factor analysis of a banking system’s technology, regulation, industry, and preferences (TRIP), which we are incorporating in our ratings on banks in the region. Regulatory risk is low because policymakers are conscious of the extreme importance of local banking systems in the region, and the need to keep them safe from potentially disruptive unregulated competition. Technology and industry structure present a moderate risk of disruption.

The digitalization of GCC economies is still a work in progress. The adoption of big data, artificial intelligence (AI) analytics, as well as voice and facial recognitions tools, could enable a more effective and cost efficient provision of customer services. We expect some GCC bank business lines to remain protected from fintech in the medium term. These lines include corporate lending, where human added-value remains significant in the region. Therefore, even if customers’ preferences continue to evolve, we think that risks to these banking systems remain contained, at least in the next two years. This is because regulators continue to protect them and the share of current activity at risk is small.

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Industry Disruption Risk: Moderate

In 2018, the GCC banks we rate generated about 20% of their revenue from fees and commissions and foreign exchange gains. The latter contributed about 5% of rated GCC banks’ operating revenue over the same period. Although we understand that a significant portion of this revenue involves lending and advisory activity, part of it also comes from payment services, money transfers, and currency exchange. GCC countries remain net exporters of capital. Their small populations, significant investments, and economic development have brought about a significant need to import skilled and semi-skilled staff. As a result, the populations of most GCC countries are dominated by expatriates (blue- and white-collar workers). According to the World Bank, these expatriates sent $119.3 billion back to their home countries in 2017, with India, Pakistan, Egypt, and the Philippines the main destinations (see charts 2 and 3). In our view, fintech could disrupt the money transfer operations of banks and exchange houses in the GCC. Fintech companies, by definition, focus on lowering transfer fees and reducing transfer times.

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Payment services is another business line that fintech is disrupting. A closer look at fintech operations being launched in the region shows that some are developing alternative payment methods, with a focus on contactless payments and securing transactions through blockchain.

That said, we expect some business lines at GCC banks to remain protected from fintech. These lines include core lending–primarily corporate and to a lesser extent retail lending. It’s worth noting that on average, the top 20 customers contributed 25%-35% of total lending at the GCC banks we rate. We believe that, even more than in many developed markets, corporate lending remains relationship-based and the human added-value remains significant in the GCC–from corporate relationship managers all the way up to decision makers. Retail lending could benefit from enhanced risk analytics, which determine the credit quality of clients using advanced

analytics and available data (for example, bills payment habits, and spending patterns). Although we acknowledge that fintech might help enhance the efficiency of some banking operations, we do not think they will be significantly disrupted in the next few years. Some fintech companies in the GCC are targeting niche segments such as banking for low-income employees, microsavings, microinvestments, and youth. Others are targeting more secure transactions or even banks’ compliance with regulations and internal policies. Collaboration between banks and these fintech firms could help enhance efficiency at the incumbents, allowing them to redeploy resources and staff on higher added-value transactions.

In addition, online banking penetration remains significant in the GCC. According to McKinsey, online banking penetration has reached 92% for United Arab Emirates (UAE) banks and 85% for Saudi banks. Shifting transactions from branches to online is also high on the agenda of some rated banks. For example, in Saudi Arabia, The National Commercial Bank saw 36.6% of financial transactions executed online or through its mobile application at year-end 2018 (see chart 4). In the UAE, the number of bank branches has been declining since December 2014 (see chart 5), suggesting that banks have managed to migrate some transactions to alternative channels. We think this trend will continue in the next 12-24 months, with a similar movement also starting to emerge in Saudi Arabia.

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Demand is expanding thanks to large expatriate and youth populations We believe demand for fintech solutions is present and expanding, driven primarily by the lower costs for service provision and speed of execution. Fintech firms are also benefiting from the region’s high smartphone penetration and 4G coverage, and top-notch physical infrastructure.

The large expatriate population, particularly low-income workers, transferring money back home, represents significant demand for lower-cost and higher-speed money transfer companies. Demand is also coming from the region’s youth, who are more familiar with new technologies. According to the Statistical Centre for the Cooperation Council for the Arab Countries of the Gulf, about 40% of the GCC population is under 30 years old (see chart 6), which creates significant demand for digital financial operations.

Some banks, such as Dubai-based Mashreqbank, have sought to capture this market by launching neobanks–100% digital banks that reach customers only through a mobile application or PC–and we think more will follow. At this stage, demand for lending or investment services remains rather limited in our view. Lending is still dominated by human interaction, while the distribution of investment products is still dominated by banks, which have the confidence of the general public and regulatory protection. For example, we classify four of the six GCC countries as highly supportive toward their banking systems. Moreover, banks benefit from advantages related to cost of funding, with more than 40% of total deposits noninterest-bearing at the banks that we rate.

With the increasing digitalization of the GCC economies, banks could benefit from the broader availability of data, which combined with data analytics or AI can strengthen risk management and enhance sales through more targeted marketing initiatives. It remains to be seen to what extent banks and other fintech firms will be allowed to leverage this data. The presence of large expatriate populations also means that local disruption could come from abroad. A fintech firm that launches an innovative investment solution in one country could grab the attention of nationals living in the GCC, potentially triggering an outflow of capital.

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We believe big data, AI analytics, and voice and facial recognition tools could enable more effective and cost-efficient customer profiling, enhance marketing to new customers, and improve risk management and fraud detection at GCC banks. This report does not constitute a rating action.