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The Internet and the Future of Financial Services: Transparency, Differential Pricing and Disintermediation

  • Eric K. Clemons
  • Lorin M. Hitt

The Internet has had a profound effect on the financial service sector, dramatically changing the cost and capabilities for marketing, distributing and servicing financial products and enabling new types of products and services to be developed. This is especially true for retail financial services where widespread adoption of the Internet, the standardization provided by the world-wide web, and the low cost of Internet communications and transactions have made it possible to reach customers electronically in ways that were prohibitively costly even 5 years ago; indeed, pre-Internet attempts at the online distribution of retail financial services were outright failures in the mid-1980s. The concurrent growth and de-facto standardization of Internet-enabled personal financial management software (e.g., Quicken and Microsoft Money) have also contributed to an increasing array of low cost and potentially richer ways to provide information and transaction services to customers. The growth in Internet-enabled products and service has been rapid in some sectors and slower in others. Retail brokerage has seen a dramatic change with more than 15% (Salomon Smith Barney, 2000) of brokerage assets now managed in on-line trading counts, and substantially more if "traditional" brokerage accounts and mutual funds with on-line access are included. Similarly, approximately 10 million US customers currently use on-line banking (O'Brien, 2000) and 39 of the top 100 banks offer fully functional internet banking (ePayNews, 2000). Many banks and brokerages are on their second or third release of their on-line delivery platform. Credit cards, while not radically transformed in operational aspects of the business, have begun to have some volume of new origination on-line. In addition, leading credit card companies such as Capital One Financial have been some of the largest "traditional" companies in the use of Internet advertising (see, 1999). More regulated and complex financial products such as mortgages and insurance have had some origination volume on the Internet (an estimated $17Bn of mortgages will be originated and ~$400mm in insurance premiums will be sold online in 2000). For these sectors, the adoption of on-line origination has been much slower and concentrated in entrants, rather than incumbent firms. However, despite the small level of originations, the Internet has become a significant and growing source of product information - it is estimated that about 10% of insurance customers and 15% of mortgage customers have used the internet to shop for these products (Forrester, 1998; McVey, 2000). This may ultimately affect product purchase and pricing structure, irrespective of the delivery channel. Internet companies have also played a role in many other segments of the industry such as financial information and news, rating and comparison services, and even some areas where one might think the Internet would have a less significant role, such as financial planning and investment banking. While the continued growth rates are uncertain and the penetration for the more complex products has not yet been shown to be widespread, it is safe to conclude that the Internet will play a significant role in consumer financial services for a large subset of customers, and that this role will be significantly different across different sub-sectors of the financial industry. In discussions of the Internet impact on the financial services sector, the emphasis has often been placed on the direct cost-saving effects of using the Internet to provide transaction services. These potential cost savings are indeed significant and in the long term may lead to significant creation of value. However, there also substantial barriers to realizing much of this value. In some industries, such as the credit card industry, many of the potential gains from automation have already been realized, and in others, the gains may be concentrated in only a few areas of the value chain. For products which are sold through branches or agents (banking, mortgage and insurance), realization of cost savings will require a difficult and time consuming redesign of the retail delivery system. Finally, many of these efficiencies are accompanied by improved customer convenience. To the extent that consumers respond by consuming more services, particularly those that generate costs but not revenue, overall costs may not be substantially reduced. This has been the experience of previous innovations in retail financial service delivery such as automated teller machines (ATMs). Computers, and more recently the Internet, are best described as "general purpose technologies" (Brynjolfsson and Hitt, 2000), like the electric motor or the telegraph (Bresnehan and Trajtenberg, 1995). For general purpose technologies, most of the economic value they create is associated with their ability to enable complementary innovations in organization, market structure, and products and services. However, at the same time, these complementary changes are often disruptive to the existing structure of an industry (Tushman and Anderson, 1986; Bower and Christensen, 1995), leading to significant redistribution of value among industry participants and between producers and consumers. To understand the true impact of the Internet on the financial service industry, it is therefore necessary to identify how the Internet affects the critical drivers of industry structure, and how it enables or necessitates changes in products and services. This will necessarily be difficult, as it is hard to isolate the contribution of the Internet separately from the effects of other complementary innovations, and to distinguish Internet effects from other of long-term industry trends and exogenous factors. While obtaining precise numerical estimates of the productivity effects will be hard, in many cases the direction and general magnitude of the impact on productivity, profitability and consumer surplus (consumer value) will be clear. We see three principal issues that will determine the transformation of retail financial services: Transparency, or the ability of all market participants to determine the available range of prices for financial instruments and financial services; Differential pricing, in which finer and finer distinctions must be made among groups of customers, setting their prices based upon the revenue streams they generate, the costs to serve them, and their resulting profitability; Disintermediation or bypass, in which net-based direct interaction eliminates the role previously enjoyed by financial advisors, retail stock brokers, and insurance agents. Each of these will affect the roles to be played by financial service providers, the sources of profits available to them, and the strategies they may choose to pursue in order to earn those profits. However, different financial products will be affected differently by each of these issues in both the nature and the magnitude of the effect. In addition, these factors are often interdependent - for example, differential pricing is often a necessary response to increasing price transparency to prevent erosion of margins, and the ability to deliver sophisticated (although typically not complex) pricing strategies to customers may be affected by the incentives and structure of the distribution system. For these reasons, we will organize the remainder of the paper around the discussion of these effects as they apply within different sectors in financial services. The emphasis of our analysis will be on the primary sectors in retail financial services: credit cards, deposit banking, mortgages, brokerage, and insurance. Our focus is the retail segment because it has been the most radically transformed by the Internet to date, primarily because the retail business has the most to benefit from the reduction in customer interaction costs, the ability to reach mass markets, and the reduction in the role of geography in determining the strategies of financial services providers. Much of the computing- and communications-enabled transformation in the relationships among financial institutions or between financial institutions and consumers of wholesale financial services (for example, brokerage houses and exchanges, or large firms and their commercial lenders) have already occurred or were well underway before the Internet was commercialized. For these markets, the economics of computing and networking were still favorable under previous generations of technology. Many of the commercial financial services that are likely to be transformed by the Internet, at least in the medium term (3-5 years), are those that closely resemble retail services (such as commercial mortgage, short term lending, leasing, cash management, and the like). That is not to say that business to business (B2B) e-commerce opportunities do not exist in the financial sector - only that many of the medium term opportunities that are directly a result of the Internet are closely analogous to changes in the retail sector, and the others are probably more closely related to organizational and market innovation rather than a result of ubiquitous and low-cost communications technology.

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Paper provided by Wharton School Center for Financial Institutions, University of Pennsylvania in its series Center for Financial Institutions Working Papers with number 00-35.

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Date of creation: Sep 2000
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:wop:pennin:00-35
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  1. William P. Osterberg & Sandy A. Sterk, 1997. "Do more banking offices mean more banking services?," Economic Commentary, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, issue Dec.
  2. Bresnahan, Timothy F. & Trajtenberg, M., 1995. "General purpose technologies 'Engines of growth'?," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 65(1), pages 83-108, January.
  3. Lorin M. Hitt & Frances X. Frei, 1999. "Do Better Customers Utilize Electronic Distribution Channels: The Case of PC Banking," Center for Financial Institutions Working Papers 99-21, Wharton School Center for Financial Institutions, University of Pennsylvania.
  4. Timothy F. Bresnahan & Paul Milgrom & Jonathan Paul, 1992. "The Real Output of the Stock Exchange," NBER Chapters, in: Output Measurement in the Service Sectors, pages 195-216 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Erik Brynjolfsson & Lorin M. Hitt, 2000. "Beyond Computation: Information Technology, Organizational Transformation and Business Performance," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 14(4), pages 23-48, Fall.
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