Picture: REUTERS/BRANDAN McDERMID
Picture: REUTERS/BRANDAN McDERMID

The unwillingness of tech giants to disrupt banking shows how complex and unattractive that business has become. Google’s foray into financial services illustrates this. The search leviathan is roping in Citigroup and Stanford Federal Credit Union, a local California lender. Google plans to offer current accounts from 2020. At first glance, this looks like a flirtation with white label distribution rather than the end of days for Wall Street.

Google’s tussle with privacy and competition watchdogs may be regarded as a misfortune. It would look like carelessness to take on a second regulatory burden by becoming a bank. It is data rather than a banking licence that Google covets.

The business is executing a soft-shoe shuffle into financial services. Partner banks will handle financial and compliance matters while Google learns the ropes. This could edge the group closer to the ultimate prize for online platforms: the banking data on which all other aspects of a consumer’s economic life depend.

The feeling that this is an experiment is underlined by Stanford’s feeble $2.6bn (R38.1m) in assets. Google parent Alphabet boasts high free cash flow and ended the last quarter with more than $121bn in cash and marketable securities. It does not need access to external deposits to finance fintech operations.

If current accounts go well — and expansion does not trigger whooping sirens among Google’s detractors — it could offer a full spectrum of financial services, as China’s Alipay does. The four-year-old Google Pay digital wallet system would mesh nicely with this. It should have 100-million users by the end of 2020, according to Juniper Research.

Facebook may have failed with digital currency Libra. It steams ahead with its payments processing service. Apple’s new credit card appeals to the young and wealthy consumers who might buy other Apple devices. Amazon offers small business loans to vendors who sell on its site.

A distinctly double-edged opportunity may eventually confront consumers: to bank, shop, socialise and study within an ecosystem built by a single tech group. Aggregation of data multiplies its value. Ethical objections proliferate at the same rate. /London, November 15

© The Financial Times 2019