Technology giants are showing a heightened interest in the financial-services industry as they see Chinese tech companies succeeding in payments, an area that could be lucrative for data collection.
The latest foray into financial services is Alphabet Inc.’s GOOG, +0.43% GOOGL, +0.51% plans to start offering checking accounts to consumers next year, in a partnership between Google, Citigroup Inc. C, -0.43% and a credit union. That news followed Facebook Inc.’s FB, -0.50% rebranding of its payments offering, which is separate from its ambitious Libra initiative for payments, and Apple Inc.’s AAPL, -0.63% move into credit cards in a deal with Goldman Sachs while continuing to expand its Apple Pay offering. Amazon.com Inc. AMZN, +0.11% recently announced the addition of bill payments to its expanding set of payment offerings, which extend to other websites beyond its own.
All four of those large tech companies are already under extreme scrutiny from federal and state governments for potential monopolistic actions and accusations of misusing consumer data. Experts said that their willingness to dive headfirst into financial services despite the regulatory spotlight already shining on them is due to the potential rewards on the other side.
“If you know what someone spends money on, you know everything about them,” said James Angel, a finance professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
The deepening focus on payments serves multiple purposes for Big Tech players depending on the scopes of their businesses, according to MoffettNathanson analyst Lisa Ellis. For companies focused on commerce, in-house payments capabilities can offer more control over the shopping process—and an additional revenue stream. For ecosystem-oriented companies, management teams are looking to drive user engagement and time spent on their platforms.
The possibilities are being exhibited every day in China, where tech companies are a routine part of most purchases.
“Maybe, at some level, the broader ambition is they have envy of the Chinese super-apps,” Ellis said.
Brands like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. BABA, +0.28% affiliate Ant Financial, which is best known for its Alipay wallet, and Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s 700, -2.32% WeChat offer an array of services within their apps so that consumers can get things like insurance and wealth-management advice without heading to a separate destination.
“Google and maybe Amazon are trying to replicate a bit of that concept, trying to tuck more day-to-day abilities within that umbrella,” Ellis said
However, it’s “difficult to see that having success” due to likely resistance from existing financial-services players, consumers and regulators, she noted. The U.S. also has different rules governing what elements of transaction data get shared with payments players.
In the case of Apple’s co-branded credit card with Goldman Sachs, for example, the company will only see the merchant, date, and dollar amount of transactions made at non-Apple retailers. But a company like Facebook benefits from greater information about whether a customer goes through with a purchase. When someone clicks on an item in Instagram and goes to buy it through the dedicated Instagram checkout button, which is currently available with select brands, Facebook learns whether the customer actually completed a purchase, Ellis said. The older Instagram shopping experience sent users to a separate tab, meaning Facebook wouldn’t know what happened once users clicked on an item because they were redirected to the merchant’s website.
Georgetown’s Angel noted that tech companies don’t need to make money on payments, in his view, as long as they can harvest information gleaned about users’ spending patterns and monetize that. In terms of broader financial-services offerings, tech companies would benefit from knowing whether a user has a mortgage, a credit-card loan, or multiple checking accounts, according to Ellis.
From a regulatory perspective, Angel says the key question is how tech companies choose to structure their financial-services aims.
“The trick is how to do banking without the burdensome regulations on banks,” he said. “Probably the best approach for them is to do what Apple’s been doing and outsource the low-margin banking stuff to traditional banks while doing your best to harvest information and making use of your brand and technology elsewhere.”
Though Google’s public interest in checking accounts is new, the company has operated a mobile wallet, now called Google Pay, for the better part of a decade. A company executive told The Wall Street Journal for a Wednesday report that the checking accounts would be run by Citi and a California credit union, meaning that the company wouldn’t have to obtain a banking license. Google didn’t immediately respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment.
Apple began its fintech foray with a peer-to-peer offering rivaling PayPal Holdings Inc.’s PYPL, +0.32% Venmo service, but the company has more recently delved deeper into the industry, issuing a credit card with Goldman Sachs.
Amazon also has a wallet and has been focused on bringing the Amazon Pay button to more third-party retailers. Last month, the company announced plans to get into the attractive bill-pay market, where the majority of consumers still don’t use automatic payments. Facebook has taken a more traditional approach to offering dedicated e-commerce payments services in conjunction with established players like PayPal, though the company has experienced regulatory pushback over its more ambitious effort to start a cryptocurrency called Libra.