Bernstein's Insight: The Rising Digital Dilemma in Banking

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Bernstein's Insight: The Rising Digital Dilemma in Banking
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In a recent analysis, Bernstein highlights the growing concerns surrounding the digital infrastructure of banks, spurred by a noticeable uptick in technical mishaps and regulatory scrutiny. Over the past few years, mobile banking transactions have surged tenfold, positioning this sector among the fastest-growing globally. This exponential growth, despite minimal changes in product offerings and regulatory requirements, appears to be a significant factor contributing to the current challenges faced by banks.

Bernstein's report underscores the lack of an objective method to measure the robustness of banks' tech infrastructures. To fill this gap, they examine the growth in transaction volumes as a potential indicator of underinvestment in technology. Their analysis reveals that banks recently subjected to regulatory actions, such as Kotak Mahindra Bank (NS: KTKM ) (KMB) and Bank of Baroda (NS: BOB ), have experienced transaction surges far exceeding their peers. This anomaly suggests a disconnect between transaction volumes and the banks' deposits or assets, hinting at possible underinvestment in necessary tech upgrades.

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Fortunately, these outliers are few. Other private sector banks like IndusInd Bank (NS: INBK ) and IDFC First Bank, which have also seen significant growth in transactions, have managed to scale appropriately or benefited from a low base effect, mitigating the risks of regulatory intervention. Therefore, Bernstein believes that the tech issues requiring regulatory attention are likely idiosyncratic and not indicative of a sector-wide problem.

In the near term, Bernstein expects regulatory vigilance to persist, compelling banks to continue ramping up their IT spending. This trend will likely keep operating expenses (opex) above long-term average levels. Larger banks, with their greater scale, are expected to navigate this landscape more effectively than their smaller counterparts. Additionally, there may be a recalibration of product offerings, particularly those delivered exclusively through digital channels, with adjustments in pricing structures and minimum balance requirements.

Given the increasing importance of digital infrastructure and the recent regulatory actions, Bernstein advocates for the establishment of standardized metrics to assess the state of banks' IT systems. Currently, banks disclose various measures such as the share of digital transactions and IT spending ratios, but these are becoming less relevant. A standardized set of metrics would not only provide a clearer assessment of a bank’s IT health but also facilitate easier comparisons across the sector.

Investors should anticipate continued higher IT expenditures, which will likely keep banks' opex above historical averages. This environment favors larger banks with more extensive resources. Additionally, banks that have aggressively pursued digital customer acquisition or pushed digital channel adoption among their existing customers may face higher IT spending needs in the near term.

Bernstein's analysis underscores a pivotal moment for the banking sector, where the balance between rapid digital growth and robust tech infrastructure will define the industry's trajectory in the coming years.

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