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‘App-Crazy’ U.S. Banks Follow Customers to iPads, Smartphones

As consumers manage more of their lives with smartphones and Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPads, financial- services companies are trying to ensure they don’t get lost in the electronic shuffle.

“The industry right now is app-crazy,” says James McGovern, vice-president for consulting services at Corporate Insight, which monitors how banks communicate with customers.

“We’re just going where the customers are,” says Christopher Larkin, E*Trade Financial Corp.’s senior vice president for active trading.

Bank of America Corp. (BAC)’s online brokerage, Merrill Edge, is even exploring the idea of face-to-face teleconferencing between clients and advisers through the mobile apps it unveiled on March 9, says Alok Prasad, who heads the division, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

Forrester Research Inc. estimates that more than 10 million Americans use mobile-banking technology and that the number could rise to 50 million by 2015. About 75 percent of those using the technology now are members of generations X and Y, according to Forrester.

While many of those consumers are comfortable using mobile apps to check their balances, companies need to work themselves more deeply into a mobile customer’s financial life or the work that goes into developing all of these mobile apps may wind up being “another cost center,” says Gartner Inc. (IT) analyst Stessa Cohen.

‘Smart Decisions’

The “real potential” for mobile personal-finance apps may come from linking investments and savings with spending in real time, says Ron Shevlin, senior analyst at the research firm Aite Group. Apps could track consumers’ spending and investments while offering “personal finance management” by maintaining budgets and helping consumers “make smart decisions about how to finance a purchase,” he says.

To do that, financial outfits have to get in on the front end of spending decisions. Lenders including Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) and Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America have been testing mobile-payment systems using smartphones in a small number of cities across the country.

In December, Wells Fargo started a pilot with 200 employees in San Francisco, where its headquarters are located. After a similar pilot last year, Bank of America on March 28 will start a mobile-payment test with customers in New York, Atlanta, and San Francisco. Just as they would swipe a credit card, shoppers hold phones up to special readers to complete purchases.

Coupons, Promotions

In addition to offering a convenient way to pay through credit- or debit-card accounts, mobile phones could deliver instant coupons and other promotions to shoppers, says Arah Erickson, head of Wells Fargo’s retail mobile banking division.

If closer connections with financial institutions make it easier for consumers to see where their money goes, that could be a big positive, says Meir Statman, a professor at Santa Clara University, who specializes in behavioral finance.

Such knowledge “really bolsters their self-control” when they’re shopping, says Statman, author of “What Investors Really Want.”

Another outcome could be less positive, though.

“People are more likely to trade more if it’s made easier,” Statman says. “What we know from studies is the more you trade, the more you are likely to lag behind people who buy and hold investments.”

Thus far, 11 percent of investors use their brokerages’ mobile offerings and about a quarter of those users trade through mobile platforms, says Forrester.

Options Trading

E*Trade says about 3 percent to 4 percent of its trades are placed through mobile devices, and it will soon add trading of futures and mutual funds to its current lineup of stocks and options. TD Ameritrade has seen increased trading activity due to its mobile app, particularly in options trading, says Nicole Sherrod, managing director of the firm’s trader group.

Nevertheless, she adds, the main goal is to attract customers and position the firm for future growth, not to boost trading immediately. TD Ameritrade will introduce its second iPad app in late April, she says, with this one aimed at long- term investors rather than traders.

Forrester analyst Bill Doyle doubts mobile offerings will stimulate much extra trading overall, though he does expect customers to shift holdings to companies with better mobile offerings.

“Mobile devices are changing consumers’ perceptions of how convenient financial transactions should be,” says Wells Fargo’s Erickson. “Today, convenience means the PC is across the room, and I don’t feel like booting it up.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Steverman in New York at bsteverman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Suzanne Woolley at swoolley2@bloomberg.net

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