Amazon Checking-Account Plan Sees Banks as Partner, Not Prey

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  • JPMorgan, Capital One vying for company’s new banking venture
  • Strategy would give bigger window into clients’ finances
Amazon May Be Eyeing Checking-Account Venture

Banks have been warily watching Inc. for signs it would threaten their world. The tech giant’s latest move looks more like an opportunity -- at least for one of them.

A proposal to start offering a product similar to checking accounts is “for now not showing any signs of disrupting the industry,” Brian Foran, an analyst at Autonomous Research, said in a note to clients Monday. “While the ‘Amazon effect’ has dictated trading in several sectors, for banks it seems a much tamer story.”

Amazon is in talks with JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Capital One Financial Corp. about the product, people familiar with the matter said Monday. The targets are millennial consumers, the people said, asking not to be identified because the discussions are private. The strategy could help Amazon lower fees it pays to financial firms and give it a bigger window into customers’ income and spending habits. The Wall Street Journal reported the talks earlier Monday.

The offering, if it comes to fruition, would be yet another link in Amazon’s extensive web of ways to touch every aspect of people’s lives, from food shopping at Whole Foods, to reading or listening to books, to streaming music and videos. After upending other retail businesses including groceries and health care, banks have long feared they might be next.

Read more about bank CEOs’ fear of Amazon

The finance industry has been concerned that major tech companies, not only Amazon but also Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc., might try to sideline banks by handling more of their customers’ electronic payments, offering financing or accepting deposits -- even if those services open them up to more regulation. The new venture may lessen that concern.

“Why put up all the capital that’s required to run a bank and why pick up all the extra expense and headache of running a bank when you can go to a Chase and any number of smaller banks and have them license their bank?” Ali Raza, managing principal at the payments consultancy Blue Leviathan, said in a telephone interview. 

Amazon has already made forays into the financial arena during its transformation from a book store more than 20 years ago. Amazon Pay allows consumers to pay for products on third party sites without reloading their credit-card information. More than 33 million people use the payment system, and Amazon has lent more than $3 billion to small businesses that sell on its platform since 2011, according to a research report by CB Insights earlier this year.

Amazon Cash

The ecommerce giant also offers a pseudo-debit card, Amazon Cash, that lets consumers add cash to an Amazon wallet and purchase items online without a credit card. 

And last year, Amazon dipped its toe into the deposit business with Prime Reload, which gives customers a 2 percent bonus when they use their debit card to move funds from a bank account to an Amazon balance that they use for transactions on the website. The move means Amazon paid less in fees to card networks like Visa Inc. and Mastercard Inc.

Amazon shares rose 1 percent to $1,515.78 at 12:30 p.m. in New York. JPMorgan shares climbed 1.1 percent to $114.56.

Amazon already has a co-branded credit card with JPMorgan, and the two companies’ chief executive officers are working together, along with Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., on finding ways to bring down the cost of health care for their employees.

Policy Shift

Prime Reload was seen as a way for Amazon to improve its appeal to lower-income customers who might not qualify, or want, the co-branded credit cards it already offers with JPMorgan and Synchrony Financial. Those cards come with much as 5 percent cash back on purchases.

While U.S. policy makers have for years been skeptical of letting big companies move into banking services, that may be changing. Keith Noreika, the former acting Comptroller of the Currency, said last year that it’s time to reconsider whether the traditional separation between lending and retailing should be maintained.

Despite the possibility of tech giants like Amazon wading into finance on their own, some analysts think partnerships are the more likely path.

“It’s a logical extension that banks would partner with tech firms,” said Mike Mayo, an analyst at Wells Fargo & Co.

Amazon didn’t respond to phone and email requests for comment. Representatives for JPMorgan and Capital One declined to comment.

— With assistance by Katherine Chiglinsky, and Spencer Soper

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