While the topic of Facebook and banking has generated plenty of heat (though not necessarily a lot of light), the debate seems mostly focused on two broad issues: The much-maligned IPO, and the notion that the company might take business away from the banking sector, such as through Facebook Credits or a self-branded credit card.
The IPO, of course, continues to stir debate—just this week, it was reported that UBS AG, Switzerland’s largest bank (by assets) took a hit of more than $350 million, nearly half its entire second-quarter profit, on the ill-fated deal. (UBS now plans to join several other brokerage institutions readying legal action against NASDAQ). As for Facebook serving becoming a financial institution itself, the mobile payment system for third-party developers got a facelift recently, and there’s now a better subscription billing system. However, speculation still seems further along than reality.
But there’s another strain emerging that might have even greater ramifications. This is where global financial services conglomerates enable individuals, and perhaps businesses, to do their banking via Facebook.
It’s not as if banks aren’t aware of Facebook—they all have a presence on the social network platform, and quite a few have built branded communities on it. However, that’s still more marketing than finance. What’s happening now goes quite a bit further.
Much of the early action seems to be coming from overseas. First National Bank of South Africa, ASB Bank of New Zealand and Commonwealth Bank of Australia are all launching apparently major initiatives to capitalize on ‘social banking.’ Essentially, the plan is to enable peer-to-peer (P2P) payments over the network between ‘friends.’ Of course, it almost certainly won’t stop there: It’s easy to envision a future in which virtually all consumer transactions, including bill payments, are done over Facebook, since just about everyone and everything is a member anyway.
For the record, skeptics are already out in force, warning consumers that blurring the line between a bank and a social network could bring serious problems. But it may be too late to put the genie back in the bottle. While somewhat smaller financial institutions can be perceived as risk-takers, Citigroup is something else entirely. That financial powerhouse is now asking customers whether they would do their banking via Facebook. It’s also been noted that JP Morgan Chase actually has more ‘likes’ on Facebook than Citi, and is surely looking for ways to monetize that advantage. Besides, as more financial transaction are conducted via mobile applications, the prospect of drastically altering banking practices doesn’t seem nearly so outlandish.
Looking ahead, it’s important to understand that any wholesale change in banking will not take place in a vacuum—Facebook will change, along with user habits, security measures, regulations, etc., before that happens. While it already counts a sixth of the world’s population as members, Facebook is still simplistic in terms of its interface and primitive in its technology underpinnings. Look at the typical user interface—there’s virtually no distinction permissible between different categories of ‘friends,’ or non-transparent and secure ways to do much business. That’s almost surely going to change.
Most consumers now do almost all their communicating via Facebook, just as social networking and social media are no longer separate entities but woven into every aspect of our lives. At some point, everything will become, in some sense, ‘social.’ The idea that banking can somehow stay immune is naïve. Instead of resisting it, let’s just do our part to make it easy, secure and profitable.