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Facebook: Taking on PayPal with socially useful banking

The social network wants to tap into a new generation of smart spenders by entering the financial services arena
  • @simonnread

Reports that Facebook has plans to enter the financial-services arena should send out a warning to traditional high-street banks.

The social network, for all its mis-steps – such as concerns about personal-data mining – is still seen as a trusted company, while banks across the globe have never been lower in consumers' estimations.

To explain, Facebook isn't apparently intending to take on the banks, but instead will provide remittances and electronic money. To put it bluntly, the internet giant will give its users the power to transfer cash between each other.

Sound familiar? That's an area that PayPal is already dominating. The eBay-owned finance firm is the online leader in providing ways for people to pay each other over the internet. But it says it's not worried about the prospect of Facebook muscling in on its act.

"We always welcome competition in the marketplace," says UK spokesperson Rob Skinner.

In fact PayPal – which is effectively an online payment platform – does appear to have partial aspirations to take on the banks witnessed by the fact it is already vested as a bank in Europe, in the tax-effective country of Luxembourg.

That doesn't extend to mainstream banking, but it does seemingly stretch to all kinds of payment methods, with PayPal already having signed up more than 2,000 UK high-street shops and restaurants to accept its smartphone app as a payment method.

"We act as a kind of universal adaptor for payments across the world, so you don't have to worry about all the different ways to pay," explains Mr Skinner. "In fact around a quarter of the payments we handle are across borders."

It's that global potential which is likely to be driving Facebook's move into financial services. Reports suggest it is weeks away from getting regulatory approval in Ireland – where its European headquarters is based – to become an e-money institution.

Facebook has reportedly been in talks with three London-based start-ups already working in the money-transfer space: TransferWise, Azimo and Moni Technologies.

There has been speculation a partnership could be struck with one or more of these companies or that Facebook could even acquire one – the social network reportedly offered $10m (£5.9m) to recruit one of the co-founders of Azimo.

But an insider involved in some of the conversations with Facebook played down the speculation, saying Facebook appeared to be just sounding out the market ahead of any potential move.

The insider – who refused to be named – said: "Facebook might do something in this space. I think something they most likely will do is in the remittance space, directed at Western Union – targeting money going from developed markets to emerging markets.

"A gap has been left in the international money-transfer market after most of the mainstream banks fled the space because of growing money-laundering concerns. HSBC closed all its remittance services in 2012 after it was fined $1.9bn by US authorities for money laundering at its Mexican subsidiary, while Barclays, the last major bank offering remittance services, announced it was closing 250 money-service businesses last year.

Facebook isn't the only technology business looking at the space. UK-based WorldRemit recently raised $40m from Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Accel Partners to expand its online-only overseas transfer service. The company was founded in 2009 by Ismail Ahmed, who previously helped the UN crackdown on money laundering among East African money-transfer firms.

WorldRemit and the London companies Facebook has been in talks with are part of a new face of so-called financial technology, or FinTech, start-ups that have sprung up across the UK. Others include peer-to-peer lenders such as Zopa and online invoice financing firm MarketInvoice.

Any move by Facebook into the sector would give a boost to these start-ups.

The insider who sat in on talks with the social network says: "That would be good for everyone. It would add a lot of credibility to the sector if a $100bn company invested. It highlights a need for a modern, transparent service."

But the arrival of Facebook banking would also no doubt be a boost for the social network. Any move by Mark Zuckerberg to target payments to emerging markets could be seen as a cynical ploy to win over new users in less-developed countries, rather than a form of financial emancipation.

What are the specifics of the Facebook offering? They remain sketchy but when launched, the service is expected to allow Facebook users to store money on the site and use it to pay others across Europe. Facebook is refusing to discuss the move but it is logical to presume that a similar service encompassing the US and, ultimately, globally, would follow.

Meanwhile, Britain's banks are clamouring to become more attractive to the online generation which demands convenience linked to technology by launching Paym, an app that will allow direct payments between mobile phones.

It's been developed by the Payments Council to launch later this month – on 29 April – for customers of Bank of Scotland, Barclays, Cumberland Building Society, Danske Bank, Halifax, HSBC, Lloyds Bank, Santander and TSB.

But providing up-to-the-minute smartphone payments will not significantly help improve consumers' trust in banks.

As a new entrant to the financial-services marketplace, Facebook therefore has a huge advantage. It remains the go-to social network which gives it instant access to potentially millions of fed up UK bank customers.

Details of the timing of the launch are unavailable but Paypal reckons that 2016 will be the year that you will no longer need a wallet in the high street. By then, it says, you should be able to pay every bill just with your smartphone.

Facebook will be keen to launch before then in order to tap into the new generation of smart spenders.