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Japanese megabanks on the defensive as Rakuten internet bank accounts top 10 million

Rakuten Inc. Chairman and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani is seen here in Tokyo's Minato Ward in January 2021. Rakuten Bank Ltd. is capitalizing on the "Rakuten economic sphere" to catch up to megabanks. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

TOKYO -- Internet-only banks are gaining momentum in Japan. In January, Rakuten Bank Ltd. topped 10 million accounts -- the first Japanese internet bank to do so -- and other banks are following its lead, as they see their account numbers and total deposit balances increase.

    This is all happening against a backdrop of advantageous interest rates made possible by low operating costs, and the coronavirus outbreak, but will the locus of power change in the banking industry? And what strategies do megabanks have to compete with the rising internet banks?

    "Consumers' shift online is a huge opportunity for us," Rakuten Bank President Hiroyuki Nagai said at Rakuten Inc.'s Feb. 12 financial results briefing. While Rakuten Bank is still lagging behind megabanks, which have around 20 million to under 50 million accounts, it increased its account numbers by 1 million in seven months -- the shortest period to reach the figure to date -- and the pace of new account openings continues to accelerate. In December 2020 the bank's total deposit balance topped 5 trillion yen (approx. $45.64 billion), which is about the same amount as mid-tier regional banks.

    In this Oct. 11, 2000 file photo, participants in a press conference commemorating the launch of Japan Net Bank, Japan's first internet-only bank, pose for a photo in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Yosei Kozano)

    In the beginning, Rakuten Bank pulled in customers with a popular service linking accounts to internet securities giant Rakuten Securities. With no operating outlays for physical branches or bankbooks, Rakuten Bank was able to offer an ordinary deposit interest rate at 0.02% -- about 20 times higher than the megabanks -- and this goes up to 0.1% if a customer links their account to a Rakuten Securities account.

    Additionally, Rakuten Bank has benefitted from the boost in Rakuten's e-commerce business due to the coronavirus pandemic. Using a Rakuten credit card to pay for shopping on Rakuten's e-commerce site, and setting the bank account from which the money will be withdrawn to a Rakuten Bank account allows the shopper to get extra points that can later be used to deduct money from their bill. According to Rakuten Bank, over 60% of people who open new Rakuten Bank accounts do so through the Rakuten shopping site and other Rakuten services. One impressed senior megabank official said, "Rakuten Bank has capitalized on the 'Rakuten economic sphere' to create a successful banking business model."

    As of the end of December 2020, SBI Sumishin Net Bank Ltd.'s total deposit balance had increased by 12.6% from the same period the previous year, reaching 6.1 trillion yen (approx. $55.8 billion). A public relations official for the bank said, "We're at a cost advantage compared to megabanks because we do not have any physical branches, and that money can be used to undergird deposit and housing loan interest rates."

    Japan Net Bank, like Yahoo Japan Corp., is under the umbrella of Z Holdings Corp., (ZHD). The bank has beefed up its collaboration with companies under the ZHD umbrella, making it possible for its customers to borrow money through the PayPay mobile payment app. The number of Japan Net Bank accounts topped 5 million in February of this year. With the rise in the number of people who do not want to touch cash due to the spread of coronavirus infections, the number of those using the PayPay app surpassed 35 million in January. Of the newly opened accounts at Japan Net Bank, approximately 40% set up by individuals, and around 50% set up by corporations, have been opened via PayPay. In April, the bank is set to rename itself PayPay Bank, and make efforts to deepen its collaboration with PayPay.

    The deposits that these internet banks have collected have primarily been lent to individuals in the form of mortgages and credit card loans. In the past, megabanks competed to collect the greatest amount of deposits, and dedicated their energies to retail lending. But as interest rates continue to stay extremely low, one senior megabank official said that retail lending is no longer profitable. Internet banks are making headway in the industry by focusing on areas such as mortgages, which megabanks have given up on, by making use of their low-cost operations and the ties with individual customers that they have established through internet shopping and other avenues.

    "Some people are motivated to change their main bank account from a megabank to an internet bank when they take out a mortgage," explained Toyoki Sameshima, a senior analyst at SBI Securities. "There's no question that megabanks are still primary banks where many people deposit their money, but going forward, there will probably be an increase in people choosing to use internet banks from the get-go."

    In response to internet banks' strong showing, a senior megabank official said, "It concerns me that a lot of younger customers are choosing internet banks."

    Not that megabanks are sitting on their hands.

    They are promoting cashless services, partly due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and are charging people extra if they want paper bankbooks when opening new accounts to encourage customers to shift to online banking. Mizuho Financial Group will merge with the online messaging app Line within the 2022 fiscal year, and aims to launch Line Bank, which would allow customers to access banking services via their smartphones. This is just one example of an attempt by a megabank to fight back against internet rivals.

    A senior megabank official said, however, that as long as there are customers, primarily older adults, who want bank passbooks and want to do their banking in physical branches, banks cannot take the extreme step of doing away with them completely.

    "It's meaningless for megabanks, whose cost structures are completely different from those of internet banks, to try to compete on the same footing with them," Toyo University professor Hironari Nozaki, who is well versed in the banking industry, said. "Megabanks have put in a lot of work into asset management consulting, which internet banks don't have as much of, and how they can promote that will make all the difference."

    (Japanese original by Atsuo Yamaguchi, Business News Department)

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