Banks won't 'like' this offer from Facebook

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With apologies to the Godfather, Facebook is making an offer that's easy for banks to refuse.

According to a report Monday in the Wall Street Journal, the social media giant wants banks to share sensitive customer information and in return, Facebook will use that data to develop features in its chat platform to offer those same bank customers the ability to check account balances or receive fraud alerts. Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and U.S. Bancorp were all reportedly approached.

But there's a big problem — those banks, and most others, already provide such abilities to their customers. While the pitch is supposed to be enticing, bank executives say they see little benefit to it, particularly when compared to the potential drawbacks, including heightened data privacy and regulatory scrutiny concerns.

“You’ve got huge confidentiality issues,” said Brian Schmitt, CEO of the $539 million-asset SouthCrest Bank in Atlanta. “We would be opening a can of worms there.”

At least part of the problem is a reputational one. Facebook has seen its image plummet during the past few years for its role in helping Russia meddle with the 2016 presidential election and its failure to secure customer data, such as in the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal in which as many as 87 million users had their personal information shared.

While Facebook is promising bankers that it won't use any financial data for ads or share it with third parties, that is unlikely to pass muster with compliance officers, executives and regulators.

Even if Facebook’s reputation wasn’t radioactive, ongoing trust issues and competitive concerns regarding data sharing between banks and fintechs makes the offer particularly unattractive. Many bankers see themselves in a fight for the future over who customers will trust with their financial data. They fear players like Facebook, not to mention Google, Amazon and Apple, will eventually usurp banks' role.

There’s also a question of upside for banks. Which bank with a mobile app doesn’t have bank balances or fraud alerts already available to customers? It's not clear that it helps financial institutions.

But it definitely helps Facebook, which could use that data to bolster Facebook Messenger, the instant chat service the social network recently turned into a standalone app.

Messenger has already been paired with some institutions to offer customer support. Wells Fargo and TD Ameritrade have chatbots plugged into Messenger. Wells customers can query the bank on service issues. TD Ameritrade’s chatbot provides market information, investing education and even lets users make trades. Mastercard and American Express both offer customers the ability to make payments through Messenger and check accounts. If Facebook could cut a deal with several big banks for their data, it would give Messenger a huge leg up over its own tech rivals and financial institutions.

Facebook also appears to be shutting the door on one potential incentive for banks. In theory, such a partnership might allow banks to better target customers, but if Facebook isn't using the data for ad-targeting purposes, it would appear to negate that, said Ron Shevlin, director of research at Cornerstone Advisors.

“There’s a mantra in marketing: Go where your customers and prospects are,” he said. “If there’s some mechanism where by sharing data the banks could have better access to customers and prospects there could be some benefit to that. However, Facebook saying they wouldn’t use the data for ad-targeting would seem to alleviate that. What then would be the point for banks?”

Chatbots are just one way banks are already using Facebook as a means to connect with customers. Many have Facebook pages where they promote their social media messaging, feed native advertising and even communicate with customers on service issues.

But bank executives say that’s about as deep as they are willing to wade into use of the social media platform.

The $14 billion-asset First Financial Bank in Cincinnati would only share its customers’ personal information with Facebook if each customer approved, and that itself might not be enough, said Chairman Claude Davis.

“That information is extremely valuable to the consumer or client and they would need to provide that permission” for us to share it with Facebook or anyone else, Davis said. “Even then, I don’t think we would be comfortable” sharing it.

Facebook is asking banks to hand over their most valuable asset and offering little in return. At least one bank has already walked away from talks with Facebook, according to the initial report. It likely won't be the last.

Bryan Yurcan contributed to this article.

Bankshot is American Banker’s column for real-time analysis of today's news.

This article originally appeared in American Banker.
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