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NelsonG

TransferWise to offer investment products but has ‘no plans’ to become a bank

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TransferWise, the London-headquartered international money transfer service recently valued at $3.5 billion, has secured an additional license with U.K. regulators to enable it to offer investment products in the future.

This will mean that U.K. customers who have money deposited in a TransferWise multi-currency or so-called “borderless” account will be given the option to make that money work harder on their behalf. Total deposits currently sit at £2 billion, so there is quite a lot of customer cash potentially idle.

However, the company isn’t revealing much detail on its future investments product, except to say that it will initially offer “simple, affordable funds from reputable providers” so that customers can earn a return on their balances. Up to £85,000 of money held as investments within a TransferWise account per customer will be protected under the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. The new offering is still in development and will launch “in the next 12 months.”

Zooming out further, TransferWise says an increasing number of its 8 million customers are using the borderless account as an international banking solution. Around one million TransferWise debit cards have been issued since 2018, and the TransferWise account now also supports direct debits, instant international payments to friends, and Apple and Google Pay. With the addition of savings and investments, TransferWise says its vision is for the borderless account to replace “expensive, old-world international banking” for expats, freelancers and travelers.

“You and I have been talking since 2011, when you first reported that TransferWise was going live, and I think you’ll appreciate that over time we’ve expanded the features that TransferWise offers our customers, for sure,” co-founder and current CEO Kristo Käärmann tells me on a call. “We launched the borderless account to let people receive money in-roads and to hold money. We added the debit cards so that they can use that money that they hold in places where they can use the card. And this is, in some ways, no different.”

Sticking to broad brush strokes rather than specific product details (despite my persistent questioning), Käärmann says that after listening to customers TransferWise wants to help them hold their balance in a smarter way.

“Clearly they’ve already figured out that TransferWise works for them,” he says. “And not merely as a medium of sending money from one country to another but also to get paid internationally, to kind of run their international part of banking, if you like. For businesses, for freelancers, for ex-pats, for people that have just moved countries. So this is another feature along the same string of things that people want us to do for them.”

That, of course, begs the question: Does TransferWise have any plans to become an actual bank, with a full banking license, further adding to its existing permissions from regulators. Käärmann gives a pretty emphatic answer.

“No, we don’t have any plans to apply for a banking license,” he says. “We haven’t applied for any banking licenses anywhere in the world… The only thing that the banking license in Europe lets banks do is lend out the deposits that customers give them, and that’s not what our customers are asking for. They’re not asking us, you know, can you please lend out our deposits?”

In fact, Käärmann confesses to not being a huge fan of the predominant current account business model, which he believes serves the interests of banks, not account-holding customers. “I do think the way current accounts work with banks is not sustainable in the long term. That the money we keep in banks is being lent out to mortgages and business loans and overdrafts and so on, yet the customers holding that money, they’re not really getting much benefit from it. So why do it?” he asks, somewhat rhetorically.

Returning to the forthcoming investment product — and after a little more prodding from me — he says to expect it to have the same transparency as the company’s core money exchange offering, with clear pricing and working as hard for customers as possible. In line with TransferWise’s existing modus operandi, I would also expect it to be financially sustainable, rather than being cross-subsidised in order to pull customers in or grab easy headlines, which is common practice amongst many investments and savings products.

Adds the TransferWise CEO: “We want to be clear what the problem is we’re solving. [It] comes back to giving people a choice of where and how they hold their balances. And that might give you a hint of the product that we’re building. I can say now that we’re not building an active trading product, that’s not the goal. Our customers aren’t asking how can they speculate on the markets. There are tools for this, and they are increasingly [getting] better for this purpose. What we’re solving with the investments product is going to be a much more passive way of choosing where your balances sit.”

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