Internet banking in the U.S., Japan and Europe

Internet banking in the U.S., Japan and Europe

Pyun, Chong Soo

Information technology is fundamentally changing the banking industry worldwide, altering traditional definitions of product, market and customer base. Internet banking has significantly reduced barriers to entry, accelerating financial disintermediation. Competitive impacts of e– banking are more pronounced in the U.S., where non-bank financial service providers have made significant inroads into banks’ traditional turf. Yet, U.S. banks are sitting on the sidelines, embracing online banking largely as a defensive strategy. Online banking in Japan has been largely confined to the domestic customer base. European banks have leveraged Internet banking for cross-border expansion, consolidation and competition. However, e-banking in the European Union with a single currency raises regulatory and technical issues.

Businesses worldwide are being reinvented and reengineered with the advent of the World Wide Web. In particular, Internet technology is fundamentally changing the global banking industry, blurring the traditional lines that define product, market and customer base. Today, the click of the mouse empowers consumers with unprecedented freedom in choosing vendors for their financial service needs. Despite the bursting of the Nasdaq dot-com bubble, Internet banking is growing and maturing at home and abroad.

Banks perform a critical role in financial intermediation, and society benefits as banks bear risk in leveraging their liabilities, customer deposits. But the revolution in information processing has lowered entry cost, thereby increasing competition among banks, and competition between banks and other financial institutions, such as security brokers. The less efficient have been forced to merge and consolidate. In short, technology has fundamentally altered the creation, delivery, reception, and utilization of financial products, and advances in computing and telecommunication have eroded economic and regulatory barriers to competition, de facto (Greenspan 1997).

During the first half century of the information era, the U.S. dominated innovation and standardsetting in technology related to the Internet. However, when it comes to wireless technologies, Japanese and European companies are far ahead on the learning curve. According to Beck and Morrison (2001), penetration, use and integration of mobile phones into normal activities are much greater in Northern Europe than in the U.S. Europe leads in palm organizers and mobile web-browsers and perhaps in the innovations based on wireless information technology.

This paper is a progress report on the state of Internet retail banking in the U.S., Japan and Europe. Why have banks embraced cybertechnology? How have they responded in their e-commerce strategy? What regulatory issues arise from electronic and Internet banking in the European Union when national currencies convert into Euro?

The remainder of the paper is organized as follows. Section One (1) presents an overview of the effect of technology on Internet banking, while Section Two (2) discusses the current state of online consumer banking. Section Three (3) examines the e-bank strategies pursued by banks and non-bank financial service providers in the U.S., while Sections Four (4) and Five (5) discuss dominant e-bank strategies in Japan and Europe, respectively. Regulatory and payment system issues relevant to electronic and Internet banking in the European Union are described in Section Six (6). Summary remarks are found in the last section.


The average consumer has accepted the Internet and e-commerce with phenomenal intensity and speed. According to Good (1998), electricity was invented in 1873, and it took 46 years for mass adoption of this technology throughout the world. It took 35 years for telephones, 22 years for radio and 16 years for PC’s. For the World Wide Web, it has taken only 6 years.

As late as January 1998, only 770 banks in the U.S.-seven percent -offered online services. One year later, an estimated 4,990 banks were offering or planning to offer full service Internet banking. More significantly, over 65 percent of small- and medium- size community banks planned to introduce electronic banking to their customers (Nathan, 1999). Online customers account for more than 20 percent of the total, and growth is accelerating in the U.S. (Serif 2000,16).

In 1999,Internet banking sites numbered 1,845 in Germany, Belgium, Holland, Spain, United Kingdom, Italy and Ireland. Germany has the largest number of sites while France is the fastest growing market. The U.S. during this same period had only one third as many sites as these eight countries, even though the U.S. had an internet population more than twice that of all of Europe (Stewart-Allen 1999).

Several factors account for the fast growth in Internet banking in Europe and the U.S. First, PC and Internet banking have significantly reduced the barriers to entry in the banking industry in both continents. The accounting firm Booz, Allen and Hamilton estimates that it costs approximately $25 to $30 million to set up a traditional brick-and-mortar bank but only $6 million to set up an Internet bank in the U.S. Secondly, as e-commerce is rapidly accepted by businesses and consumers, bank customers have come to expect convenience and technical innovation in the services provided by their banks. Third, while Internet banking operations are not yet profitable to most banks, the cost of attracting and maintaining customers with online banking is so low that investments in electronic and Internet banking are irresistible to banks and non-bank financial institutions. According to a survey by Booz, Allen and Hamilton (Nathan 1999), an estimated cost of providing the routine business of a full service branch is $1.07 per transaction, as compared to 54 cents for telephone banking, 27 cents for ATM banking and a paltry one and one-half cents for Internet banking.

The impact of electronic and Internet banking is more pronounced in the U.S., where nationwide branch banking is prohibited, than in Japan and the European Union, where branching is widely allowed. In the U.S., online banking has almost dismantled the geographic barriers that banks historically enjoyed with their local customers. ATMs and the virtual branches have increased the competitiveness of consumer banking in many communities, resulting in fewer banks actually competing in more geographical markets. In short, competition within the banking industry has become more intense as compared to the pre-Internet era in the U.S. The ability to boost profitability is no longer ensured by the fewness of nearby competitors (Moore 1998).


As shown in the Appendix, there is quite a diversity among American banks that offer Internet banking. Practically all of the 120 largest American banks, which collectively have 75 percent of the country’s banking assets, offer their customers the ability to check account balances, transfer money among accounts and make bill payments online.

In the U.S., one-third of Internet banks design and maintain their own websites that provide interactive banking services. The remaining two-thirds of Internet banks have outsourced their needs, ranging from webpage design to customer services and data management. The cost of bringing in online banking averages $50,000, with yearly average maintenance cost a little over $22,000 (Sheshunoff 2000). On the other hand, Dolan (2000) estimates that the initial cost of implementing an Internet banking system for community banks runs from $100,000 to $200,000, with monthly upkeep cost of approximately $4 per account. This translates to an annual maintenance cost of website operations of $2.5 to $5 million for community banks with 50,000 to 100,000 accounts.

Banks offer on their websites portals connecting their customers to partners meeting needs in brokerage, mortgage, real estate and insurance. They can join local securities, mortgage and insurance companies to offer portals on their webpages. The securities, mortgage and insurance companies reciprocate with portals on their own webpages for the banks. In this way, small and medium-size community banks can compete with big banks and large brokerage firms, which have already made inroads into the franchise of the community banks.

The cashless society is more advanced in Europe than in the States. Schneider (2000) reports that there are 14 different Stored Value Card plans in operation on the Continent, the best known of which is the German Geldkarte. These may be purchased by credit card at various outlets. European cards conform to CEPS (Common European Purse Specification). However, CEPS is not compatible with the Internet and may be superseded.

E-wallets and “smart cards” are recent innovations using Internet and old machine technology. The e-wallet essentially replaces credit card functions in the Internet with added security. It is an electronic version of a debit card. E-wallets contain information revealing the identity of the original customer who withdrew from his bank, and it enables the bank to track the money as it moves through the banking system.

“Smart cards”, already widely used in Europe and Japan, combine all functions of credit, debit and ATM cards. Smart cards are stored-value cards: Customers load certain amounts of cash from their accounts to the cards and use them like cash. Once issued from a bank account, the cards can be used without leaving a transaction trail. They offer security for consumers and retailers. An added advantage to retailers found in many smart cards is that card transactions can be credited to retailer bank accounts through an automated clearing-house in the area, bypassing banks (Schacklett 2000). Smart cards are not gaining popularity in the U.S. because retailers have to invest in the equipment to work with smart cards.

For the most part, banks are implementing fullservice Internet banking as a long-term defensive survival strategy. In fact, many bankers do not find their website operations reducing their cost of serving their customers. At present, as much as 30 percent of Internet banks report that their website and related Internet operations are unprofitable (Rackley 2000). The single most powerful driving force behind the current momentum toward fullservice Internet banking is the need to create powerful barriers to customer defection (Schechunoff 2000). The strategy is to tie the bank’s customers to its own website; once a customer becomes a regular user of the website, the likelihood that that customer will take the time and effort to move to another financial institution-be it a bank or a brokerage house – significantly diminishes.


The use of Internet technology has become a very powerful force changing the very core of traditional banking, the role that commercial banks have traditionally played as the premier depository and financial intermediary institutions that controlled the payment systems of countries in which they operated. In the U.S., the typical consumer deals with seven to ten financial service providers: a bank, a securities broker, a mortgage lender, a mutual fund company, an insurance company, and one or two credit card companies (Weinberg 2001). With current technology, a traditional bank, an Internet bank, or a non-bank financial service provider (e.g., online broker) enables its customers to consolidate accounts of their multiple financial vendors into a single website account. Whether American consumers want to do the consolidation is another matter: Internet banks seem to be moving toward consolidation for a least three major vendors-bank, brokerage and credit card company. While some online banks have overcome the challenges, others have not in the U.S. Two thriving online banks are NetBank ( and E*Trade Bank (

NetBank, the largest independent Internet bank, launched its website in October 1996. It shares the operational cost savings of its branchless business model with customers through high interest rates on deposit accounts and reduced– fee or no-fee banking services. The bank offers a comprehensive line of banking, brokerage and lending products along with innovative services. Customers have free interest-bearing checking with an ATM or Visa Check Card, free unlimited online bill payment and presentment, wireless account access and a free account consolidation service that allows customers to manage their online accounts at other institutions through the NetBank Web site. (For instance, customers can view through the NetBank consolidation site their accounts with other banks, brokerage services and credit card companies.)

The bank has expanded into on-line residential mortgage and automobile loan markets through acquisitions and formed an alliance with Ameritrade, online brokerage firm. It serves customers in all 50 states and 20 foreign countries, and its deposits are insured by FDIC. It has recorded 13 consecutive quarters of profitability to date, rare success in the world of Internet banking.

E*Trade started as an online discount brokerage. Its subsidiary, E*TradeBank (, has become the world’s largest all-Internet bank with $13 billion in assets, total deposits exceeding $7.7 billion and 435,000 customer accounts. The bank offers a full range of consumer banking-checking and savings accounts, certificates of deposit, asset management, online mortgages and a cut-rate version of “wrap” accounts invested by online brokers.

It is interesting to note that E*Trade, which started as a pure online financial service provider, has opened a brick-and-mortar retail branch office in New York City, and other online banking-brokerage houses, such as Web Street, CSFBdirect and are following the same strategy (Colvin 2001). Apparently Internet bankers accept a view held by traditional bankers: that trust and confidence are the basis for client-relationship in banking, and that brick-and-mortar branches serve as efficient sales and distribution centers that augment Internet banking.

While NetBank and E*TradeBank have demonstrated that they can attract low-cost deposits online, and convert deposits to highyield assets, other high profile American Internet banks, such as Security First Network Bank ( and WingspanBank (, did not fare well and their highly touted cyber-banking strategies were quietly folded into their respective parents’ routine Internet banking operations: Last year, the operations of Security First Network Bank were absorbed into Royal Bank of Canada’s online bank subsidiary in North Carolina (, while WingspanBank’s operations were integrated into online banking of its parent bank, Bank One.


In Japan, as in Europe, commercial banks are allowed to have nation-wide branch networks and engage in other financial services such as underwriting of securities, and insurance. In contrast to European banks, which expanded their Internet banking operations in Canada and the U.S., Japanese banks have largely confined their Internet banking operations to their domestic markets. The first cyberbank of Japan, the Japan Net Bank (JNB), was established in October 2000 by the consortium of Sakura Bank, Fujitsu Limited, Nippon Life Insurance Company, and Sumitomo Bank. JNB operates over the Internet without a physical branch. With the capitalization of approximately US$189 million, the JNB offers savings accounts, time deposit, money transfer and consumer loans, mutual fund accounts, mortgages, fund transfer, and insurance (Fujitsu 2001). Physical withdrawal can be made at over 100,000 automated tellers across Japan.

In June 2001, Sony, better known for its brand name electronic products, opened Sony Bank as the second online bank in the country. The bank provides comprehensive personal banking services via the Internet, including foreign currency deposit accounts, credit cards and mortgages. Bank customers have access to 7600 ATMs owned by Sumitomo Mitsui Banking. Sony Bank offers Internet based software, called MoneyKit, which provides twenty-two financial tools to the customers (Kerr 2001). Account holders can check their account balances, verify checks paid, and obtain loan and investment advice.

At present, JNB and Sony Bank are the two major stand-alone Internet banks in Japan, but they have two minor competitors: eBank and IY Bank. Ebank is owned by 40 non-bank corporations including Japan Telecom and Itochu Company, and IY Bank is owned by a major Japanese retailer, Ito-Yokato Co., and its subsidiary Seven-Eleven Japan. JNB and Sony Bank face competition in securities trading from online brokers such as Nikko Online, E*Trade– Japan and DLJdirect, which teamed up with Sumitomo Bank in Japan.

At present, like their American counterparts, all Japanese online banks face uphill battles in the quest for revenue and profitability. Standard and Poor’s predicts that it will take two to three years or longer for the four Japanese Internet banks to secure profitability (Japan Times 2001b). Their hopes rest on younger Japanese who have grown up with the Internet and feel comfortable with online banking and investment houses.


Major European banks have embraced Internet technology as an opportunity for worldwide expansion, competition and consolidation. One group of European banks has emphasized Internet expansion across borders within Europe; a second group has concentrated on the U.S. and Canada. The first group includes Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB) of Sweden, which introduced Internet banking four years ago and bought German BfG, and Swede Bank of Sweden purchased Denmark’s FIH in Copenhagen.

The second group includes three large banks: Deutsche Bank of Germany, Credit Suisse Group of Switzerland, and ING of the Netherlands. Deutsche Bank acquired Bankers Trust, and American bank, becoming the world’s second largest bank by assets of euro 940 billion ($854.5 billion). Then it began a major Internet initiative for its corporate customers in the U.S. with its portal called Business Direct in alliance with a Washingtonbased start-up company selling mortgage-backed securities online. The portal provides cash management, money market deposits and foreign exchange transactions. Customers sought are European-based companies and U.S. companies operating in Europe. Although Deutsche Bank sold the online brokerage (National Discount Brokers Group, Inc.), it is reportedly interested in the Internet brokerage business of Tradescape, a successful online day trading house (Schwartz 2001).

Credit Suisse Group, one of the three largest European banks, bought First Boston National Bank and entered U.S. retail and corporate banking markets as CSFB. CSFB in turn expanded online-trading through its acquisition last year of Donaldson, Lufkin Jenrette, Inc., which owned DLJdirect. With the Nasdaq market plummeting and small investors reducing their online trading in 2000, CSGB’s online subsidiary CSFBdirect found itself competing with E*Trade and Ameritrade for online-trading clients who are mostly small investors. Reportedly, CSFB has been considering selling CSFBdirect (Gasparino 2001).

ING is one of the three largest banks in the Netherlands. The other two, ABN Ambro Bank and Tobobank, are reducing their branch offices as they expand their e-banking at home, but ING is not reducing its domestic branch offices while expanding e-banking at home and abroad. ING may be the foreign bank most aggressive in expanding Internet banking and securities business operations in Canada and the U.S. (Hughes and MacDonald 2002, 450). With no expenses of maintaining a physical branch network, it has quite successfully lured customers in Canada and the U.S. with higher interest on certificates of deposit, no-fee checking and savings accounts and consumer loans at lower interest rates.

Why are these giant European banks attracted to American markets? America provides the most open market in the world with a huge customer base. Furthermore, Americans continue to make up the largest percentage of Internet users, and the U.S. has developed sophisticated ecommerce services that attract consumers from all over the globe. A mid-2000 survey of over 10,000 Internet users in over 50 countries (Beck and Morrison, 2001) found: 52 percent of the respondents listed U.S. sites as their most visited; 68 percent of the billion webpages on the Internet were in English.


In 1994, the European Parliament issued the “Report on the European Monetary Institution on EU Payment System” that primarily addressed issues related to prepaid cards like Visa Cash. In September 2000, the European Parliament and the European Council issued a directive which defined a legal framework for non-banking institutions that issue e-money or ecash (European Union 2000). Under the directive, non-banks that issue e-money and/or e-cash are subject to less stringent regulations, such as the initial capital requirement of one million euro (US$896,000) compared to five million euro (US$4.5 million) for banks, and a capital-deposit ratio of 2 percent for non-banks compared to 8 percent for banks.

Starting January 2002, twelve euro-zone nations’ common currency is euro. It is estimated that central banks of the euro-zone nations collectively replace 14 billion banknotes and 60 billion coins which represent approximately 106 square miles of papers printed and 270,000 tons of metal minted (Padoa-Schioppa 2000). Euro, the “central bank money” of the European Central Bank will be freely circulating in all parts of the euro-zone nations, and all payments are domestic. However, serious concern persists that payment transactions involving “commercial bank money” or inter-bank transfers of funds across borders will differ from inter-bank transfers of funds within borders.

While the roles of central banks of EU nations and those of the European Central Bank are governed by Treaty (Article 3 of 22 of the Statute of the European Central Banks), the actual operation of payment systems involving cross-border payments among euro-zone nations is still in the developmental stage. First, retail inter-bank cross-border payments are slow and costly. Second, the infrastructures among banks in individual EU nations are inadequate. Third, there are no common standards among banks in EU nations for handling cross-border direct debits or the existing “double charging” by paying and receiving banks for cross-border payments.

Two key standards for the payment process have been agreed upon: International Bank Account Number and International Payment Instructions. However, EU has not decided on the implementation date for these standards. An interim solution for the issues related to “double charging” has been proposed in the document called “Multilateral Interbank Exchange Fee”, while euro banknotes and coins will easily cross borders, the cross-border inter-bank retail (as opposed to wholesale) transactions will likely not imitate seamless domestic inter-bank retail transaction payments in individual EU nations (Padoa-Schioppa 2000).

European banks are ahead of American banks in integration of retail customer orders from various origins, such as traditional branches, Internet-based home banking, self-service branches or mobiles. However, EU-wide Internet banking faces a serious structural problem: EU nations now use different computer system architectures that are not compatible. The infrastructures for the new integrated systems needed are being provided by a new hardware system called STEP 1. However, the new systems have to provide portability, flexibility, security and manageability of multi-channel banking for banks and non-banks, which handle cross-border retail commercial transactions conducted in different national languages used by customers in individual EU nations. For instance, Germany uses a specific German protocol called BTX and HBCU (home banking computer interface) to the core banking system and a completely new infrastructure had to be recently introduced (Hundehage 2001). Additionally, EU must integrate the clearinghouse operations now handled by ZKA (Zentraler Kreditausschus) in Germany, APACS (Association for Payment Clearing Services) in the U.K., and CFONB(Comite Francais d’organization at de Normalisation Bancaire) in France, as these institutions are not totally comparable in status and activities.

In summary, EU banks face two daunting tasks: (1) Standardizing the EU-wide inter-bank payment procedures that support cross-border inter-bank retail transactions with the single currency, euro, and (2) integrating diverse computer hardware and software used by banks in different EU nations. This will require significant system modifications and capital investments.


On Wall Street, a mouse beats a bull or bear every time. This metaphor has not become reality in the world of Internet banking. While Internet banking is cost efficient, it has not won the approval of bank customers. Only 5 percent of U.S. banking households, or 4.4 million households, did any banking online in 1999. This is in stark contrast to the estimated 9.3 million online investment accounts that American consumers have at their brokerage firms. These online trading accounts are fast becoming online personal finance accounts that chip away at a bank’s customer base.

Online brokerage firms are acting as financial intermediaries in cyberspace in direct competition with traditional and Internet banks. Banks face more opportunities in brokerage and consumer investment services than in brick-andmortar branch networks. Citibank, Bank One, Bank of Boston, Toronto-Dominion Bank, CSFB and others have entered online brokerage business through acquisitions.

Another serious threat to banks are Internet portals, such as Yahoo, Quicken, and, which, through joint ventures, provide consumers not only online brokerage, but also facilities for bill payment, certificate of deposit investment, mortgage, insurance and consumer loans. In general, European banks have a stronger propensity to use Internet portals, such as Yahoo and Lycos as their main cyberbanking venues than their American counterparts. For instance, the largest bank in France, BNP Paribas I, uses Yahoo Europe as its portal.

At present, banks, for the most part, are watching from the sidelines while their primary role as the premier financial intermediary is being diminished by online brokers and other financial service providers. As recently as two years ago, many leading banks were preoccupied with merger and acquisition aimed at expanding networks of brick-and-mortar branches rather than creating or pursuing virtual branches in cyberspace. In truth, bankers’ main motive to implement Internet banking was, and still is, to prevent the defection of their customers to other Internet banks or other financial service providers.

EU banks, like their American counterparts, must grapple with ongoing deregulation and technological advances. They also face the blessing and curse of a single currency, euro. Eventually, they will benefit from the economic efficiency of borderless single currency. But, for now, they must strive to overcome the loss of their banking franchises, which have been protected by bureaucracies of sovereign nations. And they face significant system modifications and capital investments to integrate diverse and often incompatible computer architectures. Little wonder that large European banks are attracted to American markets.

Buffeted by bad loans and weak balance sheets, Japanese banks have not been able to play a significant role in the international banking markets in recent years. While European banks forayed into overseas markets, Japanese banks focused their Internet banking strategies on domestic customers. Japan’s Internet bank, Sony Bank, may be the preview of a new paradigm in globalization of e-business by large multinational corporations.

Internet banking is still in a stage of growth through experiment. It was once a challenge for the banking industry to create technology that would help automate its labor-intensive backoffice operations. Now, banks around the world are hard pressed to keep up with Internet technology itself, while competing with other banks and non-bank financial institutions for new products and new delivery systems. Technological innovations will continue in the financial industry, and they will surely test the ability of banks to manage their competition with other financial service providers in a complex and dynamic e-commerce environment.

Acknowledgments: The authors are grateful to Aaron Haynes and Jonathan Jackson for research assistance. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Conference on Bank Restructuring and Cyber-banking, the Korea Institute of Finance, Seoul, Korea, May 2000.


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Chong Soo Pyun (

University of Memphis

Les Scruggs

University of Memphis

Kiseok Nam

Texas A & M University

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