Wall Street steps up its game against fintech

Marcus, Zelle and Concord.

They're not names for Silicon Valley start-ups, nor is this list drawn from a pre-K register in Brooklyn's Park Slope. This is what Wall Street has been doing to defend itself from the growing threat of financial technology, or fintech.

"They're reacting to the realization of what customers are using," said Bob Ramsey, senior vice president of equity research at FBR & Co.

And most customers are using their phones increasingly often.

Zelle, which, according to The Wall Street Journal, was conceived at least in part hoping to invoke the imagery of a speedy gazelle, is the new name for a payments platform between major Wall Street banks allowing users to transmit money between phones.

The payments platform, which includes U.S. banks like JPMorgan Chase, is nothing new, although the name is. It's also a clear shot across the bow at digital competitors like PayPal, which has consistently expanded customer accounts and transactions and, perhaps more frightful to Wall Street banks, has logged increasing gains in total payment volume. In other words, PayPal users are driving up growth in payments volume with its products, including Venmo, suggesting it is still catching on with consumers.

A representative for clearXchange, which has been the product's name during its development, did not respond to requests for comment.

Banks aren't the only ones who realize PayPal and Venmo's potential; last month Jefferies analysts pointed out Venmo's "explosive" growth and assigned a buy rating to PayPal's stock, with a target of $48 a share.

Paul J. Richards | AFP | Getty Images

Zelle represents just one consortium of banks looking to harness popular digital technology before it turns into a real threat to their top line. Other banks have banded together in an attempt to harness the disruptive power of the blockchain, the technology underpinning digital currencies including bitcoin.

Concord is a project developed through a start-up, R3, that was conceived by a handful of big banks but has grown to include a group of 60 worldwide.

Earlier this month, R3 filed a patent relating to its bank technology infrastructure, The Wall Street Journal reported, and it could launch the Concord project in coming months. While consensus expectations are that Wall Street is years away from seeing substantive change from blockchain implementation, proponents say it has the potential to drive mass efficiency across lines of business where banks have allowed technological developments to stagnate.

Even as banks dial up the heat on smaller competitors through their advantages of scale, they haven't backed away from investing in start-ups. A report earlier this month from KPMG said financial services companies' participation in start-up fintech equity investments rose to 30 percent in the second quarter of 2016, a high-water mark.

Not every Wall Street bank is looking to take on start-ups via the buddy system. Goldman Sachs, which previously reported considered working with start-ups as it looks to the web to grow business lines, doesn't seem to have needed one to get its lending project off the ground.

Marcus represents the latest step in Goldman Sachs' digital evolution. The bank, which earlier this year launched an online checking business, is also developing an online lending service, named for Marcus Goldman, one of the bank's founders.

The bank recruited Discover executive Harit Talwar to work on the project, which lends up to $20,000 to consumers, similar to online lenders like LendingClub, The New York Times reported.

Wall Street executives expect more banks to chase various options to stave off fintech's rise in consumer segments, and elsewhere.

"It's something a lot of banks dragged their feet on, or didn't really take seriously" in the wake of the global financial crisis, one banking source said, asking that he and his firm were not publicized. "Now, people are starting to wake up, and they're going to start making changes aggressively."