Sean Park Portrait
Quote of The Day Title
The Web will own every bit.
- Kevin Kelly

A Damascene Conversion?

Though your towers were tall
and your powers were grand
you could not understand
how you fell from great heights
and you burrowed with speed
a kingdom you did lead
from heaven to hell
- A Fistful of Swoon, Vandaveer

Excuse me if I seem a bit sarcastic but I can’t help but smile. Slowly but surely the masters of the universe seem to finally be waking up to the inevitability of the eventual obsolescence of the archetypal business model of 20th century banking. I’ve been talking about this for a decade and the fact that it only took, let’s see…a gigantic global financial crisis and several years of messy aftershocks for these great and good to even start thinking about switching horses? Well, you just have to laugh because the alternative is simply too depressing.

I happened to be traveling a fair bit this past week, which for me means I actually have a few minutes of downtime to read the Financial Times (thanks to British Airways and the rules forcing everyone to turn off all electronic devices upon take-off and landing…) and stumbled upon three articles that caught my attention. First up on Tuesday was Hugo Banzinger – Deutsche Bank’s Chief Risk Officer – highlighting the fact that “Banks must regain investors’ trust” on the op-ed pages. Really?? You think?

Banks have also remained remarkably silent on how they plan to adjust their business models. Lenders will have to demonstrate that their future business models are beneficial to society, that they can be run safely and that they are able to restore profitability to make them attractive investments again.

He continues:

Many investors shy from investing in bank equity. Business models and future profitability are too uncertain. Restoring bank profitability is of utmost importance, requiring drastic actions. The standardisation of products and automation of process has to replace the tailor-made approach of many trading desks. IT investment costing billions will be necessary. The number of people on trading floors will have to drop to levels seen at exchanges. Salaries will have to normalise to levels comparable to other services industries. Capital intensive inventory for securitisation will have to return to its originators. Market making will have to be networked and back offices will have to adopt lean production methods as seen in modern manufacturing.

These changes will eventually lead to a process revolution of the kind we experienced in retail banking in the early 1990s.

All good stuff. I concur. Indeed in April 2002 I wrote1:

The industrial revolution in investment banking is all about creating a new paradigm for the execution of capital markets business. It is about reinventing the organisational mindset, replacing the traditional front, mid- dle and back office with a highly flexible and efficient product factory attached to a profes- sional cadre of relationship managers and solution providers who work with customers and clients to tailor products and solutions to be produced and executed by the factory. It is about viewing the services we provide as two distinct value propositions, one resting on the creativity and knowledge base of the bank and its bankers, and the other resting on the efficiency and accuracy of production and execution.

And followed up in June 2003 with2:

Much is promised by banks in terms of ‘putting the customer first’ and ‘delivering solutions not products’ however the reality is that, even if this is the good faith intent, the current structure of the banks is still aligned to the delivery of financial products as a holistic package with all the ancillary bits (settlement, research, payments, etc.) thrown in to a greater or lesser extent. An essentially analogue model for an emerging digital world. The ‘digital’ model breaks down all aspects of the business into dis- crete component parts and allows for each to be optimised (either in-house or out- sourced) and then packaged and delivered to the client according to their needs.

Through this industrialization of the process, the skills and functions of the bankers must equally realign, with expert designers, engineers and manufacturers on the production side, and state of the art customer service representatives on the other.

I guess I just must have been saying’ it wrong…

Next, a bit later in the week, the infamous Sallie Krawcheck – yes the former Citigroup CFO & Head of Strategy, former CEO Citigroup Wealth Management, former President of the Bank of America Global Wealth & Investment Management division – was also given a slot by the Financial Times editors to explain to us that “JPMorgan shows fighting complexity is futile”. Gee, is this complexity stuff a recent development??

But despite coming a bit late to the game, she nails it:

It is complexity that in good part defines Wall Street and forms some of finance’s highest barriers to entry…In the main, the response from regulators to the perceived causes of the downturn has been to fight complexity with complexity.

Of course I agree. Too much complexity (June 2008):

I’m not suggesting that no economies of scale make sense in banking or financial services more generally, only that they are subsumed by complexity within these ‘integrated’ financial behemoths. I even have some sympathy for the seductive logic underlying integrated business models, however in my view the theoretical benefits of an integrated model – while possibly intellectually robust on paper – are impossible to exploit in reality. It ignores what I describe as corporate entropy: ie in any corporate process there exists an inherent tendency towards the dissipation of useful energy.

Indeed – sticking with the chemical analogy and without writing a book about it – it would be fair to say that giant bank mergers are at best an (intrinsically unstable) intermediate product in the reaction coordinate and to make any sense need to be followed by a subsequent division into multiple new end products (which individually release the benefits of economies of scale and synergy without the instability engendered by excessive complexity.) So Citigroup (or UBS or HSBC or RBS/ABN Amro, etc…) should naturally “decay” to form multiple specialist firms that are more focused and efficient than the multiple firms that had been combined first to form these giants.

And too little competition (in the form of disruptive new entrants in particular):

Of course more regulations hurt the large financial institutions, but they hurt new entrants more. And competition is a whole lot scarier than regulation to incumbents. If you want to get a sense of this, you could do worse than reading Aaron Greenspan’s take on US payment regulations http://www.moneyscience.com/pg/bookmarks/Admin/read/77403/held-hostage-how-the-banking-sector-has-distorted-financial-regulation-and-destroyed-technological-progress-pdf. And similar examples exist across the spectrum of financial services and across the globe.

The irony is that most financial regulations are born through the desire to protect the little guy from losses, and to some extent they achieve this on one (direct) level but following the law of unintended consequences, the result to often is to create an environment where far larger risks (and losses) are incurred at a systemic level. And who pays for that? Well as we all know now, increasingly it’s all of us (including of course, the little guy.) Via government subsidies, interventions, increasing costs to maintain ever larger and more complex regulatory regimes, all of which need to be paid for with higher taxes and more importantly slower economic growth. Here the bankers are right, all these new regulations make our current system less able to produce growth which of course hits the 99% hardest. But then the bankers stop before asking for a level regulatory playing field that would pour fuel on the smouldering fire of new, innovative, disruptive entrants. Please Lord deregulate me, but not just yet.

But of course if you are reading this, you already know we’re working hard and investing big to help change this. And despite my slight snarkiness above, I am actually excited to see views I’ve held dearly for many years starting to be adopted by (some of) the leaders and personalities of the financial services establishment. (Indeed, Sallie if you’re reading this, I’d love to have the opportunity to tell you about Anthemis and compare notes on the future of finance. And good to see you on twitter. Welcome to the (financial) reformation!)

The third article was about Senator Sherrod Brown trying to revive new legislation is the US which would mandate a break-up of the megabanks. He states:

“I am confident that we will see the government over time requiring some divesting of assets because if [big banks] keep getting an advantage in the marketplace, and they keep growing and having a higher percentage of assets, it’s basically a government-endowed advantage. Thank you, US taxpayers.”

I wonder if we might eventually see something along the lines of the break-up of AT&T, a process that was initiated in 1974 but took ten years and lots of litigation before taking effect in 1984. However ultimately, the problem with banking is not just about size. In this respect, I have some sympathy for the banking lobby: creating 5 or 10 mini-JPMorgans or BoAs is not really the solution (although it could be an intermediate step.) Sheila Bair has also been making the case for smaller, less complex banks:

Yet instead of waiting for the government or shareholders to act, the leadership of these megabanks should take the lead in downsizing. The best way for Dimon to provide a better return to his investors is to recognize that his bank is worth more in smaller, easier-to-manage pieces. Let’s face it, making a competitive return on equity is going to become even harder for megabanks as their capital requirements go up, their trading and derivatives activities are reined in, and their cost of borrowing rises as bond investors recognize that too-big-too-fail is over. If, by downsizing, Dimon can achieve valuations comparable to the regional banks’, he will potentially release tens of billions of value to his shareholders.

More importantly, I think we will inextricably move towards a fundamental reconfiguration of the industry: away from vertically-integrated monoliths and towards an ecosystem or “stack” of firms focused on different components of the industry. The stack metaphor I think is particularly apt, not only because it is a useful conceit to describe the financial system but also because finance is essentially an information technology business and much useful inspiration can be taken from observing the evolution of the ICT industry as it moved from the mainframe to the internet to the cloud era. And it’s not entirely coincidental that I first presented these ideas at a telecommunications conference in 2009.

In such a world, it would not be inconsistent to have several megabanks with enormous balance sheets, but these would likely be very simple constructs – highly regulated and limited utilities, providing a basic deposit taking and liquidity providing function to the system. As I suggested in my AmazonBay video in 2005, the ultimate destiny of (the core) of the global megabanks might to simply become “giant regulated pools of capital.” Such banks would have relatively few employees, extremely robust but relatively limited infrastructure, and would make consistent but modest returns on their capital. They would sit towards the bottom of the financial stack, the financial equivalent of the massive (but usually faceless) data centers that run the internet…

As you might suspect, we have a number of ideas of how this reconfiguration might play out, and this thesis deeply informs our investment process and some aspects of it are already reflected in our portfolio, other aspects not yet but soon we hope. I was thinking of writing an article that would map out how we see banking services being organized in say 2022 but rather than give too many of our secrets away here and now, I think I’ll keep some of these in reserve for the moment. Especially since the industry seems finally to be starting to pay attention and I don’t want to lose our 10 year head-start on designing the future of finance as it makes my job so much easier! As William Gibson said, “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”.


1 Industrial Revolution (2002)

2 Minority Report (2003)

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