Five years ago I wrote a thought piece called ‘Through the Looking Glass’ to provoke non-linear thinking and foster debate on the possible future direction of the financial services industry and market structures. (I later turned it into a short video called AmazonBay.) It was a retrospective told from the point of view of an observer in 2015. It was never meant to be taken literally – in particular with respect to (most of) the specific corporate mergers – rather I used these as a concise and dramatic way of highlighting the possible or even probable consequence of the deep secular currents that I felt would inevitably work to reshape the landscape.
(December 2015:) …The global securities and investment banking groups that dominated the market in the last century are now extinct. In their place we have an intelligent galaxy of new specialist advisory, investment management, algorithmic software and consulting firms networked with a universe of powerful transaction facilitation exchanges. Banks now exist only as giant regulated pools of capital.
Following the sweeping banking reforms proposed last week by President Obama, and the fact that we are now halfway to this hypothetical future, I thought it might be worth doing a quick mark-to-market of how my ideas have lined up with reality.
- stock exchange consolidation and emergence of new exchange venues (A-) pretty close both in outcomes and timing – the major stock exchanges have been merging a-go-go while at the same time new trading venues have proliferated, and exchange (or quasi-exchange) trading of new asset classes continues to develop strongly.
- sports/outcome trading in US legitimized (B-) my narrative had this happening in February 2010, not there yet but Congressman Frank’s bill might open the doors later this year and the trend seems to be on the right track and will probably be signed into law by Obama (!); as an aside was way early on a Betfair IPO…
- giant bank mergers followed by break-up of vertically integrated universal banks, with Goldman Sachs leading the way (A) we have seen the big get mostly even bigger (RBS/ABN, BoA/ML, Barclays/Lehman…and while JPMorgan didn’t buy MS, they did get Bear Stearns and WaMu); GS hasn’t yet broken itself into three as predicted but I’m still confident it will lead the way when/if industry structure changes, and more generally the trend of regulatory thinking across the globe is definitely a trailing wind for the kind of change I envisioned. The 2010-2012 timeframe for the re-organization of global banks is probably a bit early but plausibility has certainly gone up (from near zero) significantly since I wrote this.
- more (and more) algorithmic / automated intermediation of markets (A-) this was obliquely referenced in my article but was really at the heart of the idea that this fictional ‘AmazonBay’ platform would end up dominating this aspect of markets; clearly the market is heading this way – in fact it may seem obvious now but most people did not fully understand this even as little as five years ago.
- Amazon anything (B+) The jury is probably still out on this one, but in my view it is looking increasingly likely that Amazon.com will become a giant of the next economic paradigm; whether or not they use their vast intellectual and technological resources to participate more directly in the financial services arena is not yet clear, but I can tell you the only ‘big company’ job I would not hesitate for two minutes to accept if it were offered would be CEO or CSO of Amazon Financial Services (AFS) Jeff are you listening? 😉
(Note: Remember I used real company names mainly to add vividness to the ideas underlying the narrative. The key concept I wanted to convey with this GS break-up vignette was that the vertically integrated model would decompose under the light of new technology and regulations into a (technology-centric) Sales & Trading component, a more focused, relationship driven Advisory component (cf. the emerging proliferation of pure advisory ’boutiques’) and independent, conflict-free Asset Management businesses (cf. the secular growth of hedge funds and Barclays sale of BGI, etc.))
(February 2009:) …Reacting to new competition, Goldman Sachs becomes the first major investment bank to break itself up. Securities and distribution are sold to Ebay Financial Markets, while the remaining activities are split into two new companies: GS Advisory Services and GS Capital management…
- eBay anything (D) Despite the fact that the actual companies cited are more symbolic than literal, the choice of eBay to represent the cutting edge of online, data-driven, algorithmic marketplaces was simply awful. To the extent that it risks distracting the viewer from the key, underlying messages. It is now entirely implausible and so instead of bridging the cognitive gap, the inclusion of eBay simply extends it. Thank goodness this is somewhat mitigated by my inclusion of Amazon.com (see above) as the other new markets avatar but they come late to the narrative…
- sports trading developing as an asset class (C+) this clearly hasn’t happened, although there are one or two small funds and firms offering managed accounts; and a vibrant ecosystem of professional traders and the associated software has emerged around the Betfair and other exchange platforms. In my defense, I picked sports as just a provocative and emotionally attractive example of the idea that – enabled by technology – a vast array of new tradable markets in goods but also outcomes, would emerge. Work in progress.
- credit crunch and asset bubbles (D) although the overall purpose of the piece was to provoke thinking on the sustainability of existing business models in financial services in the face of radically shifting underlying technological, economic and demographic trends, I failed to include a thread touching on the possibility of catastrophic systemic discontinuities arising as a result of the prevailing market structure and business models. It’s a significant ommission, especially as at the time of writing this I was in the process of exiting my former responsibilities as a senior executive in the credit business due in part to my increasing discomfort with the sustainability and prudence of the risk pricing in that market.
All in all, I would give myself a mid-term grade of B+/A- with room both to improve and to slip back. Mostly on the right track, especially with respect to big themes but perhaps a bit optimistic in terms of some of the timelines. What do you think? Better? Worse? To be fair, the correct measuring stick is not so much whether or not I was right or wrong, even in terms of ‘macro’ predictions but whether or not this article and video helped catalyze serious discussion, debate and thought about the potential for disruptive and non-linear change in the financial services industry. Alas I have no idea how one could even attempt to measure that, but any thoughts or anecdotes you might have with respect to this would of course be appreciated.
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- One day… (parkparadigm.com)