A top official at the Bank of England says central banks need to embrace technology and change with the times or risk disruption akin to what Uber has done in the taxi industry.
Andrew Hauser, the Bank’s executive director for banking, payments, and financial resilience, told the audience at the SWIFT Business Forum event in London on Wednesday: “The change is going to happen whether we like it or not. We have to ensure we adapt as well. If we don’t do so, effectively we might not be able to do our jobs. Central banks, just like everyone else, can’t afford to be Uber’d.”
Hauser was referring to the wave of tech-driven innovation that is currently sweeping through financial services, usually referred to as fintech. Startups unencumbered by legacy systems are offering cheaper and quicker services to consumers.
Uber has also been particularly effective in the US at bending regulators to its will (there’s a good explanation of how here). A big criticism of transport regulators from traditional cabbies is they have failed to keep a handle on the pace of change in the industry. Hauser doesn’t want that to happen in financial services, so is keen to keep a close eye on developing fintech players.
Some fear that these new business models, while delivering short-term bonuses for many consumers, could pose long-term risks by creating new systematic risks that central banks have yet to fully grasp. The World Economic Forum on Tuesday highlighted the risk of consumers being left with big losses at the hands of peer-to-peer lending, for example.
But Hauser told the conference: “It’s often the case when you meet central bankers, they instinctively say I don’t like it, therefore it must be risky and undermine stability. I think we’ve learned that that’s too simplistic.
“When you have too little innovation or too little competition you get an excessively concentrated market and concentrated markets are by definition the ones that tend to have single points of failure. Innovation properly channeled, therefore, could actually improve stability rather than undermine it.”
The central bank does sleep overnight and it does sleep at the weekend, although maybe that’s going to become harder for us to do overtime.
It could be bad news for banks though. Former Barclays CEO Anthony Jenkins issued a similar warning to Hauser’s earlier this year, predicting an “Uber moment” for banks that could reduce headcounts by up to 50% and profitability by up to 60%.
As well as backing innovation in mainstream banking, Hauser says the Bank of England itself is looking at how it can do things differently and change with the times.
He said: “The central bank does sleep overnight and it does sleep at the weekend, although maybe that’s going to become harder for us to do overtime. We need at least the technological capacity to run 24/7/365, even if the issue of whether we chose to use it is slightly more finely balanced.
“We need better data and analytics for people using our systems so that they can control their flows better.” Hauser said the Bank of England is also looking closely at how it could potentially use blockchain technology in central banking.
Blockchain tech, also known as distributed ledger technology, was first developed to underpin bitcoin. It allows all parties on a network on share the same set of information and make changes in real-time, rather than relying on a central register or discreet registers within organisations that must be reconciled with each other.
The blockchain was originally conceived by bitcoin’s developers to do away with the need for central banks, by allowing the network to collectively sign off on transactions. But the likes of the Bank of England could in fact use the technology to help them in their jobs, by improving real-time monitoring of activity for example.
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