LONDON — Of all the challenges faced by leaders of large investment banks, the growth of the financial technology industry, or fintech, is unique.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, fintech startups have boomed, making quick ground on a banking industry struggling to cope with new financial rules and legacy tech systems.
Unlike challenges such as Brexit, low global growth, and interest rates, fintech’s impact is hard to predict and quantify for banks.
It has the potential to totally disrupt established business models or boost productivity and profitability. Or perhaps do both at the same time.
While no lender wants to become the next Nokia or Kodak, crushed by an innovation they failed to properly understand, it’s not always clear how an organisation with 100,000 employees should deal with the threats and opportunities posed by fintech.
Business Insider chatted with Axel Lehmann, chief operating officer of Swiss bank UBS, to ask how the organisation is coming to terms with fast-changing world of fintech.
Ben Moshinsky: Where are the main threats and opportunities to UBS from the fintech boom?
Axel Lehmann: True change is really coming from outside the industry. That is the key challenge we face as of today. The whole fintech discussion has changed, we have moved on from discussing whether a revolution is taking place, and how the banks will become redundant, to a place where most banks are looking at collaborative efforts with other firms. This is why most of what we do in terms of technological development we do in partnership with fintech companies.
I don’t want to get blindsided. It’s less the technology, as such, providing a transformative element in the banking industry. It’s really alternative business models that have the potential to shake up everything and eat into our cake.
We have a legacy infrastructure which can be regarded as a liability, but it’s also an asset
It is also full of opportunities. We, the banks, are operating from a position of strength from a customer perspective especially in terms of the amount of customer interaction, the know-how we can provide, and the services we can offer. You can’t create any of this overnight.
And secondly, we have a legacy infrastructure which can be regarded as a liability, but it’s also an asset. When the Trump election got through, for example, volatility was high. We have an infrastructure that can scale up in line with volatility, and that’s something you need to have.
So, in this regard, I’m personally optimistic. It’s easier, when you look to consumer industries, for example, Uber or WhatsApp, to disrupt a lightly regulated sector. But when you look at where we as banks are, you get into the highly regulated space immediately, when you talk about balance sheet and liquidity, and this makes this industry less easy to disrupt.
But no doubt, we still do have to be mindful that we’re not losing out on some of that less regulated space, particularly at the point of customer interaction.
BM: What’s the most exciting technology on your radar?
AL: I truly believe that whole question of robotics and artificial intelligence over a time horizon of four to eight years will fundamentally change the banking business. As banks, we understand that our business is all about data. These technologies have the potential to really fundamentally change the way we operate in terms of getting smarter with the customer, understanding what kind of products we should offer and so on. That is definitely exciting.
BM: How will that affect headcount in big banks? Will bankers need new skills?
AL: I think it’s always that question, that people understandably want to ask, about possible headcount reductions. We were here 50 years ago when UBS was the first to roll out an ATM in Europe. The press was then speculating about how that would eliminate all the tellers and the branch network. Now history shows that this hasn’t really happened. In reality branch staff started to have different forms of customer service opportunities and I think the same will happen now more broadly in banking.
The more you implement robotics and automation, that will in part substitute processes that humans are doing today.
The jobs and the job profiles will completely change. Technology, and it’s my deep conviction, will support and complement the human capabilities. Of course, if I’m a retail customer with $US10,000 to invest I might decide to do it all via a machine, but if I have seven figures I will need somebody to help me, to provide expert advice, and so the vital role of the relationship advisor definitely won’t disappear. Banking will stay a people’s business.
So I don’t want to speculate if we have more or less people. We’ll have different jobs and the skill levels of those people will be different. Of course, there will likely be eliminations of some process functions. The more you implement robotics and automation, that will in part substitute processes that humans are doing today. However, I do think that probably what will happen is we will then see a significant increase in productivity and efficiency.
BM: How big a profitability driver will that be?
AL: This productivity will help drive profitability or absorb any additional costs that you have, in terms of further technological development or regulatory developments. It will be reinvested in other ways, either to enhance the franchise or deal with further regulation.
BM: How does a bank, like UBS with tens of thousands of employees, interact with a fintech startup of just a few people? What kind of cultural changes need to happen
AL: Dealing with fintechs is a cultural shift that needs to take place and you want to have the local people to innovate. At UBS we have a systematic process on how we expose ourselves to fintech companies. For example, we have a series of initiatives that we’re driving, such as our Future of Finance Challenge. This competition, which is happening at the moment, provides a forum for start-ups and growing companies to come and present their ideas to compete for support from UBS to accelerate their ideas. That’s the type of work we’re doing. We really want to take advantage of some of those fast-moving and smaller boats with great ideas and great software that we can scale up and use in our organisation.
BM: Is competition for those boats fierce? How do you make sure you invest enough time and money?
AL: UBS has a CHF2.1 billion net saving target, but nevertheless our IT spend is at a record level of more than 10% of revenues. We do not sacrifice mid-term and longer term development to make numbers for a quarter. Secondly, if you look to our overall positioning it is quite unique, and that gives me confidence. We’re the global leader in wealth management, which is one of the key areas to invest in digital. Every dollar we invest there, hopefully wisely, is helping us strengthen that franchise.
We see these new forms of market interactions, and the sun is shining. But when a storm breaks out there will be a cleansing and a cleaning.
And then you look to the investment bank, where the key strength is advisory, FX, and in cash equities. In these businesses the electronic trading platforms are market leading and we’re making sure we focus on those segments where we have real competitive advantage. We are in Switzerland the number one universal bank, and here too we want to solidify our position as the number one digital bank.
BM: What do you think about the use of blockchain in finance
AL: Personally I would argue that other industries are probably better suited to a faster deployment of blockchain than finance, which is highly complicated. The devil is really in the detail. In our industry, you might see some private applications of blockchain technology, but I think the benefits are still to be proven. All the regulatory and legal contract certainty you need to have is still a while out, which will have a five to 10-year path. So a lot needs to happen in this regard.
BM: What do you make of the cryptocurrency boom, particularly in ICOs? Is it a bubble?
AL: I think cryptocurrency is a phenomenon but the jury is still out. Is it cash or is it an asset class? And the same goes for ICOs too.
You know you always look closely at these things, like P2P lending for example, that occur in this space. But you always need to go through a credit cycle to really fully understand what something like this is. Even in banking, when the banks were struggling to get through the crisis, there were thousands of other very smart people that tried to manage credit risk and got it wrong. I’m not sure other alternative forms would have come through the crisis in much better shape.
We see these new forms of market interactions, and the sun is shining. But when a storm breaks out there will be a cleansing and a cleaning, so I’m somewhat relaxed about that. Of course, we always have to monitor what’s ongoing, but I would not give too dramatic economic opportunities to those ventures at this point in time.
BM: Fintech is moving fast, can the regulators keep up? Where are the risks?
AL: We have to be mindful going forward. Regulation shouldn’t stifle innovation. The banks should welcome when regulators like the PRA in the UK or the MAS in Singapore open up to fin tech and allow companies to better explore potential changes in the business model. The one request we would have is a level playing field.
Increasingly regulation will have to shift to a more functional regulatory approach. At the moment, if I’m a bank I’m regulated like a bank. If I’m an insurance company, I’m regulated like an insurance company. However some of these lending platforms are partially unregulated although to the customer it looks the same as a regulated offering. To avoid regulatory arbitrage regulators will have to move to a more functional perspective.
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