Let’s celebrate… what?
Hey it’s World Fintech Day today. It’s a day to take a while to congratulate a business which has attained… well, what ? What’s there to celebrate when the reality is that we haven’t yet experienced a fintech revolution or something similar to you. If you believe I’m being cruel, take a look at this poll of nearly 800 businesses that has rated financial services as among the very advanced sectors of the market. Among the least! Not even in the upper half of this table.
All of us expect the pharmaceutical firms, to pick an obvious instance, to be more advanced than banks. And sure enoughthey are. But the fabric business is much more advanced than banking, in which company models and also the expense of intermediation (that I might see as being a vital measure of productivity) haven’t changed for generations. Yes, fintech has attracted financial services to countless millions of individuals in growing markets, but it’s to change developed markets. There are grounds for believing, however, the revolution is going to start.
There’s a story I tell at conferences now and then about a man who was benefitting from a bank after spending nearly his entire working life there (I heard the story a couple of times from a couple of different people but as far as I know its earliest written form is in Martin Mayer’s excellent 1997 book “The Bankers”).
The chap in question had risen to a fairly senior position, so he got a fancy retirement party as I believe is the custom in such institutions. When he stepped up on stage to accept his retirement gift, the chairman of the bank conducted a short interview with him to review his lifetime of service.
He asked the retiree “you’ve been here for such a long time and you’ve seen so many changes, so much new technology in your time here, tell us which new technology made the biggest difference to your job?”
The guy thought for a few seconds and then said “air conditioning”.
It’s a funny story, but it’s an important story because it includes a profound truth. Robert Gordon’s magisterial investigation of productivity in the US economy “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”, shows very clearly that the introduction of air conditioning was indeed responsible for a measurable jump in productivity. Of course, other technologies led to improvements in the productivity of banks and the wider financial services sector. Computers, for example. But it took a while for them to transform anything ( we all remember Robert Solow’s famous 1987 observation that computers were everywhere except for the productivity statistics) and the figures seem to show that those improvements slowed to a standstill a couple of decades ago.
In the last decade, the smart phone revolution does not seem to have been accompanied by any increase in productivity at all and it’s not just because half the workforce are playing Candy Crush and the other half are messing around on Instagram instead of doing any useful work. It is, as Gordon notes, because the technologies are being used to support existing products, processes, regulation and institutional structures rather than to create new and better ways of delivering financial services functionality into the economy. So while are individual fintechs that have been incredibly successful (look at Paypal
Thomas Phillipon of the Stern School at NYU carried out a very detailed analysis of the US financial sector back in 2014 found that the unit cost of financial intermediation was around 1.87% on average (which is a lot of money). This adds up to a significant chunk of GDP. Indeed, calculation seem to indicate that the finance sector consumes about 2% excess GDP. What’s more, these costs do not seem to have decreased significantly in recent years, despite advances in information technology and despite changes in the organization of the finance industry. Earlier World Bank work looking at the impact of bank regulations, market structure, and national institutions on bank net interest margins and overhead costs using data from 1,400 banks across 72 countries tells us why: tighter regulations on bank entry and bank activities increase the cost of intermediation.
To put it crudely, Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law are overcome by the actual law and the costs of KYC, AML, CTF, PEP, Basle II, MiFID, Durbin and so and forth climb far faster than transistors shrink. This observation in fact shows us the way forward. As technology has driven down the costs of computing and communications, the costs of shifting bits around has collapsed. But financial services is — so it should be — heavily regulated and the costs of that regulation have rocketed. The net result is that fintech has not brought about a revolution. If there is going into be these a revolution, if new technology is allowed to create new business models and new market structures, and if those new structures are to reduce the costs of intermediation, then we need the regulators to create the space for innovation. And perhaps, just perhaps, they have: open banking is the first step on an open data road that may ultimately not only revolutionise payments, banking and credit but… everything.
We all understand that the future competitive landscape is about data, so the regulators can make an more innovative platform for enterprise by opening up access to it and then providing new kinds of associations to curate it (such as this Payment Institution the European Union and the Payment Bank in India). This kind of regulatory innovation may allow fintech to deliver what it promised and lay the groundwork for some true challengers. So, this World Fintech Day, let’s celebrate fintech for what it is going to bring as we move ahead into the open bank era, not for what it has achieved therefore far.