No one’s debating that the financial industry is in a period of dramatic change. The analogies used to characterize the disruption just vary in scale.
BlackRock’s global head of active equities, Mark Wiseman, invoked the contemporary example of Netflix killing Blockbuster to an audience of Canadian CFAs in November. For others, the last 542 million years are fair game: speaking the same week to a Hong Kong fintech crowd* about this “extinction phase,” Citi’s CEO of global consumer banking, Stephen Bird, compared financial services’ “dematerialization” to the Cambrian explosion.
“Before that event, there were large, unicellular, basic forms,” he said. “After that event, there was a profusion of new forms of life. That’s exactly what we’re seeing happen in every single industry, one after the other.”
If that seems hyperbolic, try to remember the last time you saw a Blockbuster store. “If we don’t change the way we think about investing, we are dead,” Wiseman said.
Both Wiseman and Bird were talking about challenges to incumbents as client expectations evolve, forever altered by interactions with Amazon, Alibaba, Netflix and Uber. For banks like Citi, founded in 1812, the weight of history “can be a curse,” Bird said. Established companies have established processes, which can work against them in an age of speed and convenience.
They also have established cultures, which must adapt. This was on display at Hong Kong Fintech Week in November, a conference full of bankers dressed down to pass for entrepreneurs, and startup CEOs putting their best wing-tipped—rather than sneakered—feet forward.
The fit between finance and tech doesn’t always feel natural, whether integrating a new kind of colleague or transitioning clients to digital platforms. A tour of Hong Kong’s accelerator labs highlighted the clash. Shared workspaces with a summer camp vibe and buoyant language imported from Silicon Valley felt a long way from staid bank offices, and terms like “intrepreneurialism,” “fintegration” and “ideation journey” will take some getting used to.
The fintech labs celebrate their willingness to challenge everything—their “healthy dose of irreverence,” as someone at Standard Chartered’s Hong Kong eXellerator put it.
But the incumbents also benefit from their baggage in one important regard: trust. As much as consumers prize convenience and a user-friendly interface, trust matters when they’re asked to hand over savings or pay monthly premiums for life.
The future will require balancing irreverence with old processes. This applies to service offerings as well as to culture. As investment advice becomes commoditized, advisors will need to focus on client engagement and emotional intelligence.
As Shelley O’Connor, managing director and co-head of wealth at Morgan Stanley, put it at the CFA event, wealth management’s future will rely on “highly trained, trusted advisors […] supported by powerful technology.”
Some of that technology is on display in Hong Kong’s fintech spaces. PwC has developed Intelligent Archive, a software tool that provides a separate chat line within popular messaging apps and records conversations to make doing business on the platforms compliant. Advisors can receive voice confirmations and signed forms, and an AI “concierge” helps advisors find suitable products without having to leave the chat.
Pay structures are also changing. Investment News reported in November that Merrill Lynch is tying team pay incentives to meeting digital engagement benchmarks with clients.
To return to Bird’s analogy, avoiding extinction means adapting. It will be uncomfortable, but pretending we aren’t in an “extinction phase” is worse.
*The Hong Kong government sponsored Advisor’s Edge’s trip to cover Hong Kong FinTech Week. Our coverage is written without any input or oversight from the sponsor.
Mark Burgess is managing editor of Advisor’s Edge. Email him at email@example.com.