Wednesday, January 4, 2017

3/1/17: Dead or Dying... A Requiem for the Traditional Banking Model

Earlier today, I briefly posted on Twitter my thoughts about the evolving nature of traditional banking. Here, let me elaborate on these.

The truth about the traditional banking model: it is dead. Ok, to be temporally current, it is dying. Six reasons why.

1) Banks can’t price risk in lending - we know as much since the revelations of 2007-2008. If they cannot do so, banks-based funding model for investment is a metronome ticking off a crisis-to-boom cyclicality. That policymakers (and thus regulators) cannot comprehend this is not the proposition we should care to worry about. Instead, the real concern should be why are equity and direct lending - the other forms of funding - not taking over. The answer is complex. Informational asymmetries abound, making it virtually impossible to develop retail (broad) markets for both (excluding listed equity). Tax preferences for debt is another part of the fallacious equation. Habits / status quo biases in allocating funds is the third. Inertia in the markets, with legacy lenders being at scale, while challengers being below the scale. Protectionism (regulatory and policy) favours banks over other forms of lending and finance. And more. But these factors are only insurmountable today. As they are being eroded, direct financing will gain at the expense of banks.

The side question is why the banks are no longer able to price risks in lending, having been relatively decent about doing so in previous centuries? The answer is complex. Firstly, banks are legacy institutions that have knowledge, models, memory and intellectual infrastructure that traces back to the industrial age. Time moved on, but banks did not move on as rapidly. Hence, today's firms are distinct from Coasean transaction cost minimisers. Instead, today's firms are much more complex entities, dealing with radically faster pace of innovation and disruption, with higher markets volatility and, crucially, trading in the environment that is more about uncertainty than risk (Knightian world). Here, risk pricing and risk management are not as closely aligned with risk modeling as in the age of industrial enterprises. Guess what: if firms are existing in a different world from the one inhabited by the banks, so are people working for these firms (aka banks' retail customers). Secondly, banks' own funding and operations models have become extremely complex (see on this below), which means that even simple loan transaction, such as a mortgage, is now interwoven into a web of risky contracts, e.g. securitisation, and involves multiple risky counterparties. Thirdly, demographic changes have meant changes in risk regulation environment (increased emphasis on consumer protection, bankruptcy reforms, data security, transparency, etc) all of which compound the uncertainty mentioned above. And so on...

2) Banks can’t provide security for depositors - we know, courtesy of pari passu clauses that treat depositors equivalently with risk investors. The deposits guarantee schemes are fig leaf decorations. For two reasons. One: they are exogenous to banks, and as such should not be used to give banks a market advantage. Of course, they are being used as such. Two: they are only as good as the sovereign guarantors’ willingness / ability to cover them. Does anyone, looking at the advancement of the cashless society in which the state is about to renew on its own promissory fiat at least across anonymity and extreme risk hedging functions of cash, really thinks the guarantees are irrevocable? That they cannot be diluted? If the answer is no, then that’s the beginning of an end for the traditional deposits-gathering, but bonds-funded banking hybrids.

More fundamentally, consider corporate governance structure of a traditional bank. Board and executives preside (more often, executives preside over the board due to information asymmetries and agency problems). Shareholders are given asymmetric voting rights (activist institutional shareholders are treated above ordinary retail shareholders). Bondholders have direct access to C-suite and even Board members that no other player gets. And the funders of the bank, the depositors? Why, they have no say in the bank. Not even a pro forma one. This asymmetry of power is not accidental. It is an outrun of the centuries of corporate evolution, driven by pursuit of higher returns on equity. But, roots aside, it certainly means that depositors are not the key client of the bank's executive. If they were, they would be put to the top of the corporate governance pyramid.

Still think that the bank is here to protect your deposits?

3) Banks can’t provide efficient platforms for transactions - we know, courtesy of #FinTech solutions. Banks charge excessive fees for simple transactions, such as currency exchanges, cross border payments, debt cards, some forms of regular utility payments, etc. They charge to issue you access to your money and to renew access when it deteriorates or is lost. They charge for all the things that many FinTech platforms do not charge for. And they provide highly restricted (i.e. costly) platform migration options (switching banks, for example). Some FinTech platforms now offer seamless, low cost migration options, e.g. aggregators and some new tech-enabled banks, e.g. KNAB. Anecdotal evidence to bear: two of my banks on two sides of the Atlantic can’t compete on fees and time-to-execute lags with a small firm doing my forex conversions that is literally 10 times cheaper than the lower cost bank and 5 days faster in delivering the service.

If you want an analogy: banking sector today is what music industry was just at the moment of iTunes launch.

4) Banks can’t escape maturity mismatch and other systemic risks - we know, courtesy of banks' reliance on interbank lending and securitisation. The core model of deposits being transformed into loans is hard enough to manage from the maturity mismatch perspective. But when one augments it with leveraged interbank funding and securitisation, we end up with 2007-2008 crisis. This is not an accident, but a logical corollary of the banking business model that requires increasing degrees of leverage to achieve higher returns on equity. Risks inherent in lending out of deposits are compounded by risks relating to lending out of borrowed funds, and both are correlated with risks arising from securitising payments on loans. The system is inherently unstable because second order effects (shutdown of securitised paper markets) on core business funding dominate the risk of an outright bank run by the punters. Worse, competitive re-positioning of the financial institutions is now running into the dense swamp of new risks, e.g. cybercrime and ICT-related systems risks (see more on this here: No amount of macro- or micro-prudential risk management can address these effects. Most certainly not from the crowd of regulators and supervisors who are themselves lagging behind the already laggardly traditional banking curve.

As an aside, consider current demographic trends. As older generations draw down their deposits, younger generation is not accumulating the same amounts of cash as their predecessors were. The deposits base is shrinking, just at the time as transactions volumes are rising, just as weak income growth induces greater attention to transactions fees. Worse, as more and more younger workers find themselves in the contingent workforce or in entrepreneurship or part time work, their incomes become more volatile. This means they hold greater proportion of their overall shrinking savings in precuationary accounts (mental accounting applies). These savings are not termed deposits, but on-demand deposits, enhancing maturity mismatch risks.

5) Banks can’t provide advice to their clients worth paying for - we know this, thanks to the glut of alternative advice providers, and passive and active management venues. And thanks to the fact that banks have been aggressively ‘repairing margins’ by cutting back on customer services, which apparently does not damage their performance. Has anyone ever heard of cutting a value-adding line of business without adversely impacting value-added or margin? Nope, me neither. So banks doing away with advice-focused branches is just that - a self-acknowledgement that their advice is not worth paying for.

Worse, think of what has been happening in asset management sector. Fee-based advice is down. Fee-based investment funds (e.g. hedge funds) are shrinking violets. But all of these players bundle fees with performance-based metrics. And here we have a bunch of useless advice providers (banks) who supposed to charge fees for providing no performance-linked anchors?

6) Banks can’t keep up with the pace of innovation. How do we know that? Banks are already attempting to converge to FinTech platforms (automatisation of front and back office services, online banking, e-payments, etc,). Except they neither have technical capabilities to do so, nor integration room to achieve it without destroying own legacy systems and business, nor can their investors-required ROE sustain such a conversion. Beyond this, banking sector has one of the lowest employee mobility rates this side of civil service. Can you get innovation-driven talent into an institution where corporate culture is based on being a 'lifer'? Using Nassim Taleb's term, bankers are the 'IBM men' of today. Innovation-driven companies have none of these. For a good reason, not worth discussing here.

So WHAT function can banks carry out? Other than use private money to sustain superficial demand for overpriced Government debt and fuel bubbles in assets?

It is a rhetorical question. Banks, of course, are not going to disappear overnight. Like the combustion engine is not going to. But banks’ Tesla moment is already upon us. Today, banks, like the car companies pursuing Tesla, are throwing scarce resources at replicating FinTech. Most of the time they fail, put their tails between their legs and go shopping for FinTech start ups. Next, they will fail to integrate the start ups they bought into. After that, we will see banks consolidation moment, as the bigger ones start squeezing the smaller ones in pursuing shrinking market for their fees-laden services. And they will be running into other financial sector players, with deeper pockets and more sustainable (in the medium term) business models moving into their space - insurance companies and pension funds will start offering utility banking services to vertically integrate their customers. Along this path, banks' equity capital will be shrinking, which means their non-equity capital (costly CoCos and PE etc) will have to rise. Which means their ROEs will shrink some more.

Banking, as we know it, is dying. Banks, as we know them, will either vanish or mutate. If you are investing in banking stocks, make sure you are positioned for an efficient exit, make certain the bank you are investing in has the firepower to survive that mutation, and be confident in your valuation of that bank post-mutation. Otherwise, enjoy mindless gambling.

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