Technology is shaking up the financial industry and big banks are struggling to adapt

Key Points
  • Rapid changes in financial technology, or fintech, are shaking up the global banking industry.
  • Banks must adopt new technologies to survive an ongoing “extinction phase” wrought by such tech, according to Stephen Bird, Citi’s global consumer banking CEO.
  • While new technologies cannot be ignored, bankers say the primary aim is to use them to provide the best service to customers.
The financial offices of banks in the financial district of Canary Wharf, are pictured from Greenwich Park in London on January 17, 2017.
Ben Stansall | AFP | Getty Images

Pedigrees, some stretching back centuries, are of little use to global banks unless they aggressively adapt to new financial technologies.

That's long been true, but the pace of innovation means financial juggernauts now face what one top executive likened to a mass extinction event.

A revolution in financial technology — often shortened to fintech — has propelled an explosion of new entrants who are shaking up the sector. Established giants, for their part, are fighting to adapt, emphasizing that technology may be changing fast but banking fundamentals are not.

Stephen Bird, CEO for global consumer banking at Citi, said the current changes may be happening on an unprecedented scale, but his bank — established in 1812 — is set to make the transition.

What is fintech?
What is fintech?

"The benefit of being 200 years old is that we have a survival reinvention DNA and that is core to who we are," Bird said during a panel discussion Wednesday at the annual Hong Kong FinTech Week conference.

"We think of it as we are living through an extinction phase," Bird said. "It is not an incremental thing, it's an epochal shift."

Given the explosion in new financial players, he said, established banks will need a "tense and deep re-engineering" of processes to enhance speed, convenience and trust and get at what is most important: the customer.

Bird said Citi in the United States, for example, has gained an edge by developing new ways of doing things by actively listening to its customers through "co-creation." Citi had 20,000 such sessions, which Bird credited with helping Citi achieve what he described as the most rapidly growing mobile base in North America.

Hard figures on how much the new wave of technology has disrupted retail banking are hard to come by, but analysts have stressed that the challenge is real.

"The rise of digital innovators in financial services presents a significant threat to the traditional business models of retail banks," consultancy McKinsey & Company said in a 2016 report.

So far, at least, global banks are holding up, based on their most recent reporting periods. Citi, Standard Chartered, Bank of America, HSBC and Credit Suisse, for example, all reported third-quarter profit increases from the same period last year. Deutsche Bank's earnings, however, slumped.

'Very, very daunting'

Ben Hung, regional CEO for Greater China and North Asia at Standard Chartered Bank, which has roots going back more than 150 years, said that one constant in the sector has been what customers seek at a basic level.

"It's all about how they want to manage their money, tend their money and grow their money and that fundamental need I don't think has changed," Hung said during the same Wednesday panel in Hong Kong.

What has, he stressed, is the pace of technological development now necessary to meet those requirements, which he acknowledged can be intimidating.

"It's about how to address some of these needs through technology in different ways, but equally it can be quite daunting given the uncertainty and speed by which technology happens," he said.

"It's all very exciting, very, very daunting," said Hung, who also serves as his bank's CEO for retail banking and wealth management.

Bird, meanwhile, said that the pace of investment flows into financial technology suggests an attention-grabbing shift away from incumbents toward new players.

"We take that provocation as very, very real because it's the economics of what's happening," he said.

He said that Citi has hired people from companies such as PayPal and Amazon who possess the "mindset" needed to aid the bank's transformation.

Also crucial, he said, is for the bank to be where its customers are. That increasingly means social media platforms such as WeChat as well as Instagram and Facebook.

"So we must fintegrate," he said.