Tech firms are not the greatest threat for banks — lack of innovation is, says Russia's largest bank

Key Points
  • Sberbank's chief technology officer said he does not feel threatened by the growing number of "Big Tech" players, such as Google and Facebook, moving into financial services.
  • David Rafalovsky said the biggest challenge for traditional players is to ensure they innovate with technology.
  • Russia's largest bank Sberbank is itself diversifying into other services and today considers itself a tech company, Rafalovsky said.
Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Sberbank of Russia, David Rafalovsky speaks on global developments in information and cloud technologies sector during an exclusive interview in Moscow, Russia on June 28, 2019.
Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

As major technology firms continue to flex their financial services muscles, competition is mounting on an already crowded banking sector.

But, according to David Rafalovsky, chief technology officer at Russia's state-owned Sberbank, it will take more than the cache of big brands for tech companies to compete with banking incumbents.

"I think it's a bit more complex than just having a banking licence and a lot of capital," Rafalovsky said of the shifting banking landscape at the opening day of CNBC's East Tech West conference in the Nansha district of Guangzhou, China.

"It's the ability to build tailor-made products with financial components and non-financial components."

Last week, Google became the latest Big Tech firm to bolster its financial services with the launch of new checking accounts — codenamed Cache — from next year. The move comes hot on the heels of Facebook's new payments platform, Facebook Pay, and, earlier this year, Apple's credit card.

However, with many traditional financial services firms also investing in technology, Rafalovsky said the biggest threat to incumbents would be a lack of innovation.

"Just like large tech firms encroaching on financial institution markets, many financial firms, including ours, declare ourselves to be a technology company," he told CNBC's Geoff Cutmore and Arjun Kharpal.

"The question is: 'What will financial institutions do overall?' Will they retreat and become a back-end to fintechs and large tech companies with a huge install base and user-base? Or they will actually innovate in their own right and drive product innovation on par, if not better, than the big tech companies," he said.

Rafalovsky said Sberbank, Russia's largest bank, was driving ahead in this regard, and investing in both financial technology as well as non-financial products. In July, the bank said it was teaming up with internet firm Mail.ru to invest 64 billion rubles ($1 billion) in a food delivery service.

"The growth of non-financial products overall dramatically exceeds financial products," Rafalovsky said of the diversification.

"I think many financial companies — not all — will do it exceedingly well and I suspect, and I certainly hope, that the Russian market will be used as an example of how financial companies can innovate."