One should only build the technology that is tied to their differentiator and partner or buy the rest
[00:01:28.12] Ben: Thank you so much for coming on the Structural Shifts podcast! I wanted to start off by asking you how one goes from studying social and political science to becoming a banker?
Leda: First of all, thank you very much for having me. The answer to that is ‘by accident’. I have always found it extremely impressive and confusing when I hear people talk about their careers and say, “You know, when I was 17, I decided I want to do this, then I had a plan, and I did it.” I don’t know who these people are. This was not me. Mine was entirely accidental. As I was finishing my Ph.D. with a series of deaths in the family which knocked me for six, I found myself sort of delayed and frustrated, ended up getting a job in, actually, private security of all things, and was my first taste of corporate life and working with technology investments — because the company was investing in non-weapons defense technologies at the time. And I found myself quite far away from academia, in a place that was interesting but didn’t make that much sense. And I chatted with a friend one day saying, “There are parts of my job I really like, parts of my job I don’t like, but I really don’t know what to do now, where to go next.” My friend said, “Well, we’ve built some software. We want to sell it into banks, but we don’t like people and things. You like people and things. Why don’t you join us?” It was an absolute audacity of your mid-20s. I thought, how hard can this be? And it turns out, it was quite hard, but it was also quite incredibly interesting. And I fell sideways into banking IT, and I haven’t looked back since, to be honest.
[00:03:02.08] Ben: I wanted to ask you: so, your last job in banking was at QNB and you were Chief Innovation Officer. What does a Chief Innovation Officer do? So, for example, is that a role that holds a budget, or is it one where you sort of seek to influence the rest of the organization and guide them towards some sort of digital future?
Leda: It absolutely varies. In some organizations, the Chief Innovation Officer is part of a marketing effort and they’re there to drive organizational learning in and organizational positioning out. In those cases, the job doesn’t have much of a budget, and it tends to be all about teaching the organization what they should know and helping the organization tell a story to the market about how they’re thinking about the future. Then, there’s another type of Chief Innovation Officer that it’s all about the third frontier of technology — so, the stuff that is really out there, that is not going to be useful or usable for the next 10 years but the bank should be thinking about them. They’re doing a lot of experiments, and they tend to have budgets for POCs, but not much beyond that. And then, there is the Chief Innovation Officer that is essentially the new technology IT person. So, I would say that my role at BNY Mellon was a combination of the first and second. So, while I was at BNY, my role was a lot about bringing learning into the organization and helping the organization position itself in a changing market, and running experiments with technologies that, at the time, were very new for us. My role at QNB was very different. It was, what are the things that we should be doing and we should be seen to be doing for the type of corporate citizenship we want to have in our chosen markets, both in Near East Africa but also in the sort of Far East subcontinent and beyond — Southeast Asia, where competition and technical literacy was extremely high. So, the Chief Innovation role for QNB was, “Come in and help us do the things we need to do fast, but also help us move the needle a little bit on the ways of working internally.” And I say ‘move the needle a little bit’ because a lot of Chief Innovation Officers are all about the internal workshops. This was, I would say, more indexed into doing things that were business focused and external-facing without changing the infrastructure of the bank. So, it was things that could either plug into that infrastructure or stay on the glass, and less about changing the ways of working. So, to answer your question, it could be anything, and my two innovation roles have actually been very different — but very useful in the sequence that they were in because a lot of the experiments we had done at BNY Mellon were the learning I needed in order to go straight into implementation at QNB.
[00:05:56.05] Ben: Do you think it’s a more important role than it was in the past?
I don’t think there has been a clear sense of where profitability will lie in the future.
Leda: Perversely, I would say no. Actually, somebody called me recently and said, “Would you take another innovation role?” I was like, “Nope.” I think it was an extremely important role early on because it both signaled internally and externally, that the organization is engaging with some hard topics. And also, it showed an acknowledgment that the way we work, the way we learn, isn’t right for the way that the market is moving, and therefore we need to change. Fast forward almost 15 years later, there are very, very few organizations that have moved the needle meaningfully in terms of either way of working or transformative technology use. Some have, but they’re few and far between. And even those that have, haven’t done it through their innovation departments. So, I would say that the function it represented as a department is more vital than ever — the new ways of working, the different deployment schedules, leveraging technology differently, all of that is more important than ever — but I would say that the structure doesn’t work anymore. What the innovation departments taught us is that we can’t do it through innovation departments. It has to be right at the heart of the business.
[00:07:10.10] Ben: And do you think that’s why those banks have found it so hard to introduce significant change? Because there hasn’t been this sort of CXO buy-in, other broader buy-in of management. And therefore, do you think it’s as much cultural as it is technological change that’s needed?
Leda: Yes and no. So, I think there is a cultural change that is bigger than the technical change — I think you’re right — but I think it’s much more systemic than saying people are resisting. I don’t think people are resisting. I think the structures we have created are not conducive to the type of decision making we need. Everything from the fact that you may be running an agile project in your part of the bank, but the testing schedules for the wider bank are waterfall and therefore you need to book in your testing before you’ve started building. It’s mad, right? It makes no sense. But it is how it is. Similarly, the risk matrices you apply, the way you measure success on a quarterly basis, the way that shareholders measure success, all of those things we bundle under culture change, but it’s actually much bigger than culture. It’s about how we build up the business, how the business reports success to the owners of the business, and how the business makes sure mistakes are not made. So, it is facile to say culture and dismiss all of those things as an attitude problem. It isn’t. I would say that the biggest challenge — when we started this journey, part of the question was, “Well, are these technologies real? Are they useful?” And we spent a lot of time in labs, testing and finding that the technologies are both real and useful. They’re robust, they’re scalable, they reduce the total cost of ownership, they do all the good stuff. But they also fundamentally transform the business model, both in terms of how they enable you to operate in a way that you’re not prepared to operate in — the speed of decision making that these technologies enable you to do, you don’t have the governance for. So there’s a big change piece that is around governance and approvals that is human, yes, but not just cultural; it’s organizational. The second piece is that cheaper infrastructure and faster infrastructure kind of requires a different business model because you can’t go charging the same for a very different service. Your customers are wise to the fact that you do different things and potentially less from a human perspective. So, I would say that the challenge hasn’t been technical for a while. It’s governance and monetization.
Maybe what we’re seeing is a transition to a world where retail banking is a public service utility. And I’m not saying it necessarily needs to be run by the government but it is approached by a utility, and therefore the profit structures become very different. And that’s something that your challenger banks don’t necessarily address
[00:09:46.03] Ben: On that topic of business models, banks, in general, know where they’re headed in that direction — you know, what the business model opportunities are — and if they know where they are, which one would suit them best?
Leda: I don’t think they do. I don’t think they do. And it’s not an easy thing. I don’t think there has been a clear sense of where profitability will lie in the future. I was recording a podcast with John Egan from BNP Paribas, recently, and he led with the statement, “Banks don’t know how to make money in the new situation. Therefore, what are the options?” And it’s very refreshing to hear someone say that from within a bank, although admittedly, he doesn’t sit on the traditional side of the bank. I think there are a couple of pieces there. One is the appetite of the market is shifting. Certain products that we were comfortable seeing being profitable, aren’t profitable anymore. Retail banking isn’t profitable. Mortgages, credit cards, institutional banking, transaction banking, investment banking, that’s all still profitable, but the regulatory pressure to change pricing and the way that money is made is definitely making it less profitable than it once was. It’ll be interesting to see how far the regulator will push certain things. I’m seeing banks change their infrastructure and invest in technology, not because they want to be seen as innovative, but because they want to lower their total cost of ownership. They’ve reached a point where growing their top line is much harder than it used to be, then, actually reducing your operating costs is the only way to increase profitability. So, we’re definitely seeing that shift. But I would say that monetization is a challenge for the challengers — funnily enough — not just the traditional banks, because the challengers, they are extremely well-capitalized, burning through cash, building up something that is very, very beautiful from a UX perspective, that is, challenging banks, the assumptions we had on how hard or easy it should be to do certain things, they have definitely reduced what has now come to be considered predatory pricing and all of that. But at its bare bones, their business model is not too different. I was at a panel a few months ago, and Nick Ogden turned to Anne Boden and said, “What challenger? Your business model is exactly the same as everyone else’s!” And Anne made some very interesting points around pricing and focus on the consumer. And she’s right in all of those points, but actually, at the level that Nick was raising the challenge, he is right. If you look at the challenger banking model, their proposition was, “We can make money the same way, but by being cheaper to run, we can also be cheaper to use. So we will pass that benefit to our customers.” The reality is, retail banking is not profitable, not in the same way it used to be. And the traditional banks are making money because they have universal banking. And the challengers are looking at their business model going, “Oops, that doesn’t make money.” You know, there are the Revolut’s of the world that do make money through crypto trading. There are other ways, but the traditional retail banking, as we knew it, is only profitable for the big banks, after the third or fourth product per customer, which is not a scale that your challengers have. And I went on for an hour here to answer a very straightforward question. I don’t think they know how to make money. And I don’t think it’s an incumbent problem. I think it’s a systemic problem. It’s banking, as we know it.
[00:13:26.04] Ben: If retail banking becomes some sort of a lost leader almost, to around which you have to bolt on more profitable businesses, what does a more radical business model look like? One that accepts the premise that, you know, retail banking is not inherently very profitable.
Leda: I would start with the proposition that maybe it doesn’t need to be. Maybe what we’re seeing is a transition to a world where retail banking is a public service utility. And I’m not saying it necessarily needs to be run by the government but it is approached by a utility, and therefore the profit structures become very different. And that’s something that your challenger banks don’t necessarily address because, in order to have a credit card and an affordable mortgage and an affordable consumer loan, you tend to have a balanced book, underwriting, repacks, and investment vehicles that move that debt around and leverage it in instruments that are highly complicated and have nothing to do with retail banking. And that is how you make mortgages more affordable. That’s how, allegedly and theoretically, you make credit cards more affordable. Now, I think there are two questions inherent in the question you just asked. One is, can you create retail banking that is systemically independent from institutional transaction investment corporate banking? And I would say not with the current pricing models that we’re used to because things slosh about and move around. And the second is, can you create a business model that says, “It won’t be particularly profitable, we will do it at cost and we will perceive it as a utility.” It is possible. The technology we have to do it would allow for the running cost and maintenance cost to be lower. But I would say that the cost of lending will probably go up, or you will have to pay for a current account, which in some societies already happens, and people wouldn’t even blink. But in places like Britain, people were like, “Whoa, what’s that all about?”
even if it makes perfect sense to focus on the thing you’re best at or the thing customer comes to you for and leave other things to others who are better at them, there is an emotional blocker there
[00:15:30.03] Ben: Do you think we’re seeing the first indications that that’s actually happening? In the sense that the manufacturing balance sheet part of the banking is becoming more and more heavily regulated and I guess less and less profitable? And then secondly, because we’re already starting to see big bank mergers, which would suggest that we’re moving into a phase now where institutions are trying to just maximize economies of scale, which is what’s at play here. Would you say we’re already heading in that direction or we’ll take a more direct intervention from governments or regulators to make it happen?
The challenger banks measure their success in terms of accounts or in terms of being primary accounts, but the number of people who close their high-street bank account is minimal. The whole notion of being multi-banked is a given now.
Leda: It’s too early to tell, actually, is what I would think. We’ve definitely seen, as you rightly point out, some mergers and consolidations. But in the world of banking, those mergers and consolidations — or de-mergers — are part of how business is done. We have not seen big banks exit retail banking, which I bet is tempting. But actually, bankers, not to bash them as cynical, but I have never met a bank CEO who didn’t feel a sense of duty towards the community they serve. And even though no bank CEO’s retail arm is where the money is made, they all feel extremely strongly about retaining that. And I can’t stress that enough, there is no bank out there that I can think of — actually no, I lie; there are a couple in very particular circumstances — but for the vast majority of banks, their retail division either breaks even or loses some money. But no one ever considers killing it, because they do feel a sense of duty and responsibility to their communities. And they don’t need the regulator to tell them that. They actually do that themselves. So, to answer your question in the negative, the obvious thing would be to kill your retail banking and focus on the profitable stuff, but people don’t. And I don’t think the regulator would permit it, even if people were inclined to go that way. I think there will be a couple of things: there will be consolidation, as you say, because there’s definitely profitability in scale. I think we will see an acceptance that certain products will become less profitable, and that will become the new normal. And I hope — but I have seen very little indication of that — I hope that people will start making the hard decisions to invest in the infrastructure of the core entity, not the greenfield captives, not the small experiments, but really create an overhaul of the infrastructure of the bank, that will mean that the cost of ownership and the cost of doing business will go down. And therefore, yes, you know, the return on equity will be terrible for a few years. But once they’ve paid off the cost of build, then actually, they will have a much lighter infrastructure. So the fact that certain things are not as profitable won’t matter as much, because they’ll be much cheaper to run.
[00:18:26.28] Ben: I want to come back to that point about how banks should transform technology. And so, I’m going to come back to that, but just in the meantime, I wanted to ask you: so, if retail banking doesn’t necessarily get split off from other types of banking, do you think you’ll have different players doing the manufacturing from those that do the distribution? Because, as you say, the manufacturing part is capital intensive, it’s not very profitable, but the distribution part seems to be where you could achieve network effects and where you could achieve much higher margins and potentially very low cost of customer acquisition and so on.
No one will ever enjoy buying banking services. One of the things that the banks have to accept is that you can make it as snazzy and fun and cute as you like, it’s not going to change the way people feel about it.
Leda: Well, you speak sense, and that should be the direction of travel, right? Whether it will happen or not, will depend on a lot of things. Regulation is one — we don’t have a clear direction of travel from the regulators, but there is an increasing push for separation clarity and demarcation lines between different pieces of the life cycle that the regulator is pushing towards. So, that may be a factor. But what is holding banks back from doing this is emotional, it’s not practical. I mean, over the years — I worked in a transaction bank and custody bank and I kept saying to them, “Plumbing is amazing! Why do you care about the sexy stuff?” Like, plumbing is where you can make money, you’re needed, but it is unsexy and people emotionally want to do the more exciting stuff, the client-facing stuff. So, even if it makes perfect sense to focus on the thing you’re best at or the thing customer comes to you for and leave other things to others who are better at them, there is an emotional blocker there. So, you see, for instance, quite a lot of the traditional high-street banks who don’t actually drive profitability through their retail businesses, should say, “I’ll tell you what: open banking has landed, I’m not very good at this digital journey stuff. But people still want to have their money in a place that feels secure, so why don’t you, Mister Startup, create all your propositions on top of my platform and account, your customers’ money will be in an HSBC account, but they won’t even see HSBC, they will see PensionBee and Revolut. Neither of them is doing that, and there are many reasons for it. For the challengers, it’s both the independence that you get from having your own license, but also the feeling of being a grown-up and sitting at the grown-ups table, and not just being a little app that sits on top of another system. The traditional banks are convinced from the old way of running relationships, that owning the customer is important, right? If you sit inside a traditional bank, there are usually fights between departments about who owns the customer. The notion that you need the customer touchpoints, you need to own the customer, that’s where profitability comes from, is actually complicated, convoluted, and in some cases, entirely misled.
Leda: The point is that you have the challengers spending a lot of time and money creating infrastructure that, to your point, should be created by someone else and it should be sold as a utility to all banks. The traditional banks are spending a lot of time trying to create propositions and user journeys that they’re not very good at. Meanwhile, they don’t make any money from them and they could just sit back, take the deposits, let other people be creative. They were symbiotic relationships that could have been explored and haven’t. And I think we’ve reached the point now, where none of what exists makes sense at scale. All of the various banking players will need to think about scalable and robust infrastructure. And, as part of that same discussion, they will need to think, “What am I for? And do I need to build all the bits that I will use to be that?” And my personal view is one should only build the technology that is tied to their differentiator and partner or buy the rest because it means that you carry less legacy, you carry less need for dependence on know-how, and if technology moves on and your provider doesn’t, then great, you change providers.
[00:22:37.11] Ben: So if we think about, I don’t know, eCommerce, right? You’ve got Amazon as an aggregator, and Shopify as a platform, right? How do you think it plays on banking? Do you think banks can be aggregators? Or do you think they’re destined to be platforms?
the data that you need for timely, intelligent, embedded financial services is there, but nobody is doing it yet
Leda: That’s a very good question, and I think it depends on two things. One is the economics of it. So, the way that financial relationships are monetized right now makes it very hard to go down, actually, either of those paths, because the way you make money is hard to unbundle. It’s not a case of, “Okay, now you will be doing 30% of that process, so you get 30% of the revenue.” It’s sadly not how it works. The second challenge is, which bank has the technology to actually even start thinking about that? The people who are quietly, but interestingly, doing quite a lot of that work is Standard Chartered. They are looking at the types of work they have historically done and creating partnerships to allow them to retain their usefulness. So, it’s less about, are you an aggregator or are you a platform? And more about, in what you currently do, where do you retain brand relevance? And where are you still actually a meaningful part of the puzzle? And who can you partner with upstream and downstream to make that piece where you’re still good, bigger? And the only bank I’ve seen do that to any meaningful scale, actually, so far is Standard Chartered.
[00:24:08.19] Ben: The big advantage that the incumbents have, as you say, is every challenger is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on trying to acquire customers that the incumbents already have.
Leda: That the incumbents already have and don’t lose, right? Because it’s actually a false statistic we see. Because you are absolutely right. The challengers measure their success in terms of accounts or in terms of being primary accounts, but the number of people who close their high-street bank account is minimal. The whole notion of being multi-banked is a given now. I don’t know a single person who has one bank account.
[00:24:43.27] Ben: Yeah. So, you’re almost saying that that’s not a meaningful statistic anymore, right?
Leda: No. So, I’ve done a very informal survey of a few friends of mine who took the leap, so to speak, and started paying their salary into a challenger. And so, rather than having your traditional bank for your salary to be paid into when you’re spending money, playing money in your challengers, they actually started paying their salary into their Starling, their Monzo, their N26. But you ask the next question, if the vast majority of them sweep what they don’t expect to use immediately. So, actually, the deposits, which is where the money is made from a banking perspective, still go to the traditional institutions, either because they offer better interest rates, or because they offer higher protection, better security. The motivations are multifaceted, but if you say that the main thing that a banking player will monetize is deposits, then even the people who pay their salary into the challengers — and I would say that that number is nowhere near as high as the total number of customers, obviously — even these guys don’t leave their deposits in the challenger in any meaningful sense.
we will see much more embedded finance, much more embedded payments, actually much more complicated financial transactions being embedded in the commercial activity, but it won’t be driven by finance. It will be driven by the consumer need and the consumer opportunity.
[00:25:57.29] Ben: And do you think that’s like some sort of proxy for trust? And do you think trust is the key attribute to be able to do aggregation? I.e. I’m going to introduce you to other products and services you might find useful and value-added, because you’ve given me your trust?
Leda: Trust is absolutely vital. However, I think the main thing is that people don’t want to think about any of these things unless they absolutely have to. So, the proactive up-and-cross sell the banks are trying to do is noise. Nobody says, “Do you know what I’m gonna do today? I’m gonna pick a car loan. This is my plan for the afternoon.” People will say, “I have to renew my mortgage and I hate it, and I’ve been putting it off.” No one will ever enjoy buying banking services. One of the things that the banks have to accept is that you can make it as snazzy and fun and cute as you like, it’s not going to change the way people feel about it. The second thing is, people want these things to be available when you need them. So, I keep getting mortgage offers from my bank — my high-street bank — even though my mortgage is paid for out of that bank; but I get first-time buyer offers on a weekly basis. So, the data that you need for timely, intelligent, embedded financial services is there, but nobody is doing it yet. And I mean, from the standard banks. And I would say that the challenges are not doing as much of it as they could.
Leda: There was a proposal I saw recently that N26, was going to be doing this. I don’t know whether it actually went live or it got delayed because of COVID. But essentially, it was, if all your movements take place within your N26 account, N26 says to you, “Hey, leader, you pay this much for rent, you qualify for this kind of mortgage, and you can afford an apartment in the neighborhoods you do most of your spending in. So, in the neighborhoods where you spend your life, you can afford to buy.” Those data points are actually available, either publicly or through your own protected account. Now, that is a useful service, right? That is intelligent, embedded finance. But I don’t think that my mortgage provider saying “Do you want a credit card? You can afford one.” Or, my high-street bank saying, “Would you like to buy a house? We can help you.” is in any way helpful. Trust or no trust — because, of course, I would trust them to execute — but it’s not like the supermarket where you will buy your favorite shampoo because it’s an offer even though you don’t need it. And yet, the way financial products are promoted is exactly like your supermarket offers. People will see it and buy it. No, it doesn’t work that way. So, intelligent embedded finance is technically possible. It’s absolutely possible from a data perspective. When it becomes the way we offer services, then the people who do it best will be the people who read the situations best, not the people who have the best pricing.
digitization is not about allowing the banks to dominate this conversation. It’s about allowing them to stay compliant and relevant with the way people live
[00:29:01.18] Ben: So you’ve mentioned the term ‘embedded finance’, which is something that’s become, I think, really quite fashionable, over the course of 2020. Do you not think that it will be embedded into products and services that aren’t financial at all in nature, i.e. those that have the highest engagement? Because that always seemed, to me, the problem, as you said, which is, I only go into my banking app when I need to do banking, whereas, you know, I’m in WhatsApp all day. So, isn’t it easier to try to engage me with financial products and services through apps and services that I’m regularly using, and in which I have the pool of engagement?
Leda: I would expect so, but I think that the starting point would be interesting. So, for instance, the Uber example is a very interesting one, right? By taking away the process of payment, they’ve given you back, what? Two minutes of your life? And yet, it felt like a revelation the first time it happened. Uber didn’t create embedded payments to help MasterCard make money. They did it to create a proposition that would make them more attractive to the user. So, I think we will start seeing embedded finance for that purpose. And it will put everything on its head. I was speaking to someone who works for Experian, and they were saying, “Creating a good credit footprint has become second nature. We all know you need to brush your teeth and have a good credit score.” But the reality is that assumes you need to enter the credit system. That’s an assumption that we have made without even thinking about it. But is that the right thing? Is that something we should be encouraging new generations to do? So, for me, the interesting thing is, we will see much more embedded finance, much more embedded payment, actually much more complicated financial transactions being embedded in the commercial activity, but it won’t be driven by finance. It will be driven by the consumer need and the consumer opportunity.
[00:30:56.12] Ben: If I were to summarize, you’re saying that it will be more intelligent, more useful, and it will be pull not push, right?
[00:31:03.25] Ben: Changing the topic slightly, do you think that open banking is the catalyst to move us to this world of pull not push, and intelligent and useful embedded banking services?
the consumer will not choose the bank that has the best user journey; they will choose the bank that gets out of their way the most
Leda: I was asked a similar question not too long ago, and we had been talking about dance earlier and something entirely unrelated. And I used the analogy in a way that was relevant in the moment, but I think it still works. And what I said is, gravity is essential for dancing. But nobody thought, “Gravity is great. How could I use it? Let me invent dancing.” And the thing that has been frustrating for most big organizations that open banking came, and the banks kept looking at it until the eyes bled, and couldn’t figure out how to make it work for them, how to make money through it. And I heard equally a lot of startups looking at it and going, “There’s an opportunity in there but I don’t know how to monetize it.” And I think that if you stop staring at it, and you start going down the path of solving real problems, then open banking will be an enabler, a facilitator, and an accelerant to things that you can do to solve real problems. A little bit like you couldn’t dance without gravity, but the two are not… You know, nobody came up with dancing or slides by thinking I need to use gravity for something.
the boat that said ‘digitization is your key to future profitability’ has sailed. The boat now says ‘digitization is a key to survival and compliance’
[00:32:20.16] Ben: It seems to me that the whole digitization of the industry banking, is the new driving force to embedded finance, all these other downstream applications that will be super useful and value-added. But it doesn’t seem like open banking itself is actually that relative to everything else that important. Or do you disagree? Do you see it as being really quite significant in pushing us towards this?
Leda: I think open banking is going to be significant in enabling solutions that wouldn’t have been possible before. But it’s for the consumer, and for the creativity that the industry will see. It’s not for the incumbents. I think that, as I said earlier, embedded finance, and those truly empowering capabilities won’t come from the banks. They might be powered by the banks, but they won’t come from the banks. So, the revolution and the truly transformative pieces won’t be because the banks finally found a way of doing this. It will be because somebody thought of something that is now possible because of open banking. So, digitization is not about allowing the banks to dominate this conversation. It’s about allowing them to stay compliant and relevant with the way people live. So, for instance, at my high-street bank, you can’t set up an international payment on the app. You can only do it online. Now, if you’re not a banker, you either don’t question that, or you assume it’s for security purposes. If you are a banker, you know that’s because their systems don’t talk to each other and the online bank is on an entirely different infrastructure than the mobile bank. The reality is that a time will come — and that time is not far away from us — that the challengers and some of the incumbents will solve some of these problems. So, the consumer will not choose the bank that has the best user journey; they will choose the bank that gets out of their way the most. And by getting out of their way equally means not bombarding them with products they don’t want, but also enabling them to do things on-the-go. I remember a few years ago, I was here, in Athens, visiting my parents, and I needed — it was a routine KYC check for my mortgage. I couldn’t do it remotely. I had to go in-person into the branch that has changed in the intervening time. So, there are things that are hygiene factors these days, both because the customers expect them and because the regulator expects them, but I think that the boat that said ‘digitization is your key to future profitability’ has sailed. The boat now says ‘digitization is a key to survival and compliance’.
[00:35:06.26] Ben: I suppose asking the question a different way, do you think that… So, open banking kind of creates an obligation to share customer data. Customers, as we observe in other realms, they’re happy to share their data where they perceive there’s a utility for doing so. So, do you not think that this will happen anyway, as the right use cases emerge?
Leda: I don’t think that use cases will come from the banks. Now, I think open banking is not an obligation to share data, it’s an obligation to share infrastructure that enables the sharing of data, should the customer consents to it. And the onus was on that consent mechanism, because banks would allow you to screen scrape in the past, which is extremely insecure, but cheaper to do. I think creating that infrastructure for consent and control has been what? Has been a sort of a point of contention, because it was expensive, and the banks couldn’t figure out how to make money with it. But I firmly believe that the creative solutions that leverage open banking are not going to come by people who look at open banking and think how can I make this — make money? They will come from people who are solving problems and go, “Oh, look! With open banking, it’s much safer and easier to do that.”
[00:36:18.12] Ben: What effect you see COVID-19 having on banks, on B2B FinTech companies, and then on the B2C challengers?
Leda: I think it very much remains to be seen. I’m extremely skeptical of all the triumph of, ‘this has sealed our digital efforts and accelerated and…’ I don’t see that. What I see is, banks that knew they had challenges and problems in their infrastructure faced those problems by throwing more people at the problem, the people working extremely hard to create bridging solutions, and delivering for the clients and the bank being extremely proud of their people — as they should be. And then, the conversation of whether they should actually challenge change, restructure being not even started. So, I would say that the banks have done well in the midst of COVID because of sheer hard work, creativity, and determination on their human sides. But not because their systems were up to scratch. And I’m not seeing anyone saying “Okay, our systems were not exactly up to scratch, and I should do something about that.”
you can’t change systems without changing the supporting economics and surrounding governance. Which means that if you’re doing the slow refurb process, you’re going to have a schizophrenic organization for quite a long time
[00:37:30.03] Ben: What about, do you think, they’re investing more in B2B FinTech solutions to help them to digitize faster or to, at least, service customers digitally faster than they were?
Leda: There is some loan disbursement work that has gone ahead. But honestly, what happened when COVID hit is that people went into panic mode because they needed to deploy quick solutions for particularly loan holidays for both businesses and individuals. The systems were not set up to do that. And the reality was that if you have a COBOL-based system to change an interest rate is two months’ worth of development work. The reality is they threw the people at it, they made the change, but the system is still COBOL-based.
[00:38:13.24] Ben: And then, what about the B2C FinTech companies? Because there was a piece that was written by McKinsey, I think it was called, “Rerouting Profitability” or something, and they made the point that all of these challenges in the unit economics of some of these businesses have been laid there, and now they’re struggling to raise new funding, and the FinTech sector is an existential crisis. How do you react to that kind of comment?
Leda: I’ve heard about the existential crisis before. I saw that report. And they were saying the FinTech sector is an existential crisis, then the FinTechs responded all over Twitter and LinkedIn, “You’re the one, an existential crisis”. And the reality is, no one is an existential crisis. This is a long game. It’s a long game. And in the last 15 years, everything is moving in the direction we said it would, but because it’s not moving as fast or as radically and because the startups that were around at the beginning are mostly not still around, therefore, the winners and the losers are not as black and white, people are feeling a little bit more relaxed than they should. But we said 10–15 years ago, the economics of banking are changing, the significance of technology is changing, the world will be more connected, service orchestration will be the name of the game, unit economics will change. All of that is happening. It’s just happening slowly, as you should expect, and therefore, I don’t understand people who are trying to find comfort in these radical revelatory moments of, “We fixed it” or “This was wrong” or “This is right, and that is wrong”. It doesn’t go that way. There is a direction of travel and we’ve been very much moving in that direction for 15 years. Certain events accelerate certain parts of the journey — regulatory moves, certain mergers, the rise of the Chinese giants, COVID. But it’s not a pivotal moment after which everything is different.
[00:40:10.02] Ben: What about payments? Do you think the impacts on payments from open banking has been more transformational?
Leda: I mean, my answer when it comes to open banking is, it is what it is, right? There’s no change. Payments are in an area that has had a lot of focus and has had a lot of innovation over the last 10 years. It hasn’t been transformative, because the monetization relationships are similar. But we’ve seen incredible speed in payments, particularly cross-border. So, payments, I would say, is a place where we’ve had so much innovation and creativity, that unless the rest of the banking infrastructure starts catching up in terms of the build of the systems that can support, there’s only so much more that we can see in payments, because there’s a little bit of saturation.
[00:41:00.10] Ben: I want to go back to something you said earlier on. If we think about this, there’s typically been a few approaches to technology transformation. One is the Big Bang approach, which I think is becoming increasingly less viable or palatable. And then you’ve got this progressive…
Leda: People lose their jobs when they do that, right?
Ben: Yeah. I mean, I just think it’s just, the time to value is too long, the risk to value is too high. And so, we’ve seen people moving to more progressive renovation type renewal strategies, and then also, as you said — I think you used the term ‘greenfield captives’ — but this idea of building a new digital bank, and then trying to migrate customers and books of business to that new bank. So, first of all, I’m sort of inferring you’re a bit of a skeptic when it comes to this build and migrate strategy. So is progressive renovation the right approach to technology transformation, or do you see another option?
Leda: There are many options, right? One is Big Bang, the other is refurbish as you go, and the third is build and migrate. We have not seen the migrate part happen yet. Some of the greenfield builds have failed to provide the skills. So, First Direct is a good example, right? Everyone who uses First Direct loves it. Why am I still on the old HSBC systems? I don’t know. But they haven’t migrated. Now, I would suggest that it’s too late now because even though First Direct customers are very happy, the technology is almost 20 years old now. But even with a successful challenger, no migration took place. Then, you have situations like RBS’s Bo where, for whatever reason, they pulled the plug on the effort. Now, a lot has been said, and a lot of criticism has been piled on top of RBS for killing Bo. I actually think that I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of it, but I think if you think something isn’t working, having the courage to say, “Pivot, move” is actually brilliant, is what we should be doing as well. That’s what we said our innovation departments were for. And the fact that quite a lot of the technology is being redeployed elsewhere shows that the experiment was not a failure. But the whole idea of build something at arm’s length and migrate didn’t work there.
Leda: There’s currently Mox in Southeast Asia, which looks to be an immense success — they’re onboarding a new customer every minute. Will Standard Chartered migrate customers on to there? No idea — remains to be seen. So, the build and migrate thing is brilliant as an idea and lower risk. It’s just that the migrate thing never seems to happen. The Big Bang approach doesn’t work, and we’ve seen a lot of very good CTOs stop being very good CTOs — in fact stopping CTOs at all. It’s the fastest way to end your career, right? So what are you left with? You’re left with slow refurbishment. And the thing about slow refurbishment is that it has two massive challenges. One is, it’s a long game, and people lose momentum and focus. It’s a long game. Like, if you start doing that, it’s going to take 10–15 years. And in year three people start going, “Are we still doing this?” And the answer is “Yep. And we’ll be doing it for quite a lot longer.” So people start losing focus, it stops feeling like a top priority, it feels like an endless log in a bottomless pit. The second challenge is that you can’t change — and we touched on it earlier — you can’t change systems without changing the supporting economics and surrounding governance. Which means that if you’re doing the slow refurb process, you’re going to have a schizophrenic organization for quite a long time, where part of your organization will have a different governance model and a different pricing model and that creates immense tensions, both in terms of the operating model viability, but also in terms of humans. Imagine a team that sits in the same office opposite to each other, half of them have transitioned to a new system with new governance with real-time approvals from risk and compliance and a different pricing model. And the guy sitting opposite you has to go to the risk committee. And if they miss their slot, they have to wait for three months. But that’s the reality: if you’re doing a slow migration, you have to change the system, the pricing, and the governance for each part of the bank, and then move on to the next one. And it’s not just the cost of running two parallel infrastructures until you can migrate and switch off. It’s the fact that you’re gonna have to be running two different organizations, from a governance and pricing, etc. perspective.
[00:45:26.24] Ben: One idea that I hear more often is, you know, as you said, I don’t believe there is a silver bullet — but this idea that maybe you can put some sort of orchestration platform in between channels and record-keeping, which enables you to deliver better customer experiences, and sort of buys you time to replace those record-keeping systems, which is where the real complexity and the real legacy lies. So, how do you react to that idea of introducing a new orchestration layer?
Leda: Bring it! Great! But you still need to fix the human governance, which seems to fall off everyone to lift.
[00:46:10.21] Ben: And do you think it’s issues of governance that are ultimately the reason why these greenfield captives don’t become the bank at large?
Leda: That’s a very, very good question, and ‘I am not sure’ is the answer. I would suspect the answer will be different in every captive. And it would depend a lot on whether the captive is expected to run on the existing bank infrastructure — in which case, it’s not just the governance, it’s also the infrastructure — or whether you have your own board and you’re essentially not just a separate entity name, but you’re genuinely a separate entity, in which case your decisions can be different. I think it varies. It could be lack of conviction, it could be the fact that nobody has successfully done it yet. It could be a case of, when is it big enough? Or when do you know? So, Mox is very young, so it’s easy to pick them as an example — Mox is succeeding by every metric right now, but it’s extremely early. Assuming that the plan is if Mox succeeds — and I hope they will, and I think they will — if the plan is, well, we expect that some of the traditional bank customers will choose to go to Mox, great! But if the plan is, we will migrate the customers when Mox has achieved size and scale, I bet you that nobody has specified exact numbers for that. It is so far into the future. But then it becomes a question of, okay, what is big enough? How long do you wait?
[00:47:37.16] Ben: And it’s not obvious that all customers will want that kind of service. And it’s not also obvious, to me, at least, that the regulator will allow it, because what happens to rural areas? What happens to non-digital customers?
Leda: The answer to that will be many-fold. I haven’t seen a regulator yet force banks to have branches. So, that could be a very interesting legal case that says, “If you allow Revolut, and Monzo, and Starling to have a banking charter without the responsibility to maintain branches, why are you putting the onus on me?” It’d be extremely difficult to have rules for one and not for the other, right? So, there is currently no obligation to serve the rural areas, there’s currently no obligation to have branches, there’s currently no obligation to serve the elderly. So you could see challengers that emerge that cater to those communities or you could find that actually, the way things go, they become even further underserved and marginalized. But with no obligation to retain a physical presence and the mounting cost of retaining a physical presence, I am not sure that the considerations you raised would carry the day — valid as they are.
[00:48:52.22] Ben: I guess there’s another reason to move fast, otherwise, you’re left with this sort of rump of hearts of expensive-to-serve customers. And I think it also maybe depends on something you said at the start, which is, whether this ultimately becomes some sort of public service utility, in which case, maybe there does become requirements about serving rural customers and things like that. A slightly different topic. So, I think we’ve been through the hype cycle with everything to do with cryptocurrencies, and digital assets, but it feels like we might be back into some sort of slope of enlightenment. What do you see is the role of digital assets in banking?
Leda: There are three different pieces there, right? And when this whole thing started, we couldn’t imagine them separate to each other. One is digital assets, the second is crypto assets, and the third is distributed architectures. I would say that distributed architectures and what we understood as smart contracts were a revelation, it blew our mind. But there are now ways of doing them that are much kinder to the environment than a traditional blockchain. There are ways of having a distributed architecture that isn’t DLT. There are reasons why you might still choose DLT, but you can have a distributed architecture in immutable records without DLT. So you would need some good reasons to have DLT that would go beyond those basic functionalities that, for a time, we couldn’t fathom outside DLT, but now we can.
Leda: The second thing is digital assets. And I think we were going in that direction anyway but the advent of blockchain and other digital assets forced us to create security of holding and transacting in assets that don’t even have any magic, physical representation. Because we have been dealing in digital assets and digital ledgers for a long time, but the assumption was that there was capital adequacy, that if I make a transfer to you, if the bank has that physical cash or that physical gold somewhere in its coffers, that doesn’t exist anymore. So the transition to regulating and understanding digital assets and creating a certain degree of complexity is there and is now also decoupled from crypto cash and crypto-assets. Which means that crypto has become its own segment, where part of what you’re doing is creating the distributed architecture and crypto and digital assets with the added layer of not having that provenance and ownership — essentially becoming a bearer asset, like money would be in the physical world, but in the digital space. And I think it’s not a space I personally have a massive interest in anymore. That’s not that I don’t find it interesting, is that there are only so many hours in the day. But I do find that for the industry, decoupling those three things has been helpful because then you can have the benefits of the architecture and the benefits with digital asset without getting into the moral and regulatory conversations around the crypto side, unless it’s absolutely what you were trying to achieve.
[00:51:59.13] Ben: Yep. Okay, last question. So, we’ve got this far and we haven’t talked about the technology giants — Google or Apple — moving into banking and finance. What’s the role of those mainly American and Chinese technology giants in banking in Europe?
Leda: I would say that the Chinese giants and the American giants represent a very different type of challenge because the Chinese giants have a very well-developed financial proposition. It’s not just payments, it’s investments — if you look at the two big Chinese entities, they started with payment, sure, but that’s not where they stopped. So, I would say that them coming into Europe presents a very interesting challenge because they’ve worked out how to become financial services provision players and they don’t need to build scale in Europe to become profitable, because they can leverage their scale in Asia. They already have scale. What will be interesting is how the regulator will treat their entry point, whether they will expect a lot of infrastructure separation — in which case they would need to rebuild their support, and their infrastructure in Europe in order to have that scale — or whether they would allow them to cross leverage. But I think it’s a very interesting thing with the Chinese giants in particular, that their regulatory framework has very much allowed those entities to grow because of how the regulatory framework is in China. You don’t have anything of that size in Europe, and that’s not an accident. That’s partly because the regulator is pointing growth in a different direction. From a US perspective, the giants that are being looked at as potentially entering our space are only dabbling in payments. So, they’re looking at extending whatever it is they’re currently doing into the next step, as we were talking about — the embedded infrastructure makes it natural for these entities to offer payment services, and facilitate some of those. There is no indication that the deeper credit lending and investment pieces are being addressed. The only pieces we’ve seen have been through partnership — you know, that short-lived partnership between Amazon and Wells Fargo and then more successful, but equally limited for now partnership between Goldman Sachs and Apple. We’re not seeing an appetite for those guys to become regulated financial services providers the way that Alibaba and Tencent have.
[00:54:33.01] Ben: Where do you think the bigger challenge comes from?
Leda: If you’re talking about the biggest challenge to profitability for banks in Europe, actually, I think it comes from the regulator, who’s increasingly demanding unbundling and transparency and simplicity and pushing for technology transformation without allowing the banks to pass that cost on to their customers. The business models that both of those two geographic units of giants represent would have to be tweaked a little as they enter Europe, but from a bank, multiple payment providers that sit on top of their infrastructure doesn’t provide an existential threat. Neither does a Chinese tourist making all payments through WeChat. It’s what happens about pushing them up and down the value chain, and how they monetize the place where they land, which is why I find the model that Standard Chartered is doing very interesting, because they’ve had to deal with those Chinese giants and have taken, to me, the logical path of, there are certain battles that are not worth fighting, because we weren’t winning them before these guys appeared. Therefore, let’s focus on the things that we’re still needed for, that we do well, that we have scale for, and then we can even still partner with those guys and give them depth where they don’t need to build infrastructure. Because one of the things that both the Chinese and American giants have in common is the fact that they are clear as to what it is they’re for. And what it is they’re for may be multifaceted, because they have many different business lines under their umbrella, but they’re clear as to their purpose, and they don’t carry unnecessary infrastructure if it’s not aligned to their purpose. So I think it’s important for European entities to learn that lesson.
[00:56:18.08] Ben: If an incumbent is clear about what they stand for, and they align around that, and potentially also pursue some sort of ecosystem-based model, then there’s no reason why banks can’t surf this wave of digitization and emerge on the other side with happy customers and profits.
Leda: I mean, I am not going to foretell such a happy ending for anyone because they’re potentially too many banks, and what passes as profitability for the average bank is possibly not to be seen again in the market. But I would say that anyone who refuses to do that will definitely not have a seat at the table. Consumers — and I don’t just mean retail consumers, I mean, customers across all value chains — and regulators are much more demanding, and rightly so, in terms of service provision, focus, transparency, and pricing. And therefore, unless you really know what it is you provide, what it is you’re for, you can become overwhelmed by options. Think about it, you can revamp your lending infrastructure in 10 different ways. If you can’t decide whether lending is important to you, how will you know what the best way of revamping is?
Ben: Thank you very much, indeed, for your time. That was great.
Leda: Absolute pleasure. Thank you so much!