Thursday, August 11, 2011

What Will Tomorrow Bring: Financial Utilities

The story of the financial industry is a breathless one. With all that money sloshing around, smart people know that there is profit to be made. Unfortunately, due to that same money (=liquidity) and profit potential, financial products and services get commoditized very quickly. Competitive advantage is fleeting. It's textbook hyper-competition. Constant, hostile, explosive innovation is necessary to survive.

Unfortunately, that also leads smart, sensible people to do horrifically stupid, risky, nonsensical things which relieve immediate (financial or political) pressures but which have been entirely "un-thunk" in terms of their end-state consequences.

Hyper-competition also intrinsically conflicts with hyper-regulation.

Last year I predicted that the weight of new regulations (written and unwritten), political instability, and economic realities would force financial institutions to give up their for-profit status to become utilities:

Financial Institutions will once again be lobotomized. Divided into two classes:
- Utilities (aka retail banking)
- Casinos (aka everything else)

"Utilities" are done for as a for-profit enterprise. Just like Amtrack and Con Ed, they will require permanent and heavy subsidy verging on nationalization to survive the tonnage of regulations which will be piled on.
Evidence continues to pour in to support this including:
  • More than 8,000 entries in the OCC's list of sanctions here. They are just one of a half-dozen governmental agencies which take enforcement actions against banks
  • 111 bank collapses in the past 12 months per the FDIC's Bank Failure website. Twenty-six banks collapsed between 2000 and the end of 2007
  • Voluntary closure of a regional bank this week "in an extreme example of the frustration felt by many bankers as regulators toughen their oversight of the nation's financial institutions"
  • According to a Marakon report (source of the chart above), "only four US banks, or 10% of banking equity capital, are expected to generate returns above the cost of equity; a staggering 90% of banking capital is not performing"
But you ain't seen nothing yet. The above are mostly smaller institutions. The financial titans (Titanics?) are better at fighting and delaying, but trust me they are also bending under the weight. Their stock prices are beginning to reflect it.

UCSD professor Frank Partnoy yesterday published his opinion in the Financial Times with a piece titled "The coming world of smaller banks." He highlights not only the unavoidable reductions in share prices and headcounts, but more damningly, the unavoidable extinction (or drastic evolution) of the standard banking business model:
If all of the world’s major banks had failed during 2007-08, and regulators had permitted Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft to take over the economy’s capital allocation function, how would employment numbers have changed? Surely any neo-bank would hire smart lenders, traders, analysts and advisers, the people who have the strongest relationships with, and knowledge of, the institutions that demand or supply capital. But would they have hired all of them? Half? How many people would a new bank really need? Hedge funds take on traditional bank functions with a fraction of the employees.
He concludes:
[Banks] will occupy a smaller place in the economy and they will be less profitable. In a decade, there will be fewer professionals working on Wall Street than there are today.
If I map his comments onto my own, it becomes clear where the job losses will be. The "Financial Utilities" will be characterized by a low-skill, low-innovation, low-margin, high-volume business model. Since capital and information are almost entirely digital these days, there is nary a barrier to massive automation. The remaining jobs will be the folks keeping the computers humming and the 'relationship' people in high-touch areas like customer complaints and regulatory relations.

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