Stability, Meet Innovation

Think financial services and technology—the two industries have so much to do with each other, yet in some ways they couldn’t be further apart.

To see that strange level of symbiosis, you need look no further that the testimony offered by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, to a British parliamentary commission recently. In sum, Mr. Volcker is distinctly unimpressed by much of the “innovative financial engineering” found in capital markets these days. He believes that unless things change, financial institutions will commingle their accounts with the retail side of the business, and that will cause broad-scale problems.

Long lionized as an elder statesman of the industry, the former Fed chairman is widely credited with holding down inflation during his long tenure, and in that time earned praise (and some criticism for his regulatory stance) from both sides of the political aisle. Even in his ’80s, he led what was then called the Economic Recovery Advisory Board (now known as the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness). Most famously, he is the force behind the Volcker Rule, a section of broader regulation that restricts U.S. banks from making certain investments that don’t benefit their customers.

So why is someone so visionary opposed to “innovative financial engineering?” This is perhaps where the chasm between technology and financial services is widest.

Think about it: Every corner of the technology industry thrives on innovation, and it is always understood that there’s a price tag attached. The new inevitably replaces the old, whether it’s a smartphone upgrade or an entire platform shift. In fact, ‘old’ is a relative term, since there’s always a next big thing or a new/new thing just around the corner. And we all want it that way; this is an industry where ‘disruptive’ technologies get complimented and bankrolled.

It’s not that the issue of regulation doesn’t come up occasionally—the government has certainly kept Microsoft’s lawyers busy for a long time with antitrust concerns, among other examples—but by and large new companies emerge by dint of merit and proudly take on a leadership position. That’s how it was with Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple and many others. Even the industry’s brightest minds have no idea what the next name in that pantheon will be; but you can bet that whatever technologies it offers will be not just innovative but disruptive. They’ll prompt (even force) everyone else to change, and that’s a good thing.

The one constant in all this change is that somehow, while the new gadgets and capabilities are always better and faster, they’re also cheaper. New companies and new technologies—all innovative, many disruptive—emerging on a regular basis, radically enhancing the entire landscape while cutting costs: How many other industries can we say that about? Financial services?

Well, these upstart start-ups couldn’t exist without financing, as the fine folks on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, the Flatiron district in New York and other hubs of venture capital can attest. There’s also tremendous risk involved; for every one Facebook that generates billions and changes the world, there are many that go nowhere. But still, the stark difference is the way the two industries operate (and are judged)—innovation and disruption is great in one and perilous in the other.

While there’s plenty of action at lower levels, most of the names at the top of the financial services industry pyramid have remained unchanged for decades. The only changes come when some conglomerate merge, or venerable companies go under through too many bad investments. For the most part, what we see now is what we’ve seen for a long time.

Mr. Volcker surely has a point about innovative financial engineering gone bad, but are there alternatives? Will stability in the financial services industry always mean essentially the same set of companies making cautious moves, while the technology side exercises rampant creativity to shift the paradigm regularly? Or can each industry learn more from each other?

 

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