In a rapid succession in the space of two weeks, two major Australian banks raised a red warning flag signalling their deep concern of what could be their biggest existential threat. The threat comes from not from the Bank of America, or Citibank, HSBC or Bank of China, but from unexpected sources, in form of nimble technology companies from Silicon Valley.
Commonwealth Bank CEO Ian Narev expressed this view at the G100 Congress in Sydney in May this year.
The new competitors are “the Apples, the Googles, the Samsungs, the PayPals, the credit card companies, who can pick particular slivers as a result of the application of technology into financial services and compete. We need to be prepared for that.” he said.
Ian Narev alluded that regulations have to be adapted to reign in a new type of competition. The trouble with this competition is that there is no precedent. Disruptive innovators create solutions that address needs outside the boundaries of traditional models before invading the established markets threatening to displace the incumbents. What to do?
Take for instance the case of Dwolla. Founded by a 28yo young entrepreneur from Des Moines, Iowa, USA, Ben Milne, Dwolla is a 12-person startup that invented an online payment system that bypasses credit cards completely. This startup is onto something because large financial institutions are very interested in this idea. Venture capitalists are backing the company with money. Just last month Dwolla received $16.5m in funding, its biggest investment yet. It is hard to predict the impact of Dwolla and other similar innovators on the banking system in the near future if the momentum continues.
A couple of weeks ago, the ANZ chief executive Mike Smith described the technological innovation wave that is about to hit the financial industry as “terrifying”. Smith made this statement to the board based on information received following a study undertaken by the bank during a tour in California. “Much of it is being driven by small companies that are very active in payments but very well-funded, and they are moving very quickly.” It is interesting how quickly ANZ followed Commonwealth to look at what is happening in the Silicon Valley. Something must make them nervous.
Reputable banks have some of the deepest moats protecting their business from new competition, something that Warren Buffet always liked about banks. But rapid changes can ruin that assumption. The transformation will go beyond improvement of operations. It’s about service, it’s about having a different presence in the peoples’ lives, with new perceptions. If a “normal” bank is still something that brings to mind images of prestigious physical old buildings (you-come-to-us), the new banks need to become virtual, quick, creative and very social (we-come-to-you).
Will the disruptive innovation brought by super-smart technology companies become a systemic threat to the traditional banking system? Maybe not, not entirely that is. It is more likely that a wave of restructurings, consolidations, and small bankruptcies will re-shape this business. Banks that “read” the market signals will either buy some of the successful fresh innovators, or innovate themselves, or establish alliances to surf this new wave of opportunities and reap the benefits. Others that refuse to see the threat may well as disappear.
Today Moody downgraded Japan’s outlook from stable to negative. I am not sure how many in the market are shocked by this news. Not many, I suppose. An interview on Bloomberg with a journalist from Kuala Lumpur was not much concerned with the news “shock” factor. However, the journalist looked a bit worried and he particularly picked on the tone in the language Moody used to announce the downgrade. In his view the word “inexorable” stands out and that is a strong warning signal. Japan is moving towards a moment of reckoning with its huge debt.
The interesting part of the interview was about why Japan cannot fix this problem, at least in the current political climate. For one, Japan is ageing fast. Many politicians are old and they will never adopt measures to hurt themselves and the ones closed to them and force measures that are going to drastically change the system.
And this brings me to a point that I thought of yesterday whilst pondering about a recent report on Japanese students’ apathy towards international studies. Japan has one of the most inflexible immigration policies in the developed world. Combine this with the negative population growth and the huge debt and the unwillingness to reform the political system and you get a lethal recipe. Stagnation is the word that comes to mind.
Japan had a vibrant economy for many decades after the Second World War. Starting from a very low level Japan grew at rapid pace to become the second largest economy in the world and leaders in many top industries. The Japanese worked very hard and had a dedication to discipline. The school system was designed with ambition to become the best system in the world that produces students with superior results in all universally accepted indicators.
Preparing students for a successful life, which sometime ago was defined as lifetime employment at the best Japanese companies, was demanding big sacrifices from parents and children alike. Studying during extra curriculum activities became the norm. A TV documentary caused consternation a few years ago in Europe and US when it showed young children studying all day until 10pm struggling to cope in a very competitive and stressful environment.
The results were impressive from the business point of view. Students who survived the tough school environment and excelled in their field were selected to become the leaders of tomorrow. The Keiretsu system helped their members to make sure they prosper and their workers had secure jobs for life.
All went well until the real estate bubble burst. Coincidently, at that time the world has entered the era of the internet and started to learn how to use the newly invented world wide web. The crash hit hard Japan because it came at a moment of demographic stagnation and the emergence of a new type of economy facilitated by the use of Internet. In the following years the deflation kept eroding the national wealth. The Keiretsu culture and the stagnating population level ensured that the deflationary period was to be extended for many years.
After a period of fast growth and population going through a hard schooling system, with extended deflation, high debt and almost zero immigration, what would Japanese society do and feel like? It is a question leaning on the soft side, I know. However, I think is an important one. Deflation is difficult to fight. It is slow and it spreads through many aspects of society influencing its behaviour. The question is about the background of the overall mood of the society.
In the new internet based economy, the term is a bit passé, but nevertheless useful in this context, the creative turmoil of Silicon Valley has started a global transformation with broad impact. This is the antithesis of rigidity. Creative entrepreneurship does not bode well with rigid schooling system. Challenging the norm has become the new norm. This is difficult to imprint into the Japanese disciplined system. This adds an extra challenge to its political leaders.
Japan has an obsession with its long term security. As an island nation, security has been a priority for a long time. With a strong culture, Japan has never embraced immigration like other nations did. Knowing that the ageing will become a social issue in a few years time, Japan is investing a lot of resources into developing robots that can be used in the household for all sorts of chores. It is interesting how many of the demonstrations run the scenario of helping old people, including robots carrying in their arms pensioners who have a high degree of immobility. The robots seem to be a solution for an ageing population that will face loneliness and a large debt burden in the future.
I wonder if in the long term the conservative tendency will not lead to a new period of isolation similar to Sakoku, the foreign relations policy initiated by Tokugawa started in 1633. In a business sense this does not seem plausible because Japan has many global companies, among the best in the world. However, these companies invest increasingly more overseas, especially in the emerging economies where the workforce is dynamic, hungry and creative. This trend could accelerate the isolation and strengthen the preference for maintaining a stable but rigid environment characterised by risk aversion and consequently limiting opportunities for growth.