Thursday, October 24, 2013

Unprofitable dinner

After the usual tedious journey to Riga, I attended the kind of dinner that wealth managers inflict on their customers. I happen to have a long history with these particular wealth managers, so received an invitation- probably to make up the numbers, since we have not transacted any business.

If I sound a little jaded, well, perhaps I am- the speaker was interesting in himself, but the topic- trying to institutionalize entrepreneurship- was not really what the first- really only- generation of Baltic millionaires is yet ready for. It was, of course a plug for the services that this particular house provides, and frankly, given the pleasant venue and good wine, fair enough.  Yet as so often in the past I was struck by the way that the large investment houses have a tin ear for the process of innovation and change that is hitting financial businesses around the world. 

They seek to trade on a brand which reflects "centuries of tradition and continuity", yet this particular house, while maintaining the same name, has been through at least four separate mergers and de-mergers- all of them value destroying- in the course of the last fifteen years. The fundamental brand equity, when you come down to it, is a big fat zero. There is little fundamental difference between this house and some no-name spivs also out there in the market. The DNA of the institution was long ago compromised, and the decades-long careers of the people I used to know has been replaced by a very much shorter-run attention span.

Neither truly based on traditions and long-term culture, nor particularly innovative, it is easy to see that this house has been the victim and not the moving force in the industry. Yet they will not change- they regard "Conservatism", in all meanings of the word, as the last best hope for retaining customer loyalty and with it their place in the market.

I think that this is wrong.

The storm of 2008 will be repeated, and possibly quite soon. This time, the power of disruptive technology will circumvent the outmoded business models of classical banking. Disruptive dis-intermediation, whether from Transferwise or peer-to-peer businesses, is already active in the financial market place. The classical investment houses are relying on the accumulated capital of decades to be able to buy- or break- this new competition. 

Except, there isn't any. The broken brands and wasted value involved in the consolidation of the banks leading up to the crisis has left the banks rather short- and what nimble entrepreneur would want to enter into the corporate embrace of decayed, hierarchical systems in any event?

So the lesson of a good dinner was that what the banks offer has changed very little, but the world has changed a lot and is about to change a lot more. 

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