The Underappreciated Banking Conversation

canstockphoto12690159My good friend and fintech venture capitalist, Matteo Rizzi, wrote a zinger-of-a-blog-post today that criticizes the banking industry for blah, blah, blahing on about the same things at conference after conference, year after year. After year. Here’s how he put it:

The banking business is not only very boring, but the way we talk about it today is extremely boring, as well. I would love to make the following test: take any banking conference and a given topic, then pick five minutes of each year’s session or panel, and listen to it. Not only you would hardly understand which year the debate took place, but you probably could run the same “wording bingo” (not to call it bullshit) no matter who is talking. It is obviously not true for all topics, but I could name a few like Correspondent Banking, or SEPA in Europe (we talked at least 10 years about it) where if you take slides and years you could hardly tell the difference.

Fintech is no different from other industry where the disruption wave just started without causing any damages, yet. Therefore, the dialogue is very condescending among the bankers, very dynamic among the disruptors, and kind of political between the two worlds.

As someone who runs a banking conference, I took particular interest in Matteo’s comments. Invariably, he is right about a lot of what he wrote. But there are realities to the banking industry — and the business world, in general — that might explain why the public discourse is not as vibrant as he would like, and why perhaps we should appreciate even the relatively muted discourse we have today.

Banking is highly regulated space. And many banks are publicly traded, which means that such banks have double the regulations. While it is not impossible, it is certainly difficult to navigate these two regulatory frameworks to allow for freewheeling discourse. That is not to say we don’t have examples of executives from publicly traded banks that can add to the public dialogue (for the benefit of consumers). Wells Fargo & Co., US Bancorp, and Capital One Financial Corp. seem to allow for more intelligent, vibrant public discourse. JPMorgan Chase — not so much.

Now, before Matteo barks at me, I am not excusing banks’ performance. In the end, banks themselves suffer from their distance from the public forum. Time and again, I have seen examples of companies that have embraced the spotlight, CEOs who stand up in public and share their ideas, rather than just take, and those companies and CEOs find growth and success. I could name five such CEOs right now who are on that rise.

However, I think it is too easy to say banking is “very boring” and “the way we talk it today is extremely boring, as well.” I have had the fortune of viewing other industries from the same close vantage point as I see fintech, and, guess what, the way executives in those industries talk about their businesses and industry is extremely boring, as well. In fact, I would argue that the dialogue around financial services today is far, far more spirited than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Back then, you got nothing. Today at least the words “innovation” and “disruption” are sprinkled into the mix.

That’s why I prefer to appreciate whatever dialogue we have. You know, work can be a lonely chore. We toil day in day out, finding it difficult to grasp at a “vision” for growing our businesses or our futures. When industry comes together at an event, there is at least the communal sharing of that toil, and an effort to find a better tomorrow, for our companies, for ourselves, for our customers, for our world. Yes, Matteo, you are right — it is not nearly enough. But it is something, and we can be grateful for that.

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JJ is the Executive Editor & Publisher of Bank Innovation and CEO of Royal Media, its parent company. He has been writing about banking since 1993.

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