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Technology is Transforming Banking and Payments

With the recent Motorola/C-Sam mobile payments announcement followed by similar payments platform launches from PayPal, Black Lab Mobile Inc., Commerciant LP, Sify Ltd. in India, Q-Pass, and SVC Financial Services Inc., it’s obvious that mobile payments aren’t the mere pipedream they seemed to be last year.

What’s less obvious is the change about to befall the payments industry and, especially,  banks, that mobile payments embodies. To hear Ray Kurzweil tell it in his newest book, The Singularity is Near (Viking, 2005), the rate of such change in the next ten years will be exponential, and a line graph of it will be vertical. The change grows slowly and imperceptibly at first, he says, but when the pieces are all in place, its acceleration explodes.

This is important not just because the world we’ve lived in is about to more or less end, but because of the backdrop against which innovations like mobile payments will take place. The current crop of cell phone-based payments will preserve bank and card brands, but the second generation of mobile payments will be made with very small devices that will eliminate the possibility of displaying any sort of logo and, thus, branding. The third generation—taking place in hyperspace, for all we know—will follow in less than ten years, and make the second generation’s futuristic world seem quaint.

Technology has ceased being only a more efficient tool to accomplish traditional jobs; now, it’s changing the jobs themselves. The capabilities created by technology create the premise for ever-greater changes in what’s achievable, in turn raising expectations of what can be accomplished; meanwhile, the abilities of that transforming technology lay a foundation for even more change. Banking and payments is unlikely to escape this phenomenon, and in the approaching world, the past is a poor predictor for future performance.

Sound familiar? Sure. Consultants and other wise men have been intoning about this for 20 years, and financial professionals can be excused for being skeptical about this latest round of warnings that the sky is falling—especially since the sky’s still blue.

But technology has always been the instigator of change and not just its messenger. The telephone and private automobile turned concentrated cities with economic specialties into sprawling, economically-diversified megalopoli, eventually allowing people like this reporter to live in rural America and still make a living in the mass market (I was doing this before the Internet). The idea of just-in-time delivery didn’t just turn Indianapolis and Nashville into thriving metro areas because each is at a nexus of the Interstate Highway system. It made the idea of a national industrial base obsolete, which in turn paved the way for the minimization of the nation state.

That still-evolving transformation took two generations following World War II to become visible, even though the pieces were in place before World War I. But this next chapter will take much less time, and be more transformational: Scientists, for instance, have already created two different types of machine-based muscle tissue, paving the way for real androids right out of Bladerunner, while experiments leading to computer-enhanced humans—cyborgs—are underway today.

Finance cannot escape the revolution it helped create. Ten years ago, foreign-exchange trades were cleared over long time periods, all over the globe. Today, most are cleared outside Coventry, England, at the Continuous-Linked Settlements Bank. Credit derivatives, now a multi-trillion dollar market made possible by computers, barely existed ten years ago; today, the global hedging market is probably bigger than the equities market being hedged. And certainly Basle II compliance, which frees so much capital for business purposes from regulatory reserves, is built entirely on the idea that creating a computer-generated, intraday picture of institutional risks is achievable.

But in most cases, banks have been following change and trying to adapt it to their internal considerations. They have rarely embraced it. This may be rational and seems prudent—both virtues in a period of great change.

But as Harvard’s Clayton Christensen points out in his work, this is also what destroys institutions—even industries. Acting rationally and prudently, institutions focus on building on their core competencies, and serving their best customers: Little-regarded businesses pick up the unwanted crumbs, and sooner or later, the market for the big company’s products is hollowed out, and the disregarded company, now a dominating giant, is buying the former colossus.

That phenomenon is what created First Data Corp., and what today undermines the business case for credit cards. It’s also what underlays the idea of the so-called “cannibal” bank of the 1990s: An entirely new institution sponsored by a traditional bank that, using the latest technology, would create the next generation of banking and eventually “eat” the parent.

Jamie Dimon pretty much scuttled that latter idea when he shut down Wingspan Bank and took the reins of Bank One. The dot-com bust did the rest. But the dot-com bust didn’t bury technology or technological change—it just weeded out businesses whose primary asset was a preposterous story, and left the adults in charge. The Internet is still growing, and computers are faster, smaller, more common and more capable than ever.

It’s not impossible that the Wingspan idea was just a little early. Certainly banks, which rely more and more on payments—entirely a computer operation—can’t afford to minimize how computers are changing the nature of their business, just because their internal politics finds “Wingspan” to be a convenient buzzword for dismissing a threatening new idea.

Those discussions typically revolve around banks being either this, or that—fully automated, or merely assisted by useful tools. This premise is nonsense. The world banks and payments operations we live in today wasn’t created by Kierkegaard; it was created by people like Ray Kurzweil and Andy Grove. The Medici Bank closed a long time ago.

Mobile payments is the path to the next generation of retail payments, and even if they do threaten to minimize—or atomize—the idea of what a bank’s brand is worth, that’s no reason to avoid the reality that there’s plenty of money to be made in the future of payments, and that clinging to old forms is unlikely to prove a useful response to new facts.

In the American Civil War, infantry doctrine was still attached to ideas of how to overwhelm the enemy’s position, based on the idea that slow-loading muskets made it possible to march up to their line in formation, and give ‘em the bayonet. But new guns made mincemeat of that idea—and of the men who charged entrenched positions defended with those guns. There’s no reason for banks and their payments operations to suffer similar fates if they embrace change.