Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

Fintech and Banks: How Can the Banking Industry Respond to the Threat of Disruption?

Submitted by Michelle Young at Toptal

Authored by Alex Graham, Finance Expert for Toptal

Edited by Lynn Patra

Executive Summary

Fintech 1.0 needs fintech 2.0 to arrive.
How have banks reacted to fintech?
There are four areas in which the financial industry can focus to improve their response to fintech.
What will the bank of the future be?

Banks Can Play the Fintech Game Too

Fintech, shortened from financial technology, is assumed to be a modern movement. Yet the use of technology to assist financial services is by no means a new phenomenon. Financial services is an industry that introduced credit cards in the 1950s, internet banking in the 1990s and, since the turn of the millennium, contactless payment technology. Yet, fintech’s place in the public conscience has really taken off in the past three years:

Chart 1: Google Trends "Interest over Time" Results for the Search String "Fintech"

The takeoff of this term has come from startups—actors not within the inner circle of financial services, taking a more prominent role within the ecosystem. Three core trends have led to this movement emerging:

  • Technology: Financial services traditionally was an industry that required fixed assets (for example, branches) to scale, acting as a barrier to entry to newcomers. Technological advancements now allow upstarts to run complex operations virtually. For example, neobanks operate purely on technological infrastructure. UK-based Monzo has amassed 240,000 active customers without any kind of live customer-facing function.
  • Customers: In the aftermath of the Financial Crisis of 2008 and various scandals, customers are demanding more from their services. Technology is empowering consumers to scrutinize their providers more heavily and upstarts are harnessing it to provide cleaner and more effective customer service, free from the shackles of legacy technology.
  • Regulation: Increased regulatory scrutiny on banks since the Financial Crisis is estimated to cost the six largest US banks ~$70 billion per year. Citigroup alone employs 30,000 within its compliance division. Aside from complying with the regulatory oversight, restrictions on lending have both increased interest rates and reduced banks’ ability to offer the service. This has allowed startups who, because they are not de facto banks (and thus under less scrutiny), step in and offer competing services.

The narrative that the fintech landscape suggests is that startups are using technology to disrupt incumbent banks. Yet, there is no reason to suggest that banks are facing their own Kodak or Blockbuster Video moment. They still remain widely used, profitable, and cash-rich businesses. What this article addresses, though, is how they can respond better to the “fintech vs banks” movement as, in my opinion, their response so far has not been optimal.

Fintech 2.0

So far, fintech startups have not looked at the widespread disruption of all financial services. McKinsey analysis of a sample of startup data shows that 62% of startups are tackling the retail banking segment, with only 11% focused on large corporate banking offerings. Payments is the most popular area to usurp and lending is the most lucrative area of banking by revenue being targeted:

Figure 1: Product and Customer Focus for a Sample of 350 Fintech Startups

The current response by banks to fintech disruption is critical due to the current stage of the nascent industry’s development. Fintech startups are focused on unbundling banks, offering one type of product/service within a bank’s offering and concentrating on doing it very well.

Innovation thus far has been largely driven on the front-end within these specialized offerings, mainly through improving customer-facing facets of financial services. Some examples of how this is being done are:

  • Better service: A traditional bank largely ties a customer in by providing a range of services that are “sticky” through increased switching costs. Without this luxury, specialized fintech companies follow a mantra of earning trust through better customer service and referral-based client acquisition.
  • Better branding: With employees from non-traditional banking backgrounds adding an unbiased perspective to the service, the fintech industry is refreshing the branding of the legacy services that it is trying to upend. Modern marketing tools like gamification are making mundane activities like budgeting appear exciting and compelling to consumers.
  • Cheaper prices: Having a leaner virtual operation, more flexibility through not being regulated as a deposit-gathering institution, and cash from venture capital allows fintech startups to attract customers with competitive pricing.

Bringing in new customers will allow a fintech firm to validate its product, receive feedback, and buy time in lieu of the second paradigm: improving the back-end of financial services. The back-end of finance, the “rails” of the industry, consists of the established infrastructure that banks use to interact and transact with each other, such as clearing (NSCC), payment (ACH), and messaging (SWIFT) systems. Widespread movements to disrupt these norms have not emerged, although the potential of new technological applications such as blockchain technology within these areas is enormous. A significant event did occur here in 2017, when ClearBank became the first new clearing bank to open in the UK in 250 years. This will give it license to build and offer new, modern rails solutions to stakeholders of the financial services world.

Behind the better customer service and beautiful apps, the back-end of a fintech startup largely follows the same processes of a bank. When you make a payment through Venmo, get a loan through SoFi, or invest in Betterment, you are not going through a “new” financial system. These firms rent and utilize the same legacy infrastructure that banks use. They work wonders to make the system appear better to consumers, papering over cracks and paradigms, sometimes with audacious claims like Transferwise’s peer-to-peer FX model—an almost impossible feat to really achieve in the mismatched world of cross-border payments. Startups’ front-end driven business model presents two existential threats to its fintech ecosystem:

  1. Their costs to use the rails will always be higher than the incumbents, as they are renting the service.
  2. Their lights can be turned off at a whim as they are a conduit middleman in the service.

For that, until fintech can move to fintech 2.0 and create its own rails, it will have a huge strategic risk and banks will have time to respond. To ascend within the financial services industry, fintech startups will need to forge a new technologically-led back-end for the industry. Finding harmony between their tech-led front-end and process-led back-end, designed in a different generation, will ultimately result in sustained margin compression and high operational risks.

Creating new banking back-end processes will be difficult due to format adoption consensus topics that will arise (think Blu-ray and HD-DVD) and involvement that regulators will play. But reaching this and having a seat at the table will at least allow startups to operate on a level playing field and mitigate the existential threats that hang over them. Until that point, they will remain on the fringe, merely papering over the cracks of a creaking financial services system.

In light of the current situation of fintech businesses, I will now switch the attention to banks and how they can better respond to fintech technology. Their responses have erred more towards Kodak than Koninklijke Philips, which sold its music business in the 1990s in anticipation of the MP3 revolution.

1. Fight or Flight

Figure 2 below shows a framework by MIT Sloan that categorizes responses to disruptive innovation, two factors affect the incumbent’s response, motivation, and ability:

figure 2: MIT Sloan Disruptive technology Response Matrix

Based on current actions, banks sit in the top left quadrant. They have displayed low motivation despite their high ability to respond to fintech. They have the wealth and staff numbers to tackle the disruptive potential of fintech startups, but their responses have been either dismissive or lazy. Regarding the former, not a week goes by without a financial services chief scoffing at Bitcoin or robo investing. In terms of being lazy, banks have mostly engaged with fintech through passive accelerators or direct equity investing which, in its purity, is a form of outsourced innovation.

In my view, if a bank really wants to respond to the fintech movement constructively, they need to increase their motivation and either fight or flight.


By fight, I am referring to ripping up the norms of the industry and trying something completely different. The rails of banking are old and confusing; manual and institutionalized processes that were built up in the pre-internet age have formed around them and become the status quo. These have increased the prices and bureaucracy that consumers face. Even in 2017, only 7% of credit products in banks can be handled digitally from end to end.

One advantage that banks hold over fintech startups is that they know the keys to these rails through historical knowledge of their processes. Improving them will provide banks with efficiency gains that can be passed through to consumers through better pricing. A better service will also win transaction rents from fintech startups, who will use the service. Considering that upstarts are following a mentality of “unbundling” the bank, it’s reasonable to suggest that they would be content to rent a newer form of infrastructure, so long as it’s malleable, fast, and provides good value.

With their vast financial resources and technological prowess, this is achievable for banks. Although it’s a risky move, firstly for the cost and secondly for the “prisoner’s dilemma” aspect of going against peers and trying something different, banks could reach a point where they can compete on a price and customer experience basis with startups. If they do not participate in this change, someone else will and the industry will eventually move to new rails.


Before they went full-service and became conglomerates with investment, commercial and retail banks were good at what they did. Sound credit practices grew from branch managers granting mortgages to local customers that they knew and saw regularly.

A contrarian response to fintech, but one worth consideration, is that banks acknowledge the inevitability of the unbundling of financial services and retreat back to their roots—using their infrastructure to be “enablers” of financial services, such as custodians for deposits, and also applying their scale to revert to the form of human interaction in financial services which is being shunned by fintech. One example of this focus is Metro Bank, a new UK bank that opened in 2010 with a simple portfolio of services and the first new bank in 100 years to offer branch infrastructure. At the time of writing, it had already IPO’ed and had opened 41 branches.

Retreating from the empire-building mantra of conglomerate banking is a hard pill to swallow. If the unbundling of financial services does succeed, conglomerates will represent a bloated stakeholder in the system. Spinning off consumer banks and the return of investment bankers back to the boutique model will allow each the time to focus on what they do best and survive through specialization.

2. Stop the Theatre: Don’t Invest in Fintech Startups

Earlier, I referred to the outsourced innovation aspect of financial services’ current response to fintech; 63% of them have set up accelerators or startup venture funds. US banks alone have invested a staggering $3.6 billion in 56 different fintech startups. Conversely, only 7% of banks have done the hardest job of setting up their own fintech R&D offshoot to create proprietary solutions:

Chart 2: How Banks Are Currently Responding to the Fintech Movement, and Table 1: Fintech Startup Investments by Sector for US Banks

Some could call investing in the enemy a Machiavellian touch of genius, but it could also be called desperate. For all the wealth and resources that banks have, to be relying on fledgling startups to drive the innovation of their industry strikes me as misguided. Likewise, accelerators are easy to set up but, as data shows, have varying degrees of success. Despite the PR karma and confirmation bias of “being involved” through running a fintech accelerator, operating it with an internally-lead syllabus could skew the insight the startups receive, compared to an independent program.

The end-game of banks investing in startups is also confusing. If it comes out well, there will be a one-off financial windfall, but presumably one would also infer that the disruption faced by the bank has now scaled. Acquiring the invested companies also results in integration difficulties and the zero-sum game of cannibalizing existing offerings via the startups’ own. The incentive to be involved and keep a finger on the pulse also runs the gambit of alienating other investors and distracting the founders’ unfettered direction.

To me, this is all kicking the can down the road, and banks need to do some heavy lifting themselves by innovating internally. They should stop depriving internal resources of this capital and start upshot fintech ventures, labs completely separate from their main operation. This could be in the form of spun off independent groups, capitalized with equity and with no internal transfer pricing or involvement from the parent, staffed either with capable internal staff or external hires who receive founding stock for their involvement and commitment. As the only shareholder, the banks will have control through the board, which can correctly steer the company through independent directors and the “founding” team’s motivation.

3. Change the Cost Culture of Cross-Subsidization

A focal moment in banking is the yearly budgeting process, in terms of defining revenue targets and, equally, costs that will be apportioned to divisions. Everything from rent to the flowers in reception needs to be shared out. While egalitarian cost accounting methods bring transparency to this process, continually rising costs place more pressure on short-term goals of reaching yearly targets at the expense of long-term planning. Cost increases arrive all the time—Brexit alone is estimated to increase bank costs by 4%.

Cross-subsidization is evident in products too, whereby some products have a higher return on investment than others for strategic reasons. There is a reason why student bank accounts come with large overdrafts and free concert tickets—it’s because banks want to attract new customers who, ten years down the line, will be purchasing houses with lucrative long-term mortgages.

Banks operate in vertical silos wherein each team performs specific functions and, if a deal requires multiple services, multiple teams are involved. Because each team has its own cost structures and profit targets, they each require their “piece of the pie” in deals. A 2017 leak received by the Guardian of a Banco Santander report demonstrates this for the process of money transfer, where three of its teams combined to earn €585 million in annual revenue from the service. When compared to the transparent and cheaper fees from Transferwise, it shows a stark contrast:

Chart 3: Leaked Banco Santander Data Showing Its Money Transfer Fees Versus Fintech Equivalents

For large banking operations, you would expect economies of scale to kick in and synergies to coexist between teams, I would argue that this is not the case. The nuanced nature of banking means that uniform rollouts of bank-wide programs, such as the use of specific software, or even graduate training programs that take a “one size fits all” approach, may not be suitable for teams in their specific needs. Likewise, the siloed nature of budgets and targets means that synergies that sound good on paper often don’t transpire within day-to-day operations.

Resolving this issue is complex but critical towards empowering bank teams to think with a long-term mentality, a luxury provided to fintech startups via their venture financing. Because banking teams have one-year budgets with high-cost hurdles, they are often fighting fires to reach the targets and any longer-term planning is a secondary concern.

To rectify this, banks must look at their budgeting and cost-sharing process and take a more ruthless approach over an egalitarian one. True core functions, such as treasury, must remain shared by all teams, but other central functions should be opt-in/out as to whether specific revenue-generating teams cover a share of their costs. Instead of pro-rata sharing of costs based on a share of notional traded or headcount, costs should also be allocated taking into account the effort and complexity required for certain activities. Zero-based budgeting would also prevent cost-creep and wastage from the age-old process of superfluous spending in the final months of the year to ensure that budgets aren’t reduced.

Longer term budgeting would also reward teams for sustained growth and innovation, and should be encouraged though allowing teams to allocate their own funding to R&D fintech initiatives.

4. Align Compensation to Important Emerging Skill Areas

In 2007, almost 40% of MBA graduates from top US schools were entering the finance industry. These numbers have now shrunk to below 30% and the tech industry is poised to usurp it as the most popular sectoral choice. Various banking scandals have contributed to banks losing their veneer and, despite still being a very well-paid industry, some of the larger technology companies now pay higher to graduates:

Chart 4: First-year Engineering/Management Graduate Salaries for Tech Firms Outstrip Financial Services

Stock options are regularly offered within banking compensation, but it can be argued that stock options in the tech industry offer greater potential upside. For example, Facebook has a price-earnings ratio of 38.24, three times higher than that of Goldman Sachs.

Targeted wage increases and a more compelling bonus plan could quickly rectify this. In addition, decentralized teams and longer-term budgeting may help to stem the qualitative reasons for talented staff leaving for the intellectual challenge of a tech company.

Away from headline figures of graduates and star traders, banks also need to look at how the importance of certain staff roles has shifted inside the current environment. As mentioned, technology has always played a key role in banking and banks have very competent resources in this regard. Yet, in a tech company, coding and development skills are lauded and staff with these roles play pivotal parts in the business design. Banks, on the other hand, often see technology as a horizontal operation, there to support all teams agnostically. These teams also tend to not have physical proximity with revenue generating functions, seen from the popularity of hubs in offshore locations such as Budapest or Bangalore.

To better foster innovation, revenue generating teams should integrate critical support functions into their front-office operation. Core banking is essentially a commodity service; what separates the wheat from the chaff is the strength of qualitative aspects (deal-making ability, reputation, and connections) and technology (speed of execution, software employed, and settlement reliability). Rewarding those who assist the latter with more variable compensation tied to team performance will incentivize those employees to devise innovative changes and also increase retention in banking.

The Future of Banking?

The movement of unbundling the bank, which follows the ethos of using division of labor to specialize in doing certain tasks well, is a lesson for the future for incumbent banks. Full-service banks are siloed machines that function within performing set tasks within divided units. Over the years, these have added up to be both rigid and expensive to the end user, which has inspired the fintech revolution to innovate around creating solutions to needs. PWC illustrates the mentality change needed by banks well through the following infographic:

Figure 3: PWC Representation of the Future Operational Structure of a Bank

In my opinion, two types of large banks will exist in the future: One will be simple but effective traditional banking units that provide consumers and business with vanilla services for spending and borrowing/lending. The second will come in the form of a holding company that controls investments in a number of independent firms offering the unbundled variants of banking that fintech is espousing.

As a holding company, these investments within each entity will be as going concerns, with no terminal pressure to exit. This kind of liberation will allow each unit under the umbrella to operate freely within its own cost, technological, and cultural constraints. For the owners of the holding company, they will retain the exposure to a “banking conglomerate” but in a far different manifestation and coexistence of fintech and banks to what we see in current times.


What do you mean by financial services?

The financial services industry plays an intermediary role in the the world economy, helping consumers, corporates, and governments transact. A broad range of businesses serve this sector, ranging from banks to credit card companies.

Originally written by  Alex Graham, Finance Expert for Toptal.


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