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Midyear Check-In: The State of Banking in 2021 & Predictions for 2022

Members of the Zafin leadership team shared their perspectives on the state of banking at the end of 2020. Now, at the midpoint of 2021, with the introduction of vaccines and more than a year of the Coronavirus behind us, our panel of experts reconvened to share insights on banking in 2021 and beyond.


Our Zafin expert contributors are: John Smith, EVP Ecosystem; Adnan Haider, Senior Vice President, Analytics; Hali Khan,

Senior Vice President & Managing Director EMEA; Gabriel Leiva von Bovet, EVP Sales and Venkataraman Balasubramanian (Bala), EVP and Chief Technology Officer.


Q: It’s been more than a year since the pandemic began. What unique challenges are banks sharing with you?


Smith: There are several themes to conversations. Cost-to- income ratios are significantly higher for many traditional banks, hampering their ability to invest in growth coming out of Covid.  The uncertainty around Covid recovery has meant more banks are optimizing what they have. For example, they are not radically transforming/replacing their core, but instead, looking to digitally transform and modernize their core using a mix of product, pricing, Know Your Customer (KYC), and origination offerings. Solutions must provide a return within a 6- to 12-month period to deliver quicker returns to cash and they are also being measured more on the agility and time- to-revenue features they can offer.


We are now in a world that is digital first, and banks are not very well equipped for a digital-first world.
-Adnan Haider, Senior Vice President, Analytics


Haider: When the pandemic started, it was about emergency response. We had to ensure people not digitally enrolled could enroll themselves and that the whole user experience became smooth and frictionless because there was a lot of demand. There were also infrastructure challenges because suddenly, traffic was spiking. The operating model was previously location-centric, and that also completely changed.  Many banks responded well and responded quickly.


What became apparent, however, is some of those changes are here to stay. Branches have opened, but behavior patterns have shifted because of the pandemic. We are now in a world that is digital first, and banks are not very well equipped for a digital-first world.


There’s been a lot of money poured into improving digital experiences by banks, but a lot of that is on the glass… what you see on the mobile banking application. Building differentiated experiences, in which banks provide products customers want and target them to segments, requires the bank to be reimagined from front to back.


Khan: It’s true, as Adnan says, that the current pandemic has significantly accelerated the movement towards digital banking. Although the Coronavirus is making the need for digital banking services more urgent, consumers’ growing preference for digitization is nothing new. Neither is their frustration with the broken digital journeys they frequently encounter when attempting to complete an online process. The rise of digital giants such as Amazon and Netflix have primed consumers to expect instant, satisfying and complete online interactions in all areas of their life, including banking. The global pandemic has just served to intensify and significantly accelerate people’s desire and need for digital services.


Another different but key challenge I see, varying on the scale of government assistance, is credit defaults could be much higher than those seen during the 2008 global financial crisis. Lower interest rates could prevail, potentially accelerating compressed net interest margins and significantly impacting a key revenue stream for banks. This would further tighten the screws on those already struggling.


Leiva von Bovet: What I see is in the last 6-8 months is the level of concern related to several areas has changed. Last year, many banks were concerned about the impact of the pandemic on capital conservation and overall health of the banking system. The ones I’ve talked to recently feel the system has shown resilience during the pandemic and that there will be minimal impact in capital ratios.


As Hali noted, the concern on credit risk remains pretty high, and banks continue to focus on accurately and proactively managing it. Some banks in Canada believe consumer credit trouble will increase in the second half of 2021 and remain high into 2022. Because of this, stricter policies remain in place, and an increased investment in analytics and data management has been observed.


Another interesting change is the attitude towards remote work.  Last year, many banks were proud about the very small productivity impact Covid had in the banking sector, but towards the end of 2020, the tone changed. Many banks started to realize that going back to the office, at least several days each week, was imperative to avoid a larger impact.  With the significant progress in vaccination, many US banks have very concrete plans. In some cases, back to office will be mandatory or strongly encouraged after Labor Day.


Bala: The pandemic has certainly changed how work gets done, and it has forced a rethink pertaining to location and technology. Embedded within this are the process aspects that also change and sometimes with greater urgency.


Q: What the top three “must-dos” for banks to survive and grow over the next 12 to 24 months?


Leiva von Bovet: I would actually summarize the three must-dos in two words: discipline and innovation. Banks need to continue focusing on capital preservation and credit risk management because economic rebound will take some time. New virus variants may also extend the pandemic impact.


Innovation is, of course, the nicer angle. Crisis has often driven creativity, both artistic and technological.


The pandemic forced people to shift rapidly to online banking, and even those who were using digital options before are now conducting a greater number of transactions online. Canadian banks are closing or repurposing branches. This trend is expected to continue, but with enhanced online capabilities like fully digital onboarding journeys for consumers and small business and remote advisory centers.


In parallel with improved systems for customer engagement, banks need to tackle the limitations imposed by their legacy systems of record. We are seeing some renewed interest in core replacement and, more often, acceleration of core modernization. Banks should implement strategies that provide tangible business results or quick wins early in the modernization program, and one such example is the externalization of product and pricing.


Bala: Exactly. The hybrid nature of work, which is also here to stay, forces digitalization to the forefront. Alongside this challenge comes the added burden of becoming highly relevant in the now-abstracted journeys customers take. In most instances, these two forces of digitalization and journey-enablement also create the need for modernization of the bank’s core systems to alleviate the technical debt that persists.


Khan: A new—and different—normal for financial services should compel banks to embrace continual reinvention of their business models and solutions. How banks manage costs, transform operations, and use technologies such as AI and cloud to impact innovation and the digital delivery of products and services are all in play. It’s critical that the banks revisit and closely look into these aspects. These factors could potentially be a matter of survival and separate the winners and losers.


Q: What key questions should bank senior leaders ask as they begin to accelerate digital transformation?


Bala: I recommend banks ask this question: ‘If we were starting from scratch, how would we construct our technical stack?” Our teams at Zafin know banks will have a different starting point from that ideal answer, but this question helps uncover their desired end state and visualize the path forward. Additionally, I believe bankers should also ask themselves about obstacles that are slowing their digital transformation efforts. Digital transformation isn’t always easy because the roadblocks are often legacy systems with significant technical debt and processes that depend on those systems.

I recommend banks ask this question: ‘If we were starting from scratch, how would we construct our technical stack?’  -Venkataraman Balasubramanian (Bala), EVP and Chief Technology Officer


Leiva von Bovet:  The questions should revolve around people, processes and products. First, banks must confirm they have the right people to champion transformation. It should include cross-functional teams. Not just IT people, but mixed teams with stakeholders from throughout the bank – business, operations and technology to name a few – working with support from external experts.


Secondly, I believe applying agile practices to re-engineered processes is the only way to achieve speed and lasting success. Banks need to consider whether they have this maturity in house.


Finally, enabling technologies as well as banking products that can be tailored to the personalized needs of the consumer is the third pillar. Fortunately, Zafin’s platform is one example of a technology platform that can accelerate a bank’s digital transformation, help fund the program and equip banks to offer products and pricing models tailored to the needs of its customers.


The risk controls and processes that have organically evolved at banks are not as nimble as those of fintech and big tech.  -Adnan Haider, Senior Vice President, Analytics

Haider:  The broader question I see is, how can we (Zafin) help banks move faster while ensuring the right risk controls are in place. These two aspects go hand in hand. Banks need to assess how they can move at fintech speed without compromising on their risk posture. That’s a hard trade-off, by the way, because the proposition is predominantly digital.  And that’s not how banks have historically operated.


The second part is evaluating necessary changes to a bank’s operating model to move at fintech speed. Part of it is technology and the other part is process. The risk controls and processes that have organically evolved at banks are not as nimble as those of fintech and big tech.


Smith:  As Adnan pointed out, banks must have a balance between risk and reward, specifically return on investment and the impact on business line goals. I believe there are five questions banks should ask themselves:

  1. Is this solution low risk?
  2. Can this solution offer payback within 6 to 12 months?
  3. Does this offering protect the bank’s current technology investments as it helps it digitalize?
  4. Can this offering/partner/vendor/software provide value across the entire bank, including retail, corporate, payments and others?
  5. Is it SaaS? Can it help drive agility?

Q: What innovation options are there for banks with older, interconnected legacy systems?


Bala: Irrespective of where the technical debt lies – systems, people or processes – innovation must happen rapidly. The options, therefore, are highly limited for legacy systems. It’s either modernizing by hollowing-out the core or modernizing through isolation.


Progressively hollowing out the core will allow the bank to remove functions not required in their legacy systems and externalize those functions in a more agile manner. Externalization also empowers banks to gradually modernize the hollowed-out core.


Modernizing through isolation, on the other hand, allows the bank to stabilize their legacy core systems and isolate them while creating a parallel environment for innovation. This approach has a greater risk profile and comes at greater cost while progressive modernization allows for quicker return on investment and lower risk.

Although these systems [bank core systems] were built to last, they weren’t necessarily built to change.
-Hali Khan, Senior Vice President & Managing Director EMEA

Leiva von Bovet: The options are replacement, progressive modernization and building a parallel greenfield stack, as Bala described.  All have advantages and disadvantages related to risk, speed of implementation and cost.


Banks need to carefully evaluate the options based on their specific situation and culture. Regardless of the option they take, they should focus on simplification, long-term soundness, and iterative benefit realization. Externalizing key components currently in their legacy systems, such as customer and product and pricing management will support these objectives regardless of the option chosen.


Khan: As my colleagues have said, it’s a universal truth that, in general, banks are struggling with legacy systems. One issue is the dwindling pool of legacy people; it’s not easy finding people with the coding skills to provide support, maintenance and fixes.


Legacy systems weren’t designed for a digital age. The 70s and 80s were a different world; banks were masters of tech innovation with the birth of ATMs, BACS and international card payments. Many bank core systems running the banks today are the same ones built back then! Although these systems were built to last, they weren’t necessarily built to change.


When the next wave of innovation came along, banks invested heavily in client-side software and CD-ROMs. And they built modifications onto their existing monolithic proprietary systems.


Fast forward to today. One of the barriers to innovation has been the expense and time-consuming nature of core replacement projects. In addition, some of these big projects have publicly failed, damaging corporate and brand reputations, IT department credibility, and customer and shareholder confidence.


Against such considerations, a stable platform with tried-and-tested processes can look extremely appealing. Legacy systems may manifest aches and pains, but they are often held in affectionate regard.


Sooner rather than later, banks will have little choice but to invest the time, money, and resources necessary to modernize their IT infrastructure if they want to compete in the digital economy. Banks should form collaborative partnerships with fintech companies to externalize key functionality, such as product and pricing. It’s not so much a good idea, but an absolute mandatory strategy that will allow banks to become agile, responsive, and customer-centric organizations that meet their digital transformation objectives and ensure long-term sustainability.


Q:  Talk about API banking… How does it empower banks who want to modernize?


Smith: APIs alone don’t aid modernization. They can make things more complex if they are not well architected. Banks must focus first on embracing a cultural shift towards open banking by working with standard bodies like BIAN, building a model bank architecture, or even exploring elements of banking as a service. All these business models help drive change into a banking organization by leveraging the power of ecosystems.


APIs alone don’t aid modernization. They can make things more complex if they are not well architected.
– John Smith, EVP Ecosystem

Banks need to focus on driving cultural change. This should usually be delivered in tandem with a focus on modernizing the bank tech using a multitude of integration technologies, whether that’s event-driven with Kafka, restful APIs or file connectivity. The power of “API first” is in the cultural change… the adoption of the framework and mindset. The technology will follow.


Bala: Irrespective of the modernization pathway banks take, APIs are here to stay. They allow for real-time communication into a bank’s current systems and are typically restful by design. They also serve as a means of loosely coupling the rapidly changing front-end systems from the more industrialized back-end systems, which allows banks to evolve these different but interconnected systems at different rates.


Khan: APIs have become especially important to European banks during the last couple of years, ever since the Revised Payment Service Directive (PSD2) came into effect in January 2018. This directive has expedited the development of APIs so third parties such as fintechs and online financial-services vendors are developing apps and services that can most benefit from the data procured from financial institutions.


Banking APIs—especially open APIs—are now playing a crucial role in empowering financial organizations to transition from traditional banking to open banking, allowing third parties to utilize banks’ services or offer the same services to their own customers. They also enable businesses to more seamlessly connect with their consumers than previously possible which should improve the customer experience.


Customer-specific APIs are also being created with appropriate levels of security to provide individually personalized banking information such as custom offers and rewards and tailored product offerings, account alerts, bill payments and fund-transfer services, allowing them to gain better control of their finances.


Data analytics lies at the heart of the banking API revolution. Banks can now collect substantial quantities of customer behavior data which enables more tailored marketing initiatives, offers and rewards. Banks can gain a more realistic picture of customers’ financial situations, highlighting the types of products most suitable for them. Customers can also indicate banking preferences directly to their bank, identifying which offerings they do and do not like.


Through increased adoption of APIs, banks can boost the scope of products and services they offer to a potentially wider customer base. In short, APIs can ultimately empower banks to have a profound transformative effect on the future of banking.


Q: If you were to design a digital transformation roadmap for banks, what would it be?


Smith: There are many ways to modernize. The optimal bank strategy is low-risk, with a quick return on investment and high-return. Progressive modernization, with a focus on the front end and middle tier, is one of the most favored approaches we are seeing right now, and Zafin is supporting that journey.


Haider: Core replacements are very risky to banks. It takes years and costs hundreds of millions of dollars. At the end of a core replacement, the bank’s IT often doesn’t have much to show to the business.


Like John suggests, there’s another approach. Start with a customer journey. Break it into smaller journeys and go front to back and progressively modernize each one. Don’t stop at the core system. Instead, externalize the required services. In effect, you’re paying down technical debt in vertical slices and delivering a differentiated experience to customers in the process.


There is also an operating model consideration here. Banks are often organized in silos or layers, so a transformation program requires innumerable handoffs between teams. An alternative structure is to have one cohesive team responsible for a journey, and this team is measured on business outcomes, not outputs. In effect, structure transformation programs to mimic the way high-performing fintech product teams are organized.

First, hire the right people and partner with subject matter experts that complement your capabilities. Ensure you have the right culture, and if not, start changing it immediately because this takes the longest.
-Gabriel Leiva von Bovet, EVP Sales

Leiva: There are a few things I would suggest. First, hire the right people and partner with subject matter experts that complement your capabilities. Ensure you have the right culture, and if not, start changing it immediately because this takes the longest. Leverage the agile model for that.


Start with systems of engagement and ensure customers have experiences as good as those offered by the technology leaders, not just banks. Embed AI into the client journeys, reduce the friction as much as possible and make sure you have solutions that can evolve constantly and fast.


At the same time, review systems of record and backend processes.  They will limit the bank’s digital transformation if they are not fixed. Select the best approach to transform them; no one path fits every bank.  And building on what Adnan suggests, make sure there is organizational alignment and commitment to the selected path because each one is a multi-year project and will have big challenges.  Implement the transformation iteratively and create wins early in the process. Externalization of product and pricing is a great way to do that while still moving towards the end goal.


Bala: With the increased expectation of relevant customer journeys, any roadmap should contain the following:

  • Business agility enablers: make business-facing functions, like product and pricing, more agile
  • Customer-facing systems: enable a greater degree of personalization while staying compliant through better AI as Gabriel discussed
  • Greater operational efficiency: lower the cost to operate core systems through a well-thought-out modernization program
  • Lower technical debt: access superior integration technologies (event streaming, real-time information flow) as well as automation

Q: When it comes to progressive modernization, which customer journey would you start with?

Haider: It would be what has the most bang for the buck at a point in time. I like the mortgage journey because it’s a large part of the asset book for the bank and there are lots of incremental quick wins in the mortgage business. You also have an outcome that would be very visible to the end customer of the bank as well as to the line of business. Banks need to pick a journey that can become self-funding quickly, and that comes down to quick wins.

Q: What would be your top recommendation to a CEO, business line leader or CIO in today’s banking environment? 

Khan: COVID-19 has created an unprecedented wake-up call for financial organizations across the globe. The quality of the customer experience will continue to take priority over the transaction, and it will become increasingly critical to help banks hold on their customers.

It’s imperative CEOs and their leadership teams anticipate—not just respond to—customer needs. This can be done by leveraging data and technology and utilizing the near-seamless connectivity that today’s digital cloud solutions can bring. Cloud offers the promise of greater efficiency, accelerated innovation and is a critical enabler of advanced digital technologies that open the door to new business models and revenue streams. The agility, speed, security, and scalability of the cloud will have a direct impact on the bank’s ability to service its customers.


Smith: Yes, banks should modernize their technology assets with offerings that inject agility into their existing technology. Build an ecosystem that supports the strategy to drive growth and engages the customer through hyper-personalization of products and services. And focus on internal cultural change.


Bala: Innovation is everywhere – banks don’t need to go it alone! To be in step with your customer, seek innovation from your ecosystem partners to augment your capabilities.


Build an ecosystem that supports the strategy to drive growth and engages the customer through hyper-personalization of products and services.  -John Smith, EVP Ecosystem

Q: What are your predictions for 2022?


Smith: Be prepared to embrace new business models and leverage the significant client base you already have to cross-sell and upsell new offerings, both financial and non-financial.  Some of those business models may include banking as a service, banking marketplace, coreless banking and banking aggregation.


Bala: If the pandemic becomes an “endemic”, which seems likely, the return to a “new normal” takes on a different meaning. I am reminded of a decades-old saying from a famous shoe company, “Fast is faster!” If you’re not faster, someone will let you know. The more indirect we become, with less face-to-face interactions, speed becomes the order of the day. Digital everything (yes, including currency), faster everything (payments, onboarding, recognition), but without bias (superior AI). A culture of experimentation becomes key to survival.


Khan:  Bala hit on several of the same things I am seeing for 2022.

  • Increase in the growth of digital-only banks: These banks have a lot going for them. They’re growing in numbers and revenue all over the world (Global Market Insights, 2019). They’re also one of the major reasons bank branch visits are set to drop 36% from 2017-2022 (The Financial Brand, 2021).
  • Significant growth in payment innovations: Based on 2020 figures, the biggest trend in payment innovations is the rise of mobile payments. In-store transactions are projected to rise to more than 2.7 billion by 2022.
  • Increase in AI utilization: AI is projected to reduce bank operating costs by 22% around 2030. That could mean savings to the tune of $1 trillion ahead.
  • Increased adoption of block chain: Blockchain has the potential to boost the global economy to $1.76 trillion over the next decade, according to recent research done by PWC. Key application areas will include payments and financial services, contracts and dispute resolution, and identity management.

Leiva von Bovet: What am I predicting? The sun will come up every day, the earth will continue to suffer from human abuse, countries will continue to make mistakes but still overall move in a positive direction towards peace, quality of life and reduction of poverty. Organizations across the world will innovate faster than ever before. Specifically for banks, my advice is to continue focusing on the basics: discipline, risk management, talent acquisition, etc. Be more conscious of environmental issues, the change in attitude of your customers and the importance of having a corporate purpose.

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