The fintech revolution: will it break the bank?

Sunday 23 October, 16.00 - 17.15 , Frobisher Auditorium 1 Technology and ethics


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In the wake of the financial crisis, there were repeated promises that practices in banking and finance would now change, but the general perception is that not much has happened. Within the industry, however, some feel new technology may do the job. ‘Fintech’ (financial technology) has become one of the big growth areas of innovation in recent years, with $14 billion of investment going into start-ups such as Zopa, TransferWise, Funding Circle and GoCardless, which offer services from peer-to-peer lending and small-business funding to digital payment. For enthusiasts, such innovations offer necessary competition from micro-organisations to banks who were notoriously ‘too big to fail’ and had drifted away from traditional consumer-focused services. Combined with growing automation and sophisticated application of big data analytics, there are also hopes that the robots can succeed where regulation failed in managing risk and curbing dangerous lending.

Yet there are also concerns that there may be greater risks to the rise of fintech than merely the latest tech bubble. While some commentators enthusiastically welcome fintech as a democratic revolution that will clean up banking, more pessimistic voices warn that it might destroy the established banking sector and destabilise the economy.  Also notably, much of the breathless excitement around fintech’s ethical disruption ignores the most infamous pioneer: controversial pay-day lender Wonga. While such challenger companies have thrived by being able to circumvent regulation, there are concerns – mirroring those about the ‘sharing economy’ - about how much fintech firms bypass protections as they grow in influence. Meanwhile, with the popular imagination of hi-tech financial trading fuelling the pre-crisis era of ‘capitalism on steroids’, there is much scepticism about whether more technology and financialisation can be the solution to deeper economic problems. What does fintech signify for the wider economy? Can crowd funding and the ‘democratisation of capital’ lead to a bottom-up rather than a top-down capitalism?

Is the rise of fintech a much-needed injection of competition in consumer banking, or a potential threat to the established financial elite? Can it offer ethical disruption to a financial sector still undergoing a major crisis of trust, or does it offer much of the same? Can the robots take the risk out of banking, or encourage more reckless behaviour? Should we believe the hype, or does the excitement around the sector reflect the low horizons of much contemporary innovation?