The future of global banking

December 2014

“It may be time to shift from focusing on the implications of increasing levels of financial globalization, to a serious discussion of the implications of banking deglobalization.”  

—Kristin Forbes, member of the Monetary Policy Committee, Bank of England 

On October 1–2, 2014, participants in the Bank Governance Leadership Network met in London for the sixth Bank Directors Summit. Discussion focused on the future of global banking.

After a period of international expansion, an optimistic vision of global banking developed during the 1990s: national borders would become less and less relevant, and money, ideas, and people would move around the world at great speed. Banks would achieve global scope and scale in order to serve corporations that were moving toward similar scope and scale.  

The financial crisis and the regulatory response have meant the world in 2014 looks very different. Ian Goldin, professor of Globalisation and Development and director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, wrote of the crisis, “A mismatch developed between a system that had become global in its reach and a regulatory structure still rooted in national institutions.”  In that light, perhaps it is not surprising that global banks now face an environment of increasing nationalism. The Economist reported last year that “unfettered globalisation has been replaced by a more selective brand … [Governments] have not built impermeable walls, but they are erecting gates. That is most obvious in capital markets.” In a special report expanding on the topic, the Economist added, “Banks now face growing pressure to bolster domestic lending, raise capital and ring-fence foreign units.” 

Some have predicted the demise of global banking as a result. At last year’s summit, a director observed, “Capital is defined by national boundaries and being trapped because it’s measured by each country. Banks are now having trouble doing business outside their borders because capital is no longer fungible … I would argue we’re seeing a disappearance, or downgrading, of international banking.”   

To overcome the significant strategic and operational challenges the current environment poses, international banks are seeking means of achieving sustainable returns while simultaneously demonstrating to regulators and investors that they are not “too big to manage” and that their cultures do not encourage bad behavior.

At this year’s summit, participants discussed the difficulties of attempting to make these transformations in bank structure and strategy while under increased scrutiny for conduct and compliance. They also considered the intention and impact of regulation and other forces shaping international banking. This ViewPoints includes perspectives from discussions with BGLN participants in preparation for, during, and immediately after the summit. It is divided into the following three sections:

  • Regulation is driving changes to global banking (pages 4-12). International reforms have been under way for six years, and many policy decisions have been taken. A participant stated, “Regulation is driving strategy at regulated institutions, especially across borders.” New regulations have become the single most important driver of changes to business models for large banks, both the most global and those that are largely domestic, but with international, diversified banks experiencing the greatest impact. Participants discussed the consequencesboth intended and unintendedof regulation that are now becoming more apparent. 

  • Time for tough decisions: transforming global banks (pages 14-22). A key concept among bank strategists today is defining growth and return objectives, and developing sustainable models for achieving those. Large, international banks face particular challenges in reevaluating structures and models for delivering products and services in multiple markets. Participants generally agree that playing to areas of strength is a sound approach, but innovation will also be necessary. In particular, the threats and opportunities of digitization came under discussion, as well as the importance of having the right people in place to lead transformation efforts.

  • Too big to govern?  Expectations for bank boards continue to evolve (pages 24-31). The challenges of governance in the period immediately following the financial crisis gave birth to the BGLN. At last year’s summit, participants concluded that heightened expectations for bank directors were here to stay. Since then, a number of conduct and compliance issues have emerged, even for banks that have reputations for being well managed and well governed. This has renewed questions about the governability of the largest, most international, and most complex banks, and the roles and responsibilities of group and subsidiary boards.