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Smart bankers waking up to see Fines are not fine

One of the great joys of my role is to spend quality time with the executive teams from the world’s top banks. Hearing directly from them what is propelling them out of bed in the morning and what is keeping them awake at night is how we learn to deliver better value for them.

While better customer service and the chance to win market share is the latter, I must admit to confusion at their relaxed attitude to handing over large fines every few years. It seems, at last, this may be changing, as they finally ‘wake up and smell the coffee’.

With banks’ market capitalizations under pressure and high-profile abandonments of their shares by star investors, it is time banks finally got real and faced some facts about regulation. In recent times, regulators in Europe and the US are showing no restraint and punishing mis-selling with fines of unprecedented size.

The last year few years alone have seen over $50bn of profits being handed over to regulators and governments for alleged transgressions ranging from providing banking services to dictatorships, money laundering for Mexican drug cartels, fixing interbank rates and helping clients avoid tax.

Once, such carefree acceptance of the occupational hazards’ of fines may have been business as usual for the world's largest financial institutions. Back then, losses in one line of their business were often compensated by strong profits from other product areas. Now though, thanks to the sums involved, the Global Economic Crisis and more scrutiny from investors, it is less easy for CEOs to shrug their shoulders when fines can be several billions and take years of successful trading to recoup.

These fines should be a wake-up call for banks, who have resisted modernising their IT estate for decades and are muddling along with over-expanded channels and inflexible customer systems thanks to a flurry of Mergers & Acquisitions.

The opportunity costs are the real killer. How could those wasted billions in fines have been put to better use? More to the point, what will their competitors do now they see a weakened balance sheet and postponement of much-needed technology investments. Will competitors with better predictive analytics and complex event processing be able to better satisfy the bodies who are levying these crippling fines?

Perhaps the solution is linked to one of the major pitfalls of large fines - customer dissatisfaction. There is no doubt the large banks increasingly suffer a poor customer image. While they are paying regulators for previous misdeeds, challenger brands can play on this to steal market share. However, it is always easier to retain an existing customer than to gain a new one. So, a greater focus on existing customer satisfaction could be the best way to compete, even as the misdeeds of the past are being literally paid for.

When business as usual is paying large fines from profits, may be the smartest thing to do is to avoid business as usual. Fines are not fine.

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