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An introduction to… Why banking infrastructure is broken

The rise of fintech is dramatically reshaping the financial services market. The emergence of new technologies and capabilities has bought about enormous change across the entire landscape, change that hasn’t occurred at such a rate for centuries. To date, this innovation has largely concentrated on the front-end user experience, including extensive digitalisation, improved user journeys and more competitive pricing strategies.

While these changes have been disruptive, to realise fintech’s full potential, this innovation needs to go right down to the core and change the ‘guts’ of our financial system. Unless banking infrastructure is dramatically improved, it will continue to act as a sea-anchor, dulling the impact of fintech innovation and holding back change that could benefit all of us.

So, banking infrastructure must be evolved and adapted, to make way for the next generation of financial services technology and better support the fintech revolution as it improves the ecosystem.

In this article series, I’ll unpack why banking infrastructure is broken, how it fails to meet the needs of people and businesses that rely on it, and what needs to be done to fix it.

Financial services are changing, but banking infrastructure hasn’t

In the past, banks operated a universal banking model where they would offer a plethora of services, from wealth management to loans and payment services. Today, those services are being unbundled by fintechs that each specialise on small groups of services.  By being laser focused on specific products and working to improve them with new technology and new business models, fintechs are providing intense competition to traditional banking institutions.

The rise of fintech and its unbundling of financial services is redefining the market in three fundamental ways:

  • People and businesses expect more: financial services users are becoming more digitally native, and as a result, they’re expecting to see the same from their providers. For example, they want the ability to move money in the moment, efficiently and safely, or the ability to manage crucial account information at any time through an app. 
  • New entrants are creating new solutions for old problems: fraud, identity authentication and the need for an always-on services are key issues that have challenged the financial services market for decades. The rise of new entrants has seen new solutions for these problems, such as applying Artificial Intelligence to identify fraud, biometric authentication capabilities and 24x7 robo-advisors that offer advice to investment and money management.
  • New models are creating deep paradigm shifts: the introduction of Banking-as-a-Service and Embedded Finance means that every brand can be a fintech, by including specialised banking tools in their services via cloud API connectivity. In addition, the fast-maturing world of blockchain and crypto-assets are leading to DeFi/Web 3.0 which could further decentralise the global financial system and offer alternative banking services to customers.

But all these forces of change are impeded by traditional banking infrastructure that was designed for the last century: pre-internet, pre-digital and pre-global. It hinders innovation and, as with the foundations of any physical structure, it is slow and expensive to change.

This permanent layer of museum-ready infrastructure acts like a sea-anchor, holding back the entire market, because all banking services – no matter how new and innovative – must run on these old systems to handle and move money.

The challenge is to unpick financial infrastructure and re-set it for the digital age – similar to how the internet revolution at the end of the 20th century re-set information infrastructure from information-islands such as books, CDs, manuscripts – to make information ubiquitously available and frictionless for everyone.

In the financial world, this means re-thinking how money is held and moves domestically and internationally, how banks interact with customers and each other, and what future banks should actually do in the market. 

One of the more promising developments is the ability to create bank infrastructure ‘widgets’ – different elements of banking infrastructure which are unbundled and rebuilt as highly effective individual services that can be ‘plugged’ or embedded into other businesses. These ‘widgets’ allow businesses to access regulated financial services without the cost and complexity of working with traditional players and the legacy infrastructure technology that comes with this.

This approach is enabling new challenger banks, fintechs and non-financial platform providers to cut the anchor loose from traditional bank infrastructure, whilst still benefiting from better banking capabilities without the cost, delays, limitations and complexity that for decades went with it.

If banking infrastructure can be broken out and provided as embedded services that can be offered on demand and compliantly, the major barriers to improving financial services will be removed, dramatically opening up the market, lifting financial inclusion and ushering the next wave of fintech innovation.

In this blog series, we’ll discuss…

Over the coming months, we will focus on the biggest areas impacted by banking infrastructure, with the next instalment focusing on the reasons why banking infrastructure must change and the ways in which current technology restricts business innovation and growth.

By unpacking these issues, I hope to help businesses better understand how they can overcome the limitations of core systems and ensure fintech can deliver on its promise.


Comments: (2)

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 29 March, 2022, 16:16Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Marcus, what an insightful post and delighted that it is part of a series
We both come from an era where a big part of our respective roles was spent taking manual processes and automating them in pursuit of achieving the 'holy grail' of STP.
I cannot fault you on any of your points and concur that to move forward; there is a need to break the shackles of the past to allow the next generation of financial services technology to thrive.
I hope that in your future instalments, you will focus on what history has taught us and how learning from past mistakes can ensure future success.
I am alluding to the conundrum of interoperability and foresee that your idea of bank infrastructure 'widgets' will play a critical role in addressing the interoperability challenge preventing DeFi solutions from full scale and demonstrating full potential.


John Power
John Power - Ostia Solutions - Bray 30 March, 2022, 11:18Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Interesting post but I don't agree that the banking infrastructure is broken. I would argue that the way we are using and managing infrastructure is problem here.

"Legacy systems" are blamed for an inability to innovate and move quickly. This is generally a euphemism for 'old mainframe' technologies that were and are still extensively used today. They have and are still successfully handling countless transactions daily.

The problem in my opion is the two speed IT processes that we have. The front office justifiably want to move quickly and are rewarded for doing that. The back office want to keep the lights on and are rewarded for doing that well. They are totally contradictory as the best way to turn the lights off in an organization is to change something so change is done slowly, carefully and responsibly.

To that end, changes to the most modern back office infrastructure will also be slow so it has little to do with technology and more to do with process.

As an industry, we have been very poor at fully prototyping solutions moving from plan to implementation immediately which leads to a lot of project issues and wasted time making changes to the back office that are not required.

So while I would agree there is a problem, I'm not sure it's the infrastructure but the processes that we are using for prototyping, developing and deploying new applications and functionality that is the problem rather than the infrastructure itself. 

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