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Economist Spotlight: Imagining a world without banks

The Economist | May 6, 2021

Economist a future with fewer banks - Economist Spotlight:  Imagining a world without banks

IT IS HARD to conceive of a world without banks, partly because they are so visible. Picture the horizon of any big city, and the skyscrapers in view are usually banks. Commuters emerge from Grand Central station in New York in the shadow of the Park Avenue base of JPMorgan Chase. Morgan Stanley looms over Times Square; Bank of America over Bryant Park. In London the skyline is dominated by odd-shaped towers in the City and Canary Wharf. In Singapore the top floors of the offices of Standard Chartered and UOB house rooftop bars looking out over the entire city. Even in places like Auckland, Mexico City or Jakarta, the logos adorning the tallest buildings are those of ANZ, BBVA or HSBC.

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The physical dominance of banks symbolises their importance. Most people interact with their banks for such mundane transactions as buying groceries. Companies pay their workers, suppliers and landlords through banks. Banks are also there for bigger decisions, such as buying a house or getting a student loan.

And yet a world without banks is also visible on the horizon. As never before, their role is under threat from new technology, capital markets and even the public sector.

Central bankers have seen tech giants develop quicker and easier payments systems that could pull transactions out of the banking system. They worry that digital payments may bring about the end of cash. Financial regulation and monetary policy have traditionally operated through banks. If this mechanism is lost, they may have to create digital central-bank money instead.

Because technology has disrupted so many industries, its impact on banking may seem like one more example of a stodgy, uncompetitive business made obsolete by slick tech firms. But money and banking aren’t like taxis or newspapers. They make up the interface between the state and the economy. “The deep architecture of the money-credit system, better known as banking, hasn’t changed since the 18th century, when Francis Baring began writing about the lender-of-last-resort,” says Sir Paul Tucker, formerly deputy governor of the Bank of England and now at Harvard. “Which means it has not, so far, depended on technology at all, because Francis Baring was writing about it with a quill pen.”

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Now a new architecture is emerging that promises a reckoning. “Economic action cannot, at least in capitalist society, be explained without taking account of money, and practically all economic propositions are relative to the modus operandi of a given monetary system,” wrote Joseph Schumpeter in 1939. Yet it is possible to see a future in which banks play a smaller role, or even none at all, with digital money and deposits provided by central banks, financial transactions carried out by tech firms and capital markets providing credit.

Bad change or good?

The question is whether such a world is desirable. Banks have many flaws. Scores of the unbanked are too poor to afford them. They can be slow and expensive. They often make more money from trading and fees, not normal banking. Negligent banks can create boom-and-bust cycles that inflict economic hardship. So it is easy to assume that the sidelining of banks might be just another shackle broken by technological advance.

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