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Are humans really needed for banking?

I enjoy being around bankers who have been immersed in the industry nearly all of their lives and hearing their war stories. I heard two stories recently from a retiring banker, and thought it worth sharing to show just how far we’ve come.

This friend started life in international banking in the wilds of the oceans before ending up being Chairman of the bank fifty years later. He’d been with the bank man and boy, and enjoyed telling me about one particular incident when he was working in a far distant branch in the islands of the Pacific Ocean. One day a chap walked in with long blonde hair, a bright island shirt, shorts and sandals, carrying two suitcases. Opening up the cases, they were stuffed full of US dollars and the potential client said: “I’d like to open an account and deposit this lot, all right?”

Well, my banker friend thought it may not be jolly all right and so he told the gentlemen that they would need to count the money first. Assigning the counting to his two most ineffective staff members, he asked the gentlemen to wait with a cup of tea and duly my friend skid into his office and called the banks Head Office. Explaining what was going on, he asked what the policy was in this situation? No one knew, so they told him to call the regulator. Duly he called the then regulatory offices in London and explained what was going on and asked what the policy would be. They didn’t know and told him so, ending with the line: “it’s really up to you to decide”.

He decided it was probably decidedly dodgy and so returned to the waiting room and said that it was with great regret that he had been informed he could not open the account for the rich, cash carrying customer. Seeing him out of the front door, he then returned to his office and called every other bank on the island to warn them of a chap with blonde hair and two suitcases.

Ah, those were the days.

He then shared another story, some years later after he had returned from the oceans to work in the banks’ head office as head of corporate banking. One day, there was a panic. The bank had mistakenly transmitted $737 million overnight to a group of correspondent banks due to a programming error. This was back in the 1990s, when these things ran in overnight, batch updates. Oh dear. He had to spend a day with the head of correspondent banking, calling all the other banks who had received funds in error and ask them to send it back.

Funnily enough, because everyone was very gentlemanly and cordial in those days, the correspondent banks did exactly that and within twenty-four hours $737 million had been returned.

Ah, those were the days.

I then commented that it is obviously so much better today, what with real-time systems, software that locks money launderers into a loop and payment structures with bullet proof cybersecurity.

He sighed and retorted that actually, not a lot has changed. If people buck the system or mess up the system, it’s still the human hand and relationship that will sort it out.

Darn. And there was me thinking the machines could take over the world.

About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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