Insights & Opinions

Where is the reset button?

Tue, 01 Mar 2022

Rik Coeckelbergs Founder and CEO The Banking Scene

Banking for Good Where is the reset button featured

Times are changing. They are changing fast.

Last week we gathered for, fingers crossed, the first post-pandemic conference of The Banking Scene; this week, we face the biggest humanitarian crisis Europe has ever seen since World War II.

Last week, banks were challenged whether to join in-person to understand how to deal with a continuously changing reality to remain trusted partners to their stakeholders. A few days later, they face the challenges to their day-to-day operations of a war between Ukraine and Russia.

The impact is not just the exclusion of Russian banks from SWIFT. It goes much further. How do you position yourself as a bank in this conflict? How to deal with the ongoing investments of Russian clients? How far are you as a bank willing to investigate ties with Russian oligarchs? Are you limiting to oligarchs?

What will be the impact on the employees of those companies? They have no involvement in the war, and are likely against it.

These are just a few questions that pop up and demonstrate the complexity of banking these days.

Ethical and sometimes philosophical dilemmas are completely changing the way we bank.

I remember back in 2007, when I started my professional career, my mentor said: “In the end, payments and banking can be shifted back to a debit and a credit.”

I honestly don’t know if that is still the case.

Nina Mohanty joined us on February 17 for a session on Niche Banking, Affinity Banking, as she explained. This session taught me that banking became a complex business, not because of technology, not because of accounting, but because of identity.

How do you want to be perceived by your stakeholders? How will you manage your risks in this framework that constructs that perception?

Last week, Niccolo Polli of HSBC joined us on stage at The Banking Scene Conference Luxembourg, explaining their vision on “Banking for Good”. He explained that banks have a choice to make how strictly they deal with ESG and building a greener future.

He also explained the dilemmas that come with this choice. Should banks stop financing fossil fuels overnight? Or should they assist their clients with the transformation to a new economy? Should banks be doing this proactively or wait for a regulatory framework?

Like with Niche Banks, these questions boil down to identity and affinity.

Should a bank like HSBC stop financing Shell in Mozambique, knowing it impacts not only the jobs of thousands of people, but also directly affects the energy supply to many more? Or should HSBC build a plan with Shell to transition to a greener economy that benefits the entire country?

How do you do this as a bank?

Are you an ethical bank if you support an enormous windmill project in the sea, knowing the disastrous impact on the local ecosystem and biodiversity?

Once upon a time, banking was complex, but in the end, it boiled down to a debit and a credit. Banking was for mathematicians and accountants. The technological evolution brought the rise of programmers and passionate technology people that lifted the user and customer experience for banks to become a better self.

Today, banking is reaching a new phase of complexity.

Yes, banks need mathematicians, accountants and risk managers because banks are risk managers.

Yes, banks need bright IT talent because digital transformation matters and it doesn’t have an end date.

Banks need philosophers, ethnographers, ethicists and even biologists to make conscious choices of how they wish to have an impact for future generations to come.

Banks need engineers. Once these banks know how to have an impact, these engineers have the knowledge and talent to guide corporate customers on how to make a change and to build plans for the future.

These engineers have the talent to evaluate the customer’s effort in realising these plans for a better future or stop if the customers didn’t achieve the necessary change.

Every new societal change brings new challenges for banks.

After all, if money is the oil that keeps the engine running and money is the blood that keeps the body moving… then what do you think banks are for society?

In response to the war, we see many banks changing the colours of lights on their buildings, publishing social posts to show their position against the war.

Some banks, like RBC, went further, and donated $250,000 for humanitarian support.

A few go even further. What do you think of Ali Niknam’s message this weekend? He is the CEO of bunq, and he said:

“If you are affected and all you want to do is live in peace and harmony, please send your details to and we’ll do everything in our power to get you over to the Netherlands under an HSM visa. If you can provide shelter, harbour people or have any other ideas on how we can help please contact us too.

I sincerely hope this unnecessary tragedy will soon come to an end.”

Zopa Bank is opening applications to Ukrainian nationals, and Revolut decided to wave fees for sending money to a Ukrainian bank account.

Banking is a complex business and perhaps now, even more than before, is the time for banks to figure out how to outgrow the pure transaction business? Maybe now, even more, is the time for banks to think about how to outgrow the simple “1 or 0” business, where everything is clearly set in rules?

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