Cindy Murray is not alone among bank executives in describing her technology budget, but she is not in a crowded room, either.
"In 2009 we didn't cut the budget; in 2010 we are increasing our budget in areas of treasury and transaction banking … , not only payment services but also liquidity," said Murray, a global corporate banking e-commerce executive at Bank of America Corp.
Murray is in an enviable position for a bank technology executive — treasury management is considered to be one of the few areas where information technology staffs are getting a green light for spending in 2010.
"Anything related to wholesale or corporate banking or transaction banking will get" information technology investment in 2010, said Jacob Jegher, a senior analyst at Celent, the financial research arm of Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc.'s Oliver Wyman consulting unit. "Corporate banking will see an increase in IT spending to offset lackluster growth, if not negative growth, on the retail side."
But these bright spots aside, analysts anticipate that spending in most business lines will be flat or will grow only nominally for at least another year.
"There are signs the economy is turning over," said Gwenn Bezard, an analyst at the research and advisory firm Aite Group LLC in Boston, "but it's still going to be a tough environment."
Though analyst projections and spending totals differ depending on the definition of what constitutes an IT investment, they all paint a trendline of slow or stagnant growth. Celent's most recent projections for 2010 North American IT spending peg it at $50.9 billion by banks, up $600 million from 2009's estimated total.
And spending on new North American bank IT projects — as opposed to maintenance-oriented spending — will edge up to $11.1 billion, from $10.5 billion in 2009 but below the $11.8 billion in 2008. For all financial institutions, Celent said, North American IT spending will total about $119.7 billion this year, up from $116 billion in 2009 but still below 2008's slightly less than $120 billion.
Ranjit Bawa, a senior director at the big accounting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, said the rapid consolidation that accompanied the financial crisis promted banks to hold the line on investments.
"There's a lot of infrastructure that's not being optimally used," he said. This means IT spending growth in North America should be relatively slow, though organic bank expansion in Asia and Latin America should give the IT market a boost. "There's a lot of branches being opened in Asia," he said, "and banks will need to build infrastructure to support that."
Globally, recent projections from the research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. estimate financial institutions' IT spending at just less than $246 billion this year. This would be an increase from 2009's $239.7 billion but still below $260.5 billion in 2008 and $248.9 billion in 2007.
"Spending is mostly flat," said Aite's Bezard; "a majority of banks will have flat or declining budgets in 2010." Apart from stanching the budget hemorrhages of the past couple of years, banks' chief information officers must cope with a legacy of strategic mistakes made by business units at many institutions that were part of the crisis.
"Financial institutions are taking a one-two punch," said Paul Christian, a senior vice president at First Data Corp. in Atlanta, the big payment processor. "Regulators have stepped on or curtailed some of the pricing practices of many banks, making it tougher to generate fees, and have also made risk-based pricing tougher. So banks are going to feel pressure on revenue at the top line, and at the same time they'll be looking for ways to maintain costs."
On top of that, some IT directors are playing catch-up because last year's technology staff cuts slowed the deployment of many projects and increased the rate of project failure. Necessary and overdue upgradings of legacy systems will probably take precedence over innovations even as the industry recovers.
Banks "overreacted and clamped down on spending pretty strong," said Jim Washburn, a bank consulting practice leader for North America at Capgemini Service SAS, the French technology consultancy. "But [the crisis] turned out better than a lot of people feared, so some tech spending is coming back."
Washburn predicted growth in the 2% to 3% range for the next couple of years. This would be pretty modest compared to the past decade and certainly when compared to the 1990s but still better than the 8% decline he measures from peak spending years of 2007 and 2008. "We're still not even back to 2008 totals," he said, projecting financial services North American IT spending of about $150 billion by 2012.
Even initiatives that sound forward-looking, such as mobile banking or Web 2.0, come with a heavy focus on right-sizing overhead costs, he said. "You can reach more people at less cost."
Not surprisingly, the rough fiscal environment can make for office infighting. Bezard said a big issue is the migration toward business process outsourcing.
The outsourcing industry has become more sophisticated. More middle-management tasks, not just low-level processing jobs, are being shipped to overseas and domestic service providers. Future IT spending decisions will include decisions on BPO that could create tension at many banks.
"When you talk about BPO and IT, you are potentially cutting jobs," Bezard said. "It could be very political."
All in all, this year will see green shoots but only in a few well-tended yards.
"A lot of it comes down to profitability. Banks are looking to where there's the most money to be made," said Celent's Jegher. "You see long cycles with tech projects on the retail side and projects competing for scarce IT dollars. The overwhelming spend is on maintenance. There's very little left over for discretionary spending after the vetting process. It's going to be tough to get projects through."