Shazam, an acronym that should be familiar to fans of Captain Marvel, consists of the first letters of the mythical symbols for the powers he possesses. Let's look at how this mythology relates to the future of banking and the financial services industry and what it will take to be a player in the modern financial world.
S stands for Solomon (wisdom), H for Hercules (strength), A for Atlas (stamina), Z for Zeus (power), A for Achilles (courage), and M for Mercury (speed).
It will take the wisdom of Solomon to answer what businesses to be in and when. Mergers and acquisitions are tricky. Can banks avoid the M&A trap and capture potential production, marketing, and portfolio synergies? This question is one of globalization, spanning world markets.
Citigroup is the potential prototype of the "large complex banking organization," the Federal Reserve's new term for financial behemoths. Moreover, Citigroup's leadership is testing the old adage that two heads are better than one.
In Japan announcement of the three-way deal to combine Dai-Ichi Kanygo Bank, Fuji Bank, and Industrial Bank of Japan - which would create the world's largest bank, with $1.2 trillion of assets - holds promise of a "big bang" in Japanese banking. Something similar came close in France among Banque Nationale de Paris, Paribas, and Societe Generale. Indeed, it will take the wisdom of Solomon to make these and subsequent consolidations work.
Equally important will be how wisely banks answer risk management questions. Are the derivatives debacles of 1993-94 truly a thing of the past? Where and when will the next lending bubble be, and what will be the aftermath if it bursts?
It will take the (financial) strength of Hercules to be a major player in the globalized and securitized marketplace of the next millennium. The old standard of "capital adequacy" survives as a yardstick, but it is measured in terms of market capitalization relative to risk taking. Risk-based capital requirements (the Basel Accord and its updates) represent a step in that direction. Basel 2000 offers hope of more realistic credit-risk weights.
Size, or total assets, prevailed as the misguided yardstick of the 1980s, and Japanese banks dominated the world rankings. With today's emphasis on valued-added and total market capitalization, Japanese banks are rethinking and looking at the need for credit quality and profitability. The three-way merger will be an important test case for Japanese banking.
Will it take the stamina of Atlas too? Globalization means that you might have to hold the world on your corporate shoulders. Yet because too much brick and mortar can get organizationally heavy, banks need to lighten their loads with e-banking and e-money, all the while being careful that electronic commerce doesn't put them out of business. The joint venture route in e-commerce suggests that if you can't beat them, join them.
It will take the (earnings) power of Zeus to survive. Real earnings or cash flow is the name of the value-creation game for banks and their customers. Competition has squeezed net interest margins, putting pressure on banks to reduce their cost burdens. U.S. banks have been willing to cut employees and close branches, but it remains to be seen if Japanese banks will bite this potentially explosive bullet.
As for the quality of Achilles, no "red badge of courage" is required, but the good old days of 3-6-3 banking - take in money at 3%, lend it out at 6%, and be on the golf course by 3 o'clock - are surely gone. Today, the percentages might be right, but the timing isn't!
Finally, it will take the speed of Mercury to be a player in the financial industry. To adapt to change, which the Greek philosopher Heraclitus saw as the only constant, the ability to move quickly is crucial. The contestability of today's financial markets requires hit-and-run strategies. First movers reap monetary rewards and, more important, maintain their reputational capital as innovators.
The individual forces of Shazam are not independent; they interact and feed on each other. For example, Zeus' earnings power is the internal source of Hercules' financial strength. These are twin towers generating market value. It is fitting, however, that Shazam begins with Solomon and wisdom. Wise decision-making promises to be the great equalizer in the 21st century.
In any endeavor, it would be ideal to have players who have the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. May Shazam be with the leaders of large complex banking organizations and community banks as they head into the next millennium. Mr. Sinkey is Edward W. Hiles professor of financial institutions at the Terry College of Business, University of Georgia.