Banking, which gave the world its first multinational company (the House of Rothschild), is today among the least multinational of industries. It is, however, poised for a comeback.
That banking has fallen behind other industries in the extent of its globalization is both readily demonstrable and understandable. True, the top-name banks in the world have presences in virtually every economic center. But ubiquity does not equal globality. It may not even be necessary to globality, but even if necessary, it is clearly not sufficient.
Globality in banking denotes the capacity to mobilize international resources in order to solve problems in any given country that are not soluble by indigenous market participants. Few multicountry banks can boast this ability. While they may be international, these banks are not incrementally so: What they do in one country does not enhance or embellish their performance in others.
The ultimate reason is rooted in the character of the worlds financial systems. There are two basic models: One is bank-centered, and the other market-centered. In the former, banks play the dominant role in funding business and consumers. In the latter, banks are powerfully supplemented and in some cases overwhelmed by the public markets. Japan and most western European systems are instances of the bank-centered approach, but the United States and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom exemplify the market-centered framework.
In market-centered systems, the bank face much stronger competition than do their counterparts in bank-centered environments. Being more challenged, they tend to respond by developing more innovative financial engineering technologies (often those that mimic the public-market modus operandi). Also, being more challenged, these banks gravitate to riskier activities, which necessitates the development of superior risk management tools.
Innovative financial solutions and superior risk management techniques are exportable, noncommoditized activities. It is no accident that most banking institutions capable of adding appreciable value in host countries are primarily American and secondarily British.
Of course, many countries that were almost entirely bank-centered a few years ago are now evolving into market-oriented areas. As they do so, their banks will begin acquiring the drive and the wherewithal to challenge the hegemony of the American and British institutions.
And as they challenge, they will also begin acquiring the accouterments of multinationality. That is, they will begin viewing the entire world as a single economic and operating unit. They will create boards of directors that are internationally peopled. They will choose top officers based solely on merit and not on nationality. And they will coopt for corporatewide use the skills available in every market in which they operate.
Will the challenge to American and British hegemony that will eventually be posed by other multinationals require a physical presence in every major market? There are those who argue that, given the capacity of the Internet to eradicate distance, we may witness an apparent paradox: As banks become more multinational in outlook and capacity, they may begin closing down their foreign installations.
For example, many foreign-bank outposts in the United States serve little purpose except to gather business loans that local banks decline to fund. Since the Internet is expected to improve the capacity of final investors to evaluate borrowers, it will inevitably compress the profitability of the pure loan-spread business merely through the addition of potential permanent loan holders, whose activity increases demand for any given level of loan supply. As a result, it will make little sense for most banks to hold loans on balance sheet, undermining the raison dêtre of many foreign-bank facilities in the United States.
The counterargument is the one made above: Foreign banks by then will have learned enough to offer themselves as more than mere loan holders. Besides, while the bankers cry of location, location, location may be getting a tad outdated, it is not obsolete. High-tech cannot completely displace high-touch, at least for many highly profitable customer segments and complex bank activities.
The most successful multinationals will be those that link intensiveness to extensiveness. Currently, for many institutions there is a palpable disconnect between macro and micro objectives. They aspire to serve the whole world, but they do not yet serve the whole customer.
Indeed, most global banks are still handicapped in their ability to serve customers holistically by their historical division into sometimes competing product fiefdoms. But a significant few now see the need to make a transition from a product or piecemeal orientation to an integrated service approach grounded in a financial-planning analysis of the totality of customer needs. These few will be the multinational paladins of tomorrow.
Mr. Rose, formerly senior columnist for American Banker, is a consultant located in Teaneck, N.J.