In the 12 years since he retired as chairman of Citicorp, Walter B. Wriston has not lacked outlets for his fabled energy, intellect, and imagination. Whether serving on corporate boards, writing books, or making himself available for elder-statesman advice and counsel, Mr. Wriston, at age 77, is no less the towering presence he was in the heyday of Citicorp's rise to global prominence. Nor is he any less willing to provoke controversy and suffer, if necessary, the consequences. The recent 900-page biography "Wriston," by former American Banker writer Philip L. Zweig, attests to the ex-Citicorp chief's historical stature (though Mr. Wriston didn't like the book). And in this recent interview with Jennifer Kingson Bloom, Mr. Wriston showed he is still more technology-literate - and more opinionated on such topics - than the average banker. What do you think of the Internet? Are you connected to it? Yes, I use Compuserve. The Internet and the World Wide Web are marvelous, but whether or not people bank on them will depend on their trust in the encryption systems. Right now there is a big debate over the role of the United States government, which says: "Hey, we're in charge of preventing terrorism; therefore we want to be able to read your E-mail; therefore you can't use an encryption system that we can't crack with the greatest of ease." That is in contrast to the security of the network which handles the financial transactions of the world, a few trillion dollars a day. The Europeans have a more sophisticated encryption system than we do, which is commercially available. RSA (Data Security Inc.) has pretty good security, too. Will the government permit us to use (more sophisticated) encryption? It's a public policy issue that's not as simple as people think. Would you agree you are more knowledgeable about technology than 99% of the people of your generation? The old crocks. We started the technology revolution in Citibank with the first ATMs, years ago, and ever since then I've been involved. I'm on a computer company board (Tandem), and I wrote a book on the subject two years ago, "The Twilight of Sovereignty." Now I'm involved in some of these new encryption systems. I try to keep up with what's going on. How do you do your banking? Do you do home banking on your PC? Sure. I have a Citigold account. My computer is sitting here, and I'm looking at my meager balance and wanting more. Citi Online - that's excellent. I have Quicken, too. What predictions do you have for the intersection of banking and technology? I think that, over time, cash is an endangered species. I think all intermediaries are an endangered species. Banks are intermediaries, and they will change. Insurance agents and, to a certain extent, travel agents, all are intermediaries who are, to a certain extent, being bypassed. I don't think anyone knows how it will play out. I don't know. But have you been to a real live teller in the last 10 years? Only to buy rolls of quarters for the laundry machine. Have you? No, I haven't. I get my quarters by giving somebody a $10 bill for the New York Post. So if banks are endangered, how will they change? Will they become one- stop shopping centers for financial services? Some of them will. Banks are making choices. Bankers Trust and J.P. Morgan have elected not to be commercial banks. They're merchant banks, and doing very well at it. My alma mater is the premier global financial institution in the world. They opted for the consumer business worldwide, the big multinational corporations, and the foreign exchange markets. Some other institutions have withdrawn from international business, like Wells Fargo and Bank of America, and they've decided to put their talents into their home regions. So I don't think you can draw up one game plan for the industry, any more than you could for the computer industry. They'll all do their own thing, depending on their market and their skills and their history. Do you think companies like Intuit and Microsoft are going to beat out banks in on-line financial services? Bill Gates, in a moment of whatever, described banks as "dinosaurs" - and spent some time explaining that it was taken out of context. My former associate (current Citicorp chairman) John Reed said that some day a bank would be a line in an application code. The intermediary used to be a human interface, and now you've got Citigold and Citi Online, which are direct technological marvels. I think you're going to see more of that.
At the end of the day, the Merrill Lynches of this world cannot handle a major financial problem in the same manner that the banks can. This doesn't mean they are better or worse. It just means that's not their shtick. The people who think the banks' shtick is gone are wrong. The banks are alive and well, but they're still operating in yesterday's legal system, and they're still losing market share, and everybody and his brother is into their business. How has the business of banking changed since your days? I think the big change, and the one that's amazing to me, is that in the 1940s or 1950s the banks had somewhere in the order of magnitude of 70% of the financial assets of the U.S. Today they've got 30-odd percent. I do not know another industry that's lost that much market share that's still alive and well. So that makes them somewhat unique. Banks are surviving because they, among other things, control the payments mechanism. Where does technology fit in? Today we've got interstate banking, Euromarkets, debit cards, credit cards, smart cards - it's as different as day and night from how it was 30 years ago. Technology is the enabling factor, and the banks were somewhat slow to adapt to it. A bank is just a giant information system. It always was, but today that information tends to be on-line. In the last 30 years, it's been a revolution very different from the old days, but it's an extension of serving the customer. In the next iteration, the question becomes, Where do we go with smart cards? And what does that mean for the money supply? And what does it mean for velocity of money? The answer is, nobody knows at this point.