Citigroup (C) and Deutsche Bank (DB) have recently warned that they will cut headcount by thousands in the future. Most recently, Citigroup said half of 20,000 staff in one division will no longer have a job in the next five years. The reason? Robots.
Thanks to technology and the automation of route tasks, Citigroup says, the bank will not need to hire as many people as they do now. And while that will be good for shareholders—less headcount means less expenses—it’s also a concern for finance graduates and aspiring financiers.
But they shouldn’t worry.
First, let’s back up. The fear of automating finance jobs away has been around since 2009, when massive cost cutting and improvements in A.I. meant the future for finance work looked bleak. And, indeed, the total number of people working in the finance industry has continued to decline since then. While other industries have begun to see an improvement in jobs, finance has defied the trend.
Some point to automation as the biggest issue, with quantitative trading hedge funds seen as the prime example of this trend. Those funds use robots, algorithms, and programmers instead of individual traders, analysts, and portfolio managers. Add things like high-frequency trading and smart beta, and it seems the old days of the stock picker are over.
A couple things are wrong with this picture, though. Firstly, smart beta and HFT have seen diminishing returns lately, and stock picking has begun to perform better than in prior years. Additionally, a lot of finance isn’t really stockpicking—and a lot of the tasks of finance are being made easier thanks to A.I., but we still see human beings working as analysts who employ those robots to perform more tasks.
And that brings us to what’s really causing the decline in jobs in investment banks, hedge funds, and elsewhere. It isn’t the robots; it’s the secular decline of finance. IPOs are down, hedge fund redemptions are high, passive investing is getting a bigger share of retirement funds, and structured financial products are used less than they used to. As a result, there’s just not as much of a demand for bankers as there was in the heady days of the 2000’s.
The future of banking, then, may look much like the past of banking, with evolutionary variations on a theme instead of a revolution that makes it look more like Silicon Valley. We may see better tools being used by analysts, but those analysts will still be at their terminals, collating data and using qualitative insight to determine what data to weight more heavily.
Oh, and those 10,000 jobs at Citigroup aren’t even bankers. They’re “technology and operations” staff. Perhaps, on Wall Street, the bankers shouldn’t fear the tech workers as much as the other way around.