As regular readers of my Institutional Investor column know, I typically comment on new developments in technology and their indirect impact on incumbent industries (often via movie analogies!). But this time around I would like to address the topic head-on. This past week I served on a panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference with the co-founder of hedge fund firm Two Sigma Investments, the president of Nasdaq and the chief technology officer of Google Cloud Platform. Following my attempt during this panel at analyzing the “Bernie Sanders phenomena” and the resurgence of anger among some of my fellow Millennials at establishment institutions such as banks, some in the media mistook my description of the perspective of young Sanders supporters for my own views. They are not.
Partly as a result of being the unusual combination of a Millennial who founded a tech company — but one who elected to focus on enabling established banking institutions, as opposed to, say, disrupting them — I am fortunate that I have been given something of a platform to speak about my generation’s perspective on the current transformations. As someone who began his doctorate in September 2008, this subject is quite personal for me, especially given my field of study and my experiences trying to explain it to the people around me as the financial crisis and its aftermath unfolded.
We are clearly in a period of extreme national anger and resentment. The political climate is only becoming more challenging for the finance industry, especially for talented young people choosing a profession amid intense societal and peer pressure. With Sanders inciting young people against big banks and Donald Trump doing the same with blue-collar workers and the U.S. heartland, the anger feels much broader than it did during Occupy Wall Street. Certainly a surprising number of my fellow millennials are drawn to the Sanders narrative. I disagree with those views. I do think describing them and analyzing them and addressing them through open dialogue will be one way that the banking industry rebuilds its luster in the eyes of my generation in particular, and all those who are seduced by the narrative of Sanders (and Trump).
Every advanced society since ancient Babylon has been propagated via a banking system. Our current political dialogue is terrified to engage the sociological truth that Wall Street is the heart of U.S. industry and of its collective national prosperity. No other country has as efficient a financial coordinating function for channeling savings and capital into innovation, science and technology for collective human benefit. Railroads, automobiles, entertainment, pharmaceuticals — life-saving drug discovery — these industries were literally created by capital markets and banking systems. This country is the home of Google, Apple, Tesla, Amazon, SpaceX, Facebook and Netflix not because all the smartest people in the world were all randomly born in the U.S. but because the most talented people from around the world come here and join the ones born here, knowing that Wall Street’s financial markets and banking system give them the fairest chance of any on Earth of activating their ideas. The market makers and operators of today are collectively a brilliant power grid algorithm, distributing capital to its best national and human uses, with a higher degree of accuracy and efficiency than at any other moment in history or place in the world. As President Barack Obama has said, there is ultimately no dividing line between Wall Street and Main Street.
All industries face challenges, both internally and in the eyes of the public. These things ebb and flow. The auto industry wasn’t as cool eight years ago as it is now. And fintech can be the delta force toward a fascinating future of the banking industry, like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, with technology serving as a virtual companion to thousands of highly trained financial knowledge workers, liberated from the most rote aspects of their jobs and ready to focus on only the most rewarding, cerebral aspects. Not only do I believe that this positive prediction for the financial industry is the correct one, I have bet an entire company on it.
In this era of Sanders and Trump, all of us in fintech need to be extra careful to make sure we don’t allow our bright vision of the future of knowledge work to be taken out of its inspiring context just because some want to place it within the present narrative of anger and politics. Accordingly, I propose the following manifesto for fintech:
• The best financiers (including those who work in sales and trading) are skilled and highly trained knowledge workers acting as the surgeons and operators of our civilization’s monetary circulatory system. The finance industry enables drug discovery. It enables space exploration. It enables hundreds of millions of longer, healthier, more stimulating and joyful lives.
• We in fintech have a generation-defining opportunity to augment and empower knowledge workers with technology that frees them to focus on the most rewarding analytical and human-interpersonal dimensions of their careers, and which turns them into powerful man-machine hybrids of knowledge and analysis.
• As we do that, those in our generation whom I described in my Milken remarks, who are seduced by the narrative of Sanders (and Trump), will come to see our industry to be as cool and right and valuable to our country and our society as all of us now working within it know it is.