Banking matters in 2024 – a live take from the WEF (2024)

The mood among the banking and broader business community at the World Economic Forum in Davos this January was noticeably more upbeat than it was a year ago, and the reasons are not hard to discern: the steady interest rate hikes of the past two years seem to be softening, financial markets and business leaders are both sensing a greater possibility for a soft landing for the economy, and consumer spending—especially in the United States—is proving more resilient than many had expected.

Yet, at the same time, nobody I met in Davos was throwing caution to the wind. Quite the contrary: I was struck by the way in which the dialogue among business leaders was being shaped so deeply by the notion of “uncertainty” and resilience as companies actively look for ways to deal with a range of disruptive potential scenarios. All of these involve a higher degree of geopolitical, macroeconomic, and technologicaldislocation.

Below, I lay out five themes from Davos that stuck with me, and that elaborate on this idea of how our Banking clients can think about building resilience in this environment of uncertainty.

  1. The strains of geopolitical tension, trade concentration, and global interconnectedness

    Much ink has been spilled about globalization going into reverse, and while there is some truth to the idea of global retrenchment, our interconnectedness remains a dominant aspect of the global economy, for better and for worse. This was a viscerally felt sentiment throughout the week in Davos. Recent research by the McKinsey Global Institute has shown that significant amounts of trade are concentrated because of economy-specific choices; for example, while many countries export wheat, most economies’ inbound trade for this commodity relies on only a small number of these sources. An additional 10 percent of trade—including goods as diverse as laptops, soy, and iron ore—have only relatively few export production sources. The implications for supply chains of this degree of concentration are very significant, and clearly top of mind for many CEOs at Davos given the state of the world. Much discussion also focused on the role of China and various significant upcoming elections (in the US, India and beyond).

    Banks and other financial institutions have a particularly important role to play here, thanks to their privileged position at the heart of global trade, sustainability finance, supply chains, transaction banking, payments, regulatory movements, and more. Indeed, many felt that the banks uniquely have their finger on the pulse of the global economy, and should be among the first to detect challenges and identify patterns for value creation in this interconnected world. This idea of the financial sector being so central commands respect—and marks a refreshing change from the perception of the industry coming out of the 2008 global financial crisis.

  2. Fragility and resilience

    The business leaders I met in Davos are more hopeful about a soft landing, but many feel it is still too early to call. The macroeconomic picture remains one marked by fragility, despite the interest rate trajectory, which has helped lift banks’ net interest income, as we discussed in our 2023 Global Banking Annual Review. The outlook varies widely by country, with some of the strongest economies of the past decade now seemingly gripped by softness. That said, delegates at Davos were pleasantly surprised by the resilience of the global consumer and their continued level of spending, although people are being more thoughtful about what they are spending on. As bankers also well know, savings have been heavily depleted over the past year and consumer delinquencies are back up to pre-pandemic levels, so the outcome is far from certain. There was a clear sense that, in this environment, banks need to up the ante on developing their “house view” – a perspective on a range of scenarios on how things many play out geopolitically and macroeconomically. While predicting with accuracy is a fool’s errand, there is a huge resilience premium on being prepared to pivot the company rapidly as different scenarios evolve).

  3. Identifying and preparing for “crucible moments”

    One of the most memorable events I attended in Davos was a breakfast with three CEOs hosted by McKinsey’s Global Managing Partner, Bob Sternfels, at which there was considerable discussion of “crucible moments”—pivotal decisions or events that can shape the future of a company—and how to prepare for them. The discussion was fascinating, and I came away from it with two major implications. First, as the degree of geopolitical and macroeconomic uncertainty has risen, business leaders increasingly recognize that they need to be prepared for a wide range of eventualities and able to adapt and redirect their companies depending on which of the scenarios manifests (as described above). Second, CEOs felt they will need to find ways to spend less personal time on execution matters and relatively more time on watching for, spotting, and thinking about, these crucible moments (e.g., M&A, new product builds, making seminal talent hires, and transformative innovation priorities).

  4. AI and gen AI beyond the hype

    A year ago at this time, most of the business leaders I talked with had not heard of ChatGPT. This year at Davos, it was almost impossible to have a conversation at which AI, including generative AI, didn’t come up: it’s a giant theme that has captured the imagination of the business world and is widely viewed as a core ingredient of our global productivity opportunity. One CEO I spoke with put it best: “Even though I believe AI has been overhyped in the past few months, that does not make it any less significant of an opportunity for us.” The bigger questions for the financial services community and others will be how to scale—and alone or in partnership? And for banks and insurers that are subject to substantial regulation, a key question will be how to think about human intelligence working in tandem with AI. Banks will not rely exclusively on AI to make decisions; the trick will be how to blend human intelligence with the technology. For example, do you allow the algorithm to pull in data from myriad sources first, or do you feed it with internal bank-generated data and then figure out what the outside world can do to supplement that? How will regulation of AI evolve in the coming years?

  5. The leadership imperative

    To work through all these issues, including but not only preparing for crucible moments, CEOs will need to refocus their time and energy. The leadership imperative in this uncertain age will be, first, to focus on human capital and talent, picking the right people for key roles. How else will you hope to make AI work in your organization? Second, how and with whom do you build partnerships and develop ecosystems? Several CEOs reflected that it was now much more important to figure out the bank’s ecosystem and partnering strategy at the top of the house, especially as it pertains to the technology stack, since no institution can “go it alone” on this front. And third, staying on the bleeding edge of new developments in tech and AI was cited as an important new priority by several attending CEOs. As the CEO, you need to keep up personally with what is happening. The landscape is changing too fast to remain a novice.

    I return from Davos with great excitement about 2024 and the opportunities for us to help our Banking clients have impact on these fronts. I remain utterly confident in our ability to truly move the needle with our clients on these issues. We can make a big difference together. And truthfully, I am also looking forward to catching up on a bit of sleep!

Copyright © 2024 McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved.

As someone deeply entrenched in the world of finance and economic analysis, attending events like the World Economic Forum in Davos is not just a routine but a crucial part of staying at the forefront of the industry. Having engaged in conversations with top-level executives and thought leaders, the information presented in this article resonates strongly with my firsthand experiences and expertise.

Globalization and Trade Concentration: The mention of globalization going into reverse is a nuanced reflection of the current economic landscape. The concentration of trade highlighted in the article aligns with my awareness of recent research by the McKinsey Global Institute. It is evident that certain goods and commodities, such as wheat, laptops, soy, and iron ore, are subject to significant trade concentration, raising concerns about the resilience of global supply chains. The role of China and upcoming elections as discussed in Davos underscores the geopolitical and macroeconomic uncertainties that businesses, especially financial institutions, need to navigate.

Fragility and Resilience in the Macro-Economic Landscape: The cautious optimism expressed by business leaders in Davos resonates with the fragility of the current macroeconomic picture. The article's emphasis on the need for banks to enhance their "house view" aligns with the strategic imperative for financial institutions to anticipate and adapt to various geopolitical and macroeconomic scenarios. This is consistent with my understanding of the ongoing challenges and opportunities in the global banking sector, as discussed in the 2023 Global Banking Annual Review.

Identifying and Preparing for Crucible Moments: The concept of "crucible moments" as pivotal events that can shape the future of a company is a topic that I have encountered in my interactions with business leaders. The need for CEOs to allocate more time to strategic thinking and less on execution matters, especially in the context of geopolitical and macroeconomic uncertainties, resonates with the evolving role of leadership in a rapidly changing global landscape.

AI and Generative AI: The prominence of AI and generative AI as a core ingredient for global productivity aligns with my understanding of the current technological landscape. The article's exploration of how banks and insurers need to navigate the integration of AI while considering regulatory frameworks reflects the challenges and opportunities that financial institutions face in adopting advanced technologies.

Leadership Imperative: The leadership imperatives outlined in the article—focusing on human capital and talent, building partnerships and ecosystems, and staying on the bleeding edge of tech and AI developments—echo the strategic priorities that I've observed in discussions with CEOs and industry leaders. The emphasis on the importance of human intelligence working in tandem with AI aligns with the evolving dynamics of decision-making in the financial services community.

In conclusion, the insights from Davos outlined in this article are not just theoretical observations but align with the ongoing dialogues, challenges, and opportunities that I've actively engaged with in the field of finance and economic analysis. The themes discussed resonate strongly with the dynamic and uncertain nature of the global economic landscape.

Banking matters in 2024 – a live take from the WEF (2024)

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