A new report sets ambitious targets for Scotland’s financial services, but the road is not without its obstacles, says TERRY MURDEN
Scottish Financial Enterprise has set out its goals for the next five years in a document laced with grand plans for transforming the sector and reaffirming Scotland’s place at the fop table of the financial services sector. It’s a vision that deserves support, though there is a growing gulf between some of its bolder objectives and the reality of staying ahead, and ensuring customers are not left behind in the quest for greater sophistication.
As SFE’s CEO Sandy Begbie states in the 22-page report, financial services are an essential pillar of the economy but need to work hard in order to fend off competition. In UK terms, Scotland is the largest financial and professional services sector outside London and, London aside, consistently heads the list of locations for overseas investment.
Aided by a leading role in fintech and artificial intelligence, there are plans to propel Scotland into the world’s top regional hubs and raise the value of assets under management to £1 trillion by 2030.
But the competition for financial flows, people and technology has never been more intense. New financial hubs are emerging in rapidly maturing economies in Asia, such as Busan in South Korea, while others are developing in established US centres such as Boston and Atlanta. In the UK, there are growing financial centres in Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham and Bristol.
Brexit has given Amsterdam, Paris and Dublin a renewed impetus to get ahead of London, while technology is transforming the sector, meaning that location is not quite as important.
As SFE plots a steeply rising curve, the corporate outlook is much less uncertain. Abrdn, formerly Standard Life Aberdeen, has closed its once star performing GARS fund, the company is valued at just £3bn, or almost a quarter of its market cap in 2017 and it has been ejected from the FTSE 100 for a second time. Far from growing its headcount, it recently left its head office in Edinburgh and relocated to smaller premises.
Tesco Bank, one of the Edinburgh-based challenger banks, is facing an uncertain future after the supermarket group instigated a review and hired advisers to consider selling it. Sainsbury’s Bank, also based in the capital, has seen its mortgage book offloaded to Lloyds. M&G, the wealth manager with significant numbers of staff in Stirling and Edinburgh, is subject to talk of an eventual break up.
There are even questions over the data stating that Scotland’s financial services get the most inward investment outside London. A 2021 report from EY showed Scotland had slipped from second to fourth behind London, the West Midlands and Northern Ireland. It must also be borne in mind that there is an increasing overlap between finance and technology, so counting these jobs as financial becomes trickier.
While fintech is a growing sector, many who work in it would class themselves as IT workers, providing technical support services to banking, insurance and other jobs traditionally classed as financial services. The much-vaunted development of artificial intelligence may create new jobs but no one can say for certain how many ‘back-office’ roles will disappear.
Beyond the grand design lies the customer whose needs will either be enhanced by technology or else left behind in a world becoming divided between those who are able to keep up and those who cannot even access financial services.
While the sector came together on Thursday for a night of back-slapping achievements, as many as 100,000 people in Scotland – and more than a million across the UK – do not even have a bank account. For many of these, all the AI and fintech developments mean nothing unless they help improve financial literacy and access to affordable credit.
At least 265 bank branches are set to close this year alone, and 62 parliamentary constituencies are down to one or no local banks. The UK has lost over half its bank network since 2015, amounting to more than 5,700, leaving only 4,000, at a time when banks are pulling in record profits.
I didn’t notice this being referenced in the report.
Perhaps someone should have a word with Nationwide Building Society, led these days by ex-Clydesdale Bank executive Debbie Crosbie, which has committed to keeping branches open and this month overtook the banks to have the largest branch network on the high street. If Nationwide can do it, why not the banks?
Dragon fires up fans
There was a lot of cooing and hollering last week over social media marketing entrepreneur and Dragons’ Den panelist Steven Bartlett who was given pop star treatment when he addressed a sold-out event in Aberdeen.
“Steven’s inspirational insights and wisdom left us all amazed,” said Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce in one of many complimentary social media posts.
“Amazing evening, very insightful with Steven’s passion for what he does and how he develops himself, his businesses and his teams,” wrote another.
A clearly delighted fan added: “What a night. I’m in awe! Steven was brilliant live, candid and authentic. Delightfully good at sharing his insights with captivating stories.
Sadly, none of these keen followers managed to spell out exactly what he said that was so inspirational.
A press release, received belatedly, didn’t help much, referring only to his “business lessons and inspirational stories from his rise to fame”.
Many of the 1,400 who attended what was clearly a good night out came away away feeling uplifted, but having not been there I’m none the wiser.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business