Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Wall Street Told to Fear the Machine as Emerging Tech Takes Jobs

  • AI to blockchain seen shifting finance focus to computers
  • Comments come at a techology impact panel at Milken Conference

Dear mid-level Wall Street worker, your computer is coming to get you. 

From artificial intelligence to the blockchain, the world of finance is being transformed by emerging technologies, and that will mean lots of lost jobs, according to several panelists at the Milken Institute Global Conference.

Software engineers, whole technology departments, and anyone who’s moving numbers from one spreadsheet to another is “going to get decimated,” Daniel Nadler, chief executive officer of Kensho Technologies Inc., said Monday on a panel about technology’s impact on Wall Street. Kensho provides data analytics to banks.

“You have probably the most expensive utility infielders in the world here,” earning six figures for work of little real value, Nadler said. “Those people are not going to have jobs. It’s only shocking to the people who hold those jobs right now.”

Job Cuts

Banks have cut tens of thousands of jobs since the 2008 financial crisis as global regulatory changes have shattered the old banking models. That trend will continue as the complexity and interconnections of financial markets increasingly mean computer algorithms and artificial intelligence take over the roles of human decision-makers.

David Siegel, co-chairman of Two Sigma Investments LP, which has $35 billion under management, said the day may come when banks aren’t even needed to hold money if digital currencies like bitcoin flourish. With blockchain, the distributed software protocol that enables bitcoin to work, authorities like central banks and governments may also see their roles vastly diminished, he said. “It’s a remarkable power structure shift,” he said.

“It will ultimately be very hard for governments to stop this advancement because this technology will be so widely available,” making it hard to police, Siegel said. “Probably the same thing will happen with virtual currencies. How do you stop it? It’s software.”

Banks have moved vast resources and money into their regulatory and compliance departments in the past several years, Adena Friedman, chief operating officer of Nasdaq Inc., said on the panel. Only now can financial firms start concentrating on new business opportunities to increase efficiency. “That’s been a really big shift,” she said. “They are about embracing the technology today, whether it’s Kensho or blockchain.”

Nadler said the job losses and repositioning of Wall Street ultimately will help refurbish bankers’ image with young people. He talked about the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and its resonance with millenials, who are livid over the “rent” that finance extracts from the economy without providing corresponding benefits. That rent-taking is done by “really mediocre people feeling entitled” at the world’s largest banks, Nadler said.

Wall Street Love?

That assessment received a quick gut check from Siegel. “People will love Wall Street because we move our technology to the cloud?” he said, laughing.

Yet not all is lost, according to Corrie Elston, Google Inc.’s chief technology officer for Google Cloud Platform.

“The reason everyone in this room should be super happy about machine intelligence is because it’s about data,” he said. The sheer amount and complexity of data related to financial markets has overcome human computational powers, so bringing in machines to process it all is almost the only alternative, and can lead to new opportunities, he said.

“Boom! There’s a different way to do business,” he said.

He was less sanguine on recent blockchain developments. The blockchain that supports bitcoin is open to the public because it employs powerful encryption methods. Yet financial firms haven’t wanted to create blockchains where they don’t know all the participants, so they’ve opted to explore so-called private blockchains.

“Private blockchains will disappear over time” because they amount to nothing more than a database, Elston said. A situation like Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s 2008 bankruptcy wouldn’t have been avoided if it had been on a private blockchain, and in fact it would have made things worse, he said.

Nasdaq’s Friedman disagreed. Banks want to know who is in a blockchain network because of regulatory mandates. And Lehman’s trading partners would have had a clear record of all deals done with the bank prior to its failure, she said.

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