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Banks roll out robots as pandemic shakes up IT plans

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LONDON: When banks were flooded with loan requests from businesses struggling with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, hastily built robots helped several lenders cope with the deluge.
The bots were one of many quick technology changes deployed across the industry during the crisis, a contrast to the slow progress it’s made in the past two decades to improve technology in the face of increasing competition from fintech rivals. Now the jolt from the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the process even though banks globally are having to cut IT spending this year for the first time since 2009, based on data from research company IDC.
“Bots allowed us to process a much higher volume of applications than we would have been able to do before. It meant the timelines didn’t get longer with the massive volume,” said Simon McNamara, chief administrative officer at Britain’s NatWest NWG.L, which has granted more than 13 billion pounds ($16.90 billion) of state-backed loans.
It is a pattern that has played out across banks globally, where technology changes that would usually take months were done in a matter of days.
At Citigroup C.N, there was a 300% rise from a year earlier in the number of new accounts opened digitally by corporate or fund clients during March, while the number of those clients using its online and app services rose 25%.
“We were seeing this trend pre-COVID but it accelerated during COVID,” Naveed Sultan, Citi’s C.N global head of transaction banking, said.
“The traditional ways of working became almost non-existent.” But as banks have to budget for a pick-up in loan losses due to the pandemic, some projects, such as large-scale customer data mining to offer more personalised services may have to be shelved, IDC research showed.
Global IT spend by banks is set to shrink by 1.7% this year to $200 billion, down from $203.5 billion in 2019, based on IDC data. Growth is then forecast to resume over the next three years, albeit at a slower pace.
Banks have prioritised process automation in the face of spiking workloads as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, based on IDC surveys of bank executives.
Santander’s SAN.MC UK division rolled out data analytics tools to speed up loan application processing and credit checking as borrowers came under strain.
“We had prepared but the volume was higher than expected,” Santander UK’s chief technology officer Carlos Selonke told Reuters. “It’s a huge focus for us, making changes to increase our velocity.”
Swiss bank UBS UBSG.S developed six bots within three days which assisted client advisers in handling the immense inflow of coronavirus crisis loan requests from businesses in Switzerland, said Mike Dargan, global head of group technology at UBS.
Banks have also been prioritising shifting data to the cloud to speed up response times and allow more staff to work from home, while also bolstering defences against the growing threat of cyber attacks.
“We had four main focus areas, remote working to enable the employees at UBS, system stability, as we saw a lot of volatility, cyber security, and operations continuity,” UBS’s Dargan told media.


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