A big Dutch bank is replacing 5,800 people with machines, at a cost of $2 billion

Branch network.
Branch network.
Image: Reuters/Claro Cortes
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European banks are desperately trying to find ways to save money in these straitened times. ING, a major Dutch lender, announced this week that it plans to save €900 million ($1 billion) a year by cutting 5,800 jobs as part of a “digital transformation.” A further 1,200 employees will have their jobs changed or moved.

This transformation doesn’t come cheap. ING plans to invest €800 million over the next five years on technology that will standardize its infrastructure, data, and other processes into “one digital banking platform.” Most of the job losses will be full-time staff in Belgium and the Netherlands, where risk management, finance, HR, and IT functions will be centralized. In Belgium, the number of ING branches will be cut to 650, from 1,200.

The bank is setting aside €1.1 billion for redundancy payments. Added to the IT investments, the rough bill for replacing people with machines will run to the equivalent of more than $2 billion.

This has predictably irked unions. They are particularly angry because ING received a €10-billion government bailout in 2008 to keep it afloat.

ING customers expect the same level of service from their bank as they get from Netflix, Facebook, or Spotify, says Raymond Vermeulen, a spokesperson for the bank. “We have to adapt. The consequence is that we can do it with less people.” In response to the unions’ gripe about the bailout, he says it wasn’t the government’s goal “to ensure forever that the employees were there.” Instead, “the clear objective was to save the financial system and make sure the people who had savings money in the bank that their money was safe.”

Some studies suggest that around 10% of jobs in rich countries are at risk of automation. The more rote the tasks, the more susceptible they are to robot labor—a widely cited study puts banking jobs like teller and loan officer at better than 90% odds of “computerization.” Upstart fintech companies are now launching banks that deliver services almost exclusively via mobile apps, bypassing all the legacy costs of large workforces and outdated technology.

Indeed, ING is far from alone in launching a costly technical transformation. Last week, Germany’s Commerzbank announced that by 2020 it will digitalize and automate 80% of its processes, cutting 9,600 full-time jobs, at a cost of €1.1 billion, as a result. Meanwhile, RBS is about to launch an online, AI-powered customer-service system (paywall), which can apparently read a customer’s moods and respond accordingly. It also, presumably, never takes breaks and doesn’t ask for any perks.