Banks and ice

Some years ago, I happened to be reading William Bernstein’s A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World when I was mildly startled to see a reference to the magnitude of America’s 19th century ice trade. Startled because I’d never heard of this trade despite that fact that ice was America’s second largest export tonnage (second only to King Cotton) at the time of the Civil War! I immediately resolved to learn more and a few moments of augmented intelligence (ie, Google) threw up the name of Frederic Tudor, the “Ice King” who invented the industry. From there it was a quick jump to Gavin Weightman’s The Frozen Water Trade, one of my favourite books.

The story of Frederic Tudor (perhaps “yarn” might be a better description) ranges over most of the seven seas, taking in privateers, shipwrecks, invention, speculation, enterprise and vision on the way. Tudor had an idea and spent years, in a truly American fashion, pursuing it until he had created an entirely new market and had satisfied it through an entirely new industry. When he shipped his first cargo of New England ice down to Martinique in 1806, he thought he would have a sure-fire success. But the inhabitants had no idea what to do with it: if you’ve never seen ice, would you buy some? Eventually he found using it to make ice cream a moderate economic success and was encouraged to continue. A decade later, his breakthrough came when he began shipping not to the Caribbean but to Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans and the business began taking off.

At the same time, an ice ecosystem began to develop. Downstream, the waste water coming off of the melting ice was sold as a cold draught rather than poured down the drain. Upstream, the demand for sawdust (used to insulate the ice cargos) from the Maine timber industry (previously a nuisance) generated more wealth. New technology was applied to cutting, storing and hauling the ice.

Frederic’s marketing strategy was dynamite. He created an insatiable demand for two main products: ice cream and cold drinks. When opening up a new town, he would provide free ice to bartenders knowing that customers would never go back to warm drinks once they’d tried a mint julip or an iced tea. It seemed to me slightly reminiscent of the bottled water industry today: create a demand, satisfy it and the use brand to drive up the price. Indeed, Weightman notes that the only difference between “Wenham Lake Ice” (one of the main brands of the time) and other ice was purely marketing.

Tudor was a ruthless businessman, seeing off competitors by lowering the price of his ice to ruin them, but not a perfect one. Some of his enterprises outside ice went well (graphite mining and property) and some not so well (he lost a fortune speculating on coffee futures). In any case, by 1849 the ice trade he had created was going so well that he ran out of ice in Boston and had to send a ship and a crew north to cut chunks off of icebergs!

“To speak literally, a hundred Irishmen, with Yankee overseers, came from Cambridge every day to get out the ice. They divided it into cakes by methods too well known to require description…” — Henry David Thoreau, from “The Pond in Winter,” Walden

From The ice men come to Walden Pond (Walden 186) | The Curious People

By the time Thoreau was moaning about the ice trade disturbing his peace on Walden Pond, Tudor was shipping ice to Calcutta (where the grateful British Raj coined him a medal), round the Cape to San Francisco and even to Australia. In America, ice was no longer a luxury item but an essential comfort.

Naturally, as I followed this wonderful tale, I couldn’t help but try and extract key messages around the intersection between economics and technology. In this field, there is a definite paradox around Frederic and I find it fascinating. Frederic was not a luddite by any means and appears excited by the new inventions of the time. In 1830, he predicted that “steam will soon take the place of horses” and went on to say that “the times are surcharged with novel inventions and improvements of all kinds… steam seems now the ordinary power: in all probability some other and more convenient one will be discovered”. And, of course, it was.

Yet as Weightman notes in passing, it never seems to have occurred to Frederic that someone might “undermine his ice trade by manufacturing ice or making an artificial refrigerator”. Perhaps it is some kind of innovator’s curse, to imagine change in all businesses except the one they have created: it’s why Bill Gates didn’t invent Google and why Akio Moirta didn’t invent the iPod.

As it turned out, when artificial refrigerators did arrive, they at first bolstered the trade by providing an inexhaustible, year-round supply of clean ice for shipping through the existing supply chain before, in time, they destroyed the trade by decentralising ice making to the point of consumption. Destroyed the trade so thoroughly, in fact, that few people remember that it ever existed. The market that Frederic’s genius created is still with us, but the industry he created to service it has melted away.

This is how I see the banking sector. As the former CEO of Barlcays, Anthony Jenkins, said (I paraphrase), banks digitised banking rather than make it digital and are facing the “Uber moments” to come. The digital financial services revolution has barely begun. Our cool new finance stuff is running on some very old rails.

The banks have indeed spotted the invention of refrigeration and they have taken the first primitive refrigerators (e.g., the blockchain) and are using them to make blocks of ice that are then packed in sawdust and sent off in sailing ships just as they were before (by which I, of course, mean the legacy information technology infrastructure). Meanwhile, other people (the fintechs, the internet giants, new businesses yet to be born) are looking at decentralisation and are shipping the fridges rather than the ice. They are looking at using blockchain technologies to create new and decentralised markets founded on translucent transactions and ambient accountability.

I hope this isn’t too clumsy a metaphor for taking a look at the 21st century technologies that are already upon us (ranging from biometrics and the blockchain to artificial intelligence and the internet of things) to try and see what they will really do to the financial services sector in general and the banking industry in particular. I think I have a fairly structured way of thinking through these issues and, more importantly, I think I have an idea for a new book…