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Citi accused of attempting to implement AI on the back of Excel spreadsheets

If you're trying to implement artificial intelligence (AI) as a means of cutting costs and trimming headcount, you need to get your data sorted first. As one data scientist explained to us earlier this year, there's a tendency for organizations with big AI aspirations to hire people to implement AI solutions, only for those hires to realize that the foundational data work isn't in place. 

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Business Insider's article on the technology challenges at Citi's wealth business suggests that Citi might be one of the organizations whose data is in disarray.

BI says Citi's co-CIO Shadman Zafar wants to implement large language models (LLM) as a way of speeding up the modernization of Citi's unwieldy legacy software platforms. The bank reportedly still has 6,000 legacy application, and managed to retire a mere 400 last year. However, BI also quotes Citi insiders as claiming that Citi's data isn't ready for this widespread rollout of AI tools: in some cases, it's still contained in Excel spreadsheets.

BI cites a recent audit by Ernst & Young which allegedly estimated that the bank needs to spend $500m updating its wealth management technology alone and said that there's "no single source of truth for many crucial elements." A lot of processes are still manual and that when they're not manual, insiders say they're underpinned by Excel spreadsheets. "That to me, in 2024, is almost as bad as not having cell service in your home," one former MD said.

Citi declined to comment on the claims. A head of data science at a major firm, tells us that data preparedness is the main issue preventing AI solutions from working. "A lot of boards have AI FOMO and will ask for LLMs to be implemented, but the data strategy is almost never in place," he says. "You arrive thinking that the data will be usable, only to find that it's all in different databases or in Excel file somewhere. " A managing director in AI at a rival US bank says that this is why organizations have spent years collecting data in data warehouses and data lakes: "You can't do AI on top of Excel, you need the data collected in a clean and accessible way."

Citi is presumably moving to get its data sorted out, but in the wealth management business it needs to do while simultaneously growing revenues and cutting expenses. In the absence of automation, it looks overstaffed. Citing the BI report, Citi says each member of operations staff at Citi's wealth management unit manages only 3% of the assets managed by comparable team members at the average global bank.

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • N_
    28 June 2024

    Important data stranded in spreadsheets that was never formalized into a proper IT system was a big contributor to the financial crisis in 2007-8. In many shops, the specifics of all these new, innovative and complex mortgage derivatives were recorded only in custom spreadsheets, and as soon as someone left or got laid off, no one even knew the sheets were there. And then when trouble started, it took forever for banks to even learn what exposure they actually had on their books.

    Probably less of a disaster to have this be the case in Wealth Mgt (which is not the most complex accounting, especially at the individual level) but it's still a warning sign. No one ever wants to spend all they need to on IT, especially when it comes to maintaining current business lines.

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