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Refocusing on the use of formal savings services

posted Apr 8, 2014, 5:14 AM by Ignacio Mas
 [From Center for Financial Inclusion blog, 8 April 2014] 

Too much of post-microcredit financial inclusion still operates as a numbers game. We declare victors and write up successes based on headline customer acquisition rates, without looking much at underlying usage patterns. We continue to quote customer uptake or account registration numbers when providers give us nothing else to go by. We declare customers active and ourselves satisfied when customers use the service once every 1-3 months – can you imagine the education, electricity, water and sanitation people doing that? We judge customer relevance by scrutinizing average per-customer transaction volumes and sizes, even though those are usually driven entirely by the top ten percent of the distribution. If we looked deeper, we would find that many of those who are deemed to be underbanked are actually irrelevantly banked.

Glossing over usage data is a symptom that we are an industry which thrives on hype, an almost inevitable consequence when you mix a commendable spirit of do-goodism, deep donor pockets, and insatiable social media platforms. But it also has a lot to do with the fact that we actually know very little about what drives customer usage and value of formal financial services, beyond the occasional loan and remote payment.

Especially in the savings space, we are lacking an overall perspective on how to tackle the problem of relevance. We feel we need data, so we engage researchers to run excruciatingly detailed financial diaries, quantitative surveys, and randomized control trials. We feel we need product ideas, so we hire consultants to tell us what is successful elsewhere, though alas that is generally based on those awkward headline customer acquisition numbers. We feel we need processes, so we engage branded designers to run innovative rapid prototyping exercises. But it feels difficult to make all this come together purposefully.

A more structured approach would be based on formulating some key questions which can help sharpen our focus and narrow the solution search space. Let me propose three such questions, again focused on savings:

1. Changing savings behaviors versus changing savings mechanisms. A classic evaluation framework which VCs use to evaluate projects is the  is the proposed project targeting an existing or a new product, and is it doing so in an existing or a new market? They will typically shun heroic projects which propose new products in new markets. The analogy in financial inclusion would be: are we trying to get people to save more (changing behavior), or are we trying to create new ways for them to channel their existing savings behavior (new mechanism)? Put differently: are we trying to find new savings triggers (through behavioral insights or financial education) or are we trying to productize existing informal practices? My guess is that the latter will be an easier path than the former, though both are in principle valid. Unfortunately, much current savings product innovation is aiming for a muddled middle: new ways for people to do new things.

2. Primacy of savings goals versus savings vessels. It´s quite clear that separation of money into distinct lumps is core to people´s savings practices, as this helps them budget and maintain discipline in how money is used. But in staging this separation through a formal savings service, is it better to reinforce the savings goals or the savings vehicles themselves? A plethora of new web-based banking services, mostly in developed countries, now require that the customer start by articulating a goal (e.g. SmartyPig, Goalmine, Simple, Coinc). Being goal-oriented is meant to enhance motivation to save and build discipline. These services in fact have a financial education agenda. And yet my own observation is that most poor people do not have very concrete goals beyond some immediate concerns like paying the next round of bills or some inevitable lifecycle ones like marrying a daughter. They don’t lack other goals (like buying home appliances), they just keep them purposely fuzzy. If you have precarious finances, this is advantageous because your objectives must adapt to your evolving circumstances, and you can´t afford to set your heart on any one thing because there is a good chance you won´t get it due to circumstances beyond your control. Instead of fixing on concrete goals, they come to see their savings vehicles (cows, jewels, a ROSCA, etc.) as a proxy for a bunch of things they might buy with them if they achieve their savings goals. Forcing them to pick a goal may not feel natural to them, and that´s not for lack of financial savvy or determination.

3. Help me save versus help me keep it saved. Will formal savings services be more useful to people by helping them fall into a pattern of setting money aside regularly (providing discipline in), or by helping them avoid temptations to raid the money they´ve previously set aside when it is not so justified (providing discipline out)? In other words, should they emphasize rules about when and how much to save, or frictions which lay out conditions for liquidity? This is of course a question of balance. In informal finance, participating in ROSCAs and taking on loans are the main discipline-in mechanisms, while longer-term informal savings mechanism such as cows and jewels offer no rules but have many liquidity frictions built into them (indivisibility, waiting period, social peer pressure, financial penalty,…) which could be usefully emulated by formal financial products.

There may be better questions or better ways of articulating these particular questions. But it seems to me that if we don´t frame the discussion at this level it will be difficult to have a constructive global debate on how to promote formal financial services.