announcements‎ > ‎

The great competition and innovation deficit

posted Oct 29, 2014, 8:55 AM by Ignasi Mas

 [From Center for Financial Inclusion blog, 29 October 2014] 

Have you noticed how narrow the interventions of the chorus of financial inclusion supporters have become? Academic researchers are immersed in proving whether an SMS message sent at the right time can push people to repay their loans more promptly (a.k.a. nudges), or whether someone with more savings is likely to be happier and more empowered in some way (a.k.a. impact evaluations). NGOs fund numerous papers and conferences to promote the idea of seeking early and frequent customer feedback in product design (a.k.a. human-centered design), or of looking into customer data for some clue as to what interests them and how they behave (a.k.a. big data). Donors set up round after round of tenders with subsidized funds to spur fully-grown banks and telcos to try out a new product feature (a.k.a. challenge grants), or to prop up the marketing and distribution wherewithal of selected players (a.k.a. capacity building).

All this buzz surely is positive and the things that come out of these activities may well be part of the answer to the financial inclusion challenge. But this begs the larger question: why aren´t these rather obvious and incremental things done by interested market participants themselves? Why don´t they already experiment with customer communication modes and new product features? Why don´t they eagerly seek out impact data that can drive effective marketing and PR, or more routinely seek customer feedback to improve their products and operations? Why don´t they systematically leverage customer insight as a core asset, and why do they underinvest in novel customer promotion techniques?

In other words, why is there such an inherent innovation deficit within the very commercial ventures that we think are going to drive financial inclusion forward? Do market players really need this very granular level of handholding to getwhat academics, NGOs, and donors so clearly believe in?

To put it more bluntly: do we really need to continue subsidizing sustaining innovation like this? Or is the problem, rather, that there isn´t enough of a competitive push to drive them to want to innovate as a key source of market advantage? Would more competition for and within the market drive the kinds of innovations that are being promoted from the sidelines?

I think the latter. Consider the current innovation frenzy in digital financial services in the US. Google, Amazon, and Apple all want to join early mover PayPal in getting inside or becoming people´s electronic wallets. Facebook and smaller start-ups like Dwolla and Venmo all want to revolutionize how money is sent online. Players like Smartypig, Simple, and Moven want to reinvent how you deal with the money sitting in your bank account. Established players like MasterCard and new ones like Square want to change how you pay for goods at the store. Not to mention, of course, the slew of bitcoin start-ups.

Now ask yourself: why are none of these players vying for the blue space that is the billions of people who are excluded? Aren´t these companies the ones who are best placed, with their high-volume, low-cost digital platforms and viral marketing savvy, to radically transform the economics of financial service delivery? Why isn´t the chorus of financial inclusion supporters simply putting their desire for innovation at the feet of these corporate digital natives?

And let me tell you, they are right not to do so. That´s because there are three things none of these digital players want to deal with – and never will. They do not want to get a banking license that embroils them in onerous regulation. They do not want to conduct primary identity checks on their customers (Know Your Customer, or KYC), which require physical customer contact. And they do not want to touch their customers´ cash. That´s why all digital financial players, exciting as they may seem when you look at their wares online, sit parasitically on top of banks. You will not have access to their services if you do not already have a bank account: to deal with regulatory aspects, to conduct primary KYC, and to do cash in/out through them.

It follows that these digital players will not lead the charge on financial inclusion in developing countries. At most they will wait tactically in the sidelines and pick up customers as they trickle into the formal financial system. But most won´t even do that: these businesses´ DNA is all about scale and network effects, so if they can´t go for size then they may not go there at all.

Unless. Unless we give them an alternative path to delegate, or even avoid, these three things that they don´t want to do. A way into developing markets that does not make them entirely dependent on banks to first open up the space for them. Here´s how. First, give these players the opportunity to get a more lenient e-money license which does not constrain them in what services they can offer customers, but bars them from loaning out or otherwise speculating with (i.e. intermediating) customers´ funds. Second, allow them to offer an entry-level account that requires noidentity checks; cap usage of that appropriately, so that more onerous KYC procedures kick in only when customers are ready to give the account more serious use. And third, delink cash in/out networks from specific account issuers, so that a breed of independent cash in/out network managers emerge with the vocation to serve all issuers, all stores, and all customers. All they should be required to have is a customer account, but not an agency contract, with each issuer. (If you are thinking that this is the standard branchless banking regulatory prescription, think again, or, better yet, read this.)

You will have noticed that these points are all about regulation. Regulation holds the key to creating a competitive environment that is more welcoming of innovative digital players. In the end, the chorus of financial inclusion supporters are getting involved in the supply of innovation simply because they want to avoid the morass that is regulatory reform. But if they truly want to make an impact on financial inclusion, they should go back to focusing on basic market enablement rather than merely filling innovation gaps.