PAYMENTS: Is Digital Banking hurting the Underbanked?

Here's a conundrum. You don't have a bank account and therefore cannot set up a digital payment option. Now try ordering and paying for an Uber! This example reveals a simple truth: digital services -- and in particular digital financial services -- can be regressive (benefit the haves, hurt the have-nots). As countries like the United Kingdom, China, India and the Nordics move towards demonetization, driven by technology and policy, the social and structural implications of getting rid of cash could make things a lot worse for the most vulnerable. Based on a recent UK report linked below, lowest grade workers and the unemployed use cash 49% of the time for their purchases, while those in the highest professional occupations use cash only 39% of the time. And conversely, card use is split at 37% (low income) vs. 44% (high income).

Weird. Fintech is supposed to be a democratizing force that allows anyone, regardless of account size, to access quality financial product. Let's stick with the UK for a clean analysis. If you look at penetration of mobile devices, 85% of the populace owned a smartphone in 2017, massively up from 52% in 2012. So that means, generally speaking, most people have some payment-enabled digital hardware that they can lug around in their pocket. And yet that device is not the financial key (yet) for the unbanked and underbanked. Why? One hypothesis is to look closer at the rails on which money travels, and their interoperability.

The first is paper cash. It requires no intermediaries, at least in concept, and therefore 100% of the population is able to "self custody" a little bit of it under their bed, and use it for commerce. The second is banking. Banking intermediates the financial system, and allows for modern services to function and thrive. But it also has an onboarding cost, set by the banking industry's risk tolerance, set by the legislator and the regulator, which may be prohibitive to some share of the population. It excludes "bad risks" by design. Banking also introduces costs into moving money around, which must be covered through business activity, and often warps into unethical economic rents (i.e., overdraft fees). When we talk about mobile payments, what we are really talking about is extending the banking system into the population that has adopted mobile phones -- and this excludes unbanked mobile users. As homework, we suggest the reader think about WeChat (mobile UX, media industry intermediation, government rails) and Bitcoin (mobile UX, hardware industry intermediation, blockchain rails) as being a solution to avoiding the regressive outcome. 

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Source: Access to Cash (Report), Consultancy UK (2017 mobile penetration), Latin America's Banking Revolution (Euromoney)