Unbank the banked

Around the world there are hundreds of millions, billions of unbanked people. But why are so many people unbanked? It can’t be because there is a shortage of banks as there are more banks, challenger banks, neo-banks and near-banks than you can shake a stick at. There must be some other problem and, as the old saying goes, where there is a problem there is an opportunity. It’s a pretty big opportunity, too. The Economist summarises the situation in America as follows: access to banks can be costly and seven million households are unbanked, relying on cheque-cashing firms, pawn shops and payday lenders.

So what should be done? Let’s start by talking about the people who want a bank account but can’t get one because they lack the necessary identification documentation or perhaps other skills needed to function in that mode (eg, literacy). These are the true unbanked. As Wired magazine pointed out, basic bank accounts (which are mandated by the UK government) are accessible to those with poor credit histories, while niche banks including Revolut and Monzo do not usually ask potential customers for proof of address in order to open an account. So it seems reasonable to ask why almost two million British adults still do not have a bank account, never mind adults in emerging markets!

Maybe it’s because banks don’t provide anything useful for them. Think about the large numbers of people who are banked (but also use the products and services provided by fintechs, such as myself) and the people who are underbanked: the people who have a bank account but don’t really want it and don’t use the services offered because the bank account is an 18th-century product designed for a bygone age. Professor Lisa Servon wrote “The Unbanking of America” about this a few years ago, based on her experiences working in a check-cashing operation in New York (I cannot recommend this book highly enough), and the bank experience hasn’t changed much since then.

There’s a very interesting take on all of this in Charlotte Principato’s note on “How the Roughly One-Quarter of Underbanked U.S. Adults Differ From Fully Banked Individuals” over at Morning Consult. This goes into the demographic details of the fully banked, unbanked and underbanked U.S. population and is serious food for thought. In her survey, underbanked people were defined as having done at least one of three activities with a provider other than a bank or credit union in the past year: purchased a money order, paid bills or cashed a check. It is interesting to note that most (58%) of underbanked consumers say they could manage their finances just fine without a bank!

We have a situation, in fact, where some of the banked, most of the underbanked and all of the unbanked are turning to alternative providers because banks cannot or will not deliver the services that these customers want. Let’s together label these the “underserved”. I think the majority of adults are now underserved (prove me wrong!) and therefore continue represent an astonishing range of scale and scope opportunities for non-banks.

Serve The Underserved

Bank accounts are quite expensive things to run (as they should be, because banks should be heavily regulated). In some countries the banks are forced to offer a basic bank account to anybody who can jump the identification hurdle to get one. But a great many of these customers won’t be very profitable and it costs the banks a lot to serve them. Why continue to force banks to provide money-losing services to people who don’t want them anyway?

11 closing

with kind permission of TheOfficeMuse (CC-BY-ND 4.0)

What the underserved need are not banks but new kinds of regulated financial institutions that deliver the modern services needed to support a 24/7 always-on economy. What are these services? As the economist John Kay noted in his recent paper on “A Robust and Resilient Finance” for the Korean Institute of Finance, while “many aspects of the modern financial system are designed to give an impression of overwhelming urgency… only its most boring part – the payments system – is an essential utility on whose continuous functioning the modern economy depends”.

In similar vein, in their new book “The Pay Off-How Changing the Way we Pay Changes Everything” Gottfriend Leibrandt (who was CEO of SWIFT from 2012 until 2019) and Natasha de Teran write that “while access to a banking system is seen as a crucial part of a country’s development and necessary for lifting people out of poverty, it is not as basic a need as the ability to pay”.

In other words, the fundamental need and the basis for inclusion in society is not a bank account or anything like it, but a safe and secure way to get paid and to pay for goods and services. And this is not a revelation! It seems to me that great many people would be well served by a simple digital wallet that might be provided by any of range of organisations from Facebook to Square. The goal of a modern and forward-looking strategy should be not to bank the unbanked but to unbank the banked.

(An edited version of this piece first appeared on Forbes, 11th September 2021.)

National Wealth Service

In the UK, last year’s report on “Consumer Priorities for Open Banking” by Faith Reynolds and Mark Chidley (which is, by the way, an excellent piece of work and well worth reading) set out just why it is that open banking by itself delivers quite limited benefits for consumers. They point towards a future of open finance (and, indeed, open everything else as well) and talk about an industry that uses the new technologies of artificial intelligence, APIs, digital identity and so on to take a more complete view of a customer’s situation and provide services that increase the overall financial health of that customer. I thought this was a very interesting way of creating a narrative for the next-generation fintech and regtech propositions.

Oct1 financial health

with kind permission of TheOfficeMuse (CC-BY-ND 4.0)

We are beginning to see initiatives focused on financial health and wellness. My good friend Rik Coeckelbergs, founder of “The Banking Scene” in Belgium, talks in those terms also. He recently wrote that a bank must support its customers in having “a financially balanced life, helping them to reduce financial stress by improving their financial wellbeing”. The more I think about it, the more I agree with Rik that this should be one of the societal responsibilities of banks as heavily-regulated players crucial to the nation’s well-being. Just as electricity companies are regulated to not only produce electricity but not to pollute their environment or kill consumers because of poor safety, so perhaps it is time to apply some similar thinking.

Two-thirds of executives surveyed said financial health was important but less than fifth were reporting on it. Click To Tweet

Where should we start? As the CFSI reported, while more than two-thirds of executives surveyed said financial health was a “strategic priority”, less than a fifth were actually reporting on customer financial health, which would seem to be a good trigger for practical initiatives and a way to encourage regulators, partners and customers themselves to ask questions about improvements in financial wellbeing. That’s not to say that nothing is happening, of course! For example, JPMorgan Chase have committed to give $125 million over the next five years to non-profits working around the world to improve the financial health of underserved communities and efforts such as this deserve applause.

Writing more recently in the Harvard Business Review, Todd Baker and Corey Stone explore some interesting ideas around this. They say that the prevailing paradigm (of markets and choice) has created a regulatory system that “largely places responsibility — absent the most egregious abuse — on the individual consumer”. They argue for a radically different regulatory structure to more directly connect the success of financial services providers to their customers’ financial health, a where-are-the-customers’-yachts approach where banks prosper when their account holders prosper. They draw an interesting analogy by comparing this approach with experiments in the American health marketplace that pay providers for improving patients health, “rather than paying them simply for treating patients regardless of the outcome of the medical intervention”.

My good friend Ron Shevlin wrote a great piece about this in Forbes arguing that financial health platforms will emerge to provide this next generation of financial services and pointing out that it will provide some terrific opportunities for fintechs. He suggests that aggregators such as MX, Plaid, Yodlee or Finicity could be a real catalyst in making something happen. I agree: if we can connect the potential for open banking to provide the data to the potential for new players to use that data, we can expect to see real innovation. This kind of thinking delivers a useful narrative for stakeholders to communicate around the post-pandemic financial services they must necessarily develop to support communities in their recovery from the COVID chaos and beyond.

I think this is really important. Refocusing the sector on delivering financial health, rather than financial services has implications that go way beyond choosing better credit cards or spending less on coffee and more on pensions. The American Psychological Association considers financial stress to be one of the top stressors in America and research shows clearly that financial stress and economic hardships link to a variety of very negative physical and mental health outcomes, ranging from abuse and neglect to household dysfunction and heart disease. There is no doubt about it: improving financial health improves health in general.

In order to do this, financial health providers will need a better picture of individuals and their circumstances. They need the raw data to work with. Just as the doctor needs X-rays, bloods and histories, so the AI that powers an effective financial health provider needs your transaction records from your checking account, your mortgage, your pension, your insurers and everywhere else. In the current economic downturn, to highlight the obvious example, many people make a lot mistakes in managing their finance through stressful and unfamiliar circumstances. But as was pointed out in the Wall Street Journal recently, most of these mistakes are very basic. It does not take a giant supercomputer and all of the data in the word to stop people from falling into common traps around the way they borrow, save, spend and invest.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we need a National Wealth Service in the UK, but we might imagine a situation where employers strive to improve employees wealth, just as they provide health benefits now by funding financial counseling as an employee benefit. The cost of providing such services, in a world of AI and machine learning, is affordable and delivers something of real value to the normal person who is, frankly, as ill-equipped as I am to make decisions about pension plans and savings and so on.

This is why I so sure that the connection with open banking, open finance and open data means the potential for a real revolution in consumer finance and this time it will be a  revolution that will make life better for the average consumer.

[This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Forbes on 1st October 2020.]