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> Posted by Dr. Katharine Kemp, Research Fellow, UNSW Digital Financial Services Regulation Project

The following post was originally published on the IFMR blog. 

Financial inclusion is not good in itself.

We value financial inclusion as a means to an end. We value financial inclusion because we believe it will increase the well-being, dignity and freedom of poor people and people living in remote areas, who have never had access to savings, insurance, credit and payment services.

It is therefore important to ensure that the way in which financial services are delivered to these people does not ultimately diminish their well-being, dignity and freedom. We already do this in a number of ways – for example, by ensuring providers do not make misrepresentations to consumers, or charge exploitative or hidden rates or fees. Consumers should also be protected from harms that result from data practices, which are tied to the provision of financial services.

Benefits of Big Data and Data-Driven Innovations for Financial Inclusion

“Big data” has become a fixture in any future-focused discussion. It refers to data captured in very large quantities, very rapidly, from numerous sources, where that data is of sufficient quality to be useful. The collected data is analysed, using increasingly sophisticated algorithms, in the hope of revealing new correlations and insights.

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> Posted by Kimberly Lei Pang, Digital Learning Specialist, UNICEF

In the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, the magical word “sesame” was used to open the seal of a cave where Ali Baba found hidden treasure. In China today, the same word is connected to another kind of magic, one that reveals hidden identities of the socially and economically disadvantaged. Sesame Credit (“芝麻信用” in Mandarin) is a product launched by Alibaba that pulls from transaction records on e-commerce platforms to understand a person or company’s creditworthiness. Such innovation in credit scoring is part of the “social credit system” that the Chinese government is building to make up for the longstanding shortage of credit data.

Access to credit, a major indicator of financial inclusion, has gained increasing attention from Chinese policymakers in recent years. For a country experiencing an economic slowdown and widening income gap between the rich and the poor, credit accessibility has the potential to spur growth and level the playing field for the poor. However, despite China’s efforts to improve financial access, a large portion of its population neither uses nor has access to credit. Data from the World Bank’s Global Findex study showed that Chinese people (aged 15+) have relatively high levels of formal bank account ownership (79 percent, 2014) but low levels of credit usage (14 percent, 2014). In fact, China’s formal credit use is the lowest among the five BRICS economies. Aside from the rigidity and costliness of financial institutions, a significant barrier to borrowing is the lack of reliable credit scoring in China. Established just 11 years ago, China’s credit bureau CCRC covers credit profiles for only a quarter of China’s 1.4 billion population and shares that information only with selected banks. Lenders thus often have no access to borrowers’ financial histories and tend to make rather arbitrary decisions on borrowers’ creditworthiness. As a result, many individuals and microenterprises find it difficult to get a loan, as steady employment and collateral assets are commonly required for formal credit.

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> Posted by Vitas Argimon, Credit Suisse Global Citizen Volunteer

This post is part of a multi-post series focused on partnerships between commercial banks and financial technology startups.

(click to enlarge)

Today’s financial sector narrative pits the new guy against the old guy. In the case of financial services, this narrative, as it is often portrayed, places commercial banks, the legacy providers, in direct competition with startups, with both parties vying for customers in a game defined by technological advances. While this narrative sometimes plays out in real life, it leaves out the complex ecosystem of interaction between the old and the new. In fact, when it comes to reaching new customer segments, old players are increasingly turning to startups.

In The Business of Financial Inclusion: Insights from Banks in Emerging Markets, CFI and the Institute of International Finance reveal that commercial banks are partnering with fintech startups in their efforts to reach the unbanked and underbanked. As challenges by tech-enabled competition mount, banks are seeking to link-up with startups as they see opportunities to reach new markets, bring down costs, and/or enhance their service offerings. Startups offer agility, a proclivity for risk-taking, and a disruptive mindset. On the other hand, banks already have the customer scale, comprehensive product portfolio, robust infrastructure, deposit insurance, branding, and experience/expertise. (See a full list of the relative strengths of banks and startups at right.) The combination of these strengths can be especially enabling when seeking out previously unreached population segments because the business models for serving those segments often depend on technologies that bring down costs. Startups can offer banks the tools they need to serve lower-income customers that would be difficult to serve within the confines of their traditional banking models. At the same time, many startups need access to customers and financial resources that banks can provide.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Specialist, CFI

Access to credit is essential. But when lenders operate through a business model that overwhelmingly turns small loans (think $500) into insurmountable cycles of debt, they are not providing an essential service and are instead profiteering. Such is the case with the payday loan and related short-term credit markets in the United States. Today, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) unveiled new proposed rules designed to improve the practices of these lenders that draw customers into cycles of debt. The aim of the rules isn’t to kill essential access to credit, but to rein-in the payday loan industry’s reliance on having a high percentage of borrowers who are unable to repay their loans and are drawn-in to repeat borrowing at higher rates and with additional fees.

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> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Freelance Journalist

Consolidation and investment in coffee brands is reaching a fever pitch, according to Andrew Daday, Director of Coffee for Stumptown Roasters. Coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world, and the modal coffee farmer is a smallholder living near or below the poverty line, resulting in unique value chains in Latin America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia. These value chains are characterized by factors like the commodity coffee markets, agronomics, organization/associations of growers, government coffee marketing institutions, and the state of rural financial services. Specialty coffee is characterized by meeting particular quality standards. Specialty coffee production allows some farmers to escape the vicissitudes of the commodity coffee market and to capture value commensurate with their product’s quality and input costs. In the United States, 55 percent of the 48 billion dollars of coffee retail value consumed falls into the specialty category – representing immense growth in recent decades. If bullishness ratifies the growth prospects for high-end coffee in the U.S. and abroad, it is worth looking into how scaling will manifest at the agricultural end of the value chain, because the relationships coffee farmers have with downstream firms impact their well-being in a number of ways, including via their access to financing.

Agriculture finance for smallholders can be an operationally-intensive, high-risk enterprise. However, financial institutions like the Netherlands’ Rabobank and Mexico’s Banorte express that agricultural credit is especially viable and profitable if “producers are well-integrated into a viable value chain.” Linking into a larger firm’s supply chain is a boon to small business growth in many contexts. Besides serving as a “springboard for growth” for small businesses from increased market access, buyer-supplier linkages yield exposure to key industry information and data points along the value chain that contribute to better capital allocation and financial accessibility for qualified entrepreneurs. Linking with a value chain may also enable a transition from informal lending, which can rely overwhelmingly on local knowledge for underwriting, to the formal financial services sector.

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> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Freelance Journalist

On August 4, Facebook received approval on a patent it had purchased in a bundle from the defunct social network Friendster. It primarily describes a mechanism to weed out content depending on whether it travels via trusted nodes in a user’s social network. This might not have caused much of a stir, had it not been for entrepreneur and blogger Mikhail Avady’s revelation that the patent also includes the following application:

“In a fourth embodiment of the invention, the service provider is a lender. When an individual applies for a loan, the lender examines the credit ratings of members of the individual’s social network who are connected to the individual through authorized nodes. If the average credit rating of these members is at least a minimum credit score, the lender continues to process the loan application. Otherwise, the loan application is rejected.”

Many commentators and journalists reacted with alarm, while Facebook has not offered comment on the story. It is unclear whether or not a product will be developed out of this particular embodiment of the invention. A Daily KOS headline proclaims that “Facebook Gets Patent to Discriminate Against You Based on Your Social Network”, and a Popular Science writer notes that “It’s totally not something straight out of a cyberpunk dystopia”. This MSN article warns readers to purge their less trustworthy friends, though it also notes that the technology could relegate some consumers to riskier lenders. In the non-financial press, less attention is given to the potential upshots for thin-file loan applicants. The list of concerned news outlets stretches well beyond the first page of search results I examined after Googling the patent’s text.

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Credit Suisse is a founding sponsor of the Center for Financial Inclusion. The Credit Suisse Group Foundation looks to its philanthropic partners to foster research, innovation and constructive dialogue in order to spread best practices and develop new solutions for financial inclusion.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.