A bank in every pocket?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Banking on mobile phones holds promise, provided regulators are willing to be flexible

The idea that mobile phones bring economic benefits is now widely accepted. In places with bad roads, few trains and parlous land lines, they substitute for travel, allow price data to be distributed more quickly and easily, enable traders to reach wider markets and generally ease the business of doing business. Leonard Waverman of the London Business School has estimated that an extra ten mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country leads to an extra half a percentage point of growth in GDP per person. To realise the economic benefits of mobile phones, governments in such countries need to do away with state monopolies, issue new licences to allow rival operators to enter the market and slash taxes on handsets. With few exceptions (hallo, Ethiopia), they have done so, and mobile phones are now spreading fast, even in the poorest parts of the world.

As mobile phones have spread, a new economic benefit is coming into view: using them for banking (see article), and so improving access to financial services, not just telecoms networks. Pioneering m-banking projects in the Philippines, Kenya and South Africa show the way. These “branchless” schemes typically allow customers to deposit and withdraw cash through a mobile operator’s airtime-resale agents, and send money to other people via text messages that can be exchanged for cash by visiting an agent. Workers can then be paid by phone; taxi-drivers and delivery-drivers can accept payments without carrying cash around; money can be easily sent to friends and family. A popular use is to deposit money before making a long journey and then withdraw it at the other end, which is safer than carrying lots of cash.

There is no need to set up a national network of branches or cash machines. M-banking schemes can be combined with microfinance loans, extending access to credit and enabling users to establish a credit history. Some schemes issue customers with debit cards linked to their m-banking accounts. All this has the potential to give the “unbanked” masses access to financial services, and bring them into the formal economy.

What can governments do to foster m-banking? As with the spread of mobile phones themselves, a lot depends on putting the right regulations in place. They need to be tight enough to protect users and discourage money laundering, but open enough to allow new services to emerge. The existing banking model is both over- and under-protective, says Tim Lyman of the World Bank, because “it did not foresee the convergence of telecommunications and financial services.”

In many countries only licensed banks are allowed to collect deposits. Even if a mobile operator forms a partnership with a bank, its agents may have to comply with banking rules covering everything from the height of the counter to the installation of alarms. Financial institutions may have to provide detailed statements to the central bank every week, which is tricky for organisations with agents in remote areas. Some countries have rigid rules on the documents demanded of anybody opening an account, which excludes many.

Follow the Filipinos

Some of these rules, which are based on an outdated view of what banking looks like, should be relaxed. Allowing institutions other than banks to enter the market makes sense, provided regulatory oversight and consumer-protection measures are in place. Strict proof of identity may not be needed for some customers, given the small sums involved. And existing m-banking schemes set a limit on the size of transactions that is low enough to deter money-launderers but high enough to satisfy most customers.

The regulatory approach being taken in the Philippines provides a good model for other countries.

Continue Reading, “A bank in every pocket?

Source: The Economist (link opens in a new window)