MIT, GU Research: Economic, Policy Concerns Loom for Mobile Money

Friday, May 27, 2011

CHICAGO, May 23, 2011 — /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Many developing countries are rapidly adopting cellphone technology as a means for delivering financial services to their citizens without a heavy investment in infrastructure. Now, a team of researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University says important economic considerations loom on the horizon for policymakers, mobile banking companies and central banks.

Economists Tavneet Suri and Robert M. Townsend of MIT and William Jack of Georgetown University have examined data from Kenya on mobile banking giant M-PESA and seven monetary models in one of the first published academic papers to explore what new realities may be facing financial systems where mobile banking is on the rise.

Their findings, which were published in “Economic Quarterly,” suggest several noteworthy implications. These are set against the context of data Jack and Suri collected on M-PESA, and were examined according to established monetary theories, including several models previously authored by Townsend. The main implications follow:

  • Currently, mobile banking services, like M-PESA, are most commonly used by clients for making transfers and payments, which are held within the system as e-money; the authors’ analysis of how e-money functions within the mobile banking system suggests that the systems may also be well-positioned to supply insurance, savings and credit services, too.
  • The authors show that shortages of cash and e-money have emerged at various points within the M-PESA system. The monetary models suggest this is a natural outcome of the Kenyan environment, where clients and M-PESA sales agents are widely dispersed and where the region regularly suffers uneven flows or economic shocks. The authors argue that there may be policy remedies for these shortages, either through improved design within the mobile banking system or through modifications to monetary policy.
  • Specifically, under some circumstances, there may be potential gains from allowing net e-money creation. Currently, most mobile banking companies are required to limit the quantity of e-money that they issue to the amount of money they receive. An increase in net e-money creation could help alleviate shortages and facilitate trade and exchange.
  • Likewise, as mobile banking systems emerge and develop, there are implications for monetary policy. The authors suggest that policy intended to change the monetary base should be geared toward narrowing differences in rate of return on private financial instruments and public fiat money for optimal benefit. Even as e-money helps to complete some markets, new shortages are likely to emerge on other margins within the financial system, and monetary policymakers should be prepared to accommodate this.

“This research really begins to beg the question about what e-money’s future is,” notes Townsend. “Is it solely a means of payment or could it be an innovation that fills a role by providing economy-wide insurance and/or credit markets where there are almost none? If so, what is the optimal mix of traditional currency, e-money, and the design of financial systems so that economies are benefitting as much as possible from these innovations? This is what we’re examining.”

The authors also say that understanding how e-money functions most effectively within an economy with otherwise limited infrastructure may lie in gaining a richer understanding of the agent networks used by mobile banking companies.

M-PESA, for example, has close to 25,000 agents who facilitate the purchase and sale of e-money and who operate essentially like single-person bank branches. They are organized in several ways, usually within a larger network of agents or on their own with a reporting relationship to a head office.

The authors say that understanding the interrelationships among clients, agents, the parent company, and the banking system is essential to realizing fully the promise of mobile banking within economies.

Source: PR Newswire (link opens in a new window)