Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The last-mile challenge in banking for the poor

It has always been thought that lack of access to formal bank accounts prevented poor people from saving more and once accounts were opened they would be able to more optimally manage their finances. But now that we have made some progress, albeit tiny (only 5.5% of 650,000 Indian villages have bank branches and half the adults in the country do not have access to bank accounts), with access through the campaign for total financial inclusion (TFI), have the desired outcomes been achieved for those people?

Surprisingly, it does appear that having a bank account does not automatically translate into its use, much less efficient management of personal finances. Livemint points to a study by Skoch Development Foundation which found that only 11% of 25.1 million no-frills accounts opened between April 2007 and May 2009 are operational mostly because of the high costs.

India Development Blog points to an IFMR study of the impact of TFI campaign in Gulbarga District of Karnataka (claimed to have achieved 100% financial inclusion), which found that 36% of sample households remained without access to formal and semi-formal savings mechanisms and more importantly, access to bank accounts did not translate into bank account usage. It was found that the accounts were used mostly to manage NREGS payments or SHG transactions. Critical to the lesser than expected account usage is the high transaction costs, especially by way of travel costs.

I am inclined to believe that even if access to formal banking systems, by way of opening a bank account, is increased, actual usage is likely to remain low unless bridge the last mile gap and take banking to the door-step of the people, especially in rural areas. The recent decision by the Reserve Bank of India to approve the deployment of mobile bank business correspondents, equipped with electronic terminals, to transact at the sub-branch level is certain to increase the quality of access. This will ensure that, unlike now, rural account holders are more likely to actively transact using their accounts.   

In this context, mobile phones have the potential to revolutionize banking and increase utilization dramatically. Mobile phones-based technologies offer the attraction of directly placing the bank account in the hands of the customer, thereby lowering transaction costs and increasing the likelihood of account usage. It may therefore be tempting to get carried away by this possibility, coupled with a campaign to increase financial literacy, and assume that it will ensure account usage.

However, dovetailing NREGS and other government cash transfers through TFI accounts, extensive use of business correspondents and mobile phone-bassed technologies, and financial literacy, while necessary are not sufficient conditions to ensure optimal account usage.In fact, unless complemented with other initiatives, mere increase in access to banking accounts, could be counter-productive. It could just as easily enable access to debt and other less than desirable financial products, whose extensive adoption could be detrimental to the interests of the poor people.

Behavioural science teaches us that even with access to their accounts and adequate financial literacy, human beings are cognitively constrained. This in turn means that despite firm commitment to save or spend on certain things, people tend to renege and fall short on achievement. People discount the value of later rewards by a factor that increases with the length of the delay. They are therefore tempted to spend on immediate needs as opposed to save for important long-term requirements. Further, drawing from theories of "mental accounting", it has also been found that people tend to save optimally when they they know what they are saving for.  

It is therefore necessary that the bank accounts are structured to address these cognitive biases. This assumes importance since we need to bear in mind that the ultimate objective is not to merely enable access to bank account, but to enable poor people with systems to more effectively manage their scarce finances. What can be done to ensure that poor people save more, optimize on their interest returns, manage their long-term needs like health care, children's education and pensions, make more effective purchase decisions, and so on? In simple terms, how do we ensure that people not only manage their finances effectively, but also overcome their cognitive urges which are often determental to their interests?

I have written about several examples of how innovative financial products can overcome such cognitive biases and increase the likelihood of optimal outcomes for poor people with management of their finances. In fact, bank savings accounts and financial products, with subtle commitment features, have the potential to dramatically increase not only usage but also effective usage of bank accounts. I have bloggged earlier about Save More Tomorrow, default pension savings, lottery savings products, products to increase fertilizer consumption, multi-tier accounts (also here), and budgeting family expenditures. See also this and this.

In this context, there is a big window of opportunity. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have just pledged $500 million to helping poor people learn to save money. They propose to fund research and project interventions in this area to emulate the examples like the hugely successful mobile banking for the poor — via cellphone in Kenya and Bangladesh and smart card in Mexico. Spurred on by the low domestic savings rate, this area has been the focus of considerable interest in the US too. It is appropriate that some part of this be leveraged into experimenting with financial products and structured accounts that help overcome cognitive biases.

It needs to be borne in mind that TFI and optimal utilization of bank accounts by the poor needs to go beyond mere door-step acceess to bank accounts.

1 comment:

Sudha said...

There are undoubtedly physical barriers to accessing the formal banking system -- but there is more to it than proximity to a branch. Sociological barriers are far bigger, in that a first-time banker is intimidated by the entire process of banking. Your personal banker servicing your platinum account exudes 'customer orientation' from every pore of his being...but quite not so for the poor woman who will stand in a long queue only to be told curtly that she has filled out the wrong form - with a body language that conveys 'kahaan kahaan se aa jaate hain yeh unpad ganvaar!' Mobile banking and ATM based disbursements might enable the inclusion of all fringes sooner than changing attitudes (which could take generations).