Viewing all posts with tag: Customer Protection  

High Touch or Low Touch: How to Reach New Microinsurance Customers?

How can we extend financial products and services, like microinsurance, to low-income consumers at scale? In theory, “low touch” sales and services can reach large numbers of people at low cost.  But so far, attempts to enroll new customers without active sales efforts have largely failed. As a result, “high touch” sales and distribution channels are seen as necessary to convince low-income consumers to purchase financial products, especially unfamiliar and complex ones such as microinsurance.  But these high touch channels may incur costs that the small premium revenues struggle to cover. 

Is it too soon to dismiss low touch methods? Can a balance be struck that provides the information, support, and “touch” level that encourages clients to buy, while keeping distribution costs in check?

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In Mexico, Naïve Consumers Get Bad Loan Information

A recently released World Bank Policy Research Working Paper presents results of an audit study of Mexican banks, investigating whether bank employees hide the lowest cost options from potential customers in order to turn a higher profit.

Financial products can vary widely in cost while providing more or less the same services.  The dispersion in prices for products that offer essentially the same benefits – checking accounts, savings accounts, loans, and index funds – is thought to at least partly reflect a lack of information on the part of consumers.  Savvy and informed consumers would gravitate to the lowest cost option, and competition would then drive prices down to the same level for equivalent products.

A key potential source of information on financial product attributes and prices is bank employees.  Bank employees presumably know their products, but may strategically choose not to divulge information about lower cost options . . . 

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Walmart is Coming for Your Banks

In April Walmart announced the launch of a new money transfer service. I did a double take on the service's low price: $9.50 to send up to $900 from one Walmart store to another – that’s as much as $66.50 cheaper than the price of competing services at Western Union and Money Gram.

This is just the latest example of Walmart's foray into the financial services industry. In 2012 the retailer launched the Bluebird prepaid card with American Express. The product has no monthly fees or minimum balance requirements, making it more affordable than the norm. The cost of cashing a check at Walmart's Money Center is a transparent flat rate, often cheaper than independent financial services centers that take a large percentage of a check's total. The big box store also offers car insurance “one stop shops” at a growing number of locations, and it houses bank branches with “convenient hours, free financial education and unusually forgiving account features”. All in all, Walmart seems to consistently deliver more budget-friendly financial tools than its competitors. And not only do its financial products come at a lower price for consumers; they are all offered in the same place, easing the burden on people who are squeezed for time and transportation . . . 

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The Price of (Dis)Trust

No consumer likes overdraft fees. Overdraft fees are often unexpected, expensive, and in some cases undeserved. What’s more, they can wreak financial havoc on households living on a low-income.

But the larger issue is not the fees themselves. It’s the lack of transparency surrounding them and the widespread consumer distrust that results.

Edelman is a PR firm that surveys people around the world to create an annual Trust Barometer (among other things), which gauges levels of trust in different institutions. In 2012 it found that only 41% of respondents in the U.S. trust banks – which, by the way, were at the bottom of the list right along with financial services. The year’s ratings on banks are second-worst only to 2011, when they hit a low of 25% . . . 

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Overdraft as a Product, not a Penalty?

The Taylors overdraft their checking account every two weeks, on purpose.

As described in a recent issue brief published by the U.S. Financial Diaries, the Taylor family’s income level varies significantly from month to month. Sometimes it’s not enough to cover all of their expenses. So, they opened an account at a bank with a simple overdraft fee structure: One $35 charge per overdraft, no daily fees, and an allowance of up to $500 at a time. Since the Taylors typically make only one large cash withdrawal per paycheck – the entire amount of pay – this bank would charge them at most one $35 overdraft fee each cycle, if they happen to need more cash than the amount of that week’s direct deposit.

The Taylors use overdrafts as another household might swipe a credit card or take out a payday loan. Since their credit history eliminates the card option and they are already tied up with a payday lender, over-drafting becomes another logical – and probably more convenient – place for them to turn to stay on top of their bills. It’s clear that the family responded to and relies on their new bank's transparent behavior. They saw its fee policy, understood how they could manage it, and became a customer . . . 

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New Paper Highlight - More Benefits of Mobile Money: Lowering the Cost of Remittances

One way to cope with an emergency is to borrow money from family and friends. But that typically doesn’t work when a disaster strikes a whole area. Sending and receiving money over larger distances, when transferring cash from person-to-person is impractical or impossible, can be very expensive. There are a litany of costs, from communications, to finding and traveling to agents, to the actual financial cost of the transfer. And don’t forget the cost of delay—in an emergency, delays in receiving needed funds can have big consequences.

One way mobile payments could have substantial short-term benefits for poor households is by speeding up and lowering the cost of emergency transfers and remittances. A new paper by William Jack and Tavneet Suri provides evidence that mobile payments are doing just that . . . 

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What's Next: Another Repayment Crisis?

It's been over two years since the start of the great India insolvency.  Four years since the Bosnia blight and No Pago Nicaragua.  And nearly six years since the Morocco microfinance meltdown. 

At this point, it's reasonable to say that the first global crisis in microfinance has passed.  Life is on the mend. 

In a recent email, Alok Prasad, head of the Microfinance Institutions Network in India (MFIN) described its most recent quarterly report as "green shoots in evidence."  The numbers certainly bear him out. Elsewhere, investors speak of tightening their exposure to countries with overheating markets, pay attention to issues of overindebtedness, and are wary of the sort of runaway growth that was being posted by Indian MFIs back in 2008-10.

Development of sector-level infrastructure is likewise moving apace, with ever increasing credit bureau coverage of microfinance clients and increasing implementation of client protection practices . . . 

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What's Next: Financial Access in 2013

The microfinance space has never been a dull place. As the tumult of the last few years—debates about effectiveness, industry crises and crashes in several countries—seemingly dies down, it’s a good time to speculate about what’s next. It seems clear that “business as usual” in terms of rapid growth and expansion paired with unvarnished enthusiasm and uncritical praise is not what’s next.

So what is?

Over the next few weeks we’ll be running a series of blog posts from folks at FAI and around the financial access world offering their takes on what’s next. Some are calls to action, others are predictions, and others pose the important questions we need to answer now. If you’d like to contribute, send us a tweet @financialaccess.

Herewith are my thoughts on “What’s Next?” . . . 

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Highlights of David Roodman's Microfinance Open Book Blog

David Roodman’s conversation with Jonathan Morduch is coming up tomorrow. If you haven’t read David’s book yet, you should. But we can be realists. You probably don’t have time to buy and read the whole book in the next 36 hours. So, here’s a quick cheat sheet of some highlights from David’s blog over the past few years. Reading these posts will get you up to speed (but you should still read the book!).

Perhaps David’s most famous post is an October 2009 post titled “Kiva is Not Quite What it Seems,”  about the online microlender, Kiva. The post kicked off a wide-ranging debate about the role of transparency in the framing of NGOs’ operations and ultimately changed the way the organization presents itself. In the post Roodman explained there was significant divergence between Kiva’s rhetoric and marketing and how it actually did its work . . . 

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What It Takes To Make Electronic Payments Better Than Cash

I attended the Better than Cash Alliance launch this week at the Ford Foundation. The alliance’s goal is to accelerate the transition from cash to electronic payments in developing countries. For a good overview of the process, benefits and challenges of the transition, see this white paper from Bankable Frontier Associates (which is one of our partners in the US Financial Diaries project). For an in-depth discussion of the alliance, see David Roodman’s post.

At the launch, and in general when people talk about moving to electronic payments from cash, some of the key benefits cited are transparency and transaction records. But on my way back to the office from the event I had an unpleasant experience that reminded me that while these benefits are possible with electronic payments, they are by no means guaranteed . . . 

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Can borrowers be trusted to reschedule their own loans?

I have written before how tiny Zidisha Microfinance is challenging long-held assumptions by leveraging internet social media and mobile payments like M-PESA to lend to clients without the help of loan officers or local staff.  Since then, Zidisha has grown from tiny to small, with a portfolio now at $200,000, over 430 active borrowers, and  1400+ lenders. Its operations remain solid, with PAR30 at a respectable 6.6%1 (check out its stats for more).

I've been advising Zidisha since before its launch in 2010, and with that had the opportunity to watch the evolution of the platform's innovations. One feature, introduced in August 2011, allows borrowers to request to reschedule their loans, regardless of whether they are delinquent or not.  Zidisha's online borrower portal provides two rescheduling options:  adding a grace period of up to 2 months, but leaving the repayment amounts unchanged, or re-amortizing the loan over a longer period (up to 24 months) to lower the payment amount (Figure 1). The interest rate of the loan is applied over the longer period and repayment schedule is recalculated accordingly. Aside from these rules enforced through the website, there is no involvement or approval on the part of Zidisha – once a borrower submits the online request, his new repayment schedule becomes effective immediately . . . 

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The Microfinance Bill 2012: A Move towards Responsible Microfinance in India

I recently welcomed the news of a new national-level microfinance bill in India. I believe the Indian microfinance sector is witnessing a movement towards greater regulatory clarity following the turmoil of the Andhra Pradesh crisis. The Microfinance Institutions (Development and Regulation) Bill 2012 introduced in the Parliament on the 22nd of May comes with modifications to the earlier Bill introduced in 2007. The industry, too, has broadly welcomed the Bill as a much better version of the 2007 Bill, which lapsed on account of the dissolution of the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s Parliament).

The introduction of this Bill brings a much needed strengthening of the regulatory framework and consumer protection norms of the microfinance industry in India. Regulation of financial services is necessary to protect current and future clients, but it must also be undertaken with care in order to maintain access to those services . . . 

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Alternative Credit Scoring: How Excited Should We Be?

Over the past few years, U.S. lenders and credit bureaus have become enchanted with the notion of alternative credit scoring—the process of looking at non-traditional accounts to determine a person’s creditworthiness. It’s no longer just about how well people pay off their credit card balances and mortgages, but also their rent, electricity, insurance, and phone bills, even their day-care accounts.

Industry folk like to cast this development as a great way to bring people with no or paltry credit histories into the financial mainstream. At a recent conference, an Experian V.P. proudly stated that by taking into account rent payments, the credit bureau is able to generate credit scores for 87% of the people it otherwise wouldn’t be able to. At first blush, this is indeed an exciting development, especially since adding rental data generally improves the credit scores of people who already have them. . . 

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Kate McKee of CGAP on Microfinance Client Protection

Questions of fairness and consumer protection in finance do not always have clear answers. The consumer’s perspectives on transparency, fair treatment and rights are at least as important (and much less well-understood) as the provider’s, and yet banks need to cover costs and achieve repayment if they are going to build sustainable businesses. How can the needs of both sides be balanced? Is it realistic to expect MFIs and their associations to protect clients, or is outside “enforcement” needed, whether through regulation or investor pressure?

“We are preoccupied, and understandably so, with expanding access to finance, but if we want to be driving to long term benefits we need to focus on quality as well,” says Kate McKee of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor. “Do the clients know what they are getting? Is the product designed in a way that it is sensitive to their particular circumstances? Is it good value for money?"

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Consumer protection: When to protect, and how

The 2008 global financial crisis intensified conversations about consumer protection. The financial crisis showed us that overly-liberalized credit markets can lead to overlending by institutions and heavy debt burdens for borrowers.  Not surprisingly, the buzz these days is about “responsible banking.”

But self-regulation may not be enough—and may not be appropriate.  After all, these are the same banks and institutions that created the original problems.  Regulators are thus determining their next steps.
 
There are always trade-offs in designing regulations, though, and this isn’t the obvious time to be adding extra burdens for already-burdened regulators.  Nor is it clear that imposing extra costs on financial institutions won’t affect their ability to serve poorer and under-served communities.  Our evidence to date suggests the opposite.

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