The two leading financial trends of our time are the integration of digital technology and the advance of financial inclusion. The latter involves both provision of access to those who have no account (the “unbanked”) and increased usage of financial services by those with a tenuous link to the formal system (the “underbanked”). A combination of swift technological change and government promotion is speeding the rise of inclusion.
Six years ago, the World Bank estimated that roughly 2.5 billion adults (15 or older) had no bank deposit, no formal credit, and no means of payment other than cash or barter. Stunningly, in its Global Findex Database 2017 published last month, the Bank now estimates that the number of unbanked adults has plummeted to 1.7 billion. Over the past six years, more than 1.2 billion adults have gained at least basic financial access through a financial institution or their mobile phone.
In addition to a range of technological progress, India’s government-led financial inclusion program has been the second key factor in the recent advance of inclusion. By our estimate, the gains in India account for more than one-half of the 515 million persons who acquired access globally between 2014 and 2017!
In the remainder of this post, we briefly describe the benefits of financial inclusion, and highlight key trends regarding access since 2011 as well as prospects for achieving the World Bank’s goal of universal financial access. We conclude with a short discussion of Africa, where the largest gains still lie ahead. Reflecting long-term demographic prospects, we emphasize that the advance of financial inclusion in Africa will matter for the global economy, not just for Africa. Read More
When migrants send money across borders to their families, it promotes economic activity and supports incomes in some of the poorest countries of the world. Annual cross-border remittances are running about US$600 billion, three quarters of which flow to low- and middle-income countries. To put that number into perspective, total development assistance worldwide is $150 billion.
Yet, despite the remarkable technological advances of recent decades, remittances remain extremely expensive. On average, the charge for sending $200―the benchmark used by authorities to evaluate cost―is $14. That is, the combination of fees (including charges from both the sender and recipient intermediaries) and the exchange rate margin typically eats up fully 7% of the amount sent. While it is less expensive to send larger amounts, the aggregate cost of sending remittances in 2017 was about US$30 billion, roughly equivalent to the total non-military foreign aid budget of the United States!
In this post, we discuss remittances, why their costs remain high, and what might be done to lower them. Read More
When it comes to domestic payments, the U.S. financial system still lags the efficiency in several advanced economies. The reasons are easy to find. First, other countries have leapfrogged outdated technologies. In the United States, checks remained dominant well after their technological sell-by date partly as a result of government support. The other key factor delaying a shift to alternative payment mechanisms is the importance of what economists call a network externality. That is, the more people who use one form of payment, the more valuable that method is to the people who are already using it. And, by the same token, the more expensive it is for someone to move away from the prevailing mechanism.
With these considerations in mind, two years ago the Fed convened the Faster Payments Task Force (FPTF), a group of more than 300 experts and interested parties from a wide range of backgrounds with the objective to “identify and evaluate alternative approaches for implementing safe, ubiquitous, faster payments capabilities in the United States.” Earlier this month, the FPTF issued its second and final report, which contains a set of 10 recommendations for making the payments system faster, cheaper and more secure.... Read More