Recent reports have highlighted how mobile-based financial services are transforming banking and payments in Kenya, Bangladesh, and Peru, and all the hype about how they are about to explode everywhere else. For all of the promise that digital financial systems have for lowering costs and helping people all over the globe, it is unfortunate that their development is hampered by regulation that protects the interests of the largest providers. These regulations create significant barriers and raise the total costs to achieve universal financial inclusion.
It is indeed conceivable that purely digital financial transactions could be handled at vanishingly small unit costs, from anywhere. But the cost that won´t go away is that at the interface between the new digital payment system and the legacy payment system – hard cash. Cash in/cash out (CICO) points are like tollgates at the edge of the digital payments cloud.
Cash is Still King
Even in areas with flourishing mobile banking usage, people tend to cash in every time they want to make a mobile payment, and to cash out immediately and in full every time they receive digital money. Rather than displacing cash, digital platforms have made local cash ecosystems more efficient. Without full backward compatibility with cash, digital payment systems could not take root.
The bigger issue is not the size of the CICO toll, but the fact that small players cannot expect to have the transaction volume to sustain a widespread CICO network. The incumbent banks and telecommunications firms have built in competitive advantages. They can quickly form agreements with brick and mortar shops, attract users from the current customer base, threaten new entrants, and aggregate enough transactions to induce CICO outlets to maintain sufficient liquidity on hand.
Therefore, the competition in digital financial services will not be determined primarily by what happens within the digital payments market itself, but rather by what happens in the contiguous cash market. The power of digital services is their ability to transcend geography, and yet success in the digital payments space will go to whoever has the best physical CICO footprint.
Regulators treat the digital payments service and the CICO service as conjoined twins: each digital financial service provider must have its own base of contractually bound CICO outlets. When the two services are bundled it is not surprising that the tough economics of CICO —and, therefore, the incumbent— dominates.
A Two Market Regulatory Approach
In a recent paper, I argue it is necessary to split up these two markets, from a regulatory point of view. The market for effecting electronic payments (issuing payment instructions and debiting and crediting electronic accounts accordingly) is logically distinct from the market for exchanging two forms of money (hard cash versus electronic value).
Most regulators approve of stores receiving electronic money from customers in exchange for packs of rice on a store shelf. But, if that same electronic money was exchanged for cash then it would violate the law in many countries.
In the latter case, the store is presumed to be an agent of the customer’s financial service provider, and the store cannot offer the CICO service without an agency contract from that provider. But why? The cash that was offered was the store’s as is the account that would receive the electronic payment, and the transaction would have occurred entirely through a secure, real-time technology platform that banks offer all their clients.
A Regulatory Fix
Of course, purely financial transactions are usually held to higher consumer protection standards than normal commercial transactions. My proposal is not to deregulate CICO, but to create a new license type for CICO network managers. Holders of this license would carry certain consumer protection obligations (such as ensuring that tariffs are explicitly posted at all CICO outlets, and that they have a call center to handle any complaints that customers may have on individual CICO outlets) – entirely reasonable expectations for retailers, even if we normally don´t ask them of rice sellers.
But once you have a CICO license, then you could sign up any store you wanted and crucially, offer CICO services on the platform of any financial institution in which you have an account. In other words, you wouldn’t have to beg the incumbent to give you a special agent contract. All you would need to do is to open a normal customer account with them, which the incumbent couldn´t deny you.
This one little change would completely shift the competitive dynamics of digital financial services. Under the current direct agency model, incumbent firms have no incentive to make it easier for competitors to create CICO outlets. Whereas under the independent CICO network manager model, all licensed CICO networks would have the incentive to offer CICO services for all providers, no matter their size: with a full suite of available services, they will find it easier to sign up stores to work for them, and these stores will find it easier to convince more users to walk into their stores.
Incumbents would still be free to establish their own proprietary CICO networks, as today. But they would have to compete with independent CICO networks that are now able to aggregate business from all financial service providers, creating true competition.
All players could then claim a comparable physical presence as the incumbent. They would all benefit from the same branded competition between CICO networks. They could compete strictly on the basis of the quality of their digital financial services offering.
Unbundling the regulatory treatment of digital financial services would help competition reach every segment of the business; the current integrated model only serves the interests of the largest telecommunication companies and banks in the land.