Latin America and the Caribbean is a region of diversity and contrast. While it is home to hubs of innovation and technology, challenges to financial inclusion persist. Access to financial services varies widely between regions and segments of society.
It is reported that 45% of the adult population do not hold a bank account and only 12% of the population are reported to hold any savings.
With such a large proportion of unbanked, and underbanked, the population of Latin America relies heavily on cash transactions. In fact, some 61% of the population still uses cash to pay their bills. Inability to access credit can lead people to explore other options by looking into riskier borrowing practices. The path towards more inclusive financial services must include alternative approaches to understanding credit worthiness and embracing digital technology.
A lack of financial inclusion sees a significant proportion of the population being excluded from access to credit. Contributing factors include:
According to a survey carried out by members of the Latin American federation of banks, one barrier to financial inclusion is poor financial education. A lack of financial education means that people are unaware of how financial institutions operate. This means that they often make poor decisions and experience low levels of financial resilience. Some of the other barriers identified by the survey included:
While there is no escaping that Latin America is diverse in terms of culture, there are other reasons that it can be seen as an area of contrast. Despite challenges with financial inclusion and access to credit, the region is anything but deprived of technology. LatAm is a highly connected region:
The wide-scale use of mobile devices, alongside a growing Fintech community, provides fertile grounds to grow more financially inclusive companies and products. It allows challenger banks to enter the area and to serve those who are perhaps unable/unwilling to engage with traditional financial institutions. It also allows for the possible use of alternative data, as opposed to traditional credit scores, as a way of increasing access to credit throughout the population.
Fintech startups are hugely popular across Latin America. In 2018, there were 1166 fintech startups across 18 countries in the region. The most popular focus of these companies was in remittance and payments which was driven by the increase in mobile phone usage across the region. Another common area that fintech startups focused on was lending. Having realised that many were lacking access to credit due to a lack of any history, these companies sought to assist those who were unable to use traditional banks.
The vast number of startups led to high levels of competition. The knock-on effect was nine out of ten startups failing within the first three years of trading. Part of the problem faced by startups, somewhat ironically, was access to credit that would allow them to develop and grow. This highlights how financial inclusion, when pursued across Latin America, will not only benefit individuals but the economy as a whole.
Given the number of underbanked people in Latin America, there is a need to explore alternative methods of offering access to credit and bringing people into the financial mainstream. With a lack of credit history making it impossible for individuals and businesses (some 90% of SMEs state that they are unable to access credit) to secure the funds that they need, the solution can be found in alternative data.
Alternative data uses different information than that of a traditional credit score. It is possible, for instance, to look at the way people use their mobile devices to glean insights into their behaviour. There is also the possibility to embrace psychometric tests that allow insight to personality types, character traits and willingness to repay.
By exploring alternative data, financial institutions have an opportunity to expand their customer base and grow portfolio profitability. There is also the very real opportunity to provide an economic boost for the entire region by supporting the growth of SMEs.
With such high levels of the population either being unbanked or underbanked, there are clear challenges for the Latin American region. While some countries have the benefit of being digitally connected and are embracing fintech companies, others lag behind. The issue of digital connection needs to be addressed so that strides can be taken forwards towards financial inclusion.
With a lack of financial education being the driving factor behind the high numbers of unbanked, efforts need to be made to solve this issue. By combining education with a fresh approach, where alternative data is used to assess access to credit, financial inclusion can increase across the region, bringing opportunity for growth and resilience the individuals and businesses alike.