A remarkable 68 million Americans today lack full access to traditional financial services, such as a bank account or credit card, or choose not to use them. Interestingly, though, these financially underserved individuals are far from disconnected. They are actually more active users of mobile phones and social media than the population at large. The vast majority of the so-called "underbanked" are highly networked, using their mobile devices to connect via social media, purchase goods online and, increasingly, conduct financial transactions.
Young adults and Americans making $30,000 or less in household income – two groups especially likely to be financially underserved – use social media significantly more than Americans as a whole, as the Pew Internet and American Life Project found. And while 87% of Americans have a mobile phone, a slightly higher 90% of underbanked consumers do, according to a Federal Reserve study. Many underbanked consumers have smartphones, often using them as more affordable alternatives to online access than home computers. Today, despite some pockets of Americans who still lack reliable internet access due to geographical, educative or income barriers, 90% of those under 65 are online, and more than half of seniors as well.
As a result, a growing industry is emerging to provide these consumers – the highly networked but underbanked – with the ability to leverage mobile and social media to build savings, manage money, and build a record of creditworthiness. According to the recent report, "Financial Technology Trends in the Underbanked Market," published by the Center for Financial Services Innovation and Core Innovation Capital with Morgan Stanley, a growing number of companies are using technology innovations like social networks and big data to provide quality services at lower costs to the customer while also seeking positive margins and growth.
The opportunity is large – and growing. As highlighted in the annual Underbanked Market Sizing Study, serving the underbanked was a $78 billion market in 2011, with a 9% growth rate projected for 2012.
So how are mobile technology, social networks, and big data helping the underbanked consumer access higher quality financial services?
Financially underserved consumers already generate data that illuminate their financial prospects, and creative startups are finding ways to leverage that data to offer better financial products. These startups are exemplified by companies like DemystData, which is developing methods to incorporate data derived from social media profiles, public records, and online interactions into the verification and underwriting process for consumer loans. Especially for the millions of consumers without long track records of successfully paying down debt, these advances in technology have the real potential to increase access to a wider variety of more affordable loans.
Social networks and big data are leading to solutions not just for underbanked consumers but for small businesses as well. For example, Kabbage is an Atlanta-based startup that provides online retailers with fast access to working capital. As a component of its underwriting algorithm, Kabbage mines the data generated as potential borrowers interact with their suppliers and customers on sites such as major online marketplaces, payment channels, and social media sites. Kabbage then makes underwriting decisions based in part on its ability to verify healthy sales volume, reliable e-payment activity, shipping history, and positive reviews made via these social media indicators.
Of course, when it comes to weaving social media and big data features into financial services, there are potential issues that should be taken into account. Innovators harnessing big data can seek to minimize regulatory and reputational risk by making it a priority to safeguard personal data. Policies should also be in place to provide that lending decisions are being made in compliance with applicable law.
Still, it is exciting to see financial technology that can be used to help financially challenged consumers access better quality products – and as a way for investors to capitalize on opportunities with financial and social returns.
Audrey Choi is a managing director and the head of global sustainable finance at Morgan Stanley. Jennifer Tescher is the president and chief executive of the Center for Financial Services Innovation.