Apply for a goldcard in Indonesia and next thing to arrive at your door won't be a piece of plastic. It is likely to be a private investigator checking out the veracity of a credit application.
"The bank will hire a private investigator to check out where you live and to go to your office to see if you really are the managing director or just the tea boy," said an Asian banker. "Shoe leather, as you say, is the best alternative we have."
Across much of Asia, the tools to make a credit granting decision - whether its for the fast-growing card business or other types of loans - are decidedly low-tech. Bankers fear that could limit the heated growth they have seen in recent years.
Still, others argue the lack of independent information should not slow the growth of consumer credit. "Within these countries, the market intelligence is very high," said Lindsay Pyne, president of Visa International's Asia/Pacific region.
Indeed, as many banks exhaust their supply of existing customers - on whom they have some financial data - they risk growing current profits and future credit problems because of the lack of a reliable credit bureau like U.S. lenders regularly use.
In the most advanced countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan, banks regularly share informal blacklists of bad customers. But secrecy laws in many countries prohibit the central collection of such private information. That is starting to change and U.S. companies such as Atlanta- based Equifax and Fair, Isaac & Co., of San Rafael, Calif., are prospecting the market for long-term potential.
"There is pressure from credit grantors and the credit card associations to change the laws," said John Woldrich, executive vice president at Fair, Isaac. "It will happen. It's just a matter of when."
Most agree it will be late in the decade before reliable credit bureaus start to crop up in Asia, but most are positioning now for local joint- venture partners. To be sure, government involvement is likely to result in credit information monopolies that outsiders hope to win.
"I think there is only going to be one player in this business in most countries," said Stewart Searle, senior vice president for international corporate development at Equifax.
Adds Mr. Woldrich: "I think that within five years these markets will be spoken for. I don't see a competitive situation, so there's some incentive to be first."
But waiting for that opportunity could mean years of costs that drag on profits. Few are content to wait. Instead, U.S. companies are forging ahead with the sale of software to help a growing number of banks score customers from limited data.
"You can create a reliable score now even without a credit bureau," said Rich Salvatto, vice president who focuses on Asia for Fair, Isaac & Co. To be sure, the reliability of the score is lower, but those who have used the technology say it has resulted in good credit granting decisions.
One of the best-known users of the technology is Citibank. A late entrant to the credit card business in Asia, the company today has more than 4 million cards across the region - the largest portfolio of any issuer. Many of those were sent to noncustomers with good result: the region's credit losses are reportedly about 70 basis points, a fraction of the U.S. consumer market.
But still, some bankers are content on trying to create their own scoring models for such decisions - a remnant of the region's do-it- yourself approach to technology.
"Why should I pay some American company to create this for me," asks a senior executive at a Malaysian bank. "We are just as smart as they are."
Mr. Salvatto warns that pride could have a price: "A statistician, no matter how competent, is going to fall into potholes if they're never developed this type of system before."
More likely a scenario, though, is for local banks to continue to hand out consumer credit based on shoe leather.