Monday, April 28, 2014

Money Changers

What are the basic tools in your personal financial toolbox? Cash, of course. A debit card tied to a checking account. Credit cards. A savings account. And then there are a whole bunch of comparatively passive tools designed to stave off disaster - health and life insurance, retirement account, mortgage, stocks, and bonds.

Now imagine you were born and raised in rural Tanzania, or Thailand, or Brazil, and you have none of the pre-conceived notions about those financial tools. There are no banks in the village, and even if there were, you're not sure the bank can be trusted. No one owns a credit card, or insurance, or stocks or bonds. You're paid in cash for the work you do. Your daughter convinced you to sign up for mobile money when she moved to the capital to work, and it was the easiest way to send money home. Then, it seems overnight, you could use your mobile wallet to buy food, or pay for a taxi. Now you have a better phone, and your daughter says you can use it to find information about the weather or yesterday's game, open a savings account, buy insurance, apply for a small loan, and pay bills.

The fact is, the concept of money is undergoing a fundamental transformation, and different players are stepping in to offer financial services where there were none before. (Think M-Pesa and its imitators, Google Wallet, and Facebook's quiet, impending launch of mobile money in Ireland.) New financial services by any company will have to gain the trust of wary consumers and navigate a tricky set of regulatory and business-model obstacles. Still, the relatively open regulatory environment, the greenfield technology and banking landscape, and a clear willingness by consumers to adopt technologies that improve their lives make developing countries fertile ground for the introduction of new financial services. Emerging markets are already out in front of a brave new financial world, and villagers in Tanzania, Thailand, and Brazil are starting to look at our paper checks and credit cards with a mix of confusion and humor.

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