Insights from the “Digital Credit Roundtable” hosted by the Future of Finance Initiative

(This post is authored by the Future of Finance Team at the IFMR Finance Foundation).

In the first post of this series on the three Future of Finance Initiative (FFI) workshops hosted in April, we focused on the workshop on digital payments. This blog summarises the key insights from the second workshop on digital credit. The workshop was attended by  providers  from across the credit ecosystem in India. We thank the participants for their frank and open views presented at the discussions.

India is one of the most underserved credit markets in the world, with only 15% of the households borrowing from formal channels.[1] Emerging digital lending models have the potential to address this gap. These models range from online marketplaces and online lenders (originating loans on behalf of traditional institutions or lending themselves) to P2P players (connecting individual lenders to borrowers via a platform). Given the entry of all these new technology oriented providers and intermediaries, we wanted to understand responses to our core questions to players across the digital credit space:

  • How are providers providing solutions relevant to new market segments?
  • Where are the risks and vulnerabilities across the chain of the players and processes in the digital credit ecosystem?

The Growing Role of Non-bank Entities in Digital Credit

An early insight that participants shared at the workshop was that there is no shortage of demand or supply for credit in India today, rather that we lack mechanisms in the market for the appropriate deployment of supply. It was also emphasised that role of fintech providers in India is fundamentally different from markets like the US: while fintechs in US focus on a generally well-banked population often in competition with established banks, Indian fintech firms are also trying to expand the market and provide services to the underserved.

The key question facing the Indian market is whether providers dis-intermediating the chain of credit will partner with banks or compete with them in order to provide services to customers. Two market trends described within this context:

a) P2P lending platforms partnering with banks

Participants reflected that traditional banking is limited by legacy systems and regulations. Some banks have taken a progressive view of the developments, with early trends emerging of P2P platforms tying up with banks to source customers and help with the early stages of the customer verification process. These partnerships are making certain assets classes—such as consumer and SME loans through e-commerce platforms—more accessible to traditional banks.

b) New strategies by digital lenders and P2P platforms to reach customers not previously accessed by traditional lenders

Providers in the digital credit market are also using new strategies to diversify the base of customers to whom they lend such as building partnerships with e-commerce platforms to use their data and advertising and targeting new customers. For instance, some P2P platforms have tie-ups with travel and holiday planning sites to offer loans to vendors listed on the site.[2] These partnerships have opened up access to new customers for SME and consumer loans who may not have been previously accessible to lenders.[3]

New Service Providers in the Chain of Digital Credit

Next the discussion moved on to the range of players in the digital credit scene. To frame the discussion, we presented a list of all the stakeholders involved in the provisions of digital credit to the participants (Table 1) – based on our understanding of the credit ecosystem.

Table 1: Digital Credit Stakeholders

Source: FFI (2017)

The participants observed that the above list is likely to evolve as emerging players involved in providing digital credit and related services are currently discovering and experimenting with different business models.

Despite the changing nature of the industry, participants agreed that the majority of digital credit operations are the same as those in traditional lending. However, certain processes such as risk origination and risk assessment have evolved because of increased access and use of customer data.

Emerging Pain Points for Digital Credit

The discussion moved on to the operational pain points faced by providers and their intermediaries.

Low awareness of data-related risks: The chief concerns of the attendees centred on data protection and privacy. The participants felt that the average Indian consumer’s awareness of data related risks is minimal. Educating customers about privacy and data protection issues is crucial. The providers at our workshop took their own roles in this process very seriously. Participants also believed that customer data should not be shared without explicit consent. However at the same time, they conceded that it is often unclear for consumers to know what they are giving consent for.

Participants also highlighted that risky customer data practices already exist and are not unique to the digital credit space. For instance, participants discussed the large role that Direct Selling Agents (DSAs) have traditionally played in the selling of financial products by contacting potential customers. Currently, DSAs are a weak link when it comes to securing customer data, since there is no clear procedure to monitor and sanction these agents.

New data for credit assessments: Next the participants discussed the use of alternative data based assessment for lower income customers – to widen the potential to offer credit products to them since they often do not have more traditional credit scores to support assessments of credit worthiness. It was emphasised that standardised credit products can lead to financial exclusion due to exclusionary eligibility criteria.

In this context, the question of privacy arose – specifically, whether certain types of alternative data could compromise the privacy of individuals and whether this was a valid consideration. Participants’ views were divided on the importance of this question to the end customer – with some musing that privacy could be a “luxury” problem and others priding themselves on placing strong value on their data privacy practice.

Need for standardised borrower assessment, fair lending requirements and front end provider liability: Typically, assessing a borrower’s credit worthiness involves gauging the ability to repay, intent to repay and identity. This process is standardised in countries like the US and the UK. However, in India there is no standardisation of the borrower assessment process. This exacerbates the challenges of evaluating customers.

In the US, the fair lending requirements practised by foreign banks prevent discrimination based on pincode, race etc. Equivalent provisions do not currently exist in India. However, in the US, discrimination is implicit within lending practices — in a black box form. As a result, American lenders do not share their assessment processes.

All the participants agreed that in the case of any customer harm arising, the customer-facing institution must take responsibility and liability — irrespective of the dis-intermediation of the chain of credit in the digital context. There cannot be a situation where the customer’s rights are spread across multiple entities.

Regulators need to factor in market development and stakeholder perspectives: Participants highlighted the need for regulators to let the industry take a meaningful size and shape before introducing guidelines. If regulations supersede the industry’s development, they can shape the formation of industry (instead of market forces).

The attendees also remarked that digital lenders have no formal forum for engagements with key regulators, making it tough for them to feedback ex ante about the possible impact of proposed regulation on the market and on customers. One recent initiative that participants discussed was the Digital Lenders Association of India (DLAI), which seeks to work closely with the government, regulators and policymakers on behalf of those involved in core lending business and facilitators in digital lending.

Overall, the workshop helped us get an insight into the role of the various actors who participate in the digital credit ecosystem in India, and their perceptions on managing risks to customers.

About the Future of Finance Initiative:

The Future of Finance Initiative (FFI) is housed within IFMR Finance Foundation and aims to promote policy and regulatory strategies that protect citizens accessing finance given the sweeping changes that are reshaping retail financial services in India – including those driven by Indiastack, Payments Banks, mobile usage and the growing P2P market.

[1]See: All-India Debt and. Investment survey (2014) http://mospi.nic.in/sites/default/files/publication_reports/nss_577.pdf
[2]See: http://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/alok-mittal-returns-as-entrepreneur-launches-platform-for-smb-lending-115100100047_1.html
[3]See: http://www.amazon.in/b?ie=UTF8&node=8520691031