Regulating Fintech: A Proactive Approach

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Image courtesy of Forbes

By Nitin Malik (@nitinmalik86)

Financial Technology or Fintech sector needs a proactive and stable financial regulation policy environment to grow. Fintech can have a potentially transformative impact on economy in the future, and as such, Indian regulators need to carefully nurture a policy regime which promotes innovation and growth of fintech companies.

Fintech encompasses a broad range of technological innovations in the areas of block chain, financial advisory, digital currency, payments, financial inclusion, peer to peer lending, among others, which are disrupting traditional financial services. Not only do fintech innovations increase efficiency and lower costs, they also help increase access to financial services. For example, innovations like P2p and social data based lending is enabling people without formal credit histories to get faster and easy access to loans. In Kenya, M-Shwari uses call data and recharge history of customers to determine their credit worthiness. This has made it possible for millions of mobile subscribers to get loans in just a few minutes.

The Indian Fintech sector is estimated to be $1.2 billion in 2015 and is projected to touch $2.4 billion by year 2020, as per a NASSCOM study. Globally the sector is estimated to touch $45 billion by 2020. A recent McKinsey study estimated that digital financial services can help governments in developing countries to save around $110 billion annually.

Why regulating fintech is different?

Rapid innovations in fintech sector makes it a difficult sector to regulate. The objective of Fintech firms is to disrupt banking and financial services which are traditionally heavily regulated. Sometimes these regulatory costs create high capital requirements on startup firms and pose barriers to innovation in the initial growth phases.

This is why regulations of fintech is so critical, one that enables and not stifles innovation. Globally, regulators have had to walk a thin line between over and under regulation. Since understanding of risks posed by fintech firms is limited, regulators have come up with different approaches to understand and regulate this sector. Countries like UK, Singapore, the US and Australia have been at the forefront of these regulatory innovations.

How others are doing it?

UK’s Financial Conduct Authority and Monetary Authority of Singapore have created regulatory sandboxes for fintech firms. These sandboxes are like contained experiments, where fintech firms are allowed to innovate without the burden of regulatory permissions. FCA in UK through its project innovate scheme has invited fintech firms to innovate. These firms are provided with regulatory feedback and a safe house to build on their innovations and experiments.

Another approach, advocated by Omidyar Network, is the minimal approach to regulations called lean regulation – a term borrowed from the lean startup philosophy by Eric Ries. The spectacular growth of Kenya’s M-PESA and Philippines’ GCash mobile money services owe a lot to minimal regulations in the initial stages by central banks. Under the lean approach, regulators collaborate with players in their incubation phase and keep the regulatory requirements to a minimum. Rules are developed gradually as the market matures and there is better understanding of risks involved. This approach has proved highly successful for both countries, as they have become global leaders in providing mobile financial services to their citizens.

Recently, PayPal has also come with a paper on performance based standards for regulating payments industry. It advocates setting smart governance models by governments using data analytics and feedback loops to advance payment business models. This is still at ideation stage.

In summary, the overall arc of regulations should move from a rule based approach to principles based approach. Regulators should be active participants in market development rather than bystanders. They should encourage pilots, trials of innovations and engage with both incumbent players like banks, NBCFs and new startups.

India can spearhead the change

In last few years, India has taken a lead in emerging markets in embracing financially innovative regulations and policies, especially in finding innovative ways to promote financial inclusion. Despite this, we still don’t have pervasive mobile money services for the poor like Kenya and other east African countries. But the government along with RBI has been proactive with initiatives like award of differentiated banking licenses, development of India Stack, unified Payments Interface and laying out of JAM architecture. RBI has even issued a paper on P2P lending providing much needed clarity to the regulatory grey area.

India’s traditional software strengths and large internet consumer market places it an optimum position to be a leader in fintech sector globally. It is important that RBI, SEBI and other regulators continue to embrace the growth of fintech and make India a global hub of fintech innovation.

Nitin Malik is a financial inclusion consultant working in Myanmar and a participant of the 14th cohort of the Takshashila GCPP. His twitter handle is @nitinmalik86

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