Boston Fed putting “financial inclusion” front and center during Boston FinTech Week
Bank, partners, say FinTech offers huge opportunity to reduce financial insecurity in U.S
Boston FinTech Week just kicked off, and it’s brought together the innovators, investors, and entrepreneurs developing products and services that will impact the financial lives of people everywhere for years to come.
That’s why “financial inclusion” must be an essential part of this week’s conversations, according to advocates for low- and moderate-income workers.
Otherwise, a huge opportunity to increase inclusion and reduce financial insecurity in the U.S. may be lost, said Timothy Flacke, executive director of Commonwealth, a national nonprofit that builds solutions to improve financial security and opportunity.
“FinTech is the force that is shaping the financial system,” Flacke said. “This is an opportunity to get our message (about financial inclusion) into an audience that is going to be wildly influential in shaping that system.”
Goal is to inspire action
Broadly speaking, financial inclusion is about ensuring individuals at all income levels have access to financial offerings – checking/savings accounts, insurance, credit offerings, etc. – that can promote financial stability, health, and growth. But questions like when a given offering is “inclusive” and how to balance inclusivity and profitability can get fuzzy. Boston FinTech Week is a time when the Boston Fed and Commonwealth hope to bring things into sharper focus, both in formal presentations and panels and informally by talking to participants at different venues.
The event runs through Thursday and includes dozens of panels, speeches, bootcamps, etc., several of which are being hosted at the Boston Fed. Bank executives including Senior Vice President Jim Cunha, Chief Financial Officer Aparna Ramesh, and Director of Applied FinTech Research Robert Bench will take part in public discussions and presentations on topics ranging from regulatory technology to international wholesale tokens.
"FinTech really does present extraordinary opportunities for business, but reaching people at all income levels should be a priority from the start,” Ramesh said. “If we do that, FinTech becomes a vehicle not just for business success, but positive social change.”
Brian Clarke, a Boston Fed senior business strategy manager and emergency savings expert, said he hopes to raise awareness about the need for financial inclusion, and inspire people to think about ways to deliver it.
“Our goal at the Boston Fed is to use data to identify areas in which folks can come up with solid, actionable products or features that improve access to financial information and can be widely used,” Clarke said.
$400 problem shows the prevalence of financial insecurity in the U.S.
Clarke will be speaking about the $400 problem, which came to light years ago in the Fed’s annual survey of the economic well-being of U.S. households. About 4-in-10 respondents today say they couldn’t afford an emergency $400 expense without borrowing money or selling something. Clarke says FinTech offers a major opportunity to address the problem, because it lowers costs and other barriers to services, which expands the audience of potential users.
Say, for example, a bank or employer offers workers a way to build up savings through a low- to no-cost program that diverts a portion of direct deposit funds into a savings account. The worker can eventually become better able to absorb unexpected expenses, and may eventually even be able to sock away money, which he or she can conceivably direct toward lower-cost, lower-fee investment accounts. So financial inclusion becomes a key ingredient as a person moves up different levels on what Clarke called “the continuum between financial insecurity and financial opportunity.”
“If you are going to be truly financially inclusive, you are going to have products at each of these levels, with minimum standards for allowing people to transact within these products,” Clarke said.
“There’s no substitute for higher income to help people,” he added, “but there is a chance to help them get into different products and move money in a better way.”
Financial inclusion must be balanced with profitability
Still, a general desire to make financially inclusive offerings isn’t enough. In fact, it may always be easier for companies to focus on offerings with bigger potential short-term reward, Flacke said. A longer-term view is needed, one that prioritizes the benefits that employers and businesses see when their employees and consumers are on more solid financial ground.
Commonwealth Senior Vice President Paula Grieco said though the issues can be thorny, different partners and financial institutions seem as open as ever to coming up with practical ways to expand financial inclusion.
“It is a long game, and I feel there is momentum in the game right now,” she said.