Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)
The demand for digital financial services has risen significantly over recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend and since the focus has shifted towards economic recovery, digital lending has become central. Digital credit products exploit traditional and alternative financial and non-financial data to provide access to finance for households and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). While it makes lending more inclusive for underserved or unserved households and firms, its increasing influence also brings forth challenges that need to be addressed by policy-makers and regulators in order to guarantee well-functioning credit markets and broader financial systems that foster sustainable economic development.
A central concern is the adverse effect of digital lending on the stability and integrity of credit markets (and potentially the wider financial systems). The rise in non-performing loans, even before the COVID-19 crisis, has been associated with an increase in digital credits. New players with little experience enter the market and exploit regulatory arbitrage, but often these players have no (or only a partial) obligation to report to respective systems for sharing credit information or to supervisory bodies, which introduces severe vulnerabilities.
In addition, the low entry threshold of digital financial products, due to their convenience and simplicity for customers, provides fertile ground for exploitative financialisation. Underserved households and MSMEs with limited financial literacy may be lured into taking up unsuitable and unaffordable digital credits, leading to over-indebtedness and bankruptcy.
The last challenge arises from significantly shorter loan maturities in MSME lending if current forms of digital lending are scaled up. This is problematic, as firms need loans with longer maturities to realise productivity-enhancing medium- and long-term investments, many of which include complementary investments in labour, thereby contributing to an improvement in job quality.
Governments and regulators need to strike a balance between leveraging the potential of digital lending for inclusive finance and economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, and mitigating associated risks. In particular, they should, together with providers of technical and financial development cooperation, consider the following:
- Fostering the integrity of (digital) credit markets. Regulators should establish specific licenses and regulations for all digital financial service providers, and intro¬duce obligatory reporting requirements to supervisory bodies and national systems for sharing credit information.
- Preventing exploitative financialisation. Regulators need to require digital lenders to present the costs and risks of their loan products in a manner comprehensible to consumers with little financial literacy, and extend consumer protection policies to digital financial services.
- Ensuring availability of loans with longer maturities. Development finance institutions and other national and international promoters of (M)SMEs should assist local banks in the provision of longer-term loans, e.g. by offering respective funds or partial credit guarantees.
- Establishing regulatory sandboxes. Regulators should launch regulatory sandboxes to test legislation in a closed setting and to learn about risks without hindering innovation.