Remittances: Getting digital-ready for post-pandemic recovery January 12, 2021
The world bank has predicted that remittances are set to decline by 20% as a direct result of the pandemic, marking the sharpest decline in recent history. This is understandable on a surface level, of course, as remittance payments are most commonly sent between families and friends, and in the current climate, for migrant workers particularly, the pandemic has caused a dramatic fall in wages and employment.
However, the remittance sector is nothing if not resilient and for some, the pandemic has proven to be something of a catalyst for a sea of change that’s been simmering just under the surface for years now. Could COVID-19 be the final push the sector needs to jump off the digital cliff edge once and for all? With ‘Neobanks’ like Monzo, Starling and Revolut paving the way, the waters are not quite as untested as you might think.
Of course, our industry has various supply chain members, all of which will have a different opinion and angle on the story. As a leading technology vendor, we reached out to an aggregator (Sidharth Gautam from AZA Finance), a payment processor (David Lambert from Transact 365), an ID verification provider (Richard Spink from GBG) and a Money Transfer Operator, (Nadeem Quershi from USI Money), to ask them how they were preparing for a digital post-pandemic recovery and where they see the biggest innovations happening moving forward.
How do you see the future of the payments industry evolving?
The COVID crisis has had a profound impact on the escalation of digitisation in the payment industry. Our previous primary method of processing payments was rather manual, but in the wake of social distancing, we’ve been forced into ensuring our processes are more digitised. I think that’s going to have a major short and long term impact with digitisation continuing to escalate at a rapid pace.
It’s always going to be down to what the individual MTO wants to achieve when they run a compliance process. There’s a difference between just running a process and being compliant and our experience is that some businesses will want to take that seriously and others will want to just pay lip service to it. There are two reasons for that – one is that there’s a cost to being compliant and the other is that there’s a proliferation of vendors out there now. When I started in the UK 10 years ago there were perhaps 10 vendors. Now there are around 50 money transfer operators in the UK alone and hundreds globally.
How do you see the digital channel fees changing for MTOs as the channels shift from agents to a heavier reliance on digital channels?
The fees themselves always come down as volume goes up. When you’re talking about lower risk payment processing the margins are always going to be razor-thin. Already today I’m seeing fees online that are almost rock bottom and it’s only going to get slower. Then there’s the prospect of open banking which is going to blow everything open and remove the baseline costs even further. Ultimately it’s a competitive and a healthy environment and the fees are going to be falling but we are in this to help each other and make money. So while the fees might be coming down, we should always keep our shared end goals in mind.
70% of the remittance market today is cash-based but the tide is shifting and as it does the fees are going to go down. We’re already seeing it move southwards and as the 30% increases and the 70% reduces it’s going to exacerbate that reduction exponentially.
Prices will go down, of course. But they’re not going to suddenly plummet. There is a point at which we won’t go below (that rock-bottom David referred to) then there’s the cost of going digital that smaller MTOs have to consider. The price point will come down over time but then the technology you choose to invoke will change over time too.
The other thing that’s happening at the same time is that businesses are talking about digital ID. So the technologies to digitise identities is already there but the confidence to accept it probably isn’t just yet. In the next 12 months if you’re looking at how to make your process complaint online you have plenty of choices and the decision needs to be whether you’re looking for a quick fix or a process that’s scalable in the long term?
How does risk play into digitising money transfer?
The real question is do MTOs assume more risk online than in the traditional model? I believe that they don’t. We’re living in an age where digital risks have been largely mitigated by the complexity of new digital IDs. So I honestly don’t see it as any riskier than the traditional model of somebody visiting a brick and mortar location and presenting a physical ID. We have automated lists with regards to sanctions and screening so can build watertight systems to manage risks that are arguably just as proficient as the traditional model.
I partially agree with Nadeem. However, I’d argue that the moment you remove the cardholder from the equation in a physical capacity, the risk naturally increases. We can never be 100% sure on the surface if the cardholder who is making the transaction is the actual cardholder. Not if we can’t physically see them.
Where Nadeem is correct is in the responsibility of technology in ensuring those risks are reduced. If the tech is implemented correctly and the right controls are in place then there is going to be less risk. But fraudsters are very smart and they’re always getting smarter. I’ve worked in money transfer for a decade now and have seen so many different ways that fraudsters can behave – loopholes and tricks that technology can struggle to keep up with. The risks are manageable if you do it correctly but if you get it wrong then the risks can be ten times higher.
My response would be somewhere in between Nadeem and David’s. Our business is focused primarily on Africa and in that region, we’re seeing a lot of digital MTOs joining our platform, more and more every day. AI will definitely play a part in mitigating the risk but the risk is always going to be there. The question is how fast the technology can improve.
As soon as you’re online you’re introducing more risks, but the technology is there to mitigate the risk. As a rule of thumb, If it looks dodgy then it probably is. As long as you run a verifiable process online to mitigate those risks then it’s worth any cost. All online businesses must accept that fraud is part and parcel of the deal. As long as you accept that, go into it with your eyes open and put the right amount of resources behind it then it’s always going to be worth the risk.
Does the digital model present more opportunity for MTOs or are we operating in a saturated market?
The amount of MTOs that have gone digital in the last 9 months is probably more than in the last 9 years and COVID has played a major role in that. A lot of these conversions are not new entrants into the market but are existing MTOs that has been operating more traditionally and have been forced into the digital model.
There’s always an opportunity to be found in chaos. Throughout history, hundreds of companies have been forged in times of crisis. Disney was formed out of the 1929 depression, Microsoft came out of a major recession in the 70s and in 2008 it’s the banking crisis that kicked off Bitcoin and Fintech. The way that compliance has moved forward so fast in recent months has really spawned a rise in applications for electronic money licenses.
The implications of that are massive and have led to an environment where everybody wants to be a digital bank. It’s like when the Beatles came along and everybody wanted to be in a rock band. Now, thanks to the Monzos and Revoluts of the world, everybody wants to be involved in Fintech. This is perhaps why, now that we’re all in crisis mode, that so many MTOs are looking to upgrade their money licenses so they can perform different functions and expand into something more.
Asia and Africa are frontier emerging economies. Whilst the vaccine will be a reality in the western world it’s going to take a lot longer to filter into the emerging markets. Given that they are the primary markets for our industry it’s even more apparent that digital is the way to go. Because whilst the western world might be able to return to some semblance of normality sooner rather than later, the emerging markets that rely on remittance are still going to need to rely solely on digital.
In theory, as long as a financial service business has a steady platform, they can drive the business in any way they want. I think the difference is whether your focus is on driving transactions or taking the bolder step of becoming a fully regulated business. Revolut is a good example of a business that has spent all of its time and effort acquiring customers and are now embarking on the hard bit of actually becoming a proper bank.
I think that everyone would like to see an organisation do that successfully – pivot from a business that has a large number of customers into one that actually makes money from lending money. There’s an opportunity there to scale a business from an MTO into something that provides other financial services too.
Are we seeing MTOs evolve into these Neobanks or are we saying that the pie is quite big and each will have its own role within that pie?
We are seeing the more established MTOs move from conventional standard payments into things like e-money wallets and they are using this type of functionality as part of their wider growth plans. But generally, I think we will be seeing some form of consolidation amongst the larger MTOs. In the larger sense, the more established players have access to more resources so they will be the ones that will be moving forward.
Sometimes I feel like an outsider and sometimes it’s good to have that perspective where I’m not immersed deeply inside the money transfer sector. But I advise, consult and work with several different money transfer companies. One of the things that’s interesting that I see from my perspective is that everybody has their strengths and their positions within the market. If you look at companies like Small World, for example, they work with so many smaller MTOs to provide payouts and if you look at Azimo they rely on a number of different partners to help them get into certain parts of the world.
No one can do everything by themselves as one complete unit. So consolidation and licensing are interesting for me because every single MTO out there is trying to do something relatively unique. One company might be stronger in one area than another and by working together they can offer something more holistic and of greater quality overall. So I think consolidation should 100% be on the roadmap for everyone. My only fear about consolidation is that it actually shrinks the competitive element of any industry but I think that’s a little further down the line.
It’s already happening. Around two and a half months back WorldRemit acquired Sendwave for $500 million. This was a growth acquisition and it’s one of many floating around right now. There is also word on the grapevine that Western Union may buy Moneygram, which is one of the top three MTOs in the world.
Sidharth said something interesting about acquisition for growth rather than acquisition for revenue and I have seen that a lot in the payments industry. There is a huge amount of consolidation of payment service providers buying other payment service providers simply to grow because growth is so essential for a lot of MTOs, especially when we’re operating on such thin margins.
With all this technology at our disposal, why are we still having an issue with de-risking?
Since I started talking to MTOs in 2012, I’ll be honest, it’s not got any easier. The first question I ask people as a qualifying question is ‘have you got a bank account’. If they haven’t got a bank account then they’re wasting my time because I know they won’t be using our software until they get that bank account.
The big banks just won’t take the risk. It’s too much hassle and that’s a business banking problem anyway. They could easily take the risk if they choose to, it’s whether they have the resources to be able to deliver that and that’s where you’ve got the disruption coming. Can smaller banks take on that risk? Because in another sense they have less risk in it potentially going wrong.
De-risking has been going on for a number of years but at the end of the day, from a bank’s perspective, it comes down to purely to risk versus reward. For this reason, I don’t think you’re going to see a change in banks attitudes or habits when it comes to de-risking. David also correctly mentioned the rise of the Neobanks and some of these smaller challenger banks but they come with their own set of limitations.
What about regulators? Should the onus be on them to make sure that this continues to be a vibrant and healthy 600 billion dollar industry?
Regulators are there to create a framework, structure, processes and regulations. When it comes to safeguarding good practices, regulators are increasing some of these rules and regulations but can they force banks to actually support clients? I don’t think that’s their objective or their remit.
I don’t think it’s in the regulators best interests to push the banks, I think when a company becomes FCA regulated it has to be independent of the banks in some respect. Because, if the FCA and banks were in cahoots with each other it would be it much easier to operate but you’d also leave yourself much more open to fraud. If the two remain independent and they are independently scrutinised you have a sort of double lock system.
Regulators are becoming more and more progressive enablers to our industry. At least in my experience. In the UK and Europe, we have the example of open banking which is fuelling innovation and is also making the industry more compliant. All the stakeholders are becoming more and more transparent and it is helping to increase the credibility of the segments.
Africa and Asia are still very very fragmented. 54 countries with 54 different regulations. So they have a lot of catching up to do but then you can clearly see in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria that things are moving at a very fast pace and regulators are moving likewise.
Finally, where do you think the biggest innovations will be moving forward?
A lot of innovation is happening right at our doorstep in the Fintech space. Payments is an ever-evolving industry. Every single day there’s a new payment method, a new way of doing things or a new market that can be exploited. Once blockchain technology has crossed over into the mainstream and people realise they can effectively move money as fast as they can send an email, that’s going to be the big breakthrough, that’s the innovation.
There is excitement around blockchain, digitisation of tokens and the ability to make payments instantaneously, of course. But there’s also innovation around digitised prints in terms of digital KYC and simplifying processes for consumers. I think simplification is going to be a key in terms of ensuring not only that funds are instantaneous but that the customer relationship does not simply finish at the point of collection or deposit.
Our thanks to David, Richard, Nadeem and Sidharth for their words and their time.
For more information or to speak to one of our experts please email email@example.com
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