Editor’s note: Sonny Singh is the chief commercial officer of BitPay.
Digital currencies have come and gone, and despite the astonishing rise of bitcoin’s popularity over the past 18 months, the majority of the population has yet to board the bitcoin bandwagon.
One of the things that has plagued digital currencies in the past has been the perception that they are a solution in search of a problem. Does anyone really need digital currencies like bitcoin? Who are they intended for, and what purpose do they really serve?
Banks are focused on growth
As the recession recedes into a distant memory, banks have begun to shift strategy – moving from containing costs and mitigating risks to focusing again on growth. A recent survey of 100 banks showed that in 2014, bank CIOs believed that the underbanked offered the second-greatest revenue opportunity over the next three years (second only to the “Mass Affluent” segment).
A recent banking report from SWIFT and McKinsey entitled “Putting Growth First” demonstrated how banks could achieve sizeable revenue growth by targeting regions with sizeable underbanked populations.
Banks’ core financial services — payments, loans, insurance, etc. — are under attack from a wave of innovative fintech startups, who are placing downward pressure on banks’ operating margins.
The underbanked as a source of growth
The success of the M-Pesa mobile banking initiative operated by Safaricom in Kenya, which helped reduce the percentage of those underbanked in the country from 60 percent to 25 percent, highlights the role that technology can play in serving the underbanked. But the underbanked are critically important to more developed markets, too. A staggering 68 million U.S. citizens do not use a bank. Meanwhile a survey by Goldman Sachs just last week found that 33 percent of American millennials thought that they would not need a bank in five years.
It’s this alliance of the underbanked, millennials, and “the next billion” to come online over the next 10 years who will drive adoption of mobile payments and digital currencies. If banks do not support them, they risk missing out on a vital source of revenue.
Customers are now in a position to start building their own financial infrastructure using a basket of companies that they know and trust. It’s incredibly straightforward to download a bitcoin wallet from the App Store or Google Play and start managing your money straight away.
Interestingly, Facebook announced the launch of a mobile payments system through its Messenger app, meaning that financial transactions can now take place in the same app, with zero transaction costs. Snapchat has done something similar with SnapCash.
Faced with disintermediation, traditional financial institutions are starting to think about how they can integrate next-generation technologies to serve the underbanked.
Now some fintech startups are offering the ability to load bitcoin on prepaid debit cards, without providing a guaranteed income to get set up. If an underbanked person uses these services with a bitcoin wallet, they then have a way of managing their money without needing a bank account. Their funds can be spent anywhere that cards are accepted.
Customers gravitate toward services that reduce friction in their lives and shy away from the eye-watering transaction fees typically involved with services such as check cashing. Laborious and expensive transactions suddenly appear unnecessary and out-dated.
A decentralized economy
With the power firmly back in the people’s hands, banks must update their services to adjust. It will no longer be acceptable to charge large fees for simply cashing paychecks and sending money abroad. By supporting technology solutions such as bitcoin that truly help the underbanked, banks can tap into this vital source of revenue and growth.
Bitcoin is maturing into a safe, secure system that offers tangible benefits for the underbanked. No longer a solution looking for a problem, it will be a way for many consumers over the next decade to gain access to financial tools while avoiding large transaction fees and service charges.