The Fourth Industrial Revolution has had a staggering effect on certain industries. From healthcare to retail to agriculture, a range of sectors have dramatically changed the way they store data, extrapolate learnings from it, and then implement better practices as a result - from when to plant crops to deciding how many skirts to manufacture.
Through automation, intelligence, and personalization, technology has not just moved these industries forward, it has catapulted them. But although the financial services sector has used technology to upgrade its infrastructure, its move towards using the innovations unleashed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution to benefit consumers is still in its infancy.
For an industry that has developed over arguably thousands of years, and which has strong economic incentives to modernize and optimize its performance, it is somewhat dumbfounding that the financial services sector hasn’t been more tech-enabled. Why does this matter? Because having easy access to capital systems across demographics is the heart of what moves societies forwards - and until financial technology (fintech) fully embraces the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we simply won’t get there.
In some ways, the deployment of technology has created a barrier to building more user-friendly, tech-enabled financial services. The Financial Times estimates that algorithms decide as much as 70% of stock trades. J.P. Morgan, meanwhile, estimates that less than 10% of stock picks are made by individuals, with the remainder made by quantitative computer formulas. The result? Far fewer users are engaged with capital markets, not only in the US but around the globe.
Consider the US, the country with one of the most widely used financial systems. An annual study by the Federal Reserve found that almost 60% of Americans don’t know what they are invested in. Further, a disturbingly low number of Americans engage in the markets, and this figure is shrinking. In 1989, just over 5% of US households held bonds; today that number hovers at around 1%. The perception remains that financial systems, in perhaps part due to the technology they use, have become much more sophisticated, with complex vehicles now being used for various transactions. Finance not only remains a foreign industry for most people, but an opaque one at best - when in fact technology should make the average user more financially literate, not less.
Think about how technology has transformed the real estate and travel industries. For years, real estate professionals held closely to the notion that their industry would shrink if the average user had more access to data and information. Realtors held the keys to the kingdom and access to housing listings, which was one of their main propositional values. The same went for travel agents who magically knew the right seats to book on the plane and had access to the best hotel rooms. Data and internet searches changed both those industries, when aggregate data enabled users to make smarter decisions. Both industries expanded, rather than contracted. Both industries improved when automation and systems combined with existing expertise to help everyone make better decisions.
Booking sites such as Kayak showed all flights, and users could book them easily based on their own priorities, such as time or cost. Real estate benefitted in the same way through two of technology’s greatest characteristics: discovery and delivery.
This isn’t particularly true of the financial services market. Financial advisors still hold the keys to many seemingly simple investments. What if you wanted to invest in an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that works with only ethically mined diamonds? That would still be a difficult search. How can users easily compare the risk, returns and fees associated with investing in a financial instrument?
Encouragingly, however, we seem to be on the cusp of this change. The process of sparking the Fourth Industrial Revolution for industries involves familiarity, then commoditization, followed by developing best practices. Fortunately, we are in the familiarity phase. Almost half of the population around the globe uses mobile technology for some sort of banking. That figure is increasing dramatically each year; but what is more encouraging is that it is growing in developing countries as well, which have relied on communications technology to create new banking systems. This will hopefully spark companies and entrepreneurs to create new tools that give greater access to financial systems and tools. And as more users adopt these tools, this should create greater efficiencies in this market.
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Why does this matter? Integrating consumers into the financial ecosystem through the tech-enablement of financial systems is one way that developing countries can catch up with the west - whether through banking through mobile phones in Tanzania or Afghanistan, or the legendary work of Nobel prize-winner Muhammad Yunus, who today offers micro-loans through technology platforms in developing Asian countries. Through technology, developing countries received 37% of the total global foreign direct investment (FDI) last year. In particular, this rose by 2% in Asia, the region that receives the most capital. Technology platforms help to build the financial infrastructure that establishes an economy of record, which can dramatically raise the standard of living and fuel capital markets. Creating universal access and familiarity to financial tools and markets could potentially be one of the greatest catalysts for strong, global economic growth.
More importantly, technology unlocks many things such as ease of use and greater knowledge, but also transparency. As markets and financial systems become more volatile and complex, technology and data should be able to transform that into a simpler language that encourages more people to engage - and the more users who engage with the financial markets, the more efficient they will become.