Sunday, February 28, 2010

Money 2.0 and Future of Money: Global remittances waiting to be streamlined

Over the weekend, I was reading this month’s cover story in Wired magazine The Future of Money: It’s Flexible, Frictionless and (Almost) Free. The story made me reflect on how money transfer has really gone digital. Some of these technologies online have made really convenient though we continue to use bank accounts and credit cards for traditional financial transactions, and increasingly paypal for online transactions.

Then, I began reflecting on another aspect of money exchange – Forex remittances – that hasn’t quite undergone the same revolution. A Non Resident Indian (NRI) and member of the global expatriate community, I have had my share of travails when it comes to foreign exchange remittances. This includes sending money from UK to India when I lived there, converting pound sterling savings to US dollars when I moved across the pond, occasional remittances from the US to India, remittances from Canada to the US and India when I was working there and last year from my Swiss Bank account to the US along with and some remittances to India when I worked in Switzerland. In case you are wondering, there is hardly much glamour or intrigue to a “Swiss Bank” if you happen to live and work there.

I must admit, almost every currency exchange transaction and remittance had left me feeling I was being shortchanged by the system. Banks at both ends of transaction – my transmitting bank and the receiving bank – wanted a “small” slice of my remittance pie; and so did other middlemen/exchanges through which my money passed. Add to this the uncertainty of exchange rates that change by the minute and the average remitter can be left wondering about the gain/loss he could have had. Of course, banks do agree to ‘lock’ rates for you at the time of transfer, but do so at a hugely discounted rate leaving the consumer to wonder if he wants to take the ‘risk’ of exchange rate shift or go with a predictable, albeit lower rate now?

I guess I am not alone in the remittances saga. Sanket Mohapatra writes in the Worldbank blog that “Inward private transfers reached $27.5 billion in the first half of the current fiscal year, a 4.3 percent increase on a year on year basis.” Hundreds of thousands of fellow expats, immigrants may be in the same boat as me, if not worse.

For smaller transactions, say a few hundred dollars, Western Union and other moneygram services charge a hefty fee. Of course, they provide convenience: outlets at malls, supermarkets and even post offices.

Banks from China, India, Mexico and other countries with large expat populations realize the potential of this lucrative clientale. Many of these banks have established subsidiaries in the US, Canada, UK, Europe, Australia, middle east and elsewhere and also operate branches there. The idea is to target expat populace with ‘familiar’ brands. Why do you think ICICI pays bollywood icon Shahrukh Khan a boatload of money to have his face plastered on banners and adverts in Canada, or youtube? Which to me is a bit delusional: Walk into an ICICI bank in Canada and you soon realize that they operate as a ‘Canadian’ bank, just like TD Bank or Scotia bank, and have very little to do with ICICI ‘back home.’ I remember going to a State Bank of India (SBI) branch in San Jose, California a few years ago to request the manager to attest a document that had to be sent to my SBI branch in Bangalore. The expat Indian manager politely informed me that since this was an American branch of SBI, he was not authorized to attest a document for use in India.

Bottomline: For the average consumer who probably remits money overseas once or twice a year, the market continues to hugely inefficient and fragmented. Though there are several “online” service providers that promise to shave off the currency exchange fee and offer ‘attractive’ exchange fee, hardly anything is set in stone. A common excuse is that the actual exchange rate is calculated only after the funds have cleared, which could take days if not more depending on the speed of your wire transfer and funds clearance.

While I focus on the consumer dimension to money transfer, I am sure the banks, brokers and others have to answer to governments and regulatory agencies. There are whole gamuts of issues that come to play including local, national and international regulations on money laundering, Laws on taxes, anti terrorism etc etc.
Which brings us back to Daniel Roth’s article: can the Future of foreign exchange transfers for consumers become Flexible, Frictionless and (Almost) Free? Probably not anytime soon!