India’s central bank wants to put a leash on the booming fintech sector

Crouching tiger…
Crouching tiger…
Image: Reuters/Vivek Prakash
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The disruptive and revolutionary technologies that shook the foundations of India’s traditional financial sector may soon run into a central bank check post.

“Bringing fintech under the regulatory ambit should provide a level playing field and encourage financial innovations. In this context, the Reserve Bank (of India, RBI) is working on framing an appropriate response to the regulatory challenges posed by developments in fintech in India,” the central bank said in its Trend And Progress Of Banking In India report, released in December.

The RBI believes fintech growth in India involves several potential risks. These include micro-financials such as credit and liquidity risk, cyber and legal risks, and unsustainable credit growth, among others. So, last September, the banking regulator ended the unchecked run of peer-to-peer lending. And while it has issued cautionary statements against cryptocurrencies, there are no binding regulations yet.

“While reforms have made the global banking system safer and more resilient and macroprudential policies have reduced vulnerabilities and supported traditional policies, risks remain. In particular, greater acceptance of cryptocurrencies is becoming a formidable risk to the traditional banking system,” the report said.

India’s fintech market, encompassing everything from mobile wallets and online loans to peer-to-peer lending and online retail investments, is expected to be worth $2.4 billion by 2020. However, things have been a bit tepid lately. For instance, venture capital investments in the sector declined to less than $100 million in the July-September 2017 quarter, compared to $800 million during the same period in 2015, according to consultancy firm KPMG.

Good move

Fintech companies welcome RBI regulation.

“The firms in the fintech sector deal with people’s money, and, therefore, the regulator wants to be slightly conservative and put certain strict caps,” said Surendra Kumar Jalan, CEO of OMLP2P, a peer-to-peer lending firm. “It also helps allay investors’ and consumers’ fears and gives them comfort that these are not some fly-by-night operators. Instead, it gives more credibility and legitimacy to the business.”

The RBI has acknowledged that agile fintech players will eat into the business share and profitability of incumbent banks. In fact, this has already begun. And instead of competing with them, traditional banks are now waking up to new categories of payments and settlements and partnering with these startups.

Meanwhile, the RBI’s idea is to create a level playing field rather than just protect the older players, said Vivek Belgavi, who heads financial services technology at PwC India. “In past instances also, we have seen that the RBI has always taken a measured approach to ensure that nobody gets a free run.”

Firms not yet covered by it are also looking to come under the RBI’s purview, which would help them grow. “If the central bank issues rules around our businesses, it will not stall growth. Instead it will ensure that we grow in a prudent way and not in a berserk manner,” Rohit Lohia, COO of CoinTribe, an online lending firm, told Quartz. “If there are no checks, then growth will be short-lived and things will ultimately collapse.”

The RBI has recognised the massive potential technology firms offer. These startups are bringing more consumers into the formal banking channel, boosting financial inclusion and economic growth. They have also improved efficiency, transparency, competition, and resilience, the report said. 

Whatever the pros, the regulator is keen to ensure the cons don’t get away easily.