On the death of credit cards

An article that was recently recommended to me on Medium talks about the death of credit cards (among other things that are currently incumbent in the banking system). As someone who has worked a fair bit in “FinTech”, I broadly agree with what he says. As someone who has worked a fair bit in “FinTech”, I’m also not sure how easy it is to disrupt.

The article says:

The two primary use cases for a credit card today could be illustrated thus:

  1. I’m at the grocery store, swiped by debit card and the transaction was declined because my salary hasn’t yet hit my bank account. I need to buy these groceries for the family today, so I’ll use my credit card and worry about why my salary hasn’t hit the account later, or

  2. I really want this new iPad Pro, but I can’t afford it based on my current savings. If I use a credit card I can pay it off over the next few months

And proceeds to explain why each of the above situations can be unbundled to some kind of an instant credit scenario, rather than the bank having extended a lien to you through which you can borrow.

While the idea of instant credit (on the lines of Affirm) makes intuitive sense, the problem is with transaction costs. Irrespective of algorithms significantly slashing the time required and marginal cost of underwriting loans, the fact remains that the marginal cost of underwriting and extending new credit can never be brought down to zero.

There are costs to updating the information the bank knows about you. There are costs to creating any kind of legal documentation, and insuring that. If you were to list down all such costs, you would find that even if the cost of actual underwriting itself were to be zero, the marginal cost of issuing a loan is significant.

It is for this reason that banks have traditionally settled down on a model of “approve once, borrow multiple times”. For retail borrowers, this translates to a credit card, where they can borrow up to a predetermined limit, with no questions asked for each borrowing. For corporate borrowers, this translates to something like a “working capital lien” or “overdraft”.

The article I’d linked above talks about one of the solutions being an “overdraft”. In that sense, what it says is that the physical credit card might disappear, but not the fundamental principle, which is “approve once, borrow multiple times”.

In fact, as companies come up with new and innovative ways of slashing marginal cost of underwriting to enable “on-demand approval” (I’ve been involved in such efforts with a couple of companies), the question is whether such costs can actually be brought to zero, and if not, whether the model can be sustainable.

As long as the marginal cost of underwriting remains even mildly positive, it is not profitable for lenders to lend out small amounts with “on-demand approval”. How this problem can be solved will determine how well “FinTech” lenders can disrupt banks (on the lending side).

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