Parliament is in recess. The border with the United States is largely shut down, and millions of Canadians are being urged to stay at home as policymakers across the provinces attempt to stem the tide of COVID-19 cases. With their mobility restricted, housebound families, retail businesses, and teachers have turned to apps to get them through this unprecedented period. These technology-based tools facilitate everything from the delivery of groceries to multi-person webinars and conference calls (or social hours).
Beyond the disruption to everyday way of life, unimaginable economic hardship has befallen many individuals and small businesses across the country. According to a poll released on March 25, an incredible 44 percent of Canadian households have reported they have lost work because of the pandemic. Small businesses in Canada say they already have seen a 50 percent decline in revenue.
And we have likely not reached the worst of the crisis yet.
With large portions of the country rarely leaving their homes, access to physical financial services providers has become increasingly limited or even impossible.
Technology can help here too by serving during this time of hardship as the primary form of access to the financial services system for millions of individuals, families, and small businesses. Canadians can—and should—turn to their laptops or smartphones to manage their financial lives.
These tools are most important for small businesses especially. The Canadian Lenders Association recognized this fact in a letter submitted to federal officials on March 24. The CLA said, “[L]local businesses are currently being serviced extensively by the non-bank, financial technology sector.” Fintech companies, the CLA said, “are uniquely positioned to be able to reach those most in need as a result of advancements in automation and speed of credit approval. Fintech companies deploy capital, quickly and efficiently to customers that are largely underserved by the traditional banking sector.”
Fintech applications also provide an essential service to the nation’s most vulnerable consumers. It has been estimated that between 306,000 and 1.53 million Canadians do not have a bank account. The unbanked rate for Indigenous Peoples in Canada is estimated to range from 4.28 percent to 15 percent. Those most vulnerable include low-income households and Indigenous Peoples who, due to their lack of access to traditional providers, resort to more expensive – and predatory – services such as payday lenders. These individuals are some of the most vulnerable during the current crisis.
Demand for fintech products and services will only grow over the coming weeks and months, and the entire financial ecosystem, and the government, must work together to ensure these tools actually will work for consumers, and remain secure and safe in the face of a global crisis. Allowing consumers to have the full opportunity to use and access fintech tools might not eliminate all of their current anxiety, but it will give them a much-needed sense of control in this unprecedented time.
The industry stands ready to work with banks and government officials. Half of Canadian consumers already use fintech applications. As consumers and businesses struggle to maintain their financial wellbeing amid economic disruption, these tools have never been more indispensable. Fintechs today are providing Canadian consumers and small businesses with critical access to much-needed capital. They also are offering flexibility and relief with respect to existing financial obligations, valuable investment guidance to consumers during a time of significant market volatility, and a holistic view of their finances.
Fintech already plays a role in millions of Canadians’ financial lives, and it is time to formally recognize it as part of this critical infrastructure.
Boms is executive director of the North American arm of the Financial Data and Technology Association, a trade association coordinating the campaign for the delivery of Open Banking across the globe.