Of Unbanked and “Underbanked”

Speaking of banks, as I did on this page a short time ago, there are those who are concerned that too many people in the United States are “unbanked” or “underbanked.” By the former they seem to mean those who do not use any banking services, particularly who do not have any bank accounts. By the former, they mean those who obtain some banking services from businesses that are not banks. The very existence of the terms, and the way that they are used by those who use them, implies that being “unbanked” or “underbanked” is a bad thing.

I will here disclose that I have worked for banks for nearly 10 years and for all I know may continue to do so for some time into the future. Whatever bias or color to my views that this condition provides I will nevertheless try to comment from a fair and factual point of view.

My first point, therefore, is that I am not prepared to assert that absolutely everyone should have a bank account. I can easily envision the value of a bank account for most if not all people, but I concede that they should be allowed to choose for themselves and that it would be terribly wrong to force people into banks. I acknowledge that there are some alternative providers of financial services who seem to please their customers, and I do not deny that banks can benefit from good competition. Banks have a long history of drawing upon the ideas and innovations of non-banks, just as non-banks have been eager to try their hand at successful new products and services that banks have pioneered. Bank customers have benefited the most from that process, as the variety and value of financial products have expanded, and the United States has led the world in the discovery of new and useful financial services.

Having said that, the nation cannot do well without a strong, vibrant, and prosperous banking industry. Our nation and people grow as we save financial resources and invest them in improvements for the future, whether new homes, new factories, or new ideas of how to do and make things better, faster, and cheaper. That is a major part of what banks do and are all about.

Moreover, there are a lot of things we do and a lot of places we go because we know that our ability to pay and get paid—to exchange things we value less for things that we value more (the reason we buy and sell things and use money to do it)—is secure, reliable, accurate, and relatively quick. That is our payments system, and banks created it and are at the center of it.

Americans also like the idea of becoming wealthier and expect to do so. If that seems a commonplace to you, recognize that it is not so in all parts of the world, where getting by from day to day is about the most to which people can aspire, for whom poverty is a way of life that they expect to bequeath to their children. To the extent that this miserable condition is becoming less the case in much of the world, that more people are beginning to believe that they can build and improve their wellbeing for themselves and their posterity, this new-found hope for accumulating wealth is attributable to the dispersion of principles of freedom and prosperity that Americans take for granted but which are new to much of the world. The global adoption of many American principles of prosperity has been a major contribution of the New World to the Old World and to all mankind.

Now get ready for the bold but true statement: you cannot get there and stay there without banks and the services that banks provide. Banks gather wealth, safeguard wealth, allow it to be used efficiently, and apply it to building the future. That is why governments pay so much attention to banks, and also why it is so harmful when governments try to capture banks and channel their services to the personal gain of themselves and their cronies. That is also why misguided bank regulations are harmful—even if in subtle but powerful ways—to the nation and its people.

Which brings us back to the agenda of the “unbanked” and the “underbanked.” In the United States, chief causes for people remaining “unbanked” are regulations that make banking more difficult and services more expensive; cultural barriers for people who come from societies where personal banking is either unknown or where the experience has been one of banks used by local governments to harvest wealth from people to enrich the governing elites and their cronies (much of Latin America, for example); and people who for whatever reason just do not prefer to use banks. The first cause regulators can solve but have largely been resistant to solving; the second can be overcome by time and experience and is showing signs of that; and the third cause is no more of a problem than people who prefer to rent rather than own their home, to eat eggs without grits, or who do not like the New York Yankees. I do not have to understand the personal preference to acknowledge it.

The concept of “underbanked” (that government needs to help banks figure out how to serve people who may get some banking services outside of banks) I fear may be a political device to harness American banks to serve the cronies of the “underbanked” advocates. We have already seen this game with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) regulations, adopted ostensibly to ensure that banks lend to their local communities (as if bankers, unlike other businessmen, need government regulation to notice business opportunities right under their own nose). In practice, CRA has been used to coerce banks into providing loans and even grants to and through poverty advocacy agencies that tend to prosper more than the people whom they claim to be helping. The folks who fret about the “underbanked” have marvelous formulas and plans for other people’s money to solve problems about which the people to be helped seem little concerned. I have never heard of any truly “underbanked” people themselves calling for the firm hand of government to get them into the banking system; if they want banking services, they just go and get them.

I have the haunting suspicion that the “underbanked” advocates would if they could use banks the same way found in the abandoned societies of the “unbanked,” where banking services came through the hands of people who knew better than others and always made sure to get their cut for their benevolence. That is not really banking, and that is symptomatic of why people flee those lands. The wealth creation of such captive banks seems to be for someone else. If it happens in America, where will the people go?

Of the Meaning of “Still” and the State of the Union

These thoughts, first published almost a year and a half ago, still seem pertinent today.

Notice how frequently these days when discussing the state of the American union, or any parts thereof, people rely upon the word “still.” That is a bad sign. When someone says, “I am still able to see my own doctor,” he or she implies that continued access is in doubt. Rather than reassuring, it insinuates caution and reveals anxiety. What do you hear when someone says, “At least I am still married”?

You do not commonly hear people using “still” in connection with things that they are sure of. If a baseball player boasts, “I can still hit the ball out of the park,” is he likely to be in his prime or in the twilight of his career?

Allow me to offer for your consideration a dozen recent objects of STILL in public discourse about the condition of the nation:

  • The United States is still the largest economy in the world.
  • The United States still has the strongest/best military in the world.
  • The dollar is still the world’s reserve currency.
  • The United States still is a free country.
  • America still is the land of opportunity.
  • The Supreme Court still can be counted on to defend the Constitution.
  • By hard work and best effort you still can become anything you want.
  • My children will still have a better life than I have had.
  • My children will still live in a bigger house than the one I grew up in.
  • In this country you can still get the best healthcare.
  • America still has the deepest, most liquid, and efficient financial markets.
  • At least the air you breathe is still free.

Undoubtedly, you can think of more for the list. Then, there are some things we do not hear people saying “still” about any more:

  • America is the best place to get an education.
  • Americans make the best cars.
  • I can freely speak my mind.
  • I can trust what I hear or read in the “news.”
  • You can count on the elections not being rigged.

I forbear going on. You can add more if you wish. There are some topics where the doubt is too palpable for people to venture “still” in their expressions.

If we leave the discussion at that, then we have a sad commentary on the sad state of the union. The expression of “still” in our conversation can reveal a desperate clinging to the past with a forlorn wish that things will work out for the future, without doing the good works to make the good future happen.

I would suggest, though, that “still” can also mean “not over,” or “not gone.” We need not settle for “still” and do nothing about it. That which we value can be reclaimed from assault and reinforced, the erosion stopped, the tide turned. After all, John Paul Jones is famous for winning a naval battle from the deck of his sinking—but still afloat—flagship, because he used it as a platform from which to regain what was lost. “I have not yet begun to fight!” is still part of the American heritage.

(First published February 10, 2013)

Of Borrowing and Saving

The basic rule is, if you are not already saving, then you are not ready to borrow. This may sound paradoxical, but it is the only safe way to approach borrowing.

You may wonder, if I have savings, then why would I borrow? That question may be answered in any number of ways. Asking it suggests some lack of understanding of the proper purpose of borrowing.

The proper purpose of borrowing is to manage your income. You should never borrow to spend beyond your income.

Most people receive income in lumps, like once a month or twice a month. Expenses do not always behave themselves that way. First, there are the every day expenses, such as for food, transportation, and a wide range of miscellaneous minor expenditures that quickly add up. Then there are other expenses that occur monthly and may more or less happen at about the same time as your income. A third category is the big expenditure, that may come once or twice a year, such as tuition, taxes, major purchases, insurance premiums. Since the timing of our income and outgo often do not line up, we use borrowing to help bring the two into line.

For example, the tuition is due in September, but you plan to pay for college by working through the school year. A student loan or other borrowing arrangement with the college can line your income up with the expense.

Another example might involve a big appliance. Your refrigerator breaks down and you need a new one. You may not usually have several hundred dollars of unallocated income available in any one month to pay for the new refrigerator, but you likely will over the course of a year. Borrowing lets you draw that income from the course of the year into your current month and match it against this large purchase needed today.

Here is a bigger example. You need a new car, both for family transportation and perhaps even for travel to work. Very few people have enough ready income to buy the new car with what will be received in any one month. Most people, though, can draw upon funds available from their income over the course of a few years to pay for the car, and borrowing is the tool that they can use to do that.

Of course, this borrowing from the future to pay for something today can be abused. There is a natural temptation common to man to seek gratification today and worry about tomorrow’s problems tomorrow, even while causing them today. Two things can help counter this potential for abuse. One is interest, and the other is saving.

Interest is what we pay for borrowing. While rewarding the lender, it is a penalty against anyone who borrows in order to spend beyond his income. As you spend beyond your income, the interest mounts. In the end, it will bring down the abuser once the abuse has gone too far and gets out of hand.

Saving is a more benign and effective check on the impulse to borrow in order to spend beyond income. If you are regularly saving, you are doing something even more important than preparing for the future and reaping the rewards from lending to other borrowers. By definition, if you are saving, you are living within your income. You are taking part of your income and putting it aside. That discipline is what is needed to prevent you from using borrowing to exceed your income. You have a proven practice of spending less than you earn.

That is why I say that if you are saving, then you are prepared to borrow, and if you are not saving, then you are either living right on the edge—spending your income as fast as it is received—or you are going beyond, borrowing to spend beyond what you earn, and that leads to trouble. Then you will be spending to consume something that you did not earn and do not deserve. The eventual price for that is loss of freedom, as you must in the future consume much less than you earn in order to satisfy the debts.

(First published September 8, 2008)