Technology firms such as Alibaba, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Tencent have grown rapidly over the last two decades. The business model of these “big techs” rests on enabling direct interactions among a large number of users. An essential by-product of their business is the large stock of user data which are utilised as input to offer a range of services that exploit natural network effects, generating further user activity. Increased user activity then completes the circle, as it generates yet more data.
Building on the advantages of the reinforcing nature of the data-network-activities loop, some big techs have ventured into financial services, including payments, money management, insurance and lending. As yet, financial services are only a small part of their business globally. But given their size and customer reach, big techs’ entry into finance has the potential to spark rapid change in the industry. It offers many potential benefits. Big techs’ low-cost structure business can easily be scaled up to provide basic financial services, especially in places where a large part of the population remains unbanked. Using big data and analysis of the network structure in their established platforms, big techs can assess the riskiness of borrowers, reducing the need for collateral to assure repayment. As such, big techs stand to enhance the efficiency of financial services provision, promote financial inclusion and allow associated gains in economic activity.
At the same time, big techs’ entry into finance introduces new elements in the risk-benefit balance. Some are old issues of financial stability and consumer protection in new settings. In some settings, such as the payment system, big techs have the potential to loom large very quickly as systemically relevant financial institutions. Given the importance of the financial system as an essential public infrastructure, the activities of big techs are a matter of broader public interest that goes beyond the immediate circle of their users and stakeholders.
There are also important new and unfamiliar challenges that extend beyond the realm of financial regulation as traditionally conceived. Big techs have the potential to become dominant through the advantages afforded by the data-network-activities loop, raising competition and data privacy issues. Public policy needs to build on a more comprehensive approach that draws on financial regulation, competition policy and data privacy regulation. The aim should be to respond to big techs’ entry into financial services so as to benefit from the gains while limiting the risks. As the operations of big techs straddle regulatory perimeters and geographical borders, coordination among authorities – national and international – is crucial.
This chapter begins with a description of big techs’ inroads into finance. The second section analyses the reasons for this entry and how big techs’ business models can create competitive advantages over banks. The third section analyses the potential effects of big techs on financial intermediation and the final one discusses possible implications for public policy.