IMF Releases the 2017 Financial Access Survey, Tracking Access to Financial Services

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently released (October 2, 2017) the results of the eighth annual Financial Access Survey (FAS). The FAS collects annual data on indicators tracking financial access—an important pillar of financial inclusion. It provides insights on the availability and use of financial products such as consumer and firm deposit accounts, loans, and insurance policies across the globe. The information is based on administrative data collected from both traditional (e.g., commercial banks or other deposit-taking institutions) and digital (e.g., mobile money) financial service providers.
FAS data show progress in two indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals: the number of bank branches and automated teller machines (ATMs), with most of the growth concentrated in Asia. However, some other regions still lag in these financial access dimensions. This is particularly the case in Sub-Saharan Africa, where there are on average five times fewer bank branches and ATMs per adult than in the rest of the world. FAS data also show that innovations in financial access, such as mobile money services, keep making inroads. In Afghanistan, for instance, there are now more than six times as many mobile money agents as ATMs, facilitating direct deposit of payroll for civil servants through their mobile phones.
As the importance of financial inclusion becomes increasingly evident, demand for more granular financial access data has also increased. A growing interest in ensuring equitable access to financial services for all has created a need for gender-disaggregated financial access statistics. In response, the FAS collaborated with national authorities to assess their capacity to extract these statistics directly from administrative sources.
As financial inclusion is very dynamic, the current FAS round illustrates well the importance of investing in collecting more granular financial access data. For example, the newly available data suggest a financial access gender gap. On average, women hold 40 percent of deposit accounts and receive a similar proportion of outstanding loans. However, country-specific data also reveal progress made in narrowing this gap. For instance, Malaysia saw its share of female borrowers increase from 37 percent in 2004 to 44 percent in 2016. The historical perspective of this new information opens the door to policy-relevant research questions, such as the causality between loans tailored to women entrepreneurs and the share of female borrowers.
The FAS has been conducted since 2009 with generous financial support provided by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The latest FAS data and country-specific metadata are available, free of charge, at http://data.imf.org/FAS.
The Report
Financial Data for Sustainable Growth
The Financial Access Survey (FAS) is a recognized, high-quality, supply-side financial inclusion database with a global reach to support policy analysis and formulation. Financial inclusion is critical to inclusive growth and economic stability. If not well-managed, financial inclusion—and credit expansion in particular—can undermine financial stability. A good understanding of financial inclusion and the ability to formulate and implement appropriate development and macro-prudential policies hinge on available high-quality data—which is what the FAS offers.

The FAS is based on administrative data that are provided by central banks and other regulators. These authorities collect source data directly from various financial service providers, ranging from commercial banks to mobile network operators.

The methodology ensures harmonization of concepts and promotes international comparability of data on a wide array of financial services, such as deposits, credit, and insurance. The broad coverage of financial instruments in combination with data going back to 2004 for several series makes the FAS a comprehensive global database on the availability and use of basic financial services by households and firms. One hundred and eighty-nine economies have contributed to the FAS since its launch in 2009, and the data are readily available on the FAS website, https://data. imf.org/FAS. The FAS is conducted with generous financial support provided by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Financial Access Gender Gap
Recently, the analytical and policy debate has emphasized studying the growth implications of closing the gender gap—an area where there are limited cross-country data at present and where the FAS can make an effective contribution in measuring the financial access gender gap.

Several studies have found a disproportionate exclusion of women from access to financial services, which in addition to preventing them from reaching their economic potential, retards inclusive economic growth. This is because equitable access to formal financial services is critical to sustaining a stable and predictable household consumption—especially in the face of volatile income— and to financing investment opportunities for all.

Traditionally, estimates of the gender gap have been obtained by interviewing samples of potential users of financial services about the characteristics and use of their bank accounts and other financial access instruments.

Surveys have made an important contribution to our understanding of this gender gap. However, in addition to being costly to implement, sometimes it is hard to establish how well they represent the general population. Until recently, little has been known about the potential for extracting financial access data, by gender, from the direct providers of financial services. But this is changing.

In 2016, a pilot carried out under the FAS provided unique insights into the availability of gender-disaggregated financial access data drawn from administrative sources. The pilot program revealed that in almost half of the 28 participating economies, financial services providers have access to their customers’ gender information (Figure 1). The pilot economies represent some 60 percent of the world adult population and regionally diverse economies and territories participating in the FAS.

The pilot also highlights that administrative data can provide historically consistent data and perspective. The information thus not only illustrates current gender gap differences across countries but also helps identify countries where gaps have been closing in the last few years, such as in Chile and Malaysia (Figure 2). Malaysia’s share of female borrowers increased from 37 percent in 2004 to 44 percent in 2016. This suggests the need for a careful analysis of the role that initiatives, such as Malaysia’s Women Entrepreneur Financing Program, may play in the gradual bridging of the gender gap.

Administrative data granularity also provides valuable information to advance our understanding of the different dimensions of the gender gap. For example, data for Brazil show that in 2016, there did not seem to exist much of a gap in the small-loan market. However, women were less likely than men to have access to relatively large loans (Figure 3). This information raises key questions to explore, including what barriers may help explain the differential in this gender gap, such as different loan documentation requirements across genders for different loan sizes.

In sum, the pilot outcomes complement snapshots of the gender gap in access to financial services based exclusively on surveys of users. This new information, which future FAS rounds will aim to extend to the entire Fund membership, can help document the different aspects of the financial access gender gap. In turn, they can lay the foundation for further analysis and improved policy-making to bridge this gap, thereby contributing to financial stability and stronger and more inclusive economic growth.

The full benefits of administrative data can only be harnessed if challenges faced by country authorities in collecting this data are addressed. The FAS will continue to work with the national authorities to emphasize the importance of gender-disaggregated data and expand their collection for all economies in its database.

Financial Access and Development Goals
The FAS also collects data on financial access indicators that track progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as data on commercial bank branches and automated teller machines (ATMs). The close-to-universal geographical data coverage of ATMs and bank branches in the FAS provides a strong monitoring basis for SDG target 8.10 to measure the strengthening of the capacity of domestic financial institutions to encourage and to expand access to banking, insurance, and financial services for all.

The 2017 FAS data show that, worldwide, there are now more than three million ATMs and this number has been steadily increasing in the last few years. But, trends are only part of the story. Most of the global expansion of ATMs is concentrated in China, India, and Indonesia—countries which, according to World Bank estimates, have made significant progress towards important financial inclusion benchmarks.

Alternative access points, such as mobile money agents, also provide access to financial services. These agents, often situated at small and local retail stores, partner with mobile money providers and help customers open mobile money accounts that allow people to safely store money and make payments by using their mobile phone.

Digital Financial Access
FAS data show that mobile money services are primarily prevalent in Africa, especially in regions where presence of traditional access channels such as ATMs still lags behind (Figure 4). This observed complementarity of access to digital and traditional financial services extends to regions outside Africa. In Afghanistan, for example, there are now more than six times as many mobile money agents as ATMs, which helps support government policies that aim to directly transfer civil servants’ salaries into mobile money accounts instead of paying them in cash.

Developments in the digital economy and the resulting introduction of digital financial services can play an important role to expand access to financial services, and mobile money services are a good example of this potential. Mobile money has expanded in an increasing number of economies across the globe. Recent studies have shown its potential to contribute to poverty reduction and promote gender equality (e.g., Kenya).

The FAS has been collecting data on mobile money services since 2014. Recent data show that overall these digital services keep gaining traction, though the speed varies across economies (Figure 5). For example, experience in the growth of mobile money transactions differs between Botswana and Pakistan in the last five years, even though they had similar levels in 2012. These differences illustrate that the increasing availability of these services do not automatically translate into high use. The data further support this notion, as the number of mobile money accounts that are used to make a mobile money payment or exchange mobile money into cash falls short of the total amount of mobile money accounts that have been opened since the introduction of these services.

To fully leverage the potential of digital financial services such as mobile money, regulatory data could usefully be complemented with in-depth analyses that, for example, address the lack of interoperability of services or demand aspects by directly interviewing potential users.

Where to Find the Data
All the data are readily available on the FAS website, which also hosts other information, such as the metadata that provide additional insights into specific definitions and circumstances of the participating economies. The website also features more detailed information on the gender pilot of 2016 and will showcase the outcomes of the ongoing exercise that assesses the availability of gender disaggregated data for all economies that are represented in the FAS database.

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