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Jo Ann Barefoot explores how to create fair and inclusive consumer financial services through innovative ideas for industry and regulators

Barefoot Innovation Podcast

Filtering by Tag: Academics

Fintech for Small Business: Former SBA Administrator & Harvard Business School Senior Fellow Karen Mills

Jo Ann Barefoot

Today we’re expanding beyond our usual Barefoot Innovation focus on consumer financial innovation, to explore the parallel issues arising for small businesses. We’ve touched on this before, but are so fortunate, today, to have a guest who deeply understands the whole range of these issues. She is Karen Mills, former head of the Small Business Administration and now senior fellow at the Harvard Business School, where she has just released a comprehensive paper on fintech and small business.

We recorded today’s show in her office on the business school campus, which is just across the Charles River from my fellowship’s home base in the Harvard Kennedy School. She and I first met in Washington a few years back, when she issued a research paper on the state of small business lending. That was in conjunction with the group that issued the Small Business Borrowers’ Bill of Rights (which we covered in our episode with Brian Graham of BancAlliance. In 2016, much to my delight, Karen and her co-author Brayden McCarthy put out an update on her paper, and this time it’s mostly about fintech.

Technology is changing small business lending in the same ways it’s transforming consumer finance, but with different twists. On the positive side, innovators are using technology to do better for SME’s -- small and medium-sized enterprises -- by adopting low-cost online platforms, becoming much smarter about getting and using data, speeding up service, and creating a vastly better user experience than was possible in the past. The data issue is crucial. Thanks to new technology (including Square), small businesses increasingly can give lenders solid, up to date information on their financial positions and cash flows. Innovative lenders can analyze this, determine with precision what the borrower can afford, and often can create a flexible repayment schedule that works with the rhythm of the business, including seasonal ones.

These innovators are filling an enormous gap -- which Karen clearly demonstrates -- because banks just cannot profitably make the smaller loans that so many businesses need.

There are  downsides, though. One is that whereas local banks interact with their business customers face to face,  these new relationships are online. For lenders, this creates higher risk of fraud. And for borrowers, there is rising danger that these entrepreneurs will be harmed by confusing terms and, sometimes, by downright predatory practices online.

And here’s a little-known fact:  small business borrowers have almost no regulatory protections, at least at the federal level. There is no federal regulator for small business lending, as there is for consumers, and even if there were, there are very few regulations that apply. Generally speaking, there are no requirements for standard disclosures to small business borrowers, and no rules against unfair and deceptive practices, beyond those that cover commerce in general.

This is significant, because today’s small businesses are more similar to consumers than ever before. The “1099” or “gig” economy has led to more and more people starting small businesses as their main work, or to supplement tight household budgets, or to tide them over after losing a job. It’s a mistake to assume that, simply because they’re business people, they are therefore financially sophisticated.

Listeners to Barefoot Innovation have probably figured out by now that I’m not a fan of the current regulatory apparatus for protecting financial consumers (even though I myself have been involved in developing some of it). Broadly speaking, disclosures are failing, and regulations are choking desirable innovation. The last thing I think we should do is to transplant our whole system of consumer protection laws into the fresh, green field of small business lending, and have it put down roots there -- like crabgrass. I think we should be deeply rethinking our consumer laws. In the process, though, we should also be thinking about whether and how to create protections and tools for small businesses to use, too.

Karen does recommend extending some consumer-type protections to these firms, including APR’s (we had a good exchange on the pros and cons of that). She also has tremendous insights into the structure and nature of the market, and on what to do about what she calls the “spaghetti soup” of regulatory agencies and rules, which now make it so hard to move toward a smarter system.

She focuses, too, on the critical need for clearer, updated regulatory guidance for banks that want to work with fintechs on small business lending. A wide spectrum of new models are emerging, partly because these two industries need each other -- they complement each other. Both sides will suffer, and so will business borrowers, if banks can’t navigate the third-party risk rules of their prudential regulators. (As I often say, the regulators have the hardest job in all this.)

More information on Karen:

Karen Gordon Mills served as the Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration from 2009 until August 2013.  She is currently a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Business School and at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School focusing on U.S. competitiveness, entrepreneurship and innovation.

As SBA Administrator and a Cabinet member, Mills served on the President’s National Economic Council and was a key member of the White House economic team.  At the SBA, she led a team of more than 3,000 employees and managed a loan guarantee portfolio of over $100 billion.  Mills is credited with turning around the agency during the financial crisis and with streamlining loan programs, shortening turnaround times, and reducing paperwork.  In addition, Mills helped small businesses create regional economic clusters, gain access to early stage capital, hire skilled workers, boost exports, and tap into government and commercial supply chains.  

Prior to the SBA, Mills held leadership positions in the private sector, including as a partner in several private equity firms, and served on the boards of Scotts Miracle-Gro and Arrow Electronics.  Most recently, she was president of MMP Group, which invested in businesses in consumer products, food, textiles, and industrial components.  In 2007, Maine Governor John Baldacci appointed Mills to chair Maine’s Council on Competitiveness and the Economy, where she focused on regional development initiatives, including a regional economic cluster with Maine’s boatbuilding industry.   

Mills earned an AB in economics from Harvard University and an MBA from Harvard Business School, where she was a Baker Scholar. Additionally, she is a past vice chair of the Harvard Overseers, and is currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Harvard Corporation.

And listen, too, to our episode from last year with Sam Hodges of Funding Circle, a leading example of platform lending to small businesses.

More for our listeners

We have some amazing shows coming up, including one with Chase’s Colleen Briggs, several focused on global trends, at least one with a CEO of a community bank, and one that I will call a barn-burner with the former CEO of PayPal and Inuit, Bill Harris. Don’t miss them!

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Thanks so much for listening, and I’ll see you next time!

Harvard's Brigitte Madrian on Saving for Retirement: "We are Not Making it Easy"

Jo Ann Barefoot

Today’s program is really special, because my guest is Brigitte Madrian. Brigitte is the Aetna Professor of Public Policy and Corporate Management at the Harvard Kennedy School, and also co-director of the Household Finance working group at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is a leading expert in behavioral economics and consumer decision-making regarding both health and finance, and in finance,especially savings and retirement. Importantly to me, she is also my faculty advisor for the book I’m writing.

Regular listeners know I’m spending two years as a Senior Fellow at the Center for Business and Government in the Kennedy School.  As I started into my fellowship last year, I had the great fortune of linking with Brigitte as my faculty advisor for the book.  She is part of the movement in economics that’s rethinking the classical theory that assumes that everyone behaves rationally. That work goes to the very heart of the condundrum in consumer finance, where both policymakers and industry have to grapple with the fact that consumers don’t always make the choices that are best for them. Understanding the many reasons why that happens, and how to elicit better decisions, is one of the keys to improving consumer financial health.

For this podcast, I met with Brigitte in her office on a lovely summer day. The Kennedy school is a complex of brick buildings clustered on the bank of the Charles River – it’s located about halfway between the Harvard Business School, on the other side of the river, and the old Harvard Yard, which is the traditional heart of the college (Harvard was founded in 1636). The Kennedy School has been undergoing construction ever since I got here – I get a fascinating display of cranes and I-beams and such from my little office space in the Belfer building – but Brigitte and I had a quiet talk during summer semester, with most of the students away.

She came to Harvard about 10 years ago, and in our talk, she quoted someone once saying that professional schools tend to be run very much like the professions they represent. It’s certainly true of the Kennedy School, which is all about gathering together a multiplicity of voices to grapple with public policy challenges. And it’s especially true for my center, which is the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government. All of our fellows are working on finding practical solutions at the nexus of public policy and the private sector.

That’s what Brigitte has done in her research. She started out by looking at data on retirement plans (her first paper was about automatic enrollment), and she found the results so compelling that she didn’t even need to do statistical analysis to see that automatic enrollment led to dramatic increase in savings plan participation, especially among the groups least likely to participate -- employees who were younger, lower-paid employees, newly-hired, black and latino. The automatic enrollment caused an amazing 50-60% increase in plan participation.

That paper got a lot of attention and led her to a 20 year research agenda trying to understand financial decisions. I think you’ll be very interested in her views about the track record for policies like financial literacy education and financial incentives to save. She pinpoints complexity as a critical problem, and she’s not a fan of disclosure as the solution.

Our talk was especially timely because we met shortly after release of an important study she helped produce, by the Retirement Security and Personal Savings Commission of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.   The report is titled Securing Our Financial Future, and makes recommendations for policymakers on how to increase income security for older individuals. She’ll describe some of the highlights.

I’m excited about behavioral economics because when these insights are combined with new technology, it becomes possible to create vastly better financial products. You may remember my discussion with Ethan Bloch of Digit, which incorporates these same principles of letting people save automatically instead of through daily effort, and in trying to bring financial decision-making time to zero. Easy and sound financial management is suddenly becoming possible.

Brigitte’s biography:

Brigitte Madrian is the Aetna Professor of Public Policy and Corporate Management at the Harvard Kennedy School.  Before coming to Harvard in 2006, she was on the Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School (2003-2006), the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (1995-2003) and the Harvard University Economics Department (1993-1995).  She is also a research associate and co-director of the Household Finance working group at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Dr. Madrian’s current research focuses on behavioral economics and household finance, with a particular focus on household saving and investment behavior.  Her work in this area has impacted the design of employer-sponsored savings plans in the U.S. and has influenced pension reform legislation both in the U.S. and abroad. She is also engaged in research on health, using the lens of behavioral economics to understand health behaviors and improve health outcomes; in the past she has also examined the impact of health insurance on the job choice and retirement decisions of employees and the hiring decisions of firms.

Dr. Madrian received her Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied economics as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University.  She is the recipient of the National Academy of Social Insurance Dissertation Prize (first place, 1994) and a two-time recipient of the TIAA-CREF Paul A. Samuelson Award for Scholarly Research on Lifelong Financial Security (2002 and 2011).


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Last but not least, come back next time for an exciting conversation with Colin Walsh, right around the time he is launching his new fintech venture….Varo.

See you then!

Insights from Michael Barr

Jo Ann Barefoot

I am absolutely delighted to share today's episode -- my conversation with Michael Barr.

Most of our listeners know Michael as the former Assistant Treasury Secretary for Financial Institutions who shepherded the Obama administration's efforts on the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. Fewer people may know of his role in developing the proposal for, and negotiating the enactment of, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is when I got to know him.  He is now back at the University of Michigan (my own alma mater) as a law professor, and continues to be very active across a wide spectrum of consumer finance and financial regulation activities, and also on lending to small businesses.

Michael has thought hard about the toughest challenges in consumer finance, drawing on both his government experience and his academic activities (among other things, he's a Rhodes Scholar). He also works extensively with innovators and nonprofits.

In our conversation he offers insights on some of the most critical topics facing consumer finance.

Perhaps the most central principle driving his ideas is behavioral economics - coming to grips with the reality that consumers are not perfectly rational, and don't have perfect information, in making financial decisions. "We ought to design both products and policy around the way human beings actually make decisions and behave," Michael tells me. See below for links to his research on this, including his paper "Behaviorally-Informed Regulation."

One result of his behavioral focus is a refreshing readiness to rethink consumer financial education. At one point he says, "just as we couldn't explain how our smartphones operate," financial consumers don't necessarily need to know how financial products are designed, in order to use them effectively. He thinks, as I do, that today's technology can create simple new tools that nearly anyone can use, whether they have a sophisticated financial education, or not.

Another issue he raises is his involvement in developing the "small business borrowers' bill of rights" (see our earlier podcast discussing this with Brian Graham of BancAlliance). There is growing concern that online small business lending is creating borrower risks as well as opportunities, especially as America shifts toward the so-called 1099 economy and more people run small businesses in ways that closely parallel consumer finance.

Michael also explores the challenge of crafting regulation that enables innovation while still blocking harm. He says regulators sometimes allow harmful practices to emerge and grow until they hit a "tipping point," at which point they drive industry standards so low that good companies can't survive without adopting activities they would rather avoid.  I agree with him that this is a key challenge, especially as innovation accelerates.  If regulators intervene too early and aggressively, we'll have the government designing our financial products, instead of the market doing so.  On the other hand, if they are too passive or too late in addressing really harmful practices - especially if they wait until after that tipping point has actually tipped - they will fail to protect large numbers of people from harm, and they may also find it difficult to act.  Once products are widespread, there are strong political forces ready to defend them, as well as practical problems with potential regulatory impacts on businesses and sometimes even the financial system itself.

I asked Michael for his advice about these kinds of challenges, for all the players in this ecosystem. I think you'll find his answers really interesting, including some thoughts he shares about the logic behind the design of the CFPB.

I also asked him whether we might be moving toward a fundamentally new market model, in which technology-driven transparency will require financial companies to compete mostly on winning and keeping people's trust. His answer to that is thought-provoking, too.

Michael was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Institutions from 2009-2010. He previously served as Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin's Special Assistant, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Community Development Policy, as Special Advisor to President Bill Clinton, as Special Advisor and Counselor on the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department, and as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter.  He received his J.D. from Yale Law School, an M. Phil in International Relations from Magdalen College, Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and his B.A., summa cum laude, with Honors in History, from Yale University.

His activities today include serving on the boards of Lending Club (in Episode 5 we interviewed CEO Renaud LaPlanche) and Ripple, as well as ideas42, a behavioral economics research and development lab. He's on the FDIC Advisory Committee on Economic Inclusion and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. He's on the advisory board of CFSI and has advised its U.S. Financial Diaries Project (see our interview with Jennifer Tescher of CFSI for more). He is also a fellow at the Filene Research Institute.

In his current role as Roy F. and Jean Humphrey Proffitt Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, Michael teaches courses in domestic and international financial regulation. He's also been instrumental in forming the University of Michigan's Center on Finance, Law and Policy, which integrates finance, law, business, and computer science to work on difficult problems facing the world, including how to make the financial system fairer and safer. I highly encourage you to peruse his faculty website to find more resources.

Below you can find links to works referenced in the episode:

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