The Democratic Disruption of Finance

LAGUNA BEACH – There seems to be no limit to the exciting possibilities that come from combining technical innovations, the Internet, and social media. It is a phenomenon that has been revolutionizing journalism and entertainment; and, by helping to overcome coordination challenges, it has also had political consequences in a growing number of countries – all of which means an ever-evolving set of opportunities and risks.

What is less appreciated, however, is the extent to which a broadly similar phenomenon may be starting to play out in finance, via a democratization process that could gradually reconfigure a notable part of the institutional landscape, particularly in consumer finance, while challenging regulators to adapt.

Bitcoin is the most visible – albeit far from a good – example of this nascent development, having attracted attention from specialists, regulators, and, slowly but surely, the public. But the crypto-currency phenomenon is far from the only example, and it is certainly not the most consequential one. Its impact, both actual and potential, is relatively limited when compared to ongoing attempts to enhance and democratize lending, borrowing, investing, and payments and settlements.

The underlying sequence of disruptive technology is historically familiar. A bold innovation suddenly lowers entry barriers for certain activities. Mechanisms emerge to enable a larger part of the population to participate in what is deemed desirable but, until now, had been hard to access. As the disruptive forces gain traction, existing business models face difficult adaptation challenges, and regulators begin to fall behind. The situation is often amplified by a natural human tendency to overproduce and over-consume hitherto restricted goods and services.