Analysis: Consumer finance strengthening roots of consumer economy

Posted on July 12, 2011

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Debnath Guharoy, Roy Morgan | Tue, 07/12/2011 11:03 PM

Global fuel prices are taking a toll on just about everything, everybody, everywhere. But Bank Indonesia seems to have a steady hand on the national rudder, fighting waves of inflation that threaten without respite. The strengthening rupiah is having a positive effect on almost all Indonesians, with some exporters feeling the pinch. More jobs and better wages are helping lift the weaker sections of society, visibly illustrated by the continuing growth in the financial services sector. As this trend continues, the country’s fundamental strength will rest on more solid foundations. More people with more assets are the way forward.

All products and services are signing up new customers. While the Big 4 are enjoying the lion’s share of that growth quarter after quarter, Indonesia’s second and third tier players in the sector are benefiting as well. The multinationals are displaying keen interest, with new acquisitions, more branches, more products and services. While it’s no surprise that an invigorated financial services industry is investing more on delivering higher standards of service, heightened competition is now making yesterday’s customer a much more choosy customer tomorrow.

The bedrock of a family’s financial well-being is the humble savings account. Historically low levels of penetration have kept Indonesia a predominantly cash society, but the winds of change are visible now. Affected more by rising consumer prices than the effects of the global financial crisis, the number of active saving accounts had been on the decline since June of 2006. Bitten by runaway prices for everyday essentials and compounded by higher service fees introduced by the big banks, millions of customers chose to ignore their banks and go back to cash. For the last four quarters, those millions and more are all flocking back to the banking sector. Today, 22 percent of Indonesians 18 years of age and older have an active bank account. That’s almost 30 million people, and climbing. Steadily.

In tandem, plastic cards are now nestling in growing numbers of wallets. Today, 7 percent of adults have an ATM or debit card. I have reason to believe that those numbers would be higher, if only some customers knew what to do with the cards they possess. In contrast, credit cards aren’t doing as well as all the hype may suggest. Even today, only 1 percent has at least one credit card. That population isn’t really growing at a significant rate. A small percentage of this elite group of cardholders have mastered the art of revolving credit between the five to ten credit cards they flip around each month. When the juggling act falters, the debt collectors move in. Sometimes, the consequences can be disastrous as illustrated by the sensational demise of an Indonesian cardholder that shook Citibank around the world.

The multi-purpose loan has recovered much of its popularity, lost in the cash-squeezed times of recent years. Akin to the growth in savings accounts, some 2 percent of adults now have a loan with a financial institution. The emergence of other specialized products, such as motorcycle, car and home loans have stunted the growth of the old favorite somewhat. While motorcycle loans are now enjoyed by 2 percent of all Indonesian adults, increased competition and reduced deposits continue to swell the numbers of two-wheelers across the country. Home loans have attracted 1 percent of adults, as have life insurance policies offered by a growing number of financial institutions.

Home ownership and savings are two pillars of the consumer economy that require greater attention in the years ahead. While the overwhelming majority of Indonesians live within extended families in homes handed down from generation to generation, not enough is happening in the home-building sector. Many of Jakarta’s gleaming towers with so many empty apartments are false indicators masking the truth, creating a block in that niche of the property market. Similarly, very few people have any significant amounts of money saved in their bank accounts. Any institution able to link the two and encourage customers to save and borrow at the same time will have created a winning formula for all concerned: the customer, the bank, and the country as a whole.

The encouragement to do so is obvious, there are signs enough to light up the eyes of even the most conservative lender. Not only is the financial services industry in better shape than ever before, pent-up demand is waiting to be met. In the next 12 months another 9 percent of adults, from all across the country, are planning to open a savings account for the first time. About 5 percent want to start a new business. Some 2 percent want to take a business loan. Many won’t qualify, many will make bank managers nervous. But if businessmen and legislators took note of these large numbers, they could work together for a legal framework that could help create a safer environment for all concerned. For the financial services sector, there is no greater priority.

These opinions are based on Roy Morgan Single Source, a syndicated survey with over 25,000 Indonesians 14 years and older interviewed each year. The national database is updated every quarter, capable of acting as a tracker for over 15 major industries, over 150 product categories, over 1500 brands. The findings are projected to reflect almost 90 per cent of the population from across the cities, towns and villages of this large country.

The writer can be contacted at debnath.guharoy@roymorgan.com

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