The Ultra Wealthy Dream of Fintech Unicorns


“Latin America is known for its mambo and salsa dance styles, but there’s something else shaking up the region”… (Salas, 2022)

Could anything good come after this opening line?

FINTECH.

Fintech is short for Financial Technology, and investors are claiming it will be the solution to income inequality. It includes online banking, cryptocurrency, crowdfunding, stocktrading apps, mobile payments, and so on, as tools for “financial inclusion” of economically marginalized people. The ultra wealthy have the ability to convince themselves, and those around them, that what poor people need to get out of poverty is something a venture capitalist can offer. And what’s hotter in venture capitalism than tech giants in Silicon Valley?

New apps and online banking inventions are being sold in Latin America as the solution to all our money problems — making transactions quicker and cheaper — as if the problem with poor people’s finances was lack of tools to manage money, not lack of money.

This month, Forbes.com published a hopeful article about how fintech can be a solution for income inequality called “Fintech Leaps Forward In Latin America”, written by Sean Salas, CEO of an online financial service company based in Los Angeles. Camino Financial, his company, has a website which bans visits from my region of Brazil — my IP address is blocked, but a VPN overrides the ban.

According to the US Department of the Treasury, internet-based financial service companies, like his, “developed Internet Protocol (IP) address blocking procedures” to unsuccessfully address the “firm’s compliance risks”. Banning IP addresses from certain geographical regions can be done if they want to comply with US sanction policies, or “satisfy their due diligence requirements” (US Department of the Treasury, 2004).

In other words, the man who argued for the revolutionary nature of fintech in Latin America is also CEO of a financial enterprise which bans website visitors from certain locations in Latin America. Of all people, he knows first-hand how the internet, specifically Internet-based financial services, have severe potential to become inaccessible, restrictive, and expensive — just as banks are now.

“Five banks control over 80% of every financial product in Brazil. Combined these banks have become the most profitable in the world. If you see the interest rates and fees consumers pay for these products it’s extremely expensive.” (Salas, 2022)

What can we do to ensure we are truly solving the problem of banks, and not just transferring the problem to the internet? By demanding dignity to all people, first and foremost. Is your local venture capitalist paying their workers a living wage?

These shiny new gadgets will keep us entertained and distracted for some time, but it will certainly not solve the real problem here: working people around the globe are not getting paid enough. Wealthy people hoard their wealth by not paying workers a living wage, and until that changes, this belief in meritocracy will continue to disappoint.

To be at the “Forefront of Financial Inclusion” is to properly remunerate workers, and to provide every citizen with basic health needs and education — not to provide modern ways for poor people to feel broke and inadequate. In this sense, Fintech “Unicorns” is a fitting term for these ventures, because they are clearly out of touch with reality.

Surely, they are useful, since they can be used imaginatively (especially during a pandemic which requires social distancing), but let’s not oversell them. We still unquestionably have a much bigger issue at hand: people are homeless, hungry and dying while oligarchs wage war, obliterate forests and go to Space. In fact, some of these oligarchs probably have their toes in the fintech pool.

Latin America is known for a lot more than just beats and swinging hips. We are known for incredible biodiversity, stunning nature, indigenous resilience in face of colonialist exploitation and the spiritual power of the African Diaspora. If Fintech entrepreneurs don’t acknowledge the need to worship and protect this legacy, their contributions to the Latin American landscape will be puny.


Sources:

Salas, Sean. (2022) “Fintech Leaps Forward In Latin America” <https://www.forbes.com/sites/seansalas/2022/03/10/fintech-leaps-forward-in-latin-america/>

US Department of the Treasury. (2004) “Compliance For Internet, Web Based Activities, And Personal Communications” <https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financial-sanctions/faqs/73>

Published originally at Abeautifulresistance.org.

Mirna Wabi-Sabi is a writer, editor, and translator from Brazil. She is the founder of the Plataforma9 initiative and the author of the bilingual pocket book Anarcho-Transcreation (Anarco-Transcriação).