Is fintech’s final frontier the last chapter for banks?

A provocative new essay from Andreessen Horowitz General Partner Alex Rampell suggests that the way governments have directly intervened to provide financial support to citizens and businesses during the COVID-19 crisis could point the way to a new banking relationship between “people” and “We, the People” – with fintechs playing a starring role.

Rampell’s theme is disintermediation, which he calls the Internet’s greatest legacy. By enabling individuals to get access to the things they want – products, services, information – without a series of (often) fee-charging and rent-seeking gatekeepers, disintermediation has empowered users and rewarded those institutions that are best able to respond – quicker, safer, more accurately, and more completely – to customer demand.

The spectacle of governments – particularly the U.S. government – attempting to provide COVID-19 relief funding was for Rampell a dramatic example of what can happen when effective gatekeepers are NOT present. Because the U.S. government has few options to provide quick financing to its citizens and their businesses, a host of intermediaries were enlisted to help get relief money from Washington, D.C. to the American communities where it was needed. This, as we have since learned, has been time-consuming. Unfortunately, in some instances, it has also appeared to be wasteful in directing some funds to areas where none were needed and, in instances where support was needed, not distributing available funding, at all.

As Rampell put it: “The reason why things like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) have been such a disaster , or that stimulus checks still have to be mailed in 2021, is that there is no ‘direct connection’ between consumers and government for money. The government is the mainframe for money, but there’s not really an Expedia yet.”

And Rampell doesn’t see the point in waiting around for one, either. Instead, he asks why not use what the government already has access to, namely, social security accounts, and treat them like bank accounts?

“With an SSN as a permanent financial account with the government,” he writes, “the government could deposit money directly to consumers, or allow person-to-person transfers, or pay overnight interest on deposits directly.” Rampell imagines not only the ease of paying taxes (or receiving tax refunds) under such a regime, but also how much more efficient a government relief program might be with this SSN 2.0 approach.

Rampell is quick to insist that he is not interested in nationalized banking or what he called “postal banking” (generally, the idea of turning post offices into bank branches). Instead he argues that, in some instances, incumbent financial institutions are playing no more than a filtering role when it comes to facilitating savings in a country. And while this filtering has a role in modern capitalist economies, it is not exclusive and there is a good argument against treating legacy financial institutions as if it is.

“Fintech—’apps for money’—represents the most powerful tool that governments have to make their monetary services available directly to their own citizens,” Rampell writes, “helping accomplish monetary and policy goals and benefiting consumers equally.”

There’s more to Rampell’s discussion – including a key caveat on the role of private capital and risk-taking in such a system. But in a world that is getting increasingly comfortable with government playing an active role in the economy, a disintermediation that brings citizens closer to the government that rules in their name may be an idea whose time has arrived.

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