The potential of Open Finance and the digitisation of tax records
The world is undergoing huge changes at the moment. Between coronavirus pushing the economy to the limit and a group of Redditors challenging the financial market hegemony, people are questioning the role of established institutions. If finance doesn’t work to enable the economy, businesses or individuals, then who is it for?
Before the digital revolution, financial experts were seen as a necessity. They knew how things worked, what everything meant, could provide good advice and were employed to sit at the heart of the action. Now, trading can be done by anyone online through established platforms, with a wealth of information available to hand.
Yet, as the 2008 financial crisis proved, established financial institutions have made themselves too big to fail. Simply tearing down the existing financial system would leave many ordinary people, along with businesses and government treasuries, in ruin.
However, as legendary futurologist, Buckminster Fuller, once said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Traditional banking models are already being upended by technology. Through Open Banking, challenger banks are able to connect services digitally, cutting inefficiencies and costs while speeding up transactions. Now, Open Finance is seeking to build on this model to connect financial services via technology, potentially making the existing financial model obsolete.
Just as Open Banking led to greater democratisation of money, Open Finance has the potential to transfer power back to individuals. Not only would this benefit society as a whole, but it would help minimise the boom-bust cycles that cripple entire economies. No individual would be too big to fail, and bailing people out would cost far less, having minimal impact on the economy overall.
With more information available to them, Open Finance businesses will be able to use technology to make better decisions instantly. Many people struggle to get onto the housing ladder due to a poor credit score, for example, yet they have been paying rent every month of their adult lives. Why, then, can they not access mortgages? A company called Credit Ladder is addressing this through Open Banking, reporting rent payments via challenger banks like Starling to credit agencies, helping good renters to access mortgages.
While it is still very early days for Open Finance, there seems to be an endless raft of possibilities to benefit individuals, businesses and national economies. Faster, more secure, and less risky access to credit can help grow the economy, transforming finance from something that benefits a few wealthy capitalists to something that enables growth in the real economy.
So how else could Open Finance benefit society?
Using Tax Information
Every working adult pays income tax. Some of us via self-assessment while others are enrolled in PAYE. Regardless, we all have tax records with a wealth of financial information that has been verified, at least in part, by HMRC.
This centralised repository of financial information could be put to better use, such as allowing credit reference agencies to better understand an individual’s risk profile or helping to prove income as part of a mortgage application. Unfortunately, HMRC is a black hole of information - its sheer size and power sucks information in, but nothing comes back out again.
However, by Making Tax Digital (MTD), HMRC are effectively allowing individuals to keep validated tax records on the software of their choice. Software providers may then be able to use this information to enable certain aspects of Open Finance. The information doesn’t need to be protected by HMRC, it is the individual’s choice and responsibility over how to use their own information.
As MTD software develops, we will see it connected to Open Banking, allowing self-assessed taxpayers to connect their business account directly to the software, effectively getting their tax return completed for them by an AI program. They would simply check the details, add any adjustments, and click submit. HMRC would then validate the records, providing assurance for any financial institutions using that financial information.
More Growth, Lower Risk
With access to complete and validated financial information, lenders would be able to more quickly and accurately assess individual risk when considering a loan or mortgage application. This would greatly speed up the process of applying for a loan, whether for a business venture or property purchase, for example.
Take residential landlords, for example. They may own a few properties already, with equity coming out of their ears. If that landlord wants to obtain another property, they would need to get their accountant to assemble their financial information, complete a SA302, and send everything off to their mortgage advisors who would then validate the information before submitting the mortgage application.
The application can then take months to approve, slowing down the process and potentially leading to missed opportunities. Since property sales usually occur in a chain (the owner of the property you are purchasing is usually purchasing another property, and so on), these inefficiencies slow the process down for everyone and can have major impacts.
If, however, mortgage applicants could simply share validated financial/tax records, mortgage providers could use that information to make quick decisions with reduced risk. What’s more, applicants could share only relevant, high-level information, rather than expose their entire financial history.
Individual Risk Management
Currently, individuals can manage their credit score/risk profile via third party providers like Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. These credit reporting agencies use limited information, such as credit cards, store cards and loans to assess risk. Individuals need to understand what factors each agency uses in order to ‘game’ the system.
For example, someone who has always been careful with their money, kept to a strict budget and never taken out a loan or credit card will have a far worse credit rating than someone who regularly uses debt to finance their lifestyle. So, even though they may have amassed a good deal of savings, they cannot get a good deal on a loan or mortgage.
With Open Finance, these individuals would be able to quickly prove their earnings, spending, and savings, decreasing their risk profile in line with reality. Rather than crude measures of creditworthiness, financial institutions would be able to use accurate and validated information to make quick decisions based on realistic risk. This both transfers more power to individuals and contributes to faster growth while reducing overall risk.
As a centralised repository for validated financial information, MTD providers will be in a unique position to develop a two-sided marketplace for finance, allowing credit providers to match products to individuals’ risk profiles. When a customer needs a loan, credit card or mortgage, they can simply browse products for which they have already been approved, applying and receiving finance instantly.
Empowering PAYE Taxpayers
Currently, PAYE taxpayers have little, if any, visibility or control over their tax contributions. They will see the amount paid in tax and national insurance, but to claim any allowances requires them to submit a self-assessment tax return. For most PAYE taxpayers, this simply doesn’t seem worthwhile.
Yet, self-employed taxpayers can claim for things like travel to their place of work, a proportion of living expenses when working from home, even their lunch. These things are necessary for productive work yet, for PAYE taxpayers, come out of their already taxed income. Meanwhile, businesses tend to make use of every tax allowance available to them.
This imbalance could be rectified with Open Finance connected to tax software. As MTD becomes a validated system for self-assessed taxpayers, a new version could be developed for PAYE taxpayers, putting them in control of their tax and finances. Not only would they be able to benefit from Open Finance in the same way as self-assessed taxpayers, but they will also be able to claim for reasonable allowances. What’s more, HMRC/the Treasury/the government would be able to hold employers accountable for pay disparities and unreasonable tax avoidance.
Open Finance, then, has the power to speed up and reduce the cost of obtaining and providing finance. It would make the finance system fairer and most transparent while distributing financial power, and help to avoid the creation of too big to fail financial institutions and the boom-bust cycle that has become unfortunate features of modern capitalism.
Ultimately, Open Finance has the potential to help the UK and other nations recover from the seemingly unending series of crises that have plagued the early 21st century by allowing people to access finance quicker in order to grow their business and personal finances while reducing risk, inefficiencies, and costs.