Across Latin America, a fragmented payments landscape has resulted in low interoperability, often leading to high fees for both senders and receivers of payments. Regulators in the region are working — with varying progress and approaches — to enable real-time payment options that foster greater interoperability, increase financial inclusion, generate revenue for banks and businesses and help protect economies from global market volatility. With use cases like inbound remittance flows seen as a critical component of GDP for numerous LATAM countries, identifying ways to reduce costs associated with those remittances is a key driver of regional growth.
At the same time, central banks are becoming more interested in re-examining their relationship with crypto, creating an opening for the crypto and blockchain sectors to help bring forth a unified LATAM payments system to make low-cost, faster and more seamless transactions a real possibility. Of course, not all crypto is created equal. Using a digital asset that was designed specifically for payments will be key to implementing a successful digital payments system that can handle high transaction volumes without friction.
Latin America as a region is highly dependent on the US dollar: from US remittance flows and USD as a reserve currency, to economies like Costa Rica and El Salvador that use dollars interchangeably with local bills. Some LATAM businesses even use USD as a liquidity source by routing payments through American banks to transfer funds to international accounts within the region. This reliance on USD means crypto adoption in the States is likely to have a major impact on crypto adoption in Latin America.
There are also various new fintech players in the market that are working to get involved in consumer payments. From an awareness standpoint, for example, the sponsorship of football clubs across the region by crypto exchanges is helping to bolster public understanding of how to access crypto. Public adoption and embrace of crypto as an alternative to cash holdings or bank accounts is also gaining popularity in some countries as an easier, less volatile alternative to local currency. In one case, the use of crypto as an alternative to cash is being promoted by the government in El Salvador where the adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender is significant. And there are central banks, like that of Brazil and Mexico, that have recognized the value and potential of crypto and have started developing and providing their customers with digital wallets.
Because Brazil is often a leader in Latin America in the adoption of new technology, it’s worth noting that the country is driving smart and progressive crypto use and regulation. In March of 2022, Brazil announced that it had selected nine projects to advance in its quest to develop a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), indicating a real thirst for a digital future. Brazil’s central bank has also been ahead of the curve in showing public-facing interest in the potential of DeFi, NFTs and even the metaverse. And in terms of consumer adoption, Brazil is seeing crypto trading activity boom, portending a bright crypto future for the region.
From a compliance perspective, businesses in the region are able to use the same fiat compliance measures, like Know Your Customer (KYC) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML), for crypto transactions to ensure the safety of these flows and help protect the integrity of the financial system.
Barriers and Challenges to Success
Because crypto has, at times, been perceived as a threat to the established bank sector — which has historically controlled the financial markets and influenced regulatory and legal structures in the region — any major movement toward crypto is likely to encounter some level of structural resistance. As payments infrastructure is often dictated by larger banks and their governmental relationships, this could make it difficult for digital banks to compete for market share on a level playing field. But, in fact, as we’ll describe below, crypto offers all kinds of financial institutions powerful new business opportunities.
From a consumer perspective, there is also a disconnect between traditional banking and the use of money for everyday transactions across many LATAM economies. Lower incomes often equate to less acceptance of fee-based banking services, meaning that both convenience and efficiency take a backseat to value in many markets. This can manifest itself in people being more willing to wait in line to pay cash rather than incur a fee for an online transaction that might be completed in seconds. Without implementing better ways to make digital payments and financial services available, large sections of the LATAM economy are often left underbanked.
Lastly, with such a high dependency on USD and US clearing institutions, as costs rise in the States, fear and volatility in the LATAM marketplace also rise. The possibility of insulation from other regions’ financial swings underscores a major reason why achieving interoperability across Latin America and avoiding the de-risking trend in the US is so critical for LATAM economies.
Opportunities and What’s Next
There is a lucrative opening for traditional banks, fintechs and governments to increase adoption of crypto-forward technology to address this underbanked and fragmented market. These challenges will be much easier to solve once digital banks have more ready access to the market, helping drive down high fees and frictions associated with institutionally-controlled transactions. This will also help move people away from physical cash and into the digital payments space — increasing convenience for consumers and creating new markets for both businesses and banks without heavy reliance on the traditional US banking sector.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on both consumers and banks in the region that have historically relied on cash transactions. Many financial institutions are already seeing growth in digital payments due to an uptick in cashless transactions as the region looks for safer, quicker and more convenient payments alternatives. An Americas Market Intelligence study shows that Brazil’s banked population grew to 88% in 2021 with Chile not far behind at 82%. Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru all experienced growth that year as well. The region will need to continue prioritizing foundational infrastructures like internet connection, electricity, and institutional trust for digital payments to remain viable and financially inclusive.
Smart and progressive regulation will beget further successful regulation — leading to increased innovation and progress around crypto across Latin America. In the wake of the regulatory debate happening in the United States, there is a large opportunity for banks and fintechs to work with regional regulators to create smart public policy frameworks to ensure that all boats rise.
LATAM is a diverse and varied region, with both developed and emerging economies breaking into the digital payments landscape to varying degrees. But by finding interoperability across the region, Latin America can become more financially independent, more financially attractive to outside investment, and more financially inclusive.
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