Colombia banks' client growth highest in nearly 7 yrs with govt COVID aid

BOGOTA, Oct 14 (Reuters) - The number of Colombians opening their first financial account rose in the first half of 2020 by the most in nearly seven years, as the government handed out billions in aid and subsidies during the coronavirus lockdown, it said on Wednesday.

Some 1.62 million new clients joined the financial system between January and June, taking the total number of banked Colombians to 31 million, the government’s Banca de Oportunidades financial inclusion program said in a statement.

Colombia, with a population of about 50 million people, imposed a quarantine of more than five months to stem the spread of coronavirus, shuttering businesses and sending unemployment soaring.

More than 920,000 Colombians have tested positive for coronavirus and over 28,000 have died as a result.

About 85.9% of Colombians had access to the financial system as of June 30, the statement said, compared with 82.5% at the end of 2019. That growth in financial system access was the largest since 2013.

Welfare payments and Value Added Tax reimbursements for poorer Colombians were key to the expanded use of financial products, Banca de Oportunidades director Freddy Castro said.

“In parallel, many people began to use their financial products more or opened one in response to the circumstances created by COVID-19,” he added.

The percentage of men with at least one financial product reached 87.7%, with women tailing at 82.2%, the statement added.

Digital products, especially savings accounts, grew the most during the first six months of the year.

Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Richard Chang