Reducing Bias in Credit Scoring with Generative AI

Wei You Pan, Ashwin Gangadhar, and Jack Yallop

#Finance

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Credit scoring plays a pivotal role in determining who gets access to credit and on what terms. Despite its importance, however, traditional credit scoring systems have long been plagued by a series of critical issues from biases and discrimination, to limited data consideration and scalability challenges. For example, a study of US loans showed that minority borrowers were charged higher interest rates (+8%) and rejected loans more often (+14%) than borrowers from more privileged groups.

The rigid nature of credit systems means that they can be slow to adapt to changing economic landscapes and evolving consumer behaviors, leaving some individuals underserved and overlooked. To overcome this, banks and other lenders are looking to adopt artificial intelligence to develop increasingly sophisticated models for scoring credit risk.

In this article, we'll explore the fundamentals of credit scoring, the challenges current systems present, and delve into how artificial intelligence (AI), in particular, generative AI (genAI) can be leveraged to mitigate bias and improve accuracy. From the incorporation of alternative data sources to the development of machine learning (ML) models, we'll uncover the transformative potential of AI in reshaping the future of credit scoring.

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What is credit scoring?

Credit scoring is an integral aspect of the financial landscape, serving as a numerical gauge of an individual's creditworthiness. This vital metric is employed by lenders to evaluate the potential risk associated with extending credit or lending money to individuals or businesses.

Traditionally, banks rely on predefined rules and statistical models often built using linear regression or logistic regression. The models are based on historical credit data, focusing on factors such as payment history, credit utilization, and length of credit history.

However, assessing new credit applicants poses a challenge, leading to the need for more accurate profiling. To cater to the underserved or unserved segments traditionally discriminated against, fintechs and digital banks are increasingly incorporating information beyond traditional credit history with alternative data to create a more comprehensive view of an individual's financial behavior.

Challenges with traditional credit scoring

Credit scores are integral to modern life because they serve as a crucial determinant in various financial transactions, including securing loans, renting an apartment, obtaining insurance, and even sometimes in employment screenings. Because the pursuit of credit can be a labyrinthine journey, here are some of the challenges or limitations with traditional credit scoring models that often cloud the path to credit application approval.

  • Limited credit history: Many individuals, especially those new to the credit game, encounter a significant hurdle – limited or non-existent credit history. Traditional credit scoring models heavily rely on past credit behavior, making it difficult for individuals without a robust credit history to prove their creditworthiness. Roughly 45 million Americans lack credit scores simply because those data points do not exist for them.

  • Inconsistent income: Irregular income, typical in part-time work or freelancing, poses a challenge for traditional credit scoring models, potentially labeling individuals as higher risk and leading to application denials or restrictive credit limits. In 2023 in the United States, data sources differ on how many people are self-employed. One source shows more than 27 million Americans filed Schedule C tax documents, which cover net income or loss from a business – highlighting the need for different methods of credit scoring for those self-employed.

  • High utilization of existing credit: Heavy reliance on existing credit is often perceived as a signal of potential financial strain, influencing credit decisions. Credit applications may face rejection or approval with less favorable terms, reflecting concerns about the applicant's ability to judiciously manage additional credit.

  • Lack of clarity in rejection reasons: Understanding the reasons behind rejections hinders applicants from addressing the root causes – in the UK, a study between April 2022 and April 2023 showed the main reasons for rejection included “poor credit history” (38%), “couldn’t afford the repayments” (28%), “having too much other credit" (19%) and 10% said they weren’t told why. The reasons even when given are often too vague which leaves applicants in the dark, making it difficult for them to address the root cause and enhance their creditworthiness for future applications. The lack of transparency is not only a trouble for customers, it can also lead to a penalty for banks. For example, a Berlin bank was fined €300k in 2023 for lacking transparency in declining a credit card application.

  • Lack of flexibility: Shifts in consumer behavior, especially among younger generations preferring digital transactions, challenge traditional models. Factors like the rise of the gig economy, non-traditional employment, student loan debt, and high living costs complicate assessing income stability and financial health. Traditional credit risk predictions are limited during unprecedented disruptions like COVID-19, not taking this into account in scoring models.

Recognizing these challenges highlights the need for alternative credit scoring models that can adapt to evolving financial behaviors, handle non-traditional data sources, and provide a more inclusive and accurate assessment of creditworthiness in today's dynamic financial landscape.

Credit scoring with alternative data

Alternative credit scoring refers to the use of non-traditional data sources (aka. alternative data) and methods to assess an individual's creditworthiness. While traditional credit scoring relies heavily on credit history from major credit bureaus, alternative credit scoring incorporates a broader range of factors to create a more comprehensive picture of a person's financial behavior. Below are some of the popular alternative data sources:

  • Utility payments: Beyond credit history, consistent payments for utilities like electricity and water offer a powerful indicator of financial responsibility and reveal a commitment to meeting financial obligations, providing crucial insights beyond traditional metrics.

  • Rental history: For those without a mortgage, rental payment history emerges as a key alternative data source. Demonstrating consistent and timely rent payments paints a comprehensive picture of financial discipline and reliability.

  • Mobile phone usage patterns: The ubiquity of mobile phones unlocks a wealth of alternative data. Analyzing call and text patterns provides insights into an individual's network, stability, and social connections, contributing valuable information for credit assessments.

  • Online shopping behavior: Examining the frequency, type, and amount spent on online purchases offers valuable insights into spending behaviors, contributing to a more nuanced understanding of financial habits.

  • Educational and employment background: Alternative credit scoring considers an individual's educational and employment history. Positive indicators, such as educational achievements and stable employment, play a crucial role in assessing financial stability.

These alternative data sources represent a shift towards a more inclusive, nuanced, and holistic approach to credit assessments. As financial technology continues to advance, leveraging these alternative data sets ensures a more comprehensive evaluation of creditworthiness, marking a transformative step in the evolution of credit scoring models.

Alternative credit scoring with artificial intelligence

Besides the use of alternative data, the use of AI as an alternative method has emerged as a transformative force to address the challenges of traditional credit scoring, for a number of reasons:

  • Ability to mitigate bias: Like traditional statistical models, AI models, including LLMs, trained on historical data that are biased will inherit biases present in that data, leading to discriminatory outcomes. LLMs might focus on certain features more than others or may lack the ability to understand the broader context of an individual's financial situation leading to biased decision-making. However, there are various techniques to mitigate the bias of AI models:
    • Mitigation strategies: Initiatives begin with the use of diverse and representative training data to avoid reinforcing existing biases. Inadequate or ineffective mitigation strategies can result in biased outcomes persisting in AI credit scoring models. Careful attention to the data collected and model development is crucial in mitigating this bias. Incorporating alternative data for credit scoring plays a critical role in reducing biases.
    • Rigorous bias detection tools, fairness constraints, and regularization techniques during training enhance model accountability: Balancing feature representation and employing post-processing techniques and specialized algorithms contribute to bias mitigation. Inclusive model evaluation, continuous monitoring, and iterative improvement, coupled with adherence to ethical guidelines and governance practices, complete a multifaceted approach to reducing bias in AI models. This is particularly significant in addressing concerns related to demographic or socioeconomic biases that may be present in historical credit data.
    • Regular bias audits: Conduct regular audits to identify and mitigate biases in LLMs. This may involve analyzing model outputs for disparities across demographic groups and adjusting the algorithms accordingly.
    • Transparency and explainability: Increase transparency and explainability in LLMs to understand how decisions are made. This can help identify and address biased decision-making processes. Trade Ledger, a lending software as a service (SaaS) tool, uses a data-driven approach to make informed decisions with greater transparency and traceability by bringing data from multiple sources with different schemas into a single data source.
  • Ability to analyze vast and diverse datasets: Unlike traditional models that rely on predefined rules and historical credit data, AI models can process a myriad of information, including non-traditional data sources, to create a more comprehensive assessment of an individual's creditworthiness, ensuring that a broader range of financial behaviors is considered.
  • AI brings unparalleled adaptability to the table: As economic conditions change and consumer behaviors evolve, AI-powered models can quickly adjust and learn from new data. The continuous learning aspect ensures that credit scoring remains relevant and effective in the face of ever-changing financial landscapes.

The most common objections from banks to not using AI in credit scoring are transparency and explainability in credit decisions. The inherent complexity of some AI models, especially deep learning algorithms, may lead to challenges in providing clear explanations for credit decisions. Fortunately, the transparency and interpretability of AI models have seen significant advancements. Techniques like SHapley Additive exPlanations (SHAP) values and Local Interpretable Model-Agnostic Explanations (LIME) plots and several other advancements in the domain of Explainable AI (XAI) now allow us to understand how the model arrives at specific credit decisions. This not only enhances trust in the credit scoring process but also addresses the common critique that AI models are "black boxes."

Understanding the criticality of leveraging alternative data that often comes in a semi or unstructured format, financial institutions work with MongoDB to enhance their credit application processes with a faster, simpler, and more flexible way to make payments and offer credit:

  • Amar Bank, Indonesia's leading digital bank, is combatting bias by providing microloans to people who wouldn’t be able to get financial services from traditional banks (unbanked and underserved). Traditional underwriting processes were inadequate for customers lacking credit history or collateral so they have streamlined lending decisions by harnessing unstructured data. Leveraging MongoDB Atlas, they developed a predictive analytics model integrating structured and unstructured data to assess borrower creditworthiness. MongoDB's scalability and capability to manage diverse data types were instrumental in expanding and optimizing their lending operations.

  • For the vast majority of Indians, getting credit is typically challenging due to stringent regulations and a lack of credit data. Through the use of modern underwriting systems, Slice, a leading innovator in India’s fintech ecosystem, is helping broaden the accessibility to credit in India by streamlining their KYC process for a smoother credit experience. By utilizing MongoDB Atlas across different use cases, including as a real-time ML feature store, slice transformed their onboarding process, slashing processing times to under a minute. slice uses the real-time feature store with MongoDB and ML models to compute over 100 variables instantly, enabling credit eligibility determination in less than 30 seconds.

Transforming credit scoring with generative AI

Besides the use of alternative data and AI in credit scoring, GenAI has the potential to revolutionize credit scoring and assessment with its ability to create synthetic data and understand intricate patterns, offering a more nuanced, adaptive, and predictive approach.

GenAI’s capability to synthesize diverse data sets addresses one of the key limitations of traditional credit scoring – the reliance on historical credit data. By creating synthetic data that mirrors real-world financial behaviors, GenAI models enable a more inclusive assessment of creditworthiness. This transformative shift promotes financial inclusivity, opening doors for a broader demographic to access credit opportunities.

Adaptability plays a crucial role in navigating the dynamic nature of economic conditions and changing consumer behaviors. Unlike traditional models which struggle to adjust to unforeseen disruptions, GenAI’s ability to continuously learn and adapt ensures that credit scoring remains effective in real-time, offering a more resilient and responsive tool for assessing credit risk. In addition to its predictive prowess, GenAI can contribute to transparency and interpretability in credit scoring. Models can generate explanations for their decisions, providing clearer insights into credit assessments, and enhancing trust among consumers, regulators, and financial institutions.

One key concern however in making use of GenAI is the problem of hallucination, where the model may present information that is either nonsensical or outright false. There are several techniques to mitigate this risk and one approach is using the Retrieval Augment Generation (RAG) approach. RAG minimizes hallucinations by grounding the model’s responses in factual information from up-to-date sources, ensuring the model’s responses reflect the most current and accurate information available.

Patronus AI for example leverages RAG with MongoDB Atlas to enable engineers to score and benchmark large language models (LLMs) performance on real-world scenarios, generate adversarial test cases at scale, and monitor hallucinations and other unexpected and unsafe behavior. This can help to detect LLM mistakes at scale and deploy AI products safely and confidently.

Another technology partner of MongoDB is Robust Intelligence. The firm’s AI Firewall protects LLMs in production by validating inputs and outputs in real-time. It assesses and mitigates operational risks such as hallucinations, ethical risks including model bias and toxic outputs, and security risks such as prompt injections and personally identifiable information (PII) extractions.

As generative AI continues to mature, its integration into credit scoring and the broader credit application systems promises not just a technological advancement, but a fundamental transformation in how we evaluate and extend credit.

A pivotal moment in the history of credit

The convergence of alternative data, artificial intelligence, and generative AI is reshaping the foundations of credit scoring, marking a pivotal moment in the financial industry. The challenges of traditional models are being overcome through the adoption of alternative credit scoring methods, offering a more inclusive and nuanced assessment. Generative AI, while introducing the potential challenge of hallucination, represents the forefront of innovation, not only revolutionizing technological capabilities but fundamentally redefining how credit is evaluated, fostering a new era of financial inclusivity, efficiency, and fairness.

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