America needs a modern payments architecture

By Felix Salmon
March 30, 2012
Summers's paper is here.

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I was sad that I had to miss Bruce Summers’s presentation at the Kansas City Fed’s payment conference this morning; I was a couple of miles down the road, at the Kauffman Foundation. But I did manage to grab five minutes to summarize his argument for the assembled econobloggers: it’s an important one, which deserves a lot more attention than it’s likely to get.

Summers’s paper is here. It’s a dense 32 pages long, which is positively laconic in comparison to his upcoming book, Payment Systems: Design, Governance and Oversight, which features contributions from no fewer than 23 famous-in-the-payments-world grandees. But the message of the paper is a very simple one. America desperately needs immediate funds transfer, or IFT. And we’re not going to get it.

Summers’s new paper is a longer and more detailed version of the paper I blogged back in August. That paper was co-written with Kristin Wells, of the Chicago Fed, and was published under the Chicago Fed’s auspices. At the time, I wrote:

What Summers and Wells don’t say, perhaps because they work for the Federal Reserve, is that it’s downright idiotic that the Fed doesn’t step up to the plate and take on its natural role as guardian of the national payment system. Why doesn’t it? I’m not sure, but I suspect it’s something to do with the fact that the Fed doesn’t really exist as a unified body: there’s just a network of regional federal reserve banks, with a board of governors in Washington.

In the new paper, Summers is speaking for himself, and makes explicit what was only implicit before. The regional Reserve Banks have the ability to implement IFT; the Federal Reserve Board has the authority to implement it. But somehow the two seem incapable of joining forces to actually do it.

IFT — the ability for me to pay you, and for you to receive the funds within minutes, rather than having to wait until the following business day — is already a fact of life in many countries around the world, from India to the UK. Where it doesn’t already exist, you can be pretty sure that someone is working hard on a plan to make it happen. Except in the US, where no one seems to have even started the process yet.

Summers explains that as economic connections between individuals, businesses, and government entities are being multiplied at an astonishing pace, and that the payments system is doing an atrocious job of keeping up. The problem is compounded by the fact that no one has introduced a new universal payments mechanism since the check, which clears slowly — and sometimes doesn’t clear at all — but which is extremely versatile and pretty much universally accepted. He writes:

The U.S. payment system does not currently support immediate completion of payments, and there are no plans for doing so despite long-standing evidence of the need for such a capability and development of these capabilities elsewhere around the globe. While there is innovation in immediate payments, it is limited to small closed systems operated by non-banks, or to small closed systems operated by individual banks or consortia of a handful of banks…

Effectiveness is influenced by speed, versatility, and universal coverage. The effectiveness of a particular method of payment depends on how well it meets the convenience and needs of individual and business consumers in the digital economy. Among the payment attributes that consumers look for, speed in completing transactions, versatility in the use of a given method of payment, and universal connectivity to accounts held in banks are of special importance in the digital economy.

Speed is an especially important consideration for payments in the digital economy. Consumers expect virtually immediate completion of their digital transactions. The idea that money in transit is digital information which can be processed immediately has not been readily accepted by the banking industry. Most bank-sponsored payment schemes depend on clearing and settlement systems that are designed around batch processing and delayed settlement, and these clearing and settlement arrangements are being nurtured as opposed to being re-designed around continuous, real-time processing.

The problem, he explains, is that there’s essentially no one in a position to implement a new architecture along these lines. There’s no real national governance of the payments system in the US; while it has historically been overseen by the Federal Reserve Banks, newer developments like the Durbin amendment capping debit interchange fees gave all the regulatory power to the Federal Reserve Board in Washington. If debit transactions had been governed by the regional banks all along, he writes, “arguably, the Reserve Banks would never have allowed non-par clearing and settlement for inter-bank debit card payments.”

But there’s a strong deregulatory impetus within the Federal Reserve system, and most governors have been quite enthusiastic about the idea of getting the Fed out of the business of clearing and settlement and payments regulation. The banks innovated credit and debit cards, which are very popular, so what’s the need? Summers concludes:

The Federal Reserve Board is not interested in leading or guiding the development of clearing and settlement capabilities for payments in the digital economy. Moreover, the Federal Reserve Board is satisfied to give up the Reserve Banks’ operational leverage as providers of inter-bank clearing and settlement services.

And if the Fed won’t do it, there’s no realistic way that the private sector is going to get its act together and implement something as ambitious as IFT on its own — the collective-action problems make such a cooperative endeavor effectively impossible.

Which means that the only possible way that we’re going to get IFT in this country is if Congress acts, and passes an act mandating that the Fed build an IFT system.

Congress has done this kind of thing before: in 1974, it created the National Commission of Electronic Fund Transfers, which in turn guided the development of the US payments system for decades. It needs to do so again — with the Fed playing a central role in drafting the legislation. In the meantime, says Summers, the least that the Fed can do is to just start taking payments innovation seriously, including non-bank players who are building platforms which might revolutionize the way we all send money to each other.

The Federal Reserve Board should develop a special-purpose bank charter for providers of specialized payment services, allowing in particular for the inclusion of non-banks that are payment system innovators and payment method providers in the nation’s money and banking system for payments.

This kind of invisible plumbing is rarely sexy, and it certainly doesn’t get a lot of votes, but it’s crucially important, and could easily create tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in value for the economy every year. The fact that the market hasn’t done it is a very clear market failure; and where there’s a very clear market failure, the government — in the form of Congress and the Federal Reserve — should step in.

Should, but won’t. More’s the pity.

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