The ECB seeks the holy grail of cross-border payments

One of the proposed use cases for cryptocurrency and/or stablecoins is cheaper and faster alternatives to the conventional TradFi payment rails. The argument for the crypto solution as I understand it has two legs

  1. Use of superior technology
  2. Eliminating costs associated with rent seeking intermediaries

The pitches I have seen mostly seem to frame their technology as better than 1970’s based technology that the banking system uses. The problem for me with this argument is that the banking system has not been standing still and Fast Payment Systems (see here and here) are increasingly the benchmark that the crypto alternative needs to improve on, not the 1970’s ACH payment rails. It is true that the USA seems to be lagging the rest of the world in this regard but the Fed is working towards having one in place in the near future. You might still prefer the crypto option on philosophical grounds because you simply do not want to deal with a bank on principle (argument #2 above) but that is a whole different question.

The fast payment systems that have been implemented to date are however domestic payment solutions so maybe crypto has a role to play in cross border payments where high fees and delayed settlement remain a largely unresolved problem. For anyone interested in this area of finance, the European Central Bank (ECB) recently published a working paper titled “Towards the holy grail of cross-border payments”. The ECB first looks at why the “holy grail” cross-border payment solution has proved so elusive and then evaluates a range of solutions to see how close we are to the solution before offering its judgement of where the holy grail is most likely to be found.

The solutions examined are 1) Correspondent banking, 2) FinTechs, 3) Unbacked crypto-assets such as Bitcoin, 4) Global stablecoins, 5) Interlinked instant payment systems with FX conversion layer and 6) Interoperable CBDC with FX conversion layer. The ECB concludes that

  • Options 5 and 6 (Interlinked fast payment and/or CBDC systems) are the most promising alternatives
  • Options 1 and 2 (Correspondent banking and FinTech) have potential to improve on the status quo but are unlikely to achieve the “holy grail” outcome
  • Options 3 and 4 (no surprises crypto and stablecoins) are not ones the ECB wants to get behind

I am pretty sure the true believers will not be convinced by the ECB’s rationale for dismissing crypto and stablecoin solutions. The paper does however highlight the ways in which TradFi players are increasingly adopting improved technology that challenges the first plank of the argument that crypto offers superior technology.

For anyone interested in diving deeper, the paper is 50 odd pages long (excluding references). To give you a sense of whether it is worth the effort I have attached two extracts below – 1) The Abstract and 2) The Conclusion

Tony – From the Outside

Abstract

The holy grail of cross-border payments is a solution which allows cross-border payments to be (1) immediate, (2) cheap, (3) of universal reach, and (4) settled in a secure settlement medium, such as central bank money. The search for the holy grail has been ongoing for many centuries. In 2020, improving cross-border payments was set as a key priority by the G20: the G20 asked the Financial Stability Board (FSB), working with the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI) and other standard-setting bodies to co-ordinate a three-stage process to develop a roadmap to enhance cross-border payments. The conclusion that it is time again for forceful measures to improve cross- border payments resulted from several considerations, namely that (i) globalisation and thus volumes of cross-border payments have continued (and indeed are forecasted) to increase; and (ii) the fact that although digitalisation has made instant cross-border communication quasi cost-free, there has not been a striking decline in the costs associated with executing cross-border payments.

This paper argues that after more than thousand years of search, the holy grail of cross-border payments can be found within the next ten years. To this end, section 2 of the paper briefly recalls a few historical elements involving the search for efficient cross-border payments and identifies a number of universal challenges across time. Through a series of financial accounts, the paper then reviews several options for enhancing cross-border payments with a view towards reaching the holy grail. Section 3 covers correspondent banking, both in its current implementation, as well as a modernised version. Section 4 reviews emerging Fintech solutions, which have already delivered in terms of offering cheaper than ever cross-border payments for certain currencies and use cases. Section 5 discusses Bitcoin, which is distinct from the alternatives as it relies on a completely different settlement asset which is not linked to any fiat currency. Section 6 turns to global stablecoins such as the one envisaged initially by Facebook (Libra/Diem). Section 7 unpacks the case of interlinking domestic payment systems through a cross-system and FX conversion layer. Finally, section 8 analyses the case of central bank digital currencies (CBDC), again interlinked cross-border through an FX conversion layer. Each of the arrangements covered in sections 3 to 8 are assessed in terms of their actual or potential efficiency, architectural parsimoniousness, competitiveness and, relating to that, preservation of monetary sovereignty. Section 9 concludes that the interlinking of domestic payment systems and the future interoperability of CBDCs are the most promising avenues, albeit subject to strong progress being made on the AML/CFT compliance side to ensure straight-through-processing (STP) for the large majority of cross-border payments.

Conclusion

The holy grail, whereby cross-border payments can be (1) immediate, (2) cheap, (3) universal in terms of reach, and (4) be settled in a secure settlement medium such as central bank money is in reach for the first time. This is thanks to the rapid decline in the costs of global electronic data transmission and computer processing, new payment system technology (allowing for instant payments), innovative concepts (such as the interlinking of payment systems including a currency conversion layer; or CBDC), and unprecedented political will and global collaboration like the G20 work on enhancing cross-border payments. 

The review of various visions as to how to achieve the holy grail suggests that Bitcoin is least credible; stablecoins, traditional correspondent banking, and cross-border Fintechs take an intermediary place, but may all contribute to improvement over the next years. From a public policy perspective, stablecoins appear somewhat more problematic than the other two options as they aim at deep closed loop solutions, market power and fragmentation. Two solutions – the interlinking of domestic instant payment systems and future CBDCs, both with a competitive FX conversion layer – may have the highest potential to deliver the holy grail for larger cross border payment corridors as they combine (i) technical feasibility; (ii) relative simplicity in their architecture; and (iii) maintaining a competitive and open architecture by avoiding the dominance of a small number of market participants who would eventually exploit their market power. Moreover, (iv) monetary sovereignty is preserved, and (v) the crowding out of local currencies is avoided due to a FX conversion layer at the border (which does not hold for Bitcoin and global stablecoins). Interlinking of domestic payment systems would also perform well in terms of preserving the universal reach of correspondent banking (although of course only for the payment areas that are actually interlinked). However, a number of challenges need to be addressed to set up these solutions, such as: 

  • the organization of an efficient competitive FX conversion layer conducive to narrow bid-ask spreads applying to the FX conversion;
  • the global addressability of accounts;
  • achieving the same degree of legal certainty for interlinked cross-currency payments as for
    domestic payments, including in the case of default of a party;

ECB Working Paper Series No 2693 / August 2022 51 

Finally, all solutions require that strong progress is made on the AML/CFT compliance side to ensure straight-through-processing (STP) for the large majority of cross-border payments. The recognition and the importance of this issue is illustrated by the significant number of building blocks devoted by the G20 to regulatory and compliance issues of cross-border payments, and also the Nexus initiative of the BIS recognizes the importance of such progress particularly for interlinked solutions. 

None of these challenges are unresolvable and for large cross-border payment corridors with significant volumes and sufficient political will, both interlinking solutions should be feasible and efficient. For smaller corridors, fixed set up costs may be too high, or the political or legal preconditions may not be fulfilled. For those, a modernized correspondent banking or solutions relying on Fintechs with presence in both jurisdictions will likely remain good and flexible solutions that can contribute significant improvements. Also, for large corridors, these two solutions may play an important role for the coming years, and the interlinking solutions still need to prove that they can deploy their advantages relative to them. 

Ranking two solutions at the top raises the question whether central banks and the industry should really work on both (i.e. the interlinking of domestic payment systems and future CBDCs), or whether only one should be selected and the other be dismissed to save on investment costs and focus all efforts to implement the holy grail as soon as possible. A number of arguments speak in favor of developing both solutions. First, there are synergies between the two in the sense that organizing competitive FX conversion layers is instrumental for both, as well as solving issues of international addressability of accounts (be it in commercial bank money or CBDC), persons and firms. Second, some FX and cross-border payment corridors are so large that they can easily support two solutions, and the eventual efficiency of cross-border payments will benefit further from the competition between two approaches. Third, for some cross-border payment corridors only one solution may eventually prevail, but this could be one or the other, and in view of the many cross-border corridors, it is favorable to have two fully efficient solutions available who can compete to become the solution for specific smaller corridors. Therefore, forceful work on both should continue, whereby for CBDC much of the energy of central banks will obviously be absorbed first for deploying them for domestic retail payments. Central banks should nevertheless keep in mind that CBDC will eventually be expected to make its contribution to efficient cross-border payments with FX conversion, and discuss at a relatively early stage the related interoperability issues. In the meantime, they should support and co-ordinate the efforts to interlink domestic payment systems for cross-border payments with competitive FX conversion. 

Author: From the Outside

After working in the Australian banking system for close to four decades, I am taking some time out to write and reflect on what I have learned. My primary area of expertise is bank capital management but this blog aims to offer a bank insider's outside perspective on banking, capital, economics, finance and risk.

One thought on “The ECB seeks the holy grail of cross-border payments”

  1. The key issue in the ECB preferred solution(s) is the FX layer and their desire to preserve monetary sovereignty. Even the cheapest retail FX solutions like Revolut still cost about 40-50bp. The holy grail is a global currency, whether crypto or not, that doesn’t need an FX layer (because it is widely accepted as a means of payment or settlement) and can be received by anyone in any country with a relevant wallet within 10-15 minutes and at virtually no cost.

    The crypto world can already do all of that with the exception of the ‘widely accepted as a means of payment’. The question is whether the traditional finance world can develop all of the above before the crypto world can achieve wider acceptance.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: