Those ACH payments

One of the mysteries of finance is why the USA seems to be so slow in adopting the fast payment systems that are increasingly common in other financial systems. Antiquated payment systems in TradFi is a frequent theme in DeFi or stablecoin pitches which argue that they offer a way to avoid the claws of the expensive, slow and backward looking traditional banks.

Every time I read these arguments in favour of DeFi and/or stablecoins, I wonder why can’t the USA just adopt the proven innovations widely employed in other countries. I had thought that this was a problem with big banks (the traditional nemesis of the DeFi movement) having no incentive to innovate but I came across this post by Patrick McKenzie that suggests that the delay in roll out of fast payment systems may in fact lie with the community banks.

The entire post is worth reading but I have appended a short extract below that captures Patrick’s argument on why community banks have delayed the roll out of improved payment systems in the USA

Many technologists ask why ACH payments were so slow for so long, and come to the conclusion that banks are technically incompetent. Close but no cigar. The large money center banks which have buildings upon buildings of programmers shaving microseconds off their trade execution times are not that intimidated by running batch processes twice a day. They could even negotiate bilateral real-time APIs to do so, among the fraternity of banks that have programmers on staff, and indeed in some cases they have.

Community banks mostly don’t have programmers on staff, and are reliant on the so-called “core processors” like Fiserv, Jack Henry & Associates and Fidelity National Information Services. These companies specialize in extremely expensive SaaS that their customers literally can’t operate without. They are responsible for thousands of customers using related but heavily customized systems. Those customers often operate with minimal technical sophistication, no margin for error, disconcertingly few testing environments, and several dozen separate, toothy, mutually incompatible regulatory regimes they’re responsible to.

This is the largest reason why in-place upgrades to the U.S. financial system are slow. Coordinating the Faster ACH rollout took years, and the community bank lobby was loudly in favor of delaying it, to avoid disadvantaging themselves competitively versus banks with more capability to write software (and otherwise adapt operationally to the challenges same-day ACH posed).

“Community banking and Fintech”, Patrick McKenzie 22 October 2021

Tony – From the Outside

Red flags in financial services

Nice podcast from Odd Lots discussing the Wirecard fraud. Lots of insights but my favourite is to be wary when you see a financial services company exhibit high growth while maintaining profitability.

There may be exceptions to the rule but that is not how the financial services market normally works.

podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/odd-lots/id1056200096

Tony — From the Outside

Lessons from Brazil’s “Pix” fast payment system

In a recent post devoted to a BIS report summarising the results of interviews on what a small group of central banks had been doing with regard to Central Bank Digital Currencies, I posed the question whether central bankers might be better placed using their resources and powers to foster the development of fast payment systems rather than Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) and offered the following perspective:

the business case for a retail CBDC seems to have the most weight in the emerging market and developing economies with relatively poorly developed financial infrastructure

the business case for a retail CBDC in an advanced economy is less obvious

other initiatives such as central bank sponsorship of fast payment systems might be a better use of central bank resources

not explicitly referenced in the paper, but the recent experience with the roll out of fast payment systems in Brazil and India offer interesting case studies

the central bank focus on CBDCs seems to continue to be heavily weighted toward account based systems

token based CBDCs are mentioned in passing but do not seem to be high on the list of priorities

From the Outside – 15 March 2022 – “Central Bank Digital Currencies: A new tool in the financial inclusion toolkit”

For anyone interested in CBDC’s and fast payment systems, the BIS has published another report exploring the lessons to be learned from Brazil’s adoption of the “Pix” fast payment system. The authors identify three takeaways from Brazil’s experience which I think broadly support the thesis that fast payment systems often have the potential to achieve many if not all of the public policy objectives associated with CBDCs:

Public payment infrastructures build on the central bank’s foundational role in the monetary system by promoting competition and interoperability between payment platforms. They can reduce costs for users and promote financial inclusion.

Brazil’s recent experience with the Pix retail instant payment system illustrates the potential gains. In little over a year since its launch in November 2020, Pix has signed up 67% of adults in Brazil, with free payments between individuals and low charges for merchants.

The two key ingredients in the success of Pix are, first, the mandatory participation of large banks to kick-start network effects for users, and second, the central bank’s dual role as infrastructure provider and rule setter.

It is important to note however that these benefits do not flow automatically from just building the payment system infrastructure, the report highlights the importance of the central bank using its power to:

  • mandate the participation of large banks and other large players in payment services in order to kickstart the network effects and
  • to set rules that promote competition

I may be missing something here but it still feels to me like CBDCs are over-rated and (well constructed) fast payment systems under-rated. There are no doubt some economies where a CBDC has a role to play but I for one am paying more attention to the roll out of their less glamorous sibling.

Tony – From the Outside

The Stablecoin TRUST Act

Stablecoin regulation is one of my perennial favourite topics. Yes I know – I need to get out more but getting this stuff right does truly matter. I have gone down this particular rabbit hole more than a couple of times already. This has partly been about the question of how much we can rely on existing disclosure regarding reserves (here and here for example ) but the bigger issue (I think) is to determine what is the right regulatory model that ensures a level playing field with existing participants in the provision of payment services while still allowing scope for innovation and competition.

JP Koning has been a reliable source of comment and insight on the questions posed above (see here and here for example). Dan Awrey also wrote an interesting paper on the topic (covered here) which argues that the a state based regulatory model (such as the money transmitter licensing regime) is not the answer. There is another strand of commentary that focuses on the lessons to be learned from the Free Banking Era of the 19th century, most notably Gorton and Zhang’s paper titled “Taming Wildcat Stablecoins” which I covered here.

Although not always stated explicitly, the focus of regulatory interest has largely been confined to “payment stablecoins” and that particular variation is the focus of this post. At the risk of over-simplifying, the trend of stablecoin regulation appears to have been leaning towards some kind of banking regulation model. This was the model favoured in the “Report on Stablecoins” published in November 2021 by the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG). I flagged at the time (here and here) that the Report did not appear to have a considered the option of allowing stablecoin issuers to structure themselves as 100% reserve banks (aka “narrow banks”).

Against that background, it has been interesting to see that United States Senator Toomey (a member of the Senate Banking Committee) has introduced a discussion draft for a bill to provide a regulatory framework for payment stablecoins that does envisage a 100% reserve model for regulation. Before diving into some of the detail, it has to be said that the bill does pass the first test in that it has a good acronym (Stablecoin TRUST Act where TRUST is short for “Transparency of Reserves and Uniform Safe Transactions”.

There is not a lot of detail that I can find so let me just list some questions:

  • The reserve requirements must be 100% High Quality Liquid Assets (HQLA) which by definition are low return so that will put pressure on the issuer’s business model which relies on this income to cover expenses. I am not familiar with the details of the US system but assume the HQLA definition adopted in the Act is the same as that applied to the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) for depositary institutions.
  • Capital requirements are very low (at most 6 months operating expenses) based I assume on the premise that HQLA have no risk – the obvious question here is how does this compare to the operational risk capital that a regulated depositary institution would be required to hold for the same kind of payment services business activity
  • Stablecoin payment issuers do not appear to be required to meet a Leverage Ratio requirement such as that applied to depositary institutions. That might be ok (given the low risk of HQLA) subject to the other questions about capital posed above being addressed and not watered down in the interests of making the payment stablecoin business model profitable.
  • However, in the interest of a level playing field, I assume that depositary institutions that wanted to set up a payment stablecoin subsidiary would not be disadvantaged by the Leverage Ratio being applied on a consolidated basis?

None of the questions posed above should be construed to suggest that I am anti stablecoins or financial innovation. A business model that may be found to rely on a regulatory arbitrage is however an obvious concern and I can’t find anything that addresses the questions I have posed. I am perfectly happy to stand corrected but it would have been useful to see this bill supported by an analysis that compared the proposed liquidity and capital requirements to the existing requirements applied to:

  • Prime money market funds
  • Payment service providers
  • Deposit taking institutions

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

Note – this post was revised on 14 April 2022

  1. The question posed about haircuts applied to HQLA for the purposes of calculating the Liquidity Coverage Ratio requirement for banks was removed after a fact check. In my defence I did flag that the question needed to be fact checked. Based on the Australian version of the LCR, it seems that the haircuts are only applied to lower quality forms of liquid assets. The question of haircuts remains relevant for stablecoins like Tether that have higher risk assets in their reserve pool but should not be an issue for payment stablecoins so long as the reserves requirement prescribed by the Stablecoin TRUST Act continues to be based on HQLA criteria.
  2. While updating the post, I also introduced a question about whether the leverage ratio requirement on depositary institutions might create an un-level playing field since it does not appear to be required of payment stablecoin issuers

Why Canada is cultivating an M-pesa moment for bitcoin – Izabella Kaminska

Izabella Kaminska is one of the commentators that I find reliably generates interesting and useful insights. Personally I remain sceptical on crypto but this link takes you to a post where she makes an argument that I find persuasive.

For those short of time here is an extract capturing the key points I took from her post…

My position on crypto has evolved over time to appreciate this factor. Crypto may not be an optimal system. It’s clunky. It’s energy intensive. It’s confusing. But as a back-up system for when the shit really hits the fan, it’s an incredibly worthwhile system to have in place and I increasingly think we should be grateful that some deep-pocketed individuals with concerns for freedom and privacy took the risks they did to make it become a thing.

I have in the past compared crypto to a monetary equivalent of the right to bear arms, whose main purpose, many argue, is to act as a deterrent to rising authoritarianism. Its optimal deployment is as a right that it is never actually exercised.

Crypto should be treated the same way. On a day to day basis, it’s much better for us all to trust in a centralised and properly supervised system. But having crypto there as a challenger or backup system is no bad thing. It should in theory enhance the core system by helping to keep it honest and working in our interests.

“Why Canada is cultivating an M-pesa moment for bitcoin”, The Blind Spot 18 February 2022

Tony – From the Outside

The problem with regulating stablecoin issuers like banks

One of my recent posts discussed the Report on Stablecoins published in November 2021 by the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG). While I fully supported the principle that similar types of economic activities should be subject to equivalent forms of regulation in order to avoid regulatory arbitrage, I also wrote that it was not obvious to me that bank regulation is the right answer for payment stablecoin issuance.

This speech by Governor Waller of the Fed neatly expresses one of the key problems with the recommendation that stablecoin issuance be restricted to depositary institutions (aka private banks). To be honest I was actually quite surprised the PWG arrived at this recommendation given the obvious implication that it would benefit the bank incumbents and impede innovation in the ways in which US consumers can access money payment services

“However, I disagree with the notion that stablecoin issuance can or should only be conducted by banks, simply because of the nature of the liability. I understand the attraction of forcing a new product into an old, familiar structure. But that approach and mindset would eliminate a key benefit of a stablecoin arrangement—that it serves as a viable competitor to banking organizations in their role as payment providers. The Federal Reserve and the Congress have long recognized the value in a vibrant, diverse payment system, which benefits from private-sector innovation. That innovation can come from outside the banking sector, and we should not be surprised when it crops up in a commercial context, particularly in Silicon Valley. When it does, we should give those innovations the chance to compete with other systems and providers—including banks—on a clear and level playing field”

“Reflections on stablecoins and Payments Innovations”, Governor Christopher J Waller, 17 November 2021

The future of payment stablecoins is, I believe, a regulated one but I suspect that the specific path of regulation proposed by the PWG Report recommendations will (and should) face a lot of pushback given its implications for competition and innovation in the financial payment rails that support economic activity.

I don’t agree with everything that Governor Waller argues in his speech. I am less convinced than he, for example, that anti trust regulation as it stands offers sufficient protection against big tech companies operating in this space using customer data in ways that are not fully aligned with the customers’ interests. That said, his core argument that preserving the capacity for competition and financial innovation in order to keep the incumbents honest and responsive to customer interests is fundamental to the long term health of the financial system rings very true to me.

For anyone interested in the question of why the United States appears to be lagging other countries in developing its payments infrastructure, I can recommend a paper by Catalini and Lilley (2021) that I linked to in this post. This post by JP Koning discussing what other countries (including Australia) have achieved with fast payment system initiatives also gives a useful sense of what is being done to enhance the existing infrastructure when the system is open to change.

Tony – From the Outside

Finance cartels face digital currency shake-up | Financial Times

Cross border payment is one of the areas of conventional banking where challengers believe that crypto/DLT solutions can shake up the existing order. There is little doubt that the cross border payment status quo has lots of room for improvement but Gillian Tett (Financial Times) offers a nice summary of central bank projects that are potentially introducing other vectors of innovation and competition.

— Read on www.ft.com/content/4ab25f71-78ff-40a2-b47c-e04075ea81b4

Mortgage Mayhem – Net Interest

Marc Rubinstein has written another really interesting post on the economics of the American mortgage market which you can find here. The post is useful not only for his account of the mechanics of why the American mortgage market is prone to boom and bust but also for reminding us of some of the ways in which the American approach is very different from that employed in other markets. 

Lending to finance home ownership is an increasingly big part of most modern financial systems but the ways in which the process is done differ a lot more than you might think from casual inspection. I have previously flagged a post that Marc did on financing the American home. Read that in conjunction with a post I did on financing the Danish home. Marc also did an interesting post looking at the tension between competition and financial stability.

Tony – From the Outside

Another reason why monetary authorities might not like stablecoins

Marc Rubinstein’s post (here) on Facebook’s attempt to create an alternative payment mechanism offers a useful summary of the state of play for anyone who has not had the time, nor the inclination, to follow the detail. It includes a short summary of its history, where the initiative currently stands and where it might be headed.

What caught my attention was his discussion of why central banks do not seem to be keen to support private sector initiatives in this domain. Marc noted that Facebook have elected to base their proposed currency (initially the “Libre” but relabelled a “Diem” in a revised proposal issued in December 2020) on a stable coin approach. There are variety of stable coin mechanisms (fiat-backed, commodity backed, cryptocurrency backed, seignorage-style) but in the case of the Diem, the value of the instrument is proposed to be based on an underlying pool of low risk fiat currency assets.

A stable value is great if the aim for the instrument is to facilitate payments for goods and services but it also creates concerns for policy makers. Marc cites a couple of issues …

But this is where policymakers started to get jumpy. They started to worry that if payments and financial transactions shift over to the Libra, they might lose control over their domestic monetary policy, all the more so if their currency isn’t represented in the basket. They worried too about the governance of the Libra Association and about its compliance framework. Perhaps if any other company had been behind it, they would have dismissed the threat, but they’d learned not to underestimate Facebook.”

“Facebook’s Big Diem”, Marc Rubinstein – https://netinterest.substack.com/p/facebooks-big-diem
One more reason why stable coins might be problematic for policy makers responsible for monetary policy and bank supervision?

Initiatives like Diem obviously represent a source of competition and indeed disruption for conventional banks. As a rule, policy makers tend to welcome competition, notwithstanding the potential for competition to undermine financial stability. However “fiat-backed” stable coin based initiatives also compete indirectly with banks in a less obvious way via their demand for the same pool of risk free assets that banks are required to hold for Basel III prudential liquidity requirements.

So central banks might prefer that the stock of government securities be available to fund the liquidity requirements of the banks they are responsible for, as opposed to alternative money systems that they are not responsible for nor have any direct control over.

I know a bit about banking but not a lot about cryptocurrency so it is entirely possible I am missing something here. If so then feedback welcome.

Tony – From the Outside

The tension between competition and financial stability …

… is a topic on which I have long been planning to write the definitive essay.

Today is not that day.

In the interim, I offer a link to a post by Marc Rubinstein that makes a few points I found worth noting and expanding upon.

Firstly, he starts with the observation that there are very few neat solutions to policy choices – mostly there are just trade-offs. He cites as a case a point the efforts by financial regulators to introduce increased competition over the past forty years as a means to make the financial system cheaper and more efficient. Regulators initially thought that they could rely on market discipline to manage the tension between increased freedom to compete and the risk that this competition would undermine credit standards but this assumption was found wanting and we ended up with the GFC.

When financial regulators think about trade-offs, the one they’ve traditionally wrestled with is the trade-off between financial stability and competition. It arises because banks are special: their resilience doesn’t just impact them and their shareholders; it impacts everybody. As financial crises through the ages have shown, if a bank goes down it can have a huge social cost. And if there’s a force that can chip away at resilience, it’s competition. It may start out innocently enough, but competition often leads towards excessive risk-taking. In an effort to remain competitive, banks can be seduced into relaxing credit standards. Their incentive to monitor loans and maintain long-term relationships with borrowers diminishes, credit gets oversupplied and soon enough you have a problem. 

The Policy Triangle, Marc Rubinstein -https://netinterest.substack.com/

We have learned that regulators may try to encourage competition where possible but, when push comes to shove, financial stability remains the prime directive. As a consequence, the incumbent players have to manage the costs of compliance but they also benefit from a privileged position that has been very hard to attack. Multiple new entrants to the Australian banking system learned this lesson the hard way during the 1980s and 1990s.

For a long time the trade-off played out on that simple one dimensional axis of “efficiency and competition” versus “financial stability” but the entry of technology companies into areas of financial services creates additional layers of complexity and new trade-offs to manage. Rubinstein borrows the “Policy Triangle” concept developed by Hyun Song Shin to discuss these issues.

Hyun Song Shin, Economic Adviser and Head of Research, Bank for International Settlements
  1. Firstly, he notes that financial regulators don’t have jurisdiction over technology companies so that complicates the ways in which they engage with these new sources of competition and their impact on the areas of the financial system that regulators do have responsibility for.
  2. Secondly, he discusses the ways in which the innovative use of data by these new players introduces a whole new range of variables into the regulatory equation.
Jurisdiction

New entrants have been able to make inroads into certain areas of finance, the payments function in particular. Some regulators have supported these areas of innovation but Rubinstein notes that regulators start to clamp down once new entrants start becoming large enough to matter. The response of Chinese authorities to Ant Financial is one example as is the response of financial regulators globally to Facebook’s attempt to create a digital currency. The lessons seems to be that increased regulation and supervisions is in store for any new entrant that achieves any material level of scale.

Data

The innovative use of data offers the promise of enhanced competition and improved ways of managing credit risk but this potentially comes at the cost of privacy. Data can also be harnessed by policy makers to gain new real-time insights into what is going on in the economy that can be used to guide financial stability policy settings.

Conclusion

Rubinstein has only scratched the surface of this topic but his post and the links he offers to other contributions to the discussion are I think worth reading. As stated at the outset, I hope to one day codify some thoughts on these topics but that is a work in progress. That post will consider issues like the “prisoner’s dilemma” that are I think an important part of the competition/stability trade-off. It is also important to consider the ways in which banks have come to play a unique role in the economy via the creation of money.

Tony – From the Outside

p.s. There are a few posts I have done on related topics that may be of interest