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. 

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

Why is the United States lagging behind in payments?

… is the title of a useful paper by Christian Catalini and Andrew Lilley that digs into the puzzle of why it is that one of the (if not the) key players in the global financial system seems to lagging global best practice in terms of the cost, convenience and speed of its payment system.

It has to be noted that the authors are not neutral observers in this space. Christian Catalini is the Chief Economist of the Diem Association and Diem Networks US, and Co-Creator of Diem (formerly Libra). He is also the Founder of the MIT Cryptoeconomics Lab and a Research Scientist at MIT. Andrew Lilley is an employee of Novi Financial, Inc. who contributed to the paper as part of his work with Diem Networks US. With that caveat in mind, the paper still offers a short (12 pages) and useful summary of the ways in which the US lags best practice.

They frame the US problem as follows:

The US enjoys one of the least concentrated banking systems among the G30, but this feature has also created a fragmented and expensive payments system. Transfers between major US banks incur fees ranging from $10 to $35 for same-day wires, and up to $3 for 2-day transactions. Compare this to the UK, where individuals and businesses have access to a free, 24/7 interbank payments system which settles within seconds and supports over 8M transactions per day. While the US does have a Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) system, the Fedwire Funds Service carries less than 1 million transactions per day, has limited 21/5 availability, and is almost exclusively used by financial institutions and large corporations. Its fees, moreover, are larger than alternative payment methods such as ACH, creating a trade-off between cost and immediacy. Private sector alternatives are limited, and while some banks have deployed real-time solutions, these come with transaction limits and little adoption, which severely reduces their usefulness.

Catalini and Lilley (2021), Why is the United States Lagging Behind in Payments?

The paper then outlines how these limitations affect individuals, business and government and concludes with suggestions of what might be done to address the problems discussed:

There are at least three ways to remove frictions in payments and rapidly expand the number of individuals and businesses that can access the financial system and cheaply transact in real time. The first is to bring deposits on a single ledger through a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), so that transfers between banks are not limited by external liquidity constraints or third-party rails. The second approach is to follow countries such as India and Mexico and increase the throughput of always-on RTGS systems. This is the model the Federal Reserve is pursuing with the introduction of FedNow, targeted for 2023. FedNow, however, is expected to have an initial transfer maximum of $25,000, which would limit its usefulness to businesses. The third approach is to facilitate the growth of interoperable, stablecoin payment rails by creating the right regulatory framework for these new types of networks to safely increase competition in payments.

While each one of these approaches presents different challenges, opportunities and trade-offs in terms of complexity, development costs and ability to expand access to segments that are currently excluded, it is important to stress that they are likely to be complements, not substitutes.

Advancing the US payments infrastructure will require both regulatory and technical developments targeted at improving market structure, lowering barriers to entry, and facilitating collaboration between public and private sector efforts in digital payments.

Catalini and Lilley (2021)

I am trying to keep an open mind on the future of payment systems but find myself drawn towards the conclusion that fast payment systems that the FedNow initiative is based on seem to have worked pretty well in other countries in terms of improving cost, speed and convenience so it is not obvious to me why either a CBDC or stablecoin solution is necessary in the United States.

If you want to explore these issues further, JP Koning recently offered a nice summary of what has been achieved by fast payment systems in other countries while a speech (“CBDC: A solution in Search of a Problem?”) by Governor Waller of the US Federal Reserve neatly summarises the issues associated with whether a CBDC is necessary or desirable (at least so far as the USA is concerned). It is important to recognise however that the conclusions that Waller draws do not necessarily apply to other countries (China being the prime example) which are responding to very different types of payment systems.

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside