Does Australia’s New Payments Platform hold some lessons for developing countries looking to design their own digital payments system? The Level One Project Guide, released earlier this year by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, would suggest so. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the world’s most influential NGOs. It supports numerous initiatives, primarily aimed at health and economic development in developing countries. An area of interest for the Foundation has been financial inclusion, with a particular focus on how new digital technologies, such as mobile phones, can be used to provide low cost and accessible payment services to the poor.
Billions of people, primarily in developing countries, have historically had neither bank accounts nor access to electronic payments. When saving and making payments, they have had to rely on cash. This is rapidly changing. According to the recently-released World Bank Global Findex, in 2014, 62 per cent of the adults worldwide had a formal account with a financial institution or mobile money service – a dramatic increase from 51 per cent in 2011. This upswing in financial inclusion has been facilitated by a growing middle class in many developing countries and easily available technology, in particular the mobile phone. However this growth has taken a different path in different regions.
The new UK Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) became operational on 1 April 2015 and as reported in the most recent edition of Payments Monitor (APCA's quarterly newsletter), released its first major policy statement, entitled “A new regulatory framework for the payment systems in the UK”. The PSR has laid down a significant agenda. This includes the establishment of the “Payments Strategy Forum” to develop a collaborative industry strategy and effectively replace the UK Payments Council. The payment system is a network and a strong shared vision and collaborative strategy is critical for success. Collaborative bodies, such as Australia's own Australian Payments Council, recognise the need to have forums that bring industry together. However to be successful, the new Strategy Forum will need active industry participation. If industry is only there to assist in the implementation of public policy, then the new Forum will fall short of expectations.
Change is pretty well the only constant when it comes to consumer payments. In Australia, we have seen a rapid uptake in contactless card use as well as increased use of online payments. Conversely, we have seen a rapid decline in personal cheque use as well as an ever-diminishing use of cash. Monitoring changing payment usage can be notoriously difficult. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and APCA collect and publish statistics from industry participants on cheques, cards and electronic payments as well the number of ATMs and POS devices. However, other types of usage such as cash use and the split between card-present (point-of-sale) and card-not-present (internet, telephone and mail) transactions are more difficult to track. Consumers and merchants don’t regularly record or report their own payments activity – meaning we only get a partial picture of how payments use is evolving.
With complex processes and multiple parties, determining the costs of payments can be difficult. In recent years, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has taken up the challenge and released a research report on the cost of payments in Australia. This represents a long-awaited follow up to research last done in 2006. The most recent RBA report dated December 2014 draws upon data collected in 2013 from financial institutions, businesses and consumers and seeks to quantify the overall cost of payments and the cost of various payment methods. This includes both “resource costs” (the costs to the whole economy) and “private costs” (the costs borne by consumers, merchants and financial institutions respectively).