The introduction of ATM direct charging in March 2009 has been one of the more public experiments in consumer behaviour within Australian retail payments. With three and a half years of statistics now available, we are developing a clearer view of its impact. On the supply side, direct charging has accompanied a rise in the number of ATMs. There were 25,000 ATMs in Australia in mid-2008 and now there are over 30,000. Despite more ATMs, direct charging has also seen a contraction in the number of withdrawals, with a drop by about 30 million withdrawals between 2008-09 and 2009-10. While this decline coincides with the GFC, the average withdrawal amount rose slightly during this period - suggesting slightly fewer but slightly larger withdrawals from ATMs as a response to direct charging.
In September of this year, Peter Mair’s submission to the RBA Innovation Review Conclusions created a surprising media splash. Mr Mair, a former RBA official and current finance media commentator, suggested significant and widespread hoarding of $50 and $100 banknotes by older Australians. In the media frenzy that followed, Mr Mair further suggested that “the average pensioner couple could hold up to $50,000 in undeclared $50 and $100 notes to get access to the pension.” Not surprisingly, these comments set off a media firestorm. The Minister of Finance Penny Wong commented, responding, somewhat tongue in cheek, that she hadn’t been looking under any pensioner’s bed for cash! The coverage raises the issue of high denomination banknotes in Australia. Are we awash in high denomination banknotes in Australia? Is Australia out of line with its international peers? Where are all those $100 notes and what are they being used for?
The publication of the Reserve Bank’s Conclusions for its two year Innovation Review is shaping up as the catalyst for a new round of structural evolution in the Australian payments system. Payment participants have been set a challenge: establish a better long-term payments platform. Doubtless, effective coordination of industry participants is needed to meet the challenge. Nevertheless, it will be good old-fashioned competition that delivers the new products that ultimately benefit customers. Bluntly, new payment systems only take off when schemes and participants work out how to use them to offer stuff that customers want, and will pay for.
Believe it or not, the current US Presidential nomination process has thrown up a passionate debate about the nature of money, and particularly whether it is 'sound' or not. Voters are frustrated and fearful about the economy. Politicians (with no economics training) are arguing that in these uncertain times we need a currency backed by something 'real' like gold. This seems oddly backward-looking in the era of the internet. It begs a question: what sort of money do we need to fuel the economy of the 21st century?
So when you do a card payment, the shop owner can be certain she's getting paid because the card terminal does a real-time authorisation out of your card account ('value now'); but the payment system actually moves the money early the next business day morning or, for some payments, the morning after ('funds later'). Payments made on the weekend are the same in that value (authorisation) is still now, but the system only actually moves money between financial institutions on weekday mornings – which could be 2 to 4 days later. By the way, 'value now, funds later' is a lot better from the shop's perspective than 'promise now, funds later' – which is how a personal cheque works. In the good old days of branch banking, most people couldn't check their account balance outside business hours. Nowadays we all have much better information about our accounts through widespread ATM networks, internet banking and phone banking.