In April, I took a quick trip to Disney World...well, kind of. The annual conference of NACHA, APCA's equivalent body in the USA, was held at Disney World's home: Orlando, Florida. Around 2,200 bankers turned up to hear three days of presentations on the state of US payments - and possibly catch a few rides. I hope they had some fun amongst the work, because these are stressful times for US payment providers. Having weathered the GFC with tightened budgets, US bankers are acutely conscious of new payments system developments in other countries and pressure from the US Federal Reserve to follow suit or be left behind; but they are a long way from agreeing amongst themselves what is to be done, and who will pay. My small contribution was to outline the policy logic behind Australia's New Payments Platform (NPP) proposal as a comparative example. There was much interest.
This time last year, I reported on the lodgement of an industry proposal to develop new real-time payments architecture for Australia. Rashly, I suggested that: - The Payments System Board would back the industry proposal (they did); - APCA would publish the proposal in full, so everyone knew what we were on about (we did); and - Industry collaboration on the new architecture would need to get going quickly if we were to have a shot at meeting the challenging timeframes set by RBA (and that happened too!)
When it comes to consumer payments, the future is obviously mobile. But the "how" of mobile payments turns out to be rather complicated. I recently had the opportunity to participate in the Annual Conference of the Payments Association of South Africa. Systemic comparison is one key benefit of such an experience. Here we have two resource-driven economies of roughly similar size, similarly large physical distances but markedly different population demographics. The retail payments systems are diverging, rather than converging. This highlights the obvious point that payment systems are shaped by people's habits, not by economics. Consider, for example, some simple comparisons between bank account ownership and mobile phone ownership. According to the World Bank, Australia is one of the most heavily banked populations on earth, with a 99% banking rate in 2012 - that is, 99 out of 100 Australians over the age of 15 had a bank account in 2012. South Africa, by contrast, has a 54% banking rate, and therefore a large community that is still cash-based. Now let's look at mobile phones: the "phoned" rate in Australia is a healthy 106%; in South Africa, 135%. Yes, every person in South Africa has a mobile phone subscription, and every third person has two. If you suspect the interaction of these two comparison pairs leads to different payment evolutions, you would be right.
Recent data shows Australian non-cash activity overtaking cash transactions for the first time. These days almost every economic act other than a small consumer purchase requires an electronic transfer of value through the payment system by card, direct credit, direct debit, BPAY or some other method. This means that the payment system has become to the economy what your arteries and veins are to you – critical for economic health. One might think, then, that keeping the payment system “fit” (that is, secure, efficient and competitive) would be the subject of a well-developed “health plan”. Curiously, in many countries this has not been the case.
Today electronic payments are the norm in Australia. In the direct entry system, there are about 7 million items per day equal to about $45 billion. Employers and governments use direct entry to pay wages and benefits, while individuals use direct entry to pay for goods and services through direct debits and internet banking. These direct entry payments, which include direct credit and direct debit, account for 96 per cent of non-cash value (excluding high value payments) and about one-third of the number of non-cash payments. From these figures, one would suspect that Australians are reasonably prolific users of electronic payments, which stands in contrast to some commentary that Australia is somehow “lagging behind” other countries in this respect.