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.
Last month, the UK government published a consultation paper on “Opening up UK payments”. According to the paper, “the self-regulation of financial services…has been discredited.” Say what? The world over, payments systems have been almost entirely self-regulated, so this is a big call. The evidence cited in the paper for this includes the LIBOR-rate fixing scandal and the failed attempt to eliminate UK cheque clearing. And of course, there is enduring rancor over the public bailout of UK banks during the global financial crisis.
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.