Many of us are returning from the holiday break newly resolved on self-improvement – give up this, lose that, do better at the other thing. APCA too is resolved on self-improvement. Back in August 2011, we gave a public commitment to reform APCA’s own governance arrangements so as to make it a fit vehicle for more inclusive, stronger self-governance of the payments system. This is currently a hot topic for the Reserve Bank, and has been one for APCA for quite some time as well. So, next month, in February, we hope to be talking about a new model for how APCA works. This has to fit in with the views and needs of many different people and organisations, not least the public policymakers, so we know it probably won’t be a short conversation. But we hope it will be a successful one.
In Sydney in early June, we launched our consultation on the future of cheques. Our proposition is simple: based on long-term trends, cheques are steadily disappearing from the Australian community. That means problems down the track for those who rely on them, as they increasingly find their payment counterparties don't want to use or accept a cheque, even if they do. This consultation is not about cheque clearing at all: it's about making sure people have what they need. In the same week, on the other side of the world, the House of Lords in London began an acrimonious debate on the same issue: the future of cheques in the UK. The UK Payments Council has had closure of the paper clearing system on the agenda for several years, but they have not been able to win community support for the need to change.
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.
I recently had the rare and valuable chance to take a deep dive into someone else's payments pool. Such comparisons are always refreshing, not to mention instructive. The Canadian Government has appointed a Task Force to review the Canadian payments system, and the Task Force has embarked on a series of intensive workshops with senior people from across payments – financial institutions, schemes, corporate and government users, merchants, consumer groups and others. They kindly invited me to participate in a 3-day workshop that ranged widely over the future payments landscape as they are seeing it in Canada. This was, I have to say, an impressive effort.
Here at APCA we have been thinking about network innovation a lot lately – not least because the Reserve Bank is also thinking about it, in their Strategic Review of Innovation in the Payments System. There is a lot of management theory on innovation: diffusion of innovations, disruptive and sustaining innovation, even plenty of recent thinking about clustering of expertise and innovation networks (not the same thing as innovation IN networks, by the way). But none of the theory I’ve read so far really grapples with the special problems of services that have a network effect – ie where the number and kind of other users of a service affect its attractiveness to any one user. Payments is a classic network service – merchants want to accept a card with the biggest possible issued base (or perhaps issued to lots of high net worth people); consumers want a card that is accepted in every shop near their home, and so on.