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12 posts from July 2011

Wireless Sunday

By Dave Birch posted Jul 4 2011 at 8:05 PM

Off to the Barclaycard Wireless Festival for the day. I don't really understand why its still called that. In the old days, when it was sponsored by O2, then calling it the wireless festival sort of made sense. But now it's sponsored by Barclaycard, they should probably call it the Contactless Festival instead. Anyhow it featured a great many very popular bands, as evidenced by the enormous crowd trying to get in.

IMG_0406

I know it looks chaotic but in the end it only took about 25 minutes to get in. Contactless was much in evidence. Barclaycard had kitted all of the bars out with contactless terminals and were kind enough to give me one of the promotional lanyards containing a contactless card (a Visa gift card preloaded with £20) to go and try out. Which, naturally, I did. And, I have to say, it worked perfectly. As testimony, allow me to present the first beer I bought with it!

Dave at Wireless 2011

Being me, I couldn't leave it at that though, and I started to try out some other contactless paraphernalia about my person. An obvious experiment was to try my Barclaycard phone, and that worked too, but oddly it went online, which rather slowed the transaction down. I don't understand why it did this, so I'll ask the chaps when I'm next in the office.

More interestingly, I asked a couple of the bar staff what they thought about contactless and they had both positive and negative observations that I promised myself to report in a spirit of openness and balance...

Positive. It's quick, and you don't have to hand the terminal to the customer for them to enter a PIN. And they thought my phone was really cool. They also said that some customers had been paying with their own contactless cards and not just the promotional lanyards.

Negative. There were two big issues that came up in both conversations with bar staff. One was the spending limit, which the bar staff said was too low at £12 (the limit was actually £15, but the all of the drinks cost £4, so you could buy three drinks at £12 but not the advertised four beers in a drinks carrier, because that costs £16). Surely it would have made sense to have subbed the bars so that four beers plus carrier was a £15 special.

Enough of these scientific experiments (most of which I drank), and off to see some of the popular beat combos on show. Here's 47 second taster so that you can get the idea if you've never been to one of these events before.

I was reflecting on the security issue later on, because it really seemed a block. I took the time to explain to one of the women at the bar that there was no risk to her as a customer, because the UK banks' were unequivocal about unauthorised use: if someone uses your card without your permission, they will refund the transaction. Yet she was unconvinced and was clearly uncomfortable about the idea of "no CVM" purchase. This has been true since the earliest days. As I highlighted four years ago:

Among those that are not yet ready to use contactless, security appear to be the dominant consideration. Which means, of course, that whatever we might think about actual security situation we must get better at communicating it.

[From Digital Money: Contactless update]

As I don't know anything about customer communications and public information, I genuinely don't know how to cross this chasm, but I wonder if it's yet more evidence that we should be moving more quickly to contactless phones. The simple PIN code that I need to open up the mobile wallet on my Barclaycard MasterCard phone (the Samsung Tocco that I wrote about before) might well provide the reassurance that people want, even though it doesn't really make much difference to the overall risk (phones are inherently safer than cards because people notice when they go missing anyway).

Overall, the weekend's experiences did leave me with three firm conclusions:

1. Both the public and the merchants liked contactless. In this kind of environment - crowded, quick service - the technology performs very well. These were similar to the results seen elsewhere: the punters like contactless payments.

Festival-goers quizzed on the experience, said they were quicker (96%) and easier to use (98%) than credit or debit cards, while a resounding 100% said they'd want to use the PayPass prepaid wristbands again to pay at other festivals, concerts and sporting events.

[From Finextra: Contactless wristbands join wellies and camping gear as festival essentials]

2. We should accelerate the development of contactless phones, because they help with the security issue.

3. The Horrors are a good band, but not my cup of tea.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

State-mandated price-fixing is not the answer, but as it goes this isn't too bad

By Dave Birch posted Jul 1 2011 at 4:28 PM

Our good friends at Glenbrook summarised the final outcome of the Durbin process:

Debit interchange cap - $0.21 plus 5 bps (for both signature debit and PIN debit)
Fraud prevention adjustment - $0.01 (interim rule)
Routing restrictions and network exclusivity - Option A (two unaffiliated debit network)
Card Present vs Card Not Present - No distinction

[From Federal Reserve Issues Final Rule on Durbin Amendment]

Now there will be a lot of comment from people far better qualified than me on what all of this will mean for the payments industry, so I don't want to get into those specifics here, but there's something that bothers me about the whole thing. I went back to Steve Bartlett's article on Durbin in the EFPLP [Bartlett, S. Announcing the death of the debit card in E-Finance & Payments Law & Policy (Mar. 2011)] and it prompted me to have another reflection on the Durbin process as it seems (to a foreigner!).

Plenty of lawmakers are anguished about their swipe fee position, but largely because they’re worried about falling out of favor with good friends in the corporate world.

[From Swiped: Banks, Merchants And Why Washington Doesn't Work For You]

I think what this means is that they knew that government price-fixing is wrong, but that big companies (particularly retailers) spend a lot of money on lobbying. This isn't something to be cynical about, it's just the real world. I'm happy to offer these lawmakers a solution though. Why not go down the European route and create a regulatory framework that allows competition from non-banks? There is no reason for payments to be a banking business, and competition rather than regulation is a better way to reduce costs to the rest of the economy.

There are other ways to reduce total costs too, but these mean some short-term spending (which no-one wants to do) in order to improve the situation for the longer term (which, naturally, congressmen don't care about).

The Federal Reserve could, and should, use the Durbin Amendment as a vehicle to move the United States onto the EMV smart card standard

[From Why The Fed Should Use Durbin To Push EMV ( - Industry Verticals )]

Why would this save money in the long term? It's because one of the key reasons why US debit card fees are so much higher than elsewhere is that they are predominantly signature debit transactions. Moving to PIN, and offline PIN at that, and offline completely for low-value contactless transactions, ought to kill a few birds with the same stone.

the Fed has the power to change this equation. By allowing card issuers to recover some of the costs of issuing smart cards in the form of higher interchange, it could make it profitable for banks to issue smart cards. At the same time, card networks such as Visa and MasterCard could then impose a liability shift policy, similar to that deployed in other regions

[From Why The Fed Should Use Durbin To Push EMV ( - Industry Verticals )]

In reality though, none of the lobbying seemed to be about pursuing the best long-term strategy for USA Inc. It just all came down to fighting between banks and retailers. I assumed that banks were going to lose.

Lobbying on behalf of banks is a bit of a lost cause at the moment, so you can't blame the retailers for striking while the iron is hot, but if Congress wants to reduce the fees paid by retailers for payments, then it should create a regulatory environment that allows new entrants to come in and provide (non-bank, if necessary) solutions to the marketplace.

[From Digital Money: If you don't like cards, don't take them]

Well, despite their (entirely deserved) lack of popular support, it looks as if I was wrong about the banks' capacity to lobby. They mounted a serious campaign.

Last year US banks generated $536.9 billion of interest income, according to FDIC data, and while that is down from heights of the boom years, it is still a hefty amount of revenue. Non-interest income, which includes fees, climbed to $236.8 billion last year from $207.7 billion in 2008.

[From Bankers, Hear My Plea: Stop the Fee Insanity - Bank Innovation]

It's very difficult to obtain an accurate picture as to what proportion of the non-interest income relates to payments. The last figure that I have that I believe to be reasonably accurate was 45%, but many commentators seem to think that this is too low. So let's say that all of the "other" category of non-interest income reported is payments, and call it 50%. There was a paper published last year called "Banks’ Non-Interest Income and Systemic Risk" by Brunnermeier, Dong and Paliac that showed that the higher the proportion of non-interest income, the greater a bank's exposure to systemic risk. In other words, the more a bank depends on income that comes from outside of the core business of savings and loans, the more exposed it is to changes in market conditions (eg, Durbin amendment, non-bank competition, that sort of thing). I read this as meaning that it's better for the economy as whole if banks make less money from running debit card systems.

The lesson here is that if we want serious regulation of banks, we can't trust it to be done by bank regulators.

[From The Fed Bails Out the Banks...Again - Credit Slips]

Therefore, it seems to me, that the ruling wasn't that bad for banks. If you have to have a cap, from the banks' perspective, it might as well be this one. Retailers wanted a cap, and they got it, but the cap is high enough that banks won't suffer a catastrophic collapse in fee income, so the banks ended up with not such a bad deal provided that they shift signature debit to PIN debit. The banks will lose some fee income because of this, retailers will pay a bit less and customers won't see much difference because the difference won't be passed on them. I disagree with observers who think that Visa and MasterCard will see big trouble because of the loss of signature debit transactions. I think that Visa and MasterCard won't be too affected because they will boost their PIN debit offerings to make them more attractive to banks and they will push PIN debit into mobile, online, retail and so on. This means that the income lost from signature debit transactions can be made up by replacing cash and other kinds of transactions with PIN debit (I think - but I'm keen to hear from others who know far more about the US market dynamics).

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]