The Evolving ACH Landscape

The Evolving ACH Landscape

We’ve been tracking blockchain, distributed ledgers, etc for a number of years, and we’ve always been enthusiastic with the promise…but pointed out that it isn’t quite there yet, at least for payments. An announcement today caught our eyes:

"The Innovation Engineering team at Royal Bank of Scotland has built a Clearing and Settlement Mechanism (CSM) based on the Ethereum distributed ledger and smart contract platform."

In the Finextra article announcing it it says:

"The test results evidenced a throughput of 100 payments per second, with 6 simulated banks, and a single trip mean time of 3 seconds and maximum time of 8 seconds," states the bank. "This is the level appropriate for a national level domestic payments system."

So first the positives. That’s significantly higher throughput than any other test we’ve seen so far, by a fair margin. It’s also faster than many other systems.


We’d perhaps take issue with “appropriate level” though. Not a criticism of the test or the technology, but more a reflection of the task.

100 payments per second sounds an awful lot to those not in payments. With 86,400 seconds in a day, that’s 8.4m transactions a day. UK Faster Payments in August was running at around 3.2m transactions a day. Yet of course payments don’t flow uniformly through out the day or even day by day. Anecdotally, we’ve been told that c.70% of Faster Payment transactions are sent between the last settlement of the day and the first one the next day, a window of c. 16 hours. But realistically few of those will be made at, say, 3am. The actual window is therefore closer to 8 hours or less for those 70%. That means, even if they are running evenly, it's approximately 110 transactions per second.

The system will be scalable, so it would seem feasible for Faster Payments to be replaced by what was tested. However, in fact it perhaps highlights the real issue. On an average day, it would cope. It’s planning for the unaverage day that’s the issue. The UK ACH system, BACS, highlights this well.

BACS processes on an average day roughly 15m transactions. Given the operating window for the actual processing (10pm to 4am), that’s actually c. 700 transactions a second, significantly higher that the test through-put. But systems have to be designed to cope with worst case scenarios, referred to as peak days. These occur when month ends meet quarter ends meet various other things such as Public Holidays. The BACS record peak day to date is 103.7m. That’s a staggering 4,800 transactions a second.

What do we learn from this?

The technology being tested has evolved rapidly, and is continuing to do so. The volumes now being processed are rising rapidly. Yet today the technology probably isn’t ready for a national payment system quite yet, with the exception of some smaller countries or for specific lower volume systems such as high value. Furthermore, it's important that the systems are tested from a peak day plus a comfortable amount of head room on top (nobody wants to operate at 99.99% capacity!)

But compared to as little as 18 months ago it, the conversation has shifted noticeably from could it replace to should it replace, signifying the very real possibility that it will happen in the near future. Coupled with APIs and PSD2, the payments industry could look radically different in less than a decade.



What MasterCards’ Acquisition of VocaLink might mean

What MasterCards’ Acquisition of VocaLink might mean

Today, MasterCard announced the acquisition of VocaLink  in the UK.

Before I start I should say I have worked for both organisations, and any comments that I make are mine, and nor am I mentioning anything that isn’t in the public domain.

In some ways the acquisition is surprising, given all that is happening – PSD2, the PSR threatening to fundamentally change VocaLinks ownership and the PSF (it’s payments – never too far from an acronym!) talking about replacing the infrastructure altogether.

It’s easy to think this is perhaps MasterCard re-inserting themselves back into the UK market as since their acquisition of the Switch brand, virtually all the cards have flipped to Visa. I think it’s actually more for three reasons.

Firstly, real-time payments. I’ve written about the charge towards real-time, and VocaLink are well positioned. They operate the UK Faster Payment Service in the UK, and the underlying technology is at the heart of the systems in Singapore, Thailand and The Clearing House in the US. In addition, the market is likely to explode. The ECB said at a recent conference that they expect 60-80% of all SEPA CT transactions to migrate to SEPA Inst. Even at today’s volumes, that’s 12 billion transactions in addition to the UK’s 1 billion. That's volume any processor would be eyeing. Coupled with PSD2, where card volumes may well fall, then is rationale alone for the acquisition.

Secondly, look at electronic payments more broadly. The VocaLink core payments engine is award winning. It was built to win business across Europe in the post-SEPA world, and is capable of handling multiple schemes on the same platform. Indeed, part of Sweden’s transactions run on it to today alongside a very different UK scheme. Imagine now the offering that MasterCard has in say emerging markets – the ability to deliver 100% of electronic payments.

The third is when you bang together some of the technologies of the two businesses. These are ideas, and of course they are far harder than they sound but just think about the possibilities:

– Real-time payments + MasterCard global network = true real-time global ACH;

– ACH/real-time + low value debit transactions = decoupled debit on your own transactions;

– ISO20222 remitance data + VocaLink B2B skills+ MasterCard global network + MasterCard analytics + MasterCard finances = Synegra meets Tungsten Network, but on steroids.

There is much still to find out, and yet more to mull over, but the signs suggest some exciting times ahead.

Same-day ACH: is anyone excited?

Same-day ACH: is anyone excited?
This week’s NACHA vote in favor of mandatory rules changes enabling same-day ACH settlement is no surprise. Some of the press coverage suggests this represents some sort of significant achievement. Really? By March 2018 (when the network is currently expected to be able to fully support systemwide changes) I predict there will be industrywide consensus on the inadequacy of the measure. Even proponents of the measure suggest the vast majority of ACH traffic will remain the next-day float-neutral type – for good reason. The majority of payments will not see a change for the same reasons the ACH has served the industry so well for so long. Specifically: • Dependability • Low-cost With this vote, we’re now going to burden this lowest cost of payments networks with perpetual, systemic cost increases for all participants. And we’ll do so for a very small percentage of network volume. NACHA’s own estimates predict that by 2027 (I don’t make predictions that far into the future) a whopping 1.4 billion same-day payments. That’s 6% of 2014 ACH network volume – presumably a much smaller percentage of 2027 volume. NACHA estimates industrywide implementation costs of $118 million initially and $49 million annually. So, by 2027, the industry will have spent nearly $500 million so banks can offer customers a premium priced same-day payment option using the ACH when other, faster options already exist. I think the NACHA volume estimates are optimistic and find the characterization of same-day ACH as “modernizing the payment system” curious. What’s modernizing about running the same batch system a few times each day instead of once each day? If demand is for real-time payments, this initiative will be found sadly lacking. It’s like installing more pay phones as a way to compete with mobile devices. Am I missing something?

Zapp makes progress

Zapp makes progress
Clients following our payments research will know of our interest in Zapp. Zapp is a new UK payment method that utilises the Faster Payments scheme. Zapp is a way for the merchant to create a Faster Payment in the consumers device (mobile/tablet/laptop) using a wide variety of methods (bar code, SMS, QR code, etc). This provides all the relevant data – value, account details, etc. The consumer then just authorises the payment. We’re interested for a number of reasons. Firstly, as mentioned in my first real-time payments research report, there seems to be a myth that real-time payments are P2P payments primarily. Zapp is very much a way for consumers to buy things both online and offline. Secondly, there has been a move to thinking about real-time payments enabling other products, rather than just being a standalone payment method. These are known as overlay services, and a number of initiatives (Australia, Finland) have explicitly stated their desire for overlay services to be created. A few overlay services have been created for Faster Payments – PingIt and PayM for example – Zapp is by far the biggest, most ambitious, and potentially, disruptive. Thirdly, Zapp state that is cheaper than the alternatives. Implicit in this, is cheaper than cards. Zapp are very careful to ensure the language they use doesn’t imply its card like (and therefore potentially subject any regulation around fees that could be considered interchange). Yet the route to market includes using large merchant acquirers. With any new payment method, adoption is slow. Payments are a 2-sided market. You need sufficient numbers of consumers to have adopted to interest merchants – yet consumers won’t adopt something that they can’t use. Zapp has potentially half the equation solved, with large banks signed up and Faster Payments reaching 100% of UK current accounts. It was interesting to see then the announcement this week that Zapp have signed some major retailers to take part. Furthermore, these are big, household names – Sainsburys and Asda are two of the largest supermarkets in the UK. With official launch in 2015, there is still a long way to go, but the chances of success seem to improve daily.

Is the ACH the Best Path to Faster Payments?

Is the ACH the Best Path to Faster Payments?
Yesterday, NACHA issued a press release announcing initial steps towards same-day ACH. This is a second attempt at accelerating ACH payments. Rather than a “big bang”, this second attempt advocates a phased approach, inviting banks to invest in three projects instead of one. The sentiment seems worthwhile, but I’m not convinced that this is a good idea. In considering faster payments, there are many considerations. Among them: what exactly needs to be faster and who is the customer? Who stands to benefit from faster payments? What Needs to be Faster? Particularly in the case of real-time payments, it is important to distinguish: 1) Notification of payment 2) Payment guarantee/ funds availability and, 3) Settlement In my view, accelerating 1 and 2 are more important than 3 and less costly to bring about. Who is the customer? Who would stand to benefit the most? Many assert strong and growing consumer demand for faster retail payments. We see more interest than demand, particularly if costs are factored in. Celent surveyed over a thousand US consumers in August 2013. In part, we explored payment expectations. With little variation across age demographics, more consumers expect instant confirmation of payment (59%) than expect real time gross settlement (42%). Other factors weigh more heavily than speed. When I Pay Source: Celent survey of US consumers, July 2013, n=1,053 In my view, merchants and regulators are more invested in faster payments than are consumers. Faster payments mean earlier access to funds (retailers) and less systemic risk (regulators). That’s why most systemically important payment systems are RTGS. Faster payments are a certainty – in time. What’s far from certain is how it comes to be – what rails are used. Some advocate using the ACH. I disagree. Moreover, I find the current dissatisfaction with the ACH amusing. Designed as an efficient, electronic, float-neutral payment system, the ACH is highly effective at fulfilling its designed purpose. More recent demands on the ACH, while not without efficacy, have also resulted in increased cost and complexity. Same-day ACH, in my opinion, is simply not compelling. If enacted through a rules change and offered optionally at a premium price, it may succeed, but would result in precious little use. Real-time ACH would be altogether different – a fool’s errand in my opinion. The ACH works splendidly when used as designed. An analogy if I may. The NACHA press release stated: “The Network has always served as a foundation upon which we can build and innovate to meet the growing needs of today’s users and those of tomorrow.” That sounds a bit like inviting telco’s to build more phone booths in response to consumer’s demand for mobility. The “square peg in a round hole” analogy may work as well. I’d love to hear your views.

Faster…or fast enough?

Faster…or fast enough?
My last post mentioned that I was on a panel at International Payments Summit talking about real time payments. The topic is one that has cropped up many times recently in analyst inquiry calls in the last few months. With all the activity in the market, such as the decision in Australia to implement such a system, it’s perhaps not that surprising. What is surprising though is the number of myths and misunderstandings surrounding the topic. I thought it worth highlighting – and straightening – just a few here. #1. Real time isn’t always really real-time The most frequent myth is that everything end-to-end is suddenly instant. In reality, most (though not all) real-time systems are real-time in notification and authorisation, not settlement. In fact, in some systems in certain situations, settlement can take place days later. The starting point should be what needs to happen, and at what speed. In deed, for many payments, its the certainty, not the speed that matters. #2 Real time isn’t p2p One belief is that there is a pent-up demand for real time to enable p2p (or perhaps, more accurately, a2a) transactions. The use case is often quoted to be that of splitting a dinner check – one person pays the restaurant, the rest then have to find a way to pay the payer. But in reality, how often does that happen? The default in the UK at least would be tell the restaurant how to split the check across multiple cards. Even if that weren’t the case, the numbers of times that this happens would not be large enough to justify the investment on its own. The starting point should be use case driven though: who would benefit from sending – or receiving – funds faster than the current method. In most systems so far, these have been typically b2c or c2b, or indeed, mandated so the business case isn’t the issue. #3. Real time isn’t just payments In many instances around the world, real-time systems are often running 24/7. That poses, at the very least, 2 problems. Firstly, what other systems are required to run in real time, 24/7? Fraud checking, authorisation, notification and authentication systems are amongst the obvious, but banks have found dependencies on many others, and not just in the sending side. Secondly, maintaining systems becomes far more complicated if they have to always be available, and being “always on” means that maintenance becomes more important than ever.