Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.
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August 7, 2017
Are Business Payments Directories Coming to the Fore?
Financial institutions (FIs), service providers, and particularly businesses have been dreaming of a ubiquitous payments directory for business-to-business (B2B) payments over the last five years or so. Payments directories give payers the ability to quickly look up accurate account and routing information to originate payments of all types to payees. Directories reduce friction and time needed to efficiently and accurately make payments and accelerate the transition away from checks.
That the dream is getting closer to reality became obvious to me in April, when I attended a NACHA Payments Conference that included the panel discussion "Can a B2B Directory Service Advance e-Payments?" Significantly, one of the panelists was the chair of the Business Payments Directory Association (BPDA), a nonprofit initiative to advance an open, nonproprietary B2B directory for small and large businesses. The independent BPDA has the support of the Business Payments Coalition comprising banks, industry associations, service providers, and businesses.
Businesses wanting to pay other businesses have a variety of payment instruments to choose from—check, ACH credit, wire, and card—with consequential differences among them such as costs, payment reconciliation, and funds availability. Though ACH has made significant inroads into B2B payments, particularly for large businesses, checks are still the fallback payment method when payers are not sure if the payee is willing to accept anything else. Checks are still widely accepted, and attaching associated remittance information with the check is straightforward. The ease of paying by check contrasts with the potential difficulty of determining whether the payee is willing to accept electronic payments and of getting accurate account and routing information.
Essentially, any B2B directory should contain all the information a payer needs to specify the payee’s payment account and route the payment electronically. Typically, directories by themselves do not clear and settle payments. The idea behind the BPDA initiative is that each payee in the directory is provided an electronic payment identity (EPI). That EPI uniquely identifies a payee and supports multiple payment accounts. It also specifies the payee’s preferred way to be paid, the type of remittance information needed, and preferred remittance delivery methods. A payee owns its EPI, which is portable across multiple subdirectory providers. As envisioned, a central node would link multiple subdirectories containing EPIs, each managed by a subdirectory provider that validates payee information so that it can be trusted. Subdirectory providers can include FIs, service providers, and payment networks. All of this is managed by the BPDA that sets rules, credentials subdirectory providers, payees and payers, and oversees the central node.
The image illustrates the process. Payers query the system to retrieve account and routing information from payees. They can then use this information to originate a payment through existing payment rails.
The BPDA lists several advantages of this approach, including these:
- Payees can centrally communicate preferred payment methods and the information needed to effect payments by payers.
- Payers can centrally retrieve accurate payee payment and remittance content and delivery preferences.
- Friction for noncheck payments between payees and payers is reduced.
- Minimizes misdirected payments.
One lingering concern about having a centralized directory is the risk that fraudsters could gain access to account numbers of large businesses for producing counterfeit checks or unauthorized transactions. In addition to the need for robust credentialing, one mitigant the system offers is that account information can be made private and restricted to specific payers.
It will be interesting to see how this nascent service shakes out given hurdles in governance framework, garnering industry support, developing a funding model, and, of course, getting businesses to enroll and participate. What are your views on the future of B2B directories?
By Steven Cordray, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed
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