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June 29, 2010


Managing risk in the ACH network: Minneapolis Fed study uses FedACH data to identify better benchmarks

ACH volumes have grown rapidly over the past decade, as the network has expanded beyond prearranged, recurring payments between known and trusted parties to include converted checks and one-time transactions originated over the Internet or by telephone. New ACH services have heightened concerns about risk because of the potential associated growth in ACH returns for reasons such as insufficient funds, presentment to closed accounts, and unauthorized transactions, to name just a few. To gauge the level of risk in a financial institution’s ACH origination business, it may seem reasonable to use the rate of these returned items as a possible benchmark. If an ACH originator's return rate is consistently below the industry average, we should be confident that its ACH risk management practices are generally sound, shouldn't we?

Not necessarily, according to a new Federal Reserve study. The researchers—Olivier Armantier, Michele Braun, and Dennis Kuo of the New York Fed and Ron Feldman, Mark Lueck, and Richard Todd of the Minneapolis Fed—recently conducted a study using FedACH data to look at ways to improve the benchmarks used to monitor ACH returns to shed some light on today's ACH risk environment. The study held some interesting and noteworthy findings.

Average return rates are not necessarily a good benchmark for measuring risk
The Federal Reserve study shows that about 75 percent of all consumer debit originators were below the FedACH average for consumer debit return rates during spring 2006. This large percentage stems from the fact that the average is elevated by a small number of very large originators who also have higher return rates. Consequently, some originators who fall below the average may still have rates significant enough to deserve attention. In short, while average return rates are almost the only benchmark currently available, they do not provide the most effective proxy for assessing ACH return risk management.

Better benchmarks could be constructed
The Fed study illustrates how more informative benchmarks could be computed by exploiting the ACH transactions data. The authors used FedACH data on all consumer debit forward and return items originated for a period in mid-2006. By developing a methodology that matched about 90 percent of return items to their original forward item, they could tabulate rich sets of statistics, covering the whole distribution of ACH return rates, not just the average. Their analysis tabulates return rate distributions for several individual standard entry class (SEC) codes, as well as the overall distribution of ACH transaction types, leading to the following additional results:

  • Size doesn't matter much. ACH return rates for small and large originators are not very different for most SEC codes. In fact, overall and for most types of consumer debits, the median small originator has a slightly lower return rate than the median large originator, when size is measured by deposits. Return rates were also not strongly related to the originating depository financial institution's volume of originations. Thus, it would be a mistake to read deposit size or institution size as a proxy for sophistication in managing the quality of ACH originations.
  • TEL and WEB are both risky, but in different ways. The average return rates for both telephone-initiated transactions (SEC code TEL) and web-initiated transactions (SEC code WEB) were high relative to most other types of consumer debits, but in different ways. TEL risks were higher across the board, so that well-below-median TEL return rates were still high compared to typical consumer debit return rates. By contrast, most WEB originators experienced lower returns on WEB than on consumer debits generally. However, a minority of WEB originators with significant volumes and very high return rates pulled the average return rate for WEB somewhat above the average return rate of all consumer debits.
  • Returns come fast and are mostly the result of insufficient funds. In mid-2006, more than 98 percent of all returns occurred within five days of origination, with more than 70 percent returned due to insufficient funds. For the small minority of returns that take more than five days, authorization issues predominate.

Better benchmarks can help banks manage ACH risk
Using and customizing the type of analysis done in the Fed study has the potential to help originating banks better understand risks and therefore more efficiently deter fraud. For example, both originating banks and bank regulators could analyze the distribution of return rates and reason codes by bank peer group to gain a better sense of an individual institution's risk management practices. At the broadest level, linking returns to forward items can efficiently provide a rich array of benchmarks to help originators better monitor their ACH returns and enhance the quality of information they provide to their boards of directors. Similarly, by going beyond the average return rate concept, regulators could use the approaches adopted in the Fed study to better supervise ACH originators, or industry associations could use them to improve industry standards. In short, the sun could be setting on the days of taking false comfort from the Lake Woebegonish achievement of a below-average return rate.

By guest blogger Richard M. Todd, vice president, Community Affairs and Banking and Policy Studies at the Minneapolis Fed

June 29, 2010 in ACH , bank supervision , fraud , risk | Permalink

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