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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.

Take On Payments

October 19, 2015


Got Cash?

The governments in countries such as Sweden and Nigeria may have taken initial steps to move to a "cashless" nation, but here in the United States, there is no question that cash is still king. It remains the most-used retail payment instrument, especially for low-value payments. This finding from the Fed's Cash Product Office (CPO) was welcome news to a group of independent (nonfinancial institution) ATM operators that I had the pleasure of addressing last month at their annual conference. The primary business of these entrepreneurs is getting cash into the hands of consumers through their terminals located in a variety of malls and merchandise, food, and beverage stores. Of the estimated 400,000–425, 000 ATMs and cash dispensers operating in the United States, approximately 60 percent are owned by these nonfinancial institutions.

One of the CPO's main missions is maintaining a supply of currency and coin to meet demand in both normal times and special situations such as natural disasters, when other forms of payment might be unavailable. As a critical part of accomplishing that mission, the CPO constantly evaluates research to determine how cash use is changing in this country. One of the main sources of research is the Fed's Diary of Consumer Payment Choice (DCPC). Data collection was last fielded in 2012, but is being conducted again now. To collect the data, the DCPC asks a representative national sample of about 2,500 individuals to record all their financial transactions over a rolling three-day period. In addition to recording the transaction and demographic information, respondents were also asked to indicate their top preferred payment method and their second preferred method of payment in instances when their top choice is not available.

Some of the major findings of that study include:

  • Debit and credit cards represent the stated primary payment choice, at 64 percent, but 30 percent of the consumers stated their primary payment preference was cash.
  • Cash serves as the backup payment method for all segments, reflecting its importance in our overall payment infrastructure.
  • Interestingly, although 3 percent of the consumers said their preferred payment method was checks, they actually used cash twice as often as writing checks.
  • Reflecting the tendency for people to use cash for small-value payments, cash payments represented 40 percent of the number of payments made by the survey participants but only 14 percent of the total value of the payments.
  • Cash clearly dominates the small-value segment under $10.
  • Cash was the payment method used in two-thirds of person-to-person (P2P) payments.
  • The use of cash in P2P transactions is different from other cash transactions; P2P transactions are two-thirds higher in value ($35 versus $21) than other types of expenditures.
  • While 51 percent of the adults in the 18–34-year-old age group indicated that debit cards are their most preferred payment method, cash followed closely at 40 percent for the 18–24 year olds and 31 percent for the 25–34 age groups. Will the 2015 results show a departure from this finding?

It is clear that the United States is a long way from becoming a cashless society despite the predictions of many over the last twenty years. The 2015 results will provide important information as to how cash continues to be used by the general population and the emerging millennials segment in particular.

So is there cash in your wallet? I bet there is and will be for quite some time.

Photo of David Lott By David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

October 19, 2015 in cards, checks, currency, payments | Permalink

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November 10, 2014


Virtual Currency Environment Still Fluid after Latest Rulings

The end of October was filled with multiple news-grabbing headlines reflecting the growing fears of Ebola, the exciting seven-game World Series, and the release of the first-ever college football playoff rankings. The launch of ApplePay also saw its fair share of headlines, but one piece of payments-related news might have flown a bit under the radar. On October 27, the United States Department of Treasury's Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued two virtual currency administrative rulings stemming from its March 2013 guidance on regulations to persons administering, exchanging, or using virtual currencies.

The first administrative ruling involves a virtual currency trading platform that matches its customers' buy-and-sell orders for currencies. The company requesting this ruling stated that they operated the trading platform only and were not involved with money transmissions between it and any counterparty. FinCEN determined that money transmission does, in fact, occur between the platform operator and both the buyer and seller. Consequently, FinCEN said that this company and other virtual currency trading platform operators should be considered "exchangers" or "operators" and required to register as money transmitters subject to Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) requirements.

The second administrative ruling involves a company that enables virtual currency payments to merchants. This company receives payment in fiat currency from the buyer (or consumer) but transfers an equivalent amount of virtual currency to the seller (or merchant) using its own inventory of virtual currency to pay the merchant. This particular company asserted that it wasn"t an "exchanger" since it wasn't converting fiat currency to virtual currency because it was using its own reserve of virtual currency to pay merchants. However, FinCEN determined that this company, and similar companies, is a money transmitter because it accepts fiat currency from one party and transmits virtual currency to another party.

These two rulings confirm that if a virtual currency-related company's services allow for the movement of funds between two parties, that company will be viewed as a money transmitter and will be subject to BSA requirements as a registered money transmitter. As financial institutions consider business relationships with these types of companies, they should make sure that these companies are registered as money transmitters and have BSA programs in place.

The virtual currency regulatory environment continues to be fluid. For example, in his recent comments at the Money 2020 Conference, Benjamin Lawsky, superintendent of the New York Department of Financial Services, suggested that his office will soon be releasing its second draft of a proposed framework for virtual currency business operating in New York. Portals and Rails will continue to monitor this regulatory environment at the state and federal level.

By Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

November 10, 2014 in currency, mobile banking, mobile payments, transmitters | Permalink

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September 2, 2014


Not All Digital Currencies Are Virtual

Besides a few classic novels, my summer reading list has largely consisted of various papers and reports on virtual and digital currencies. Not all digital currencies are virtual currencies, though these two terms are often incorrectly used interchangeably. For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently issued a warning about the risks associated with Bitcoin and other virtual currencies, yet some media outlets reported that the agency issued a warning about digital currencies. And while the media statements are technically correct since virtual currency is one form of digital currency, they fail to recognize that digital currencies are broader than just virtual currencies. In an effort to clear up confusion and create a better understanding of digital currencies, Portals and Rails offers the following simple framework and definitions.

Framework-image

Digital currency is a digital representation of value and consists of both electronic and virtual currency. Digital currency can be used to purchase physical, digital, and virtual goods. Some, but not all, digital currencies use cryptography as their primary method of security.

Electronic currency, also referred to as e-money, is pegged to a fiat currency. It is a digital representation of value that is government-issued legal tender. The link between electronic currency and fiat currency is preserved and has a legal foundation. The funds of an electronic currency are expressed in the same unit of account as the fiat currency. Examples of electronic currency transactions include payments via credit, debit, and prepaid cards; ACH; and PayPal.

Virtual currency is not pegged to a fiat currency. It is a digital representation of value that is not government-issued legal tender. The funds of a virtual currency are not expressed in a fiat currency. There are currently more than 300 tracked virtual currencies, and as we noted in a Portals and Rails post last year, these currencies can take on multiple characteristics. Examples of virtual currencies include Bitcoin, Ripple, Ven, and Dogecoin.

Photo of Douglas A. KingBy Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

September 2, 2014 in currency | Permalink

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June 9, 2014


Magic 8 Ball, Will We Ever Be Cashless?

Predictions of a cashless society have been broadcast sporadically throughout the decades. It became a popular concept in the United States in 1965 when Thomas J. Watson Jr., CEO of IBM, said, "In our lifetime, we may see electronic transactions virtually eliminate the need for cash." Watson believed, or hoped, that the newly released IBM mainframe computers would revolutionize financial transaction processing and make carrying cash unnecessary. Later that decade, the concept was expanded to a checkless/cashless society, with some predicting that both payment forms would be extinct by the 1980s.

Despite consumers' growing use of cards and the emergence of the ACH system, the cashless society concept took a bit of a detour during the 1980s and 1990s—ATMs and shared EFT networks proliferated, both offering tremendous convenience and making it very easy to distribute currency. When card-based point-of-sale (POS) programs also emerged, they offered an alternative to currency and checks, while also increasing the convenience of currency by allowing cash-back transactions. This expansion of currency convenience took place even as consumers were being warned of the dangers of coin and currency—the germs, the cocaine residue, the increased chance of robbery, and so on. Certainly this was a more intense negative campaign than the spontaneous combustion danger my mother warned me about when I was young. I'd received some birthday money that I was anxious to spend, and she declared that the money was "burning a hole in your pocket."

While the central banking authorities of some countries such as Sweden and Nigeria have announced a goal of moving to a less-cash society, consumers in the United States are seemingly moving in the opposite direction, as evidenced by some recent San Francisco Fed research. Researchers examined the data from the 2012 Diary of Consumer Payment Choice (DCPC) study by the Boston, Richmond, and San Francisco Federal Reserve Banks. The San Francisco Fed research included these key findings

  • Cash remains the most-used form of payment, accounting for 40 percent of payment transactions.
  • Cash is generally used for lower-value transactions. The average value of a cash transaction was only $21, compared with $168 for checks and $44 for debit cards.
  • Cash is used most often in gift and P2P (or "person-to-person") transfers, with food and personal care supply purchases second (see the chart).
    Figure 4: Payment Instrument Shares, by Spending Category
  • Contrary to the conventional wisdom of millennials' love for all things electronic, 40 percent of 18–24 year olds prefer cash over all other payment methods—the highest percentage of any age group.

Yes, card, ACH, and other electronic transactions are continuing to increase and gain larger shares of the overall consumer transaction mix while check usage remains in a steady decline. Despite the dire outlook for checks, my colleague Doug King pointed out in a recent post that check usage among P2P users actually increased, according to the latest Fed payments study. My Magic 8 ball is predicting that coin and currency are going to be around for quite some time. What does yours say?

Photo of David LottBy David Lott, a retail payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

June 9, 2014 in cards, checks, currency | Permalink

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December 9, 2013


What Do Crayons and Virtual Currencies Have in Common?

Coloring with my young boys the other day, I was a bit amazed by the variety in colors. The days of a single blue crayon from my childhood has now expanded to at least 10 different shades of blue with names such as "Pacific blue" and "cerulean." I quickly learned that my regulation of the usage of crayons by the boys also varied by color. For example, the lone black crayon required ample regulation (and was quite challenging to enforce) to prevent an all-out toddler brawl. Because the blue crayons had such variety, they clearly required less and were much easier to enforce.

Just as crayons come in a variety of colors and shades, virtual currencies have a variety of different attributes, including:

  • Open or closed: Closed virtual currencies can be used only within a specific community. Open virtual currencies can be used anywhere the currency is accepted.
  • Unidirectional or bidirectional: Unidirectional flow allows the currency to be obtained at a specific exchange rate using fiat currency. This currency cannot be exchanged back to the fiat currency. Bidirectional currencies are bought and sold according to exchange rates.
  • Centralized or decentralized: A centralized currency has a central authority that issues the currency and operates the system. A decentralized currency does not have a single entity acting as a central issuer or clearing house.
  • Asset backed or demand backed: An asset-backed currency is tied to an asset or assets held in reserve while a demand-backed currency has no tangible value other than the value established by its market.
  • Machine-based or human-based: Monetary policy of machine-based currencies, or crypto-currencies, is managed by computers. A central authority establishes monetary policy with human-based currencies.

The regulation of my children's crayon usage differed depending on the particular crayon being used. In that case, it was a matter of scarcity, so the analogy isn't perfect—but it will also be imperative for the regulation of virtual currencies and their enforcement to differ according to the characteristics of the various currencies. Undoubtedly, a decentralized, demand-backed currency not only poses different risks than a centralized asset-backed currency does but it may also include a unique set of participants not part of other virtual currency schemes.

Most of the regulatory discussion currently taking place is focused squarely on a particular virtual currency. And while this particular currency has an enormous market share of the virtual currency market, there are at least 50 other virtual currencies in the marketplace. If I had regulated the blue crayons in a similar way as the black crayon, my children would likely have left their coloring books and moved on to the train table.

I fear that should regulations be developed based on a single virtual currency and then applied to the market at large, the regulations could drive away the innovators in the virtual currency space that may hold long-term promise if they promote a faster, more secure, and more efficient payment system.

Douglas A. KingBy Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

 

December 9, 2013 in currency, regulations | Permalink

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While I'm not well versed in virtual currencies, your point about regulations being based on one market mover and then applied to the rest of the industry is interesting. In general, I think most financial regulation is applied in this manner since it serves as a simplifying assumption and since regulation is generally reactive rather than proactive. My guess would be that the other virtual currencies will continue to innovate around whatever regulation is issued. However, I understand that some may exit the industry altogether if that regulation is too stifling.

Posted by: Saba H | December 13, 2013 at 07:47 AM

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