Thursday, April 14, 2011

History (of e-money) repeats itself... central bank alert on crowd-funding.... and (still) missing the real issues in the market..

One of the major challenges for central banks and supervisors is to appreciate new technologies and to decide their policy stance on the subject matter. Currently we are witnessing a case of 'history repeats itself' here in the Netherlands, as the central bank, DNB, has informed the public that it will look out for instances of crowd-sourcing. They mean the situation that a group of people pre-pays the production of a book (, film or anything else. And suggest that this is the equiuvalent of attracting deposits (a bank activity), which therefore warrants a closer look by the supervisor.

I dare to disagree and would suggest DNB to reflect on their policy stance and take a closer look in the mirror and in their own recent history (of electronic money). When the first instances of e-money occured (on chipcards: Mondex and in software: e-cash), central banks were keen to quickly state that this was needed to be subject to bank supervision. This resulted in a clash between supervisors and European Commission (that wanted to stimulate competition and that viewed the vision of supervisors as protective). With the Electronic Money directive as the result, that outlined that issuers of e-money (regardless of technology) needed to be subject to supervision.

Since then, we have seen a number of initiatives with respect to e-money, varying from Paypal (now a bank) to Wally, global payways and what have you. Here in the Netherlands (just as in the UK) a separate organisation was set up to represent those issuers of e-money: And whoever takes the time to read through their website will find out that the central bank itself was inconsistent in their supervisory approach. In principle, anyone issuing electronic money, was to be subject to bank supervision. So that would also apply to the digital funds, used for mobile phones and digital mobile services. Yet, in response to the lobby of mobile operators, DNB (and later even the European Commission) created an unequality in the market by saying... e-money should be supervised, unless it's e-money for mobile operators. And some more years down the road, they also used tiny holes in the E-money directive to not supervise the Dutch public transport company Translink, with all the requirements of the e-money directive.

Let's review the developments and arguments once again. The main issue here is: who's paying for what? Is the transaction that I am doing a prepayment for a specific good, or is it the purchase of a digital amount of money (or coins, or beenz or what have you) with which I can purchase a wider variety of goods, even goods from someone else than the person to whom I made the prepayment. In the case of crowd-sourcing on, it is clear that the customer does not prepay for any book, but for a specific book. So to call this deposit taking would be silly and no banking laws should apply. Yet, the central bank/supervisor seriously wants to delve into this issue, by going for crowd-sourcing.

Now let's take a look at the situation that I purchase a digital fund: to use on the mobile phone or in public transport. It looks to me that this is so close to money, that you would want the supervisor to take a good look at it. And since 2000, there have been numerous incidents in the Netherlands with a whole range of providers and users of these digital tokens. Over and again, the mobile operators have developed codes of conduct, rules, call centre's and what have you, to make sure that the unasked  provision of paid sms's (reverse billing) would not lead to phone users who suddenly see their phone-money disappear. While the level of annoyance has changed over time, the essential bottom line is that if treated as regular payment mechanisms under the current European Payment Legislation (Payment Services Directive) these services could not exist in this form any more. And a similar thing holds true for the transport company translink. They made a technical system in which the security is insufficiently guaranteed and money is deducted too easily from consumer accounts and cards. So there is actually a real case for concern by the central bank/supervisor. Yet, the supervisor sticks to the old adagium that these do not fall within the definitions and are thus not subject to supervision.

If we further evaluate the role of De Nederlandsche Bank, as a supervisor, we can see they failed big time over the last years, as they didn't succeed in properly monitoring DSB Bank, De Hoop and Icesave (all banks failed). For that reason, parliament has been digging into the topic and the Ministry of Finance and DNB have promised it will organise a change in culture, a change in approach. At the core of this change, we should expect a more self-critical approach in which policy stances are not developed in line with the managerial group-think or in response to lobbying by important stakeholders in the market, but as a result of an assessment of what is at stake essentially; trust in payment systems and any entity providing payments or banking services to the public.

While DNB tries to convince the public over and again that times have now changed and they have reinvented themselves with a new organisational culture, their unchanged policy stance on e-money issuers demonstrates that this is far from true. And although none of the exempted e-money issuers have caused a failure, big enough to worry parliament and society, one might view the current troubles at the OV-chipkaart company, as another demonstration of the failure of the current (failing) supervisory approach by DNB. It is stunning to see that DNB seeks to further investigate legally irrelevant crumbs of crowd-sourcing while missing the leaking boat of OV-Chipkaart/Translink company that is in everyones face nowadays and while ignoring the undermining spinoff that is created by phone companies that handle money (and customer complaints) with a different quality level than justified.

So this leaves us with a public opinion, parliament and Ministry of Finance believing things are now proceeding nicely and on track with DNB as a re-invented, more focused and less obedient supervisor, with the evidence of the opposite being ignored. It is interesting to see when this will further evolve. My guess is that eventually we will see a white washing scam where an actual terrorist attack appears to have been funded by money which has been transferred by mobile phone services (using anonymous top-up cards in country A to demand empty 'premium services' from country B). Yet, by that time, there will be no one around who is politically relevant today, so that means our future politicians can then blame the former politicians, ministries of finance, and supervisors.

And the world keeps on spinning.