Tuesday, April 03, 2007

MasterCard sheds light on (low) SEPA awareness

See this article in Banking Business review: MasterCard sheds light on SEPA awareness - Banking Business Review to find out that awareness on SEPA is quite low with the public:
Throughout Europe, fewer than one in 10 (9%) debit cardholders have heard of SEPA, suggesting that a great deal more can be done to promote the concept. Awareness is especially low in the Netherlands (2%), France (3%), the UK (5%), Germany (5%) and Belgium (8%). In contrast, in Poland, the newest European Union member, one in three (29%) recognize the term 'SEPA.'

Now, why would customers (have to) care about SEPA anyway?
It is a policy concept rather than a new and shocking product reality. Already at this moment we can pay cross-border in a proper way and use cross-border ATM's and POS. The fact that there will be some technical tweaks and improvements here and there and some legal adaptations in contracts is really not that worrying or great news for the public. SEPA is not going to be a world shocking innovation but merely payments as usual with a bit more of a European twist.

And as for the public debate on prices and possible changes in price structure: the recent CapGemini report noted that last year prices in Europe went 2 % down and that price structures are increasingly geared to stimulate efficient payments and discourage inefficient payment methods. So that's nothing to be really worried about either.

And why would policy makers (have to) care about SEPA?
What should be our concern is that so many policy makers today are so overly involved in this SEPA-concept and so much aware. Effectively with a Payment Service Directive forthcoming, we can now see the gradual emergence of a panEuropean market with converging price levels, similar legal rules and similar standards. Which from a rational policy perspective doesn't call for any more or less attention than any other European market (for vacuum cleaners, dvd-players, washing machines or what have you). Still there is a lot of fuss being made by all kinds of regulators, consumer organisations and retailers, as if this market would deserve special further attention.

In my view SEPA doesn't really require this overdose of policy attention, although I do understand the emotional rationale. Having been ignored and arrogantly treated by banks throughout the 1980s-90s decades, European regulators were emotionally fed up and rationally right to call upon the banks to improve cross-border payments in 2001. But what surprises me is that the emotional thrill and feeling of 'it's payback-time for the banks' doesn't seem to wear off with time. Regulators remain overly emotional and sensitive to the sector, with consumers and retailers playing and reinforcing those emotions to the benefit of their own interests. Meanwhile the former arrogant bankers have been replaced by a different and cooperative breed.

It's a fine line they're walking here, because at some time the cooperative breed of bankers will just have to conclude that their counterparts are unreasonably emotional and that there is no room for a rational evidence-based debate on the retail payments market.

Take for instance the non-sense discussion on user mobility. I don't see policy makers argue that it is quite worrying that research shows that consumers switching rates for washing machines are low and an indication of a lack of competition in the market for washing machines. And that is because everyone understands that you buy a washing machine for the long run (10-15 years) and obliging the consumer to change washing machines every 3 years for the sake of increased competition is a silly thing. Yet replace washing machine with the word bank account, and suddenly all is different. Which shows that it's the emotions that are clouding the rational judgement here.

In sum: todays regulators in Europe appear to act as if the work on SEPA (Single Euro(pean) Payment Area) is not just that but also a case of SEPA: Sheer Emotional Political Angryness. My humble suggestion to them would be that they treat the work on SEPA in the spirit of SEPA: Sober Evidence-based Policy Analysis. Because that would really help Europe.