Thursday, December 10, 2015

Satoshi rumours reminds me of being John Malkovich

These days, there's a rumour going around that an Australian guy would actually be Satoshi, the inventor of bitcoin. Next morning, this guys house was raided by the police, in search of all kinds of evidence.

To me, it seems sufficient evidence to assume that the true Satoshi will choose never to reveal his or her identity. If all kinds of law enforcers incorrectly wish to blame the inventor instead of the users of his invention, you better steer clear of such hassle.In addition I could well imagine Sathoshi to be a bit of a hermit.

In that sense, even getting a Nobel price or the Turing Award would make no difference. We won't know who Satoshi is, which means we may get stuck with all kinds of impersonisations of him. Which reminds me of the movie: Being John Malkovich (see trailer here) .

In the movie, people may enter the brain and become John Malkovich for some time, until being spit out and landing at the side of a road. My best guess is that we will witness similar events for those who wish to be Satoshi.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Now that the voting on the PSD is done, the real work starts...

The second Payments Services Directive, also known as PSD2, will be officially established today. In the plenary session discussion yesterday all political groups backed the achieved consensus and highlighted the benefits to consumers, the increased security of payments, further innovation in the payments area and lower cost overall.

Some work ahead...
We should realize however, that with the promulgation the real work will start for a whole range of involved players. First and foremost, there is a lot more work ahead for regulators and supervisors in the transposition process, but in particular also for the European Banking Authority. The PSD2 that seeks to open up access to banks and customer bank accounts for new players, leaves quite a bit of work to be done by EBA.

EBA should:
- develop rules on level of guarantee/professional indemnity insurance for payment initiation service providers and account information service providers,
- set up standards for cooperation and data exchange between local supervisor and resolve disputes on different applications of the PSD2,
- set up a central register of payment institutions and agents licensed under the directive,
- develop regulatory standards that define when the appointment of a central local contact point can be demanded by local supervisors and what its functions should be,
- be informed immediately in the case of emergency situations (such as large scale fraud),
- coordinate requirements as to the security frameworks applied,
- specify the requirements of common and open standards of communication to be implemented by all account servicing payment service providers that allow for the provision of online payment services,
- develop guidelines on a harmonised set of information to be provided during the application for a payment institution license,
- publish local exemptions under article 3k and 3l in the public register,

Clarity for industry on EU-application of definitions and scope
When the first PSD was delivered, it turned out that quite some players in the market required timely insights as to the future scope of the directive and how it would impact them. The European Commission then published an FAQ that further outlined how definitions should be understood.

It seems to me that it would be worthwhile to perform a similar exercise right now as there are quite some areas that can give rise to questions. As an example: the recital on the agency exemption leaves open the existence of agents for both buyer and supplier as long as the agent does not enter into posession of the funds. Yet, the definition of acquiring appears to be purposefully wide, meaning that such commercial agents might after all be viewed as acquirers.

The sooner this clarity is provided, the better it is, as the lead time for setting up and getting a license as a payment institution is similar to the lead time that now exists for transposing the PSD2.

I therefore hope that, for the sake of a proper EU level playing field, the collective of regulatory players involved in the transposition and application of the PSD2, will seek to address those scoping and definitions issues early-on.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

ECBs renewed virtual currencies report: implications for the Third Payment Services Directive

This week the European Central Bank (ECB) revisits the subject of virtual currencies (VCS) in a renewed virtual currencies report with a further analysis. I have read the publication with interest to discover that the previous position on the subject essentially remains the same:
- virtual currencies don't come near money or legal tender concepts,
- the uptake of virtual currencies is still very limited
- the wait and see approach of the ECB will be continued.

The typical paragraph that summarises this approach is:
The usage of VCS for payments remains limited for now, which implies that there is not yet a material risk for any central bank tasks, including promoting the smooth operation of payment systems. However, a major incident with VCS and a subsequent loss of trust in VCS could also undermine users’ confidence in electronic payment instruments, in e-money and/or in specific payment solutions. 

Whereas at first sight the report doesn't lead to a lot of new insights, the broader scope of its definition of virtual currencies does beg a number of fundamental questions with respect to the future regulation of payments. These questions lead me straight into a renewed regulatory approach, to be used in the Third Payment Services Directive.

An improved definition
The major improvement of this Eurosystem-report over the previous one lies in its correction of the definition used for virtual currencies. In an earlier blog I commented that the definition was too vague:
“A virtual currency is a type of unregulated, digital money, which is issued and usually controlled by its developers, and used and accepted among the members of a specific virtual community”.
With this report, the definition of virtual currencies has formally changed into:
"a digital representation of value, not issued by a central bank, credit institution or e-money institution, which, in some circumstances, can be used as an alternative to money."

I am quite pleased with this change as it allows for a better understanding and classification of the subject of virtual currencies. Interestingly, the elimination of the element of decentralized issuance leads to a far broader range of virtual currencies than previously discussed. And this leads to an interesting follow up question.

Virtual currencies are suddenly everywhere... 
The table below lists the major payment options in the Netherlands, with the virtual currencies listed at the far right. When looking at the turnover figures, one can understand why the Eurosystem will be primarily monitoring the virtual currency scene. The most interesting observation is however that all the blue coloured segments of the table are now also considered to be virtual currencies.

We can see that in particular the giftcard and transport payments (which are out of scope of the payment regulations for a number of reasons) do amount to quite a substantial payments volume. Literally these payments are now also considered to be payments with virtual currencies. And from an analytical perspective, this is a logical consequence.

Regular (e-) payments
Mobile telephone
Retailer Giftcards
Bitcoin / alt-coins
16 million per day
5 million per day (includes loads)
Premium services
500.000 - 1.000.000 per day
Less than 1000 trx per day in NL
€ 903
€ 2 - € 20
€ 2- € 5
€ 12
€ .?
Payment Services Directive (PSD)
Exemption under PSD1
Explicit exemption of PSD1
Out of scope when issued as a single retailer
Out of scope of PSD

Effectively we can now better appreciate today's payments world, seen from the eyes of the consumer. Because the consumer is not bothered by the details of Payment Services Directives and obscure exemptions of mobile payments. The consumer will use the mobile or ticketing payment means as a matter of convenience (or: obligation) and will have to undergo the payment experience as a fact of life.

Particularly in the Netherlands this leads to the interesting situation where a sloppy and easily hackable implementation of NFC is being widely used for public transport payments, alongside a safer NFC implementation of banks that is still working on its nationwide roll-out. Users use them both.

Similarly interesting was the occurrence, last month, of a virtual currencies bank run. As retailer V&D threatened to go out of business, one could witness the sale of its pre-paid gift cards on Marketplace (the Dutch ebay) for considerable discounts. At the same time everyone in the Netherlands dug up and spent their old gift cards, before it was too late.

What the third Payment Services Directive will have to look like 
If we take the wider definition of virtual currencies that the ECB uses, it becomes clear that the user experiences with virtual currencies (and losses: for example the sudden vaporisation of retailer gift card value after a period of 18 months) happen alongside the heavily PSD-regulated instruments and mechanisms.

Based on some prudential rules we now burden some forms of payments with a whole lot of rules, while we neglect all schemes that are out of scope (but may still have relevant consumer effects). This difference is - in my view - too big and requires a changed approach to be used for the Third Payment Service Directive (PSD3).

Under the Third Payment Service Directive, we should recognise that payments can and will be made and offered by everyone to everyone. The PSD3 should thus define a light-weight conduct supervisory framework for all payment mechanisms, regardless of the institutional status of the issuer. Alongside this wide conduct framework, we keep the current prudential framework intact, which outlines the prudential rules applicable to the different institutional payment setups (e-money, payment institution, bank).

The new conduct based framework would apply to payment mechanisms and e-money alike and have as a goal that the user is always properly informed on the basic terms and conditions, redeemability etcetera. The control-mechanisms should not be supervision based, but could be reputation-based for example, allowing the market to monitor and redress, rather than costly supervisors. Only in exceptional circumstances would a European conduct supervisor step in.

In sum: more analysis ahead
The broader scope of the Eurosystems definition of virtual currencies begs a number of fundamental questions with respect to the future regulation of payments. In particular the area of non-regulated payment schemes at the fringes of the PSD might deserve more attention than they do receive right now.

Not only could the question be whether or not a separate regulatory conduct-framework should apply, the European Retail Payments Board might also decide to expend its analysis towards these mechanisms, particularly when they reach a volume/scale which is equivalent to that of the regular payments.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Reflection on almost 100 years of retail payments in the Netherlands

These next few days we will be processing the last Chipknip transactions in the Netherlands. This marks the end of a period of almost hundred years of consumer payments in the Netherlands. Here is a brief reflection on this period. My hope is that we retain our innovative mindset and that we abandon old school practices like: competition on technology and inward-thinking-based marketing practices.

The beginnings
It all started out with a certain demand of the public and small retailers, around 1900. It took however more than ten years before the city giro of Amsterdam (1916) and the national giro of the Netherlands (1918) were set up. In the period leading up to this moment, the cashiers were asked whether they wished to improve their services, as this might lead to the parliament to conclude that no national giro was necessary. Their response was too meagre as a result of which they created their biggest rival: the national giro system, operated by government.

This system effectively created a benchmark for the private industry by offering (some time after it's start) payment services for free to the public. Today we would call this the Internet model, but in those days, this lead to repeated discussions on the undue competition element. Bankers and cashiers assumed that the national giro was cross-subsidized by government; while effectively the reverse became true. The national giro acted as a cash cow that covered some of the other costs for the Ministry of Transport (including the costs of post offices etc).

The city giro Amsterdam has stood out mostly for its innovations: the use of modern bookkeeping machines, the introduction of photo-imaging (in the 1930s) to process payments easier as well as the early introduction of a payment card to the public. The national giro, in turn, was early to create a mechanism of inpayments that could be used by government services, that used similar (punch card) standards.

In this respect it should be noted that the national giro, during the previous century, was plagued by several operational distortions, leading to 'giro stops'. One big one occurred in the 1920s and shut the system down for almost a year, other ones happened after the second world war. These stops instilled a big trauma into the organisation with the effect that when in 1965 a change was made to using punch cards and mainframes, this was done with meticulous scientific precision in order not to fail. Ever since, the postal giro (later Postbank) would be very keen and strong in the area of operational logistics and control.

Competition on standards and technology
For the most part of the evolution of Dutch payments, there were differences in technology used. A first attempt to bridge these differences occurred after the second world war when a commission on the integration of giro traffic tried to bridge the bankers vs giro gap. This didn't work out.

In the mid 1960s the bankers were keen to find funding in the retail market and realised they needed a better clearing system to process faster payments. While they were in the process of deliberating this move, the postal giro offered them to join/use the same standards as they were, in order to achieve uniform processing. For strategic reasons, the banks decided not to do this and chose a slightly modified technology and numbering system of their own. Remember: this was of course the age of shielding off markets by technology.

The net effect for the consumers and companies was less positive however. In the end it took some 30 years to create bridging standards/protocols to integrate the different payment standards of bank and giro. And even when the digital, networking time started (in the 1980s) banks and giro found it hard to abandon the classic competition by technology paradigm. For the EFTPOS network they did use a common standard and this also seemed to work for the Chipknip e-money products. Yet, due to misunderstandings and distrust at the board room level, the Postbank decided to jump the Chipknip ship to start the separate Chipper product. Again, the effect was that consumers and retailers were burdened with dual standards in a market that is too small to do so.

Inward based marketing of the big banks
With the deregulation of financial markets and the privatisation of the Postbank, all providers of payments were commercial companies. The Dutch banks grew bigger and with that their bureaucracies. Postbank gradually lost its touch-and-feel as a former public entity and became a bank like all others. The best event that symbolises this is the abolition of the Postbank brand by ING.

The net effect of becoming bigger and more ambitious is that straightforward customer research and marketing gets stampified. This is a word that I coined to denote the fact that in those big banking bureaucracies the responsibilities of employees - with the only exception of the board - becomes limited to the size of a postal stamp. The result is that these companies (marketing) departments require more time for internal debate, offcie politics and consensus-finding which they can't spend at finding out how to best serve the customer.

The consequence of this stampification is that the banks lose touch with their customers and reality. Our last retail payment product, the Chipknip, showed this most clearly. The ridiculous local battle between two competing e-money schemes (although perfect from a competition perspective) created so much nuisance for retailers that this inspired them to get back at the banks. Infuriated by high terminal switching costs, they found the newly set up competition authority at their side to fight the banks cartel behaviour.

As such our retailers were quite successful: the banks were being fined and a part of the fine was channeled towards them (via a Covenant) to improve the EFTPOS situation in the Netherlands. This Covenant was even prolonged to ensure a continued collective rebate for retailers on EFTPOS fees. Effectively we could thus see the retailers as being the clear winners in the last 15 years of retail payments here in the Netherlands. [And as with today's MIF-debate we can wonder whether the benefits they derived from emptying the pockets of banks did really end up in the consumer pockets by lower prices.]

Back to inward-based-marketing: the best (and typical) example is the way the Chipknip product was initially taken off the market. Banks informed the customers that they all had to unload their Chipknips at specific loading/unloading points. This lead to a big confusion and questions on twitter. Eventually some individual banks decided to give the money back on the basis of the internal administration so that customers didn't need to bother going to an obscure loading point. And then, quickly, all banks decided to do this.

I sincerely hope that we will no longer witness these old school thinking marketing methods in the new year. Banks need to find a way to innovate and listen to clients and society or they will be trapped in old behaviour that is only comprehensible from a stampification point of view but not understandable for customers outside the bank.

If history is anything to go by, we may well see a repetition of the SEPA-dynamics in the banking domain. What I mean with that is the following: as banks are busy lining up their internal systems in order to conform with a whole range of upcoming new EU regulation (keywords: PSD2, MIF, AML), the non-banks will be able to build all kinds of new products at the fringes of the payments market.

Most of these new products won't be made from a payments perspective but will solve a user problem. Creating a payment button in these products doesn't require much more than a direct customer relation and a European direct debit agreement. So we might well see the banks moving into a back-seat role of providers of the payment rails for non-bank providers of user services.