Category Archives: Payment systems

Covid-19 Black Swan batters the payments industry

In the Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable former options trader and NYU Professor of Risk Engineering Nassim Nicolas Taleb looks at the outsized impact of unexpected outlier events. The coronavirus pandemic that’s locked down the world and battered the payments industry is a classic Black Swan. It’s easy to see in retrospect but was outside the experience, and therefore off the radar, of Western policymakers.

The economy is nosediving into a depression because of Covid-19-induced government business closures. Counties representing 96% of US national production are locked down. JPMorgan forecasts 2nd quarter GDP will fall 40%. Bearish fund manager Crispin Odey says “The fall in global gross national product for this year will echo 1931-32.” Former Trump economist Kevin Hassett also warns the coronavirus could cause another Great Depression.

Borders worldwide are closed. International travel has ground to a halt. Consequently highly-profitable cross-border payments at the physical pos have disappeared. Covid-19 has however had a salutary effect, curbing merchants fleecing unsuspecting cardholders with Dynamic Currency Conversion.

Domestic payments in many but not all sectors have plummeted.

The number of people flying in the U.S. on Tuesday April 7th was down a whopping 95% yoy.

Hospitality has been hard hit. Shift 4’s hospitality and restaurant transactions April 2-8 in California, Nevada, New York, Texas and Florida against February 2-8 were down 94%, 96%, 91%, 91%, and 90%, respectively. For like-for-like-merchants ACI Worldwide reports April 1-8 global online ticketing and travel transactions down 98% and 92% yoy, respectively.

Millions of SMEs are closed. Many won’t recover.

Department stores like Dillard’s, Kohl’s, Belk, Macy’s, Saks, Neiman Marcus, JC Penny’s and Sears are closed. Covid-19 will cull the already struggling herd.

Closed businesses means no payments, no transaction fees for acquirers, networks, issuer processors, and issuers.

However, select sectors are booming in the crisis.  ACI Worldwide reports like-to-like merchants’ online gaming and retail payments April 1-8 up172% and 58% yoy, respectively.  March gun sales were up a whopping 85% yoy.

The strong are becoming stronger. Walmart’s March sales were up 20% yoy.  Amazon’s hiring 100,000 workers. While Costco March sales initially surged midmonth they ebbed because of social-distancing measures and closing departments such as optical.

The coronavirus pandemic will have lasting effects on the payments industry.

It will accelerate the global migration from cash to electronic payments. Merchants and consumers are increasingly reluctant to handle potentially contaminated cash. NYC lawmakers may rue banning merchants banning cash.

Fear of the virus will spur greater interest in digital currencies.

Facebook pivoted from its plans announced last year, to launch a global digital currency and payment system, which provoked a din of hostility from regulators and politicians worldwide. The Libra Association’s rethink will keep Libra’s transaction ledger permissioned and back its stablecoins with each jurisdiction’s national currency, rendering them akin to electronic banknotes. That won’t threaten government monopolies creating money.

Signature Bank and Chase already have digital dollars for B2B payments. Wells Fargo Digital Cash will launch this year. They could be repurposed for retail payments.

Fear of touching will spur further reductions in payments friction at the pos.

Since the mid-nineties Mastercard and Visa have tried in vain to interest US banks, merchants, and consumers in contactless payments. Covid-19 is more persuasive. Banks are rushing to put contactless cards in consumers’ leather wallets.

Pos signatures will disappear. March 23, 2020 Mastercard reminded acquirers payments at the physical pos by card or mobile phone don’t require signatures.

The Wuhan virus is stoking protectionist sentiment. Borders and control of critical supply chains for ventilators, masks and drugs, are at the fore. Many nations and the supranational EU view payments as critical infrastructure.

The EU wants a pan-EU payment system to take resented American Mastercard and Visa down a notch. Playing to Brussels’ sentiment, the EACB, EBF and ESBG decry intra-EU cross-border payments only being possible because of “a few global, non-European market players,” i.e. Mastercard and Visa, and hail policymakers’ call to create European pan-European payment solutions.”

Mastercard and Visa will face increased protectionist headwinds worldwide.

Washington raining trillions of dollars on the economy may mitigate the immediate pain, albeit at a dangerous long-term cost. However, the economy and payments industry can’t fully recover until there’s a vaccine(s) and/or effective treatments. As of April 6th there were more than 200 clinical trials of coronavirus treatment or vaccines in process or recruiting test patients. Covid-19 will be vanquished.

Vaccinated, Americans will return to bars and restaurants, fly to Europe for business and holidays, and again take cruises. And a battered and changed payments industry will return to growth.

Facebook’s cryptocurrency Libra provokes a firestorm on Capitol Hill

Facebook’s cryptocurrency Libra has the potential to increase currency and payment-system competition globally. Not surprisingly it’s provoked a firestorm of concern and protest from regulators, politicians, and a medley of activists.

Addressing the House Financial Services Committee July 10th Fed Chairman Jerome Powell declared Libra potentially a “systemic risk” raising “serious concerns regarding privacy, money laundering, consumer protection and financial stability.” Bank of England governor Mark Carney warned it wasn’t going to start unless it was “rock solid.” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire thundered he would prevent Libra from becoming “a sovereign currency that could compete with the currency of states.”

Governments protect their currency monopolies. Liberty Dollar founder Bernard von NotHaus was prosecuted and convicted of making and distributing coins resembling U.S. coins. The North Carolina Western District U.S. Attorney lambasted Liberty Dollar as “a unique form of domestic terrorism” attempting “to undermine the legitimate currency of this country.”

Facebook has managed to attract political ire on both sides of the political aisle.

Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Sherrod Brown mocked Libra as “monopoly money.” House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters worries it might be intended “to establish a parallel banking and monetary policy system to rival the dollar.”

The day after Powell’s comments President Trump weighed in tweeting “We have only one real currency in the USA,” “it will always stay that way” and that “Facebook Libra’s ‘virtual currency’ will have little standing or dependability.”

Friends of Earth-US, U.S. PIRG, the powerful public-sector union SEIU, et al demanded a moratorium on Libra pending addressing a laundry list of concerns. Some contended Libra was “too dangerous to be permitted to proceed.”

Few argue against more payment-system competition. Currency competition, however, doesn’t square with monetary economic orthodoxy, and, is alien to most Americans. But, the dollar circulates in countries like Ecuador, Panama and Zimbabwe. Hong Kong’s currency is tied to the dollar through a currency board. In Denationalisation of Money: The Argument Refined, Nobel-Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek advocated permitting private currencies to compete with government fiat money.

Designed as a global digital currency Libra could do just that. It will be a “stablecoin” backed by a reserve of fiat currencies deposited at banks and short-duration government securities. Tying it to a hard asset like gold would have been bolder but also more threatening to central banks. In contrast, Bitcoin is backed by nothing more than the hope there’s a greater fool willing to buy it for more. Cryptocurrencies Tether and Pax promise to redeem each token for a dollar. Libra, however, is designed more like a mutual fund than demand-deposit liability, perhaps to reduce the risk of being regulated as a bank.

Libra’s manifesto recites a litany of do-good pieties. One doesn’t have to be a cynic, however, to understand Facebook’s commercial motivation. Libra could enable the social-media giant to increase engagement, advertising effectiveness and commerce velocity. It could pay users Libra to watch ads and discount ads and payment fees paid in its digital currency.

Notwithstanding for the moment often weak smart-phone penetration, emerging markets with weak currencies,  banking and payments systems present an enticing opportunity to boost commerce.  In Venezuela with a million-percent-plus inflation Libra might be an attractive store of value, unit of account and means of payment. Activists worry about Libra’s impact on developing countries’ monetary policies. One of the best things that could happen to countries with debased fiat money would be robust currency competition and losing control of their monetary policy.

Libra will be controlled by a Geneva-based association, not directly by Facebook. Geneva conveys neutrality. Washington prevents US-headquartered Visa, Mastercard and PayPal from operating in North Korea, Iran, Syria and Crimea. The governance model is intended to allay fears it’ll be controlled by the social-media Gargantua and create a broad ecosystem of support and participation.

Authorized resellers will buy and sell Libra, supporting processing exchanges and institutions. In the US resellers and processors at a minimum are likely to be regulated as money transmitters.

Facebook will have its own digital wallet for Libra Calibra, integrated with Messenger and Whatsapp. If Libra gets traction Google Pay, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and PayPal will likely support it.

The two genuinely global retail-payment networks Mastercard and Visa joined the Libra association. While a new currency per se wouldn’t hurt them, a widely-adopted electronic-payment system would. In the tent they signal they’re open to payments innovation and give a di rigueur nod to Facebook’s litany to more financial inclusion. Attaching Mastercard and Visa debit cards to Libra accounts would give it instant global acceptance, albeit in fiat currencies. But, if several billion Facebook users used Libra for retail payments and to transfer funds to friends and family, it’d be catastrophic for traditional retail-payment and money-transfer systems.

If Libra runs the regulatory gauntlet in enough jurisdictions, it still faces an enormous challenge. Unless and until Libra achieves network critical mass it offers little value to anybody. In payments finding a path to critical mass isn’t easy, particularly in markets well-served by established systems. Most new payment systems, notwithstanding being putatively more secure, cheaper, or in some other respect superior, fail.

Libra threatens and stresses existing systems. No bad thing. A credible, lightly-regulated, new global currency and payment system would force existing currencies and payment systems to perform better.