Is the ACH the Best Path to Faster Payments?

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19 March 2014
Bob Meara
Yesterday, NACHA issued a press release announcing initial steps towards same-day ACH. This is a second attempt at accelerating ACH payments. Rather than a “big bang”, this second attempt advocates a phased approach, inviting banks to invest in three projects instead of one. The sentiment seems worthwhile, but I’m not convinced that this is a good idea. In considering faster payments, there are many considerations. Among them: what exactly needs to be faster and who is the customer? Who stands to benefit from faster payments? What Needs to be Faster? Particularly in the case of real-time payments, it is important to distinguish: 1) Notification of payment 2) Payment guarantee/ funds availability and, 3) Settlement In my view, accelerating 1 and 2 are more important than 3 and less costly to bring about. Who is the customer? Who would stand to benefit the most? Many assert strong and growing consumer demand for faster retail payments. We see more interest than demand, particularly if costs are factored in. Celent surveyed over a thousand US consumers in August 2013. In part, we explored payment expectations. With little variation across age demographics, more consumers expect instant confirmation of payment (59%) than expect real time gross settlement (42%). Other factors weigh more heavily than speed. When I PaySource: Celent survey of US consumers, July 2013, n=1,053 In my view, merchants and regulators are more invested in faster payments than are consumers. Faster payments mean earlier access to funds (retailers) and less systemic risk (regulators). That’s why most systemically important payment systems are RTGS. Faster payments are a certainty – in time. What’s far from certain is how it comes to be – what rails are used. Some advocate using the ACH. I disagree. Moreover, I find the current dissatisfaction with the ACH amusing. Designed as an efficient, electronic, float-neutral payment system, the ACH is highly effective at fulfilling its designed purpose. More recent demands on the ACH, while not without efficacy, have also resulted in increased cost and complexity. Same-day ACH, in my opinion, is simply not compelling. If enacted through a rules change and offered optionally at a premium price, it may succeed, but would result in precious little use. Real-time ACH would be altogether different – a fool’s errand in my opinion. The ACH works splendidly when used as designed. An analogy if I may. The NACHA press release stated: “The Network has always served as a foundation upon which we can build and innovate to meet the growing needs of today’s users and those of tomorrow.” That sounds a bit like inviting telco’s to build more phone booths in response to consumer’s demand for mobility. The “square peg in a round hole” analogy may work as well. I'd love to hear your views.

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