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26 March 2012

Generations of payment innovations

Bob Kennedy is a director and payments expert in the Fed Atlanta's supervision and regulation department. As Bob prepares for retirement next month, we sat down to talk about his thoughts on the retail payments environment in the United States.

P&R: Bob, you've gained a reputation in industry circles as an expert in the payments field and a frequent speaker at industry events with a long and distinguished career in bank supervision. Can you tell us a little about your background and your retail payments experience?

Bob: I actually come from a banking family. My grandfather actually set up a bank in the 1890s in a small town in rural Alabama to provide simple financial services to businesses and over time it grew and expanded to more consumer-based financial services. My father took over the business and employed me as early as age 12 on the teller line one day a month after school, authenticating customers who came in to cash their social security checks.

Payment services were pretty simple back then. At our little bank, customers had traditional demand deposit accounts but we did not issue checkbooks. So when they wanted to make a purchase at a merchant they would use counter checks and fill in their account information. The merchant would call my father at the bank to verify the customer's identity and funds availability.

By the 1960s, things were getting more complicated. Our customers were starting to shop more in nearby cities, so they asked us for preprinted checkbooks. My father lost an important control when we started to issue these, but we recognized the need to change with our customers so we could keep their business. Then in the 1970s, our customers demanded credit cards. The point of this history summation is that the family bank had to change to adapt to consumer demand. The same holds true today as we continue to see disruptive forces that are changing the payments business.

P&R: How would you characterize the general landscape today for bank adoption of emerging retail payments?

Bob: I would characterize the landscape as exciting because nothing is static—there is a lot going on, and we're seeing community banks beginning to adopt new types of payments. Banks are adapting to consumer demand, as before, but at the same time they need to be able to find a reward for providing the product or service, and that's in the form of revenue or customer retention. They have to have a use case for offering new services.

One of the biggest drivers of change in retail payments these days is the demand for payments data, which has become a virtual treasure trove in the sense that it provides tangible evidence about consumer decisions about products and services. A consumer who buys something has made a clear decision about the product, the retailer, and the date and time when he or she makes the purchase. This is why data mining is becoming so important to merchants in developing marketing strategies.

For example, a large retailer with a decoupled debit card may obtain information about individual consumer spending habits that it uses to help understand future potential consumer choices about products and services. According to a recent article by Charles Duhigg in the New York Times, this retailer has collected tons of data on every regular customer they have. With a "Guest ID" that the store assigns to these regulars, they track everything they buy. I believe this is why a lot of big nonbank firms like Google and PayPal are trying to establish a foothold in retail payments through the introduction of new payment channels. They recognize the monetary value of payments data at the point of sale.

P&R: What are the primary risk concerns for banks in retail payments today?

Bob: There are multiple risks for banks to consider, including operational and liquidity risks. Clearly, for U.S. banks, strategic risk is critical today with nonbank firms introducing disruptive innovations and evolving as a competitive force for banks that must remain relevant and profitable at the same time. They are forced to continually assess their business models as a result. On the positive side, we are seeing new partnerships. I read about the new alliance with Regions Bank and Western Union, leveraging each firm's agent or branch networks to provide remittance and banking services on a complementary, cross-selling versus competitive basis.

That brings us to vendor management. With banks outsourcing and partnering with nonbank, third-party firms, increased oversight for those relationships is required, along with more expertise at the bank level. For many community banks, hiring that level of expertise is challenging, and they need to rely on the risk management services from their core processors.

In addition, liquidity risk for banks in this new payments landscape has been heightened by the more rapid clearing and settlement of payment files.

Finally, security and privacy are big issues for U.S. financial institutions today, not only from a regulatory perspective but also—more importantly—from the need to protect the bank's reputation among its customers as a trusted payments partner.

P&R: What trends should industry stakeholders watch going forward?

Bob: Technological advancements are making our retail payment systems more effective, efficient, and easy. U.S. banks are doing a good job and approaching these new services and partnerships with sound due diligence. Retail payments will continue to change going forward, with disruptive services and nonbank firms appearing in ways we cannot predict. I think it will continue to be an exciting area to watch for a long time.


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