From Credit Cards To Digital Wallets — What’s Next For Cashless?
The cashless movement started in 1950 with the introduction of the universal card by the Diners Club. Despite being seen as the first credit card, it differed from present-day cards as Diners Club holders had to settle their bill at the end of each month. Not surprisingly, banks were fast to realize the opportunity of offering customers real credit on card and in 1958 the Bank of America released their first card with revolving credit. It allowed consumers to pay off their accumulated debt over time.
When credit cards were first spread into mainstream, many people refrained from financing essential items on credit. Over time behavior has shifted. Nowadays, consumers are comfortable using their credit cards for small purchases and daily items. Websites like Badcredit.org even feature “Guaranteed Approval Credit Cards” for users with a bad credit score. This is just one of the many reasons why accumulated credit card debt reached $1 trillion in the US in 2018. From a user perspective, credit cards have made paying a smoother and faster experience. From an economical perspective, credit cards have boosted the velocity of money.
Nevertheless, with technological progress, one innovation which makes everyday payments easier is digital wallets. The first prevailing digital wallet (also called e-wallet) was invented by PayPal already in the 1990s, but it took around 20 years until digital wallets started entering the mainstream. In 2008, the thriving Apple revolution offered 3rd party developers access to secure apple payment infrastructure and users did not hesitate to buy apps in the Apple Appstore to make their lives easier. Since then, we have seen the rise of many digital wallets most notably in China where Alipay as well as WeChat Pay report having crossed the 1 billion active users’ daily threshold. Digital Wallets have created a lot of value for users. To pay a user is simply required to show his phone (QR-Code based) or hold it close to the PoS (NFC, SMT), no signature required. Another major advantage over credit cards is the added layer of security provided by digital payments. When a customer pays with his wallet app the merchant does not receive any details of the customer’s card nor the underlying source of funds. Instead, they receive a unique one-time code that is only valid for that one purchase. For merchants, accepting digital payments cuts cost compared to accepting credit cards such as visa or MasterCard. According to the Global Payments Report from Worldpay eWallets will be accounting for 47% of transactions made in eCommerce and 28% of transactions at the PoS worldwide by 2022 (2018:9). The question is no longer if digital payments will be shaping the payment landscape but rather which kind of system will be running in the background.
When it comes down to the providers of digitized payment options, two conceptually contrasting systems can be identified: centralized and decentralized. Currently, all major players in the cashless payment sector are for-profit companies offering centralized solutions, be it Visa, Mastercard or digital wallets such as Google Pay, WeChat, Alipay, and the like. Surprisingly, major financial institutions have been slow to adapt to progress and the leading providers in the mobile payment sector are mostly Tech-companies.
On another note, central banks have long been pondering about how to get a hold in the cashless sector. While central banks like the Bank of Mexico or the central bank of Luxemburg are already experimenting with systems to enable faster settlement, the Federal Reserve took until early August this year to announce their plans of a faster system: FedNow. FedNow is a system enabling real-time payment and settlement. The Federal Reserve states that it will be made available to all banks in 2024. Many critics question, why the Feds expect 4 to 5 years of development when the payments sector is known to advance at high-speed.
At the same time, the Central Bank of China (People’s Bank of China) has been actively researching digital currencies, filing 52 patents through to October 2018. The patents indicate that the system would include the issuance of digital currency as well as digital wallets storing and transacting assets in an end to end manner. In light of Facebook’s announced issuance of its own digital currency (Libra), the former governor of the PBoC Zhou Xiaochuan declared that Libra poses a threat to payment systems and national currencies. Just one month later, Mu Changchun, deputy director of the payments unit at the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), announced they have been working to complete the systems needed to support the digital yuan offering although there have been conflicting reports on the PBoC plans. Mu stated the digital currency would be a substitute for coins and notes in circulation known as M0 and not M2, which comprises of bank deposits. The digital currency would make a trade with China simpler and would boost the circulation of the Chinese yuan globally (Source Bloomberg).
What all these central bank initiatives have in common is that the issued digital currency represents a centrally controlled money supply. In 2008 when the financial system showed deep cracks, an alternative to centralized currencies in the form of cryptocurrencies (beginning with Bitcoin) was born. A decentralized network of nodes is securing and maintaining the system the currency is running on. In return for computing power, nodes are rewarded with digital units, further securing the network. Most cryptocurrencies have a set amount of maximum issued units encoded in the protocol to counteract inflation due to monetary expansion. Nevertheless, cryptocurrency prices have shown a high level of volatility. Another problem with decentralized solutions is their low transaction speed with bitcoin at a throughput of 7 transactions per second. Possible solutions to the lack of scalability include so-called state channels and other layers 2 solutions. Yet, until cryptocurrencies can compete on transaction speed with traditional central systems without sacrificing decentralization, they will lack day-to-day usability by the broader public.
Instead of waiting for crypto to scale, merchants can already choose to contract a third-party vendor offering them a PoS solution to accept crypto in close to real-time. These solutions not only allow merchants to accept a variety of cryptocurrencies but also let them choose which currency they want to be cashed out in.
On the volatility side, stablecoins are offering a more stable cryptocurrency, often pegged to an underlying asset or a basket of assets. While most stablecoin projects are conceptually centralized when it comes to the issuance of new coins (usually the underlying assets have to be stored first), protocols like MakerDAO have impressively shown, that a relatively stable coin can be achieved in a decentralized manner. Customers eager to spend their cryptocurrency in their daily life can choose to use one of the many crypto-credit cards offered these days. Nevertheless, in this case, the merchant will still have to pay a fee to visa/master and the customer is trading off decentralization.
To sum it up, centralized solutions offer high transaction speed, regulatory compliance and an identifiable company to hold liable in case anything goes wrong. However, centralized solutions like Visa/MasterCard can pose a high fee on merchants especially when transferring across borders. Decentralized solutions can often cut costs for the merchant although paired with slower transaction speed and less prevalence.
Additionally, there are still many open questions and growing concerns related to sovereignty in a cashless world such as:
● Could paying 2–3% on all transaction value to Visa, Mastercard, Digital Wallets, and payment processors be a national threat?
● Since cash purchases domestically don’t have fees, would the fees to process payments be equivalent to a foreign tax on domestic purchases?
● In case of war, political interference or a major hack, can the ability to make payments be turned off across a country?
● What would the implications of a turned-off payment system be economically?
All these questions and concerns will have to be addressed before making the move towards a balanced world without physical cash. One of the most viable ideas for a global digital currency has been brought up by the Governor of the Bank of England. Mark Carney proposed a new kind of semi-decentralized digital currency, a “ Synthetic Hegemonic Currency (SHC) “ that would be managed by a consortium of central banks. This currency “could dampen the domineering influence of the U.S. dollar on global trade” and therefore “help reduce the volatility of capital flows to emerging market economies.” (Carney, Economic Policy Symposium 2019:15). It might still be too early for such a global trade currency, but it remains an intriguing idea and who knows. Maybe in 5 years, we will all see SHC as a normal part of the world economy
This is a repost of the Article written by Naomi Oba and Aly Madhavji featured in Volume 5 of The Payments & Cards Network Magazine, Issue 9: https://www.teampcn.com/magazine/detail/magazine/from-credit-cards-to-digital-wallets---what's-next-for-cashless