Archive for January, 2009

Why do I need to know what payment systems my vendor accepts?

The answer seems obvious. Because I need to be a member of one of the payment systems my vendor accepts in order to complete a transaction. But it then occured to me that it does not necessarily have to be so. Wouldn’t it be simpler if I could use whatever payment system I want to release a certain amount of cash and if the vendor can have some guarantee of being the owner of the money before releasing the good to me? The answer is of course yes!

In fact, to get back to the former answer, it is not necessary that one organization like Visa, PayPal or a coalition of them controls the entire chain for making the whole thing possible. It’s only because this entire chain of processing takes today very long – like days or even weeks – to complete that my vendors asks me to use the payments systems they accept. They need to be sure of receiving the money, some day, to agree handing the good over to me now.

So, if we had an open and real-time settlement system, we could perfectly imagine that we would no longer have to care what is the ultimate system that vendors would be using.

To give a brief explanation of what a settlement system is, I’ll just say that this is a way to make valid the change of ownership of a certain financial property, in this case cash, from one party to another. A real-time system would be a system that would process the entire chain in a couple of seconds. And an open one would be a system which would let any cash sending system and cash receiving systems interoperate.

So, if my vendors could know in real-time that the money I’ve just parted with is now in his full posession, they would be perfectly happy completing the transaction. Which means I could send the money from my mobile phone – or any other online device – using whatever payment system I would like and I would feel comfortable using. My vendor could also use the payment system most convenient for him. As long we are both happy and trust our payment providers, we would no longer have to determine if both of us are members of the same systems.

Now, do you think it all sounds science-fiction because we can not create such an open and real-time settlement system or because current payment service providers have too antiquated backbones to dream processing such a transaction in real-time and have no incentive to move to an open system? If this is the latter, this suggest the word “Disruption” to me.

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Refounding Finance

After the shock that the crisis created and the quick – but not cheap – measures that were passed, it seems that the debate is currently moving on the terms of a longer term solution (see posts in Javelin Strategy or The Bankwatch for example). And there, things do not look good either.

It is obvious that free market created a lot of wealth (that has not been equally distributed), but was unable to stabilize the deep imbalances it generated. Furthermore, it’s now obvious that the wrong mix of regulation and laissez-faire created serious flaws in the incentive mechanisms. Regulation prevented competition to come and erase unfair rents that some actors were extracting. Laissez-faire meant than no-one had the authority to correct these undeserved appropriation.

But going back blindly to regulation is certainly the wrong answer. It is interesting to see that people who considered Alan Greenspan as a genious, treat him now as the villain who made all this possible. The truth is simpler: Alan Greenspan is certainly a very smart man, but there’s no single human being on this planet who can master a complex evolving system like the financial system. So regulation is not the answer in itself.

I think we should think of the problem in deeper and wider terms. It’s a real refoundation of significant part of our financial system that we must address. And to do this, I don’t believe that tinkering the current system through new regulations will do. We must get back to the roots of this industry which aims at providing a service to people looking for an opportunity to save and to people looking for means to get access to current resources.

We will be discussing this subject – and many others – in London on Feb 14, 2009 at BarCampBankLondon2 and in San-Francisco on Apr 25, 2009 at BarCampBank SF2. Anyone interested in putting back innovation as a solution and not a problem to the current financial woes should certainly consider joining us.