In the era of the Medicis, the time between when a bill was issued in one city and could be cashed in at another was set by long-standing custom, or at usance. The usance between Florence and London might have been 3 months!
Today’s commercial clients and multinationals are more demanding. Even small and medium businesses are exporting and importing in larger volumes and values, to and from more countries. Tourists are spending money, in various currencies, in several countries in a week or two as they vacation far from home. The internet and more recently mobile digital devices have redefined expectations. Consumers expect instant gratification of purchases made, faster than you can say ‘Yo!’.
‘Real-time’ payments are now the glittering new prize for bankers, payment service providers and even regulators.
‘Real-time’ can often refer to the payment authorisation and messaging component alone but to the pedantic, instantaneous settlement of cleared funds to the recipient is the real deal. Even the US Federal Reserve is contemplating a real-time replacement for the Automated Clearing House system that powers a huge share of domestic transactions.
In Australia, the Reserve Bank (RBA) has been instrumental in catalysing an industry-funded project to build a real-time domestic clearing and settlement service called the New Payments Platform (NPP). The NPP is a wholesale utility for domestic banks to clear low value, high volume payments in real-time, using their accounts at the RBA to effect immediate settlement.
Embracing principles of ‘openness’, the NPP should enable incumbent banks and new competitors to develop innovative services ‘overlaid’ on the utility infrastructure. Executed well, with oversight by a new Payments Council, this infrastructure should enable Australian consumers and businesses to engage in e-commerce more simply and conveniently by December 2016.
Several countries now offer such capabilities within their borders and we can expect an ‘arm’s race’ driven by the exigencies of global trade. However, there are no industry moves to consider alternative systems that may offer the hope of real-time clearing and settlement for cross-border payments.
The innovative Medici’s are credited with the invention of ‘double-entry’ book keeping - remnants of ledgers were found at their Bruges branch. To this day, ledgers that record transactions conducted by their own clients remain the cornerstone of banks: they are the single source of ‘truth’ relating to their client’s financial affairs.
A visiting Medici banker from the past, briefed on current technology and computer systems, would immediately recognise their traditional operating model and likely do very well in a senior global transaction banking role!
For the first time since the Medici’s, however, a new model with supporting technology has emerged for the conduct of financial transactions across borders. This is the model of the ‘distributed, open ledger’ made possible by the ‘block-chain’ concept of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. A single ledger of transactions, shared by all banks across the globe, verified in a collaborative manner and secured by proven algorithms is a potentially transformative model for global transaction banking.
Technology providers like Ripple (my client) are leveraging the underlying ‘blockchain’ technology but more efficient ‘validation by consensus’ algorithms to enable settlement within 10 seconds. Being currency agnostic, banks can trade in fiat currencies without conversions into a crypto-currency.
The Ripple ecosystem accommodates banks and currency traders in a regulator-friendly platform. These industrial strength building blocks offer a truly global set of payment rails on an ‘open source’ basis (making the software free for commercial use). Banks remain free to build client-facing services.
The atomic transactions between participating servers combine payment authorisation with instant settlement, removing the current ‘counter-party’ risks. It is simply not possible for just one leg of a transaction (remittance) to be completed with another leg (settlement) failing.
There are other benefits. The increasing focus on ‘trace reporting’ by regulators to enable funds to be traced end-to-end and more stringent ‘Know Your Client’ burdens are escalating costs for banks. These costs could be reduced via one-to-one, trusted relationships and ‘straight- through’ transactions via the new platforms.
The new technology and operating models offer prospects for both domestic and cross-border inter-bank clearing and settlements. So emerging economies have yet another opportunity to leap-frog developed economies in this new race. Besides wholesale funds transfers between their own foreign branches and with close partners, banks can leverage this technology to reinvent the global remittances market in real-time. Small and medium importers and exporters, a growing and politically important constituent for most governments, can scale their commerce by orders of magnitude with the removal of historical financial constraints to cross-border trade.
Licensed and prudentially sound financial institutions, whether banks, hedge funds or others, can remake their roles in this brave new world where transactions and relationships are exploding across the planet. Doubtless a Medici would welcome and embrace such an opportunity for commercial gain and client satisfaction, as will innovative and thoughtful banks today.
Dilip Rao is a veteran in financial and banking technology innovation, currently based in Palo Alto. His company Woomera Labs consults to startups and enterprises to incubate disruptive solutions that address enterprise challenges.
Disclosure: Woomera Labs consults to Ripple Labs, the creators and supporters of the Ripple protocol.
Photographer: Jennifer Farmer.