Where Finance Finds Its Future
CBDCs are poised to administer the coup de grace to the payments business of the banks
Cross-border payments are, in the now familiar mantra of the G20, slow, expensive, opaque and inaccessible. This matters because, despite a slowdown in the rate of growth of world trade, cross-border payments are becoming more important, not less. Remittances and e-commerce are more than making up for any shortfalls in exchanges of physical goods. Consultants BCG predict the value of cross-border payments will increase from US$150 trillion in 2017 to US$250 trillion by 2027 – a two thirds increase in just a decade. As it happens, 2027 is the date set by the Financial Stability Board (FSB) for the achievement of four quantitative targets designed not only to cut the costs, increase the speed and enhance the visibility of the costs of cross-border payments but widen access to competitive cross-border payments services as well. The four targets are just one of 19 “building blocks” laid down by The Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI) in July 2020 as the foundations of a better, faster and cheaper cross-border payments system for the world economy. Unfortunately, the targets are also the only product of the 19 building blocks which can readily be grasped amid the miasma of surveys, analyses, consultations, task groups, workshops, liaisons, hackathons and vague but extendable deadlines which surround alleged progress in other areas. Yet fast and measurable progress is desperately needed. Cross-border payments represent a continuous and hefty toll on international trade and capital flows. Transactions can take several days, cost ten times as much as a domestic payment and devour 10 per cent of the face value of a payment. Although the work of the FSB reads as if the problem is extremely complicated – and it is, not least because of the number and range of the parties involved – the origins of this tax on commerce are now well-understood. The CPMI labels them as seven “frictions”: legacy technology; long transaction chains; funding costs; weak competition; fragmented and truncated data formats; complex compliance checks; and limited operating hours. The G20 made fixing these frictions a priority. In many jurisdictions, competition to provide cross-border payments services cannot work because cost opacity means payers cannot distinguish between the costs of different ways of paying; most domestic banks can do no better than take prices from a coterie of 15 major global banks; and non-bank service providers are denied access to the central bank real-time gross settlement (RTGS) system. Likewise, replacing laborious customer due diligence tests with digital identities is an obvious way to cut costs dramatically and speed up the processing of payments, but the FSB now seems more interested in creating centralised data utilities than in re-designing a failed procedure. Allowing assets in one jurisdiction to secure liquidity in another would not only ease cross-border payments blockages but free up resources trapped in excess liquidity buffers, but private sector initiative to solve this problem are unmentioned.