The US Payment Landscape: The Path to Digital
The US payments industry is undergoing a digital transformation – with new developments set to improve the efficiency and security of payments across the board.
Carl Slabicki, Head of Strategic Payment Solutions, BNY Mellon Treasury Services, explores the changing climate of US payments.
For a long time, banks in the US have competed primarily on price and service rather than as providers of payments solutions. But the payments and cash management space is now changing. New developments to existing payment rails, combined with the advent of new real-time solutions and overlay services are emerging, and organisations that are able to quickly adapt to the evolving payments landscape will be well placed to gain a significant market advantage.
As we enter this period of unprecedented disruption in the marketplace, the importance of expediting the journey from paper to digital transactions for payers and receivers is becoming increasingly clear; payments are faster, more streamlined and feature enhanced capabilities around validation, security and risk mitigation.
Certainly, in the current challenging environment, the continued investment in and implementation of digital solutions continues to highlight the timeliness of this initiative. Remote working has put a spotlight on the channels we choose to make payments, with the payments industry leaning more and more on a digital environment to stay connected and continue conducting efficient and timely business. So what changes are occurring, and how can organisations and their clients reap the rewards?
The payment system evolution
For over 45 years, the ACH network had been the core next-day batch settlements system in the US. But during its long tenure, the underlying ACH system – which is governed by the National Automated Clearing House Association (Nacha) – has continued to modernise and grow, with the latest figures showing an increase in transaction volumes of 8.1% year-on-year in Q4 2019. This growth has been driven by the increasing payment convenience brought about, in part, by the introduction of Same Day ACH (SDA), which from March 2020 has increased its transaction limit from US$25,000 to US$100,000 to help open up additional use cases for the market.
As we enter this period of unprecedented disruption in the marketplace, the importance of expediting the journey from paper to digital transactions for payers and receivers is becoming increasingly clear.
To meet that growing need, new payment rails are being introduced to replace legacy capabilities. For example, RTP® – the US’s real-time payments network – launched by The Clearing House in 2017, is providing real-time gross settlement on a 24/7/365 operating model. This is providing clients with greater speed, efficiency, convenience and transparency. What’s more, in a move that will further bolster the growth of faster payments in the US, the Federal Reserve has announced its intention to launch its real-time payments system, known as the FedNowSM Service, in 2023 or 2024.
Sitting right at the centre of the evolving US payments landscape is the move towards pre-validation services – foundational tools that are addressing security concerns that surround the entire payment process. Regardless of the payment channel being used – whether it’s ACH, Wire, RTP or other – the question remains: how do you know the payment or account data you have been provided for a transaction is correct and legitimate?
Indeed, the advent of new technologies that have enabled faster and more efficient payments sits at the intersection of another trend, namely the sophistication of fraud in the payment space. And, as people have settled into working from home environments, such security concerns have been further accentuated. The need to positively verify that an individual is authorised to transact on a paying or receiving account is, as a result, also becoming increasingly important.
It is for this reason that market leading banks are turning their attention to delivering solutions that enable real-time pre-validation – meaning the confirmation that a payee is the legitimate party occurs prior to a payment being sent. These solutions leverage a national shared database, such as the one maintained by fraud management and prevention service provider Early Warning Services, to validate the routing and account number, and verify the owner on the account, before the payment is sent. This increases security and risk mitigation, reduces fraud losses, and helps reduce the costs and processes associated with checks and other legacy payment systems.
Elsewhere, a host of overlay services are coming to the fore to address historical market challenges. For example, the migration from checks to electronic payments remains a significant pain point for cash managers. Though accepting and processing checks comes with a heightened risk of fraud and an array of manual processes, they continue to remain necessary as many businesses do not have the information required, or the technology interface needed, to send or request a payment digitally.
To address these issues, directories that allow payees to securely register their payment details and identities electronically are emerging, such as Zelle® in the US. Owned by a consortium of banks, the Zelle directory allows users to register identifiers, such as an email address or mobile phone number – referred to as “tokens” – which, following a thorough authentication process, can then be used to send and request electronic payments. Banks will then pull that authenticated token from the directory to find out the beneficiary’s bank, before using ACH or the card network to settle the payment. Going forward, Zelle, with the support of some of its member banks, including BNY Mellon, is working with The Clearing House to add RTP as an additional settlement mechanism. It is hoped that these capabilities will be implemented within the next year.
And while Zelle represents an effective way to securely send electronic payments to consumers and small businesses, there is also a demand for this in the business to business or vendor payments space. They too want to reduce the time and effort it takes to collect supplier banking account information, validate and keep it updated, as well as ultimately reduce or eliminate paper checks. This is increasingly achieved through settlement networks such as Paymode-X®, the largest business to business vendor payment network in the US, with over 400,000 members, processing over $200 billion in payments annually. It allows clients to convert vendor payments from paper (check) to ACH with electronic remittance, with the potential to earn revenue share on payables.
Adapting to the “new norm”
With the emergence of real-time payments, updated legacy rails and a new layer of overlay services, the US payments space is transitioning to an entirely new payments culture. Developments are moving quickly, with many banks looking to outsource their solutions to a trusted provider that already has the technology available – enabling them to swiftly go to market for a fraction of the cost.
As banks look to transform in this way, it is vital that they are able to provide clients with the options and capabilities they need to enable their businesses to run effectively and efficiently in the new faster payments environment. There is not a single, optimal channel that can solve every issue and meet all requirements – making it crucial that banks have a variety of tools in their arsenal, ready for instant deployment. The opportunity to provide improved, digital services to organizations, with greater levels of security, ease and efficiency has arrived. By working together to achieve ubiquity and interoperability, banks are developing the modern tools necessary for delivering a truly optimised payments experience.
The views expressed herein are those of the author only and may not reflect the views of BNY Mellon. This does not constitute Treasury Services advice, or any other business or legal advice, and it should not be relied upon as such.