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Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

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July 19, 2021

Will the Chip Shortage Affect Payments?

Sitting down to eat at our favorite Mexican restaurant the other evening, my wife and I started our usual conversation on how it's impossible not to devour the chips and salsa that are always immediately placed in front of us. And it seems that there is always an endless supply of these chips, so much so that there are usually always chips left in the basket when we leave the table. Unfortunately, this country and others around the globe are not experiencing a similar oversupply of semiconductor chips. In fact, it's quite the opposite, as many industries, including the payments industry, are facing a shortageOff-site link of microchips.

The effects of this chip shortage on the automotive, smartphone, and video gaming industry have been covered extensively. But did you know that it has the potential to disrupt the payments industry as well? A recent American Banker articleOff-site link highlights how the global chip supply shortage affects the payment card industry and discusses the potential implications for cardholders.

Recently, someone representing a technology provider for chip-enabled cards told me that approximately 400 million chip cards are issued to U.S. cardholders each year. These cards include replacements for expired, damaged, and lost or stolen cards as well as cards for new accounts. He said he believes that with an approximate chip shortage of 30 percent, the industry may not be able to produce up to 126 million cards in the coming year.

With a shortage of chips and issuers unable to produce their usual allotment of cards, some cardholders could lose access to a revolving credit line from a credit card or to funds in their bank account through their debit card when their current cards expire. As the American Banker article states, it seems logical that to mitigate the shortage, issuers may choose not to reissue inactive or less used cards. This possibility could affect those consumers with credit or debit cards expiring soon who might only use their cards sparingly. As an alternative to physical cards, issuers could choose to issue virtual cards, which could be loaded into a mobile wallet and used anywhere contactless payments are accepted. Though mobile payments are growing, I am not convinced that consumers are ready to adopt virtual cards.

My wife and I will continue to visit our favorite local Mexican restaurant. I also am certain that I won't be able to resist that endless supply of chips that will meet me at our table. But with the current semiconductor chip shortage, I am not as certain about having access to all my accounts, because several of the cards in my wallet are set to expire over the next year.

July 6, 2021

Think Like a Genius for Payments Innovation

Ron Klein filed the patent for the magnetic strip used on credit cards in 1966, and it was awarded in 1969. His invention revolutionized the payments industry, increased efficiency, and reduced fraud. I was fortunate to meet Ron, known as "The Grandfather of PossibilitiesOff-site link", at an entrepreneur's conference several years ago. Being in the payments world, I wanted to know how he got the idea for the magnetic strip that is still on the back of credit and debit cards today.

Ron, an engineer by training, said department stores came to him with two problems. It took too long for customers to make charge purchases, and the burden of proof was on the merchant. For example, prior to the magnetic strip and online authorizations, the customer's name and account number were embossed on credit cards. Lost, stolen, canceled or past due accounts were listed in a monthly printed bulletin sent to merchants. Clerks at the point of sale waded through thousands of numbers to see if the card was not listed, and therefore acceptable. A merchant accepting a card listed in the bulletin was liable for the transaction.

Ron's first solution: He compiled the monthly records of negative accounts and stored the information on magnetic drums. The merchant then had a keypad that was connected to the stored data to look up numbers. While that expedited the POS process, it didn't go far enough to solve the problem. Keying in the card number was time-consuming.

Ron said he decided to "put some smarts in that piece of plastic" by applying reel-to-reel tape recorder technology. His idea? Record the account number on the tape, build a device that reads it like a tape recorder, connect it to the stored data, and voila! The credit card validity checking system is born!

At 85, Ron continues to mentor, coach, and inspire others to solve challenges. This requires, he said, a certain mindset: Be smart, daring, and different, and don't be afraid of making mistakes. If you want to solve a problem, you need to take some time to think about it in a certain way. Simply put, Ron said there is a gift behind every challenge that, if explored with an inquisitive mind, can bring forth innovations that can make things better for people.

I was thinking about Ron in the context of today's payments innovations, or the challenges we currently face, such as the chip shortage or fraud. What problems do you think need to be solved? By thinking like a humble genius, we see that every challenge brings an opportunity for advancing innovation.

June 7, 2021

Share of Credit Card Revolvers Drops in the Pandemic Year

How do you view your credit card? As a convenient way to make purchases and earn rewards? As a financing tool to spread out the cost of large purchases? As a way to get over rough patches? About half of U.S. consumers with a credit card use it as a means of payment and pay the full balance due every month. The other half use credit cards as a financing tool.

New data releases from the Survey of Household Economics and DecisionmakingOff-site link (SHED) and the Survey of Consumer Payment Choice (SCPC) show that eight in 10 U.S. adults had a credit card in 2020 and, of those, about half carried an unpaid balance at some point during the prior 12 months.

In addition, both surveys found that credit card debt declined from 2019 to 2020. SHED reports that fewer card holders carried a balance, and card borrowers reduced their outstanding balances. Similarly, the SCPC found that that 51.3 percent of card holders carried a balance sometime in the preceding 12 months—the lowest share since 2015. In addition, 51.8 percent of these revolvers reported their balances to be lower than a year ago.

A paper from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors attributes the decline in balances to a sharp decline in credit card transactions at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March and April 2020 and also notes a decline in the origination of new credit card accounts at that time. And a New York Fed surveyOff-site link found that about one-third of the value of the first round of stimulus payments under the CARES Act was used to pay down debt.

The SHED survey report indicates that while many borrowers overall reduced their debt, people who were laid off at some point in the past year increased their credit card debt (39 percent compared to 24 percent of those not laid off). This aligns with other research findings that, as the SHED report puts it, “financial challenges in 2020 were uneven.” The New York Fed survey, for example, found that high-income households saved proportionately more of their stimulus payments: 40.8 percent for household income greater than $75,000 compared to 31.2 percent for household income $40,000 or less.

The drop in revolvers could have implications for the use of credit cards going forward, because credit card revolvers are more likely than convenience usersOff-site link to have and use debit cards instead of credit cards, although many other factors—including general economic conditions—will come into play.

June 1, 2021

The Generational Divide in Online Shopping during the COVID Pandemic

Like me, you probably have seen many headlines citing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people in various demographic segments. Take, for example, age:

  • "COVID-19 hurts working mothers"
  • "Millenials slammed by second financial crisis"
  • "COVID pushes out women and boomers"
  • "Pandemic accelerates retirements"

As you can see from these headlines, no generation is unscathed.

How did people of different ages behave during COVID? Preliminary data from the 2020 Survey of Consumer Payment Choice appear to show that in 2020, millennials increased their uptake of new payments habits while boomers were slower to do so.

  • Millennials increased their share of online purchases as a percentage of all purchases by a greater margin than boomers. Boomers’ share of purchases online went from 4 percent in 2019 to 6 percent in 2020. For millennials, online purchases jumped to 21 percent from 13 percent.
  • Millennials continued to expand their enthusiastic reception of payment apps, including Venmo and Zelle.

Of course, many factors, not just COVID, are in play here. These could be a few:

  • Millennials are moving into their prime earning years. For example, they became more likely to have a credit card in 2020. Two-thirds of millennials had a credit card in 2019, and almost 8 in 10 did in 2020.
  • Boomers may be stuck in their habits. Payments choice, like many other consumer behaviors, is a habit and generally slow to change.

You can examine differences in consumer behavior by age using the interactive charts for the 2020 Survey of Consumer Payment Choice at atlantafed.org.