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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February 27, 2023
Are Digital Payments Failing the Unbanked?
Data from the 2021 Survey and Diary of Consumer Payment Choice (SDCPC) give some hints into how US adults without bank accounts manage their financial lives, particularly when it comes to methods of digital access outside of a bank account.
Most US adults these days receive income through digital means. For example, the US Treasury reported in 2021 that they used direct deposit to distribute more than 85 percent of the third round of economic impact payments. People with bank accounts can receive income directly into their account. People without bank accounts are more likely to use prepaid cards for this purpose. However, they tend to own different types of prepaid cards when compared to people with bank accounts. People without bank accounts are more likely to have payroll cards and government benefit cards that facilitate the receipt of income.
For people with bank accounts, apps facilitate digital pay. Adults without bank accounts are far less likely to be using a payment app compared to other adults: half as likely to have any sort of payment app, about a third as likely to have PayPal, and highly unlikely to have Venmo. People without a deposit account have no access to Zelle, the payment app exclusively accessed through a bank account. This slow uptake of payment apps is notable because many commenters have been expecting fintech to create new, cost-effective, and convenient avenues of access for people without access to traditional bank accounts.
Despite their use of prepaid cards, people without bank accounts make most of their payments in cash. Even in 2021, people without bank accounts were three times as likely as other consumers to have used a paper money order in the past 12 months. And using a paper payment instrument inhibits access to the digital economy.
In the 14 years since the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s first National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households, the central story in payments has been about the transition from paper to electronic ways to pay. As the SDCPC data show, unbanked consumers are not enjoying the full benefits of innovations in digital payments. The Cleveland Fed recently posted a review of the literature into the causes and consequences of not having a bank account, which you can read on its website.
As payment innovation continues to flow, how can the payment process become more inclusive? We would appreciate your thoughts and comments.
February 21, 2023
Consumers Who Forgo Payment Cards
In a recent paper coauthored with Oz Shy, I wrote about the payments behavior of US adults 18 and older who have neither a credit card nor a bank-account-linked debit card, although they may have a prepaid card. These adults could have a bank account, so they are not necessarily unbanked. They just do not have a credit or debit card.
As you might expect, people in this group make about seven of their 10 monthly payments using cash and are more likely than other consumers to pay bills with cash. What might surprise you is that they do report making a small number of payments either with a credit or bank-account-linked debit card. How can that be?
It turns out that, as a percentage share of all their payments, consumers without cards make more payments to other people (person-to-person payments, or P2P) than do consumers with cards. Although these consumers do not themselves have cards, they may have a spouse, partner, or other family member with a card who does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to financial matters. So their outsize share of P2P payments could be to repay with cash friends or family who help them gain online or mobile access with cash.
All this makes me think about the financial ecosystem surrounding each of us—the friends and relatives who lend a helping hand, as Michelle Singletary described in January in her Washington Post column. Consumer research has shed some light on informal friend-and-family financial arrangements. The Federal Reserve's 2021 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking found that 8 percent of US adults would borrow from a family member or friend to meet an emergency expense of $400. Two books about research projects that deserve your attention, The Unbanking of America and The Financial Diaries, describe the financial trade-offs among family members in good times and bad.
Maybe today is a good day to say thank you to those who have extended you a helping hand. And to find a way to pass it on. Good wishes to you and your extended family.
November 14, 2022
When Speed and Acceptance Collide
Sometimes a person gets cornered into writing a paper check. Today, that person is me.
My final payment for a vacation rental is due this coming Friday. The rental starts in five days, on Saturday. But since the payee is a person, my online banking bill pay won't get the check there until the following Monday: three days late and two days after my check-in.
I'm cornered because two circumstances are colliding. (1) I absolutely, positively have to get the payment there by Friday. (2) My longtime landlord doesn't accept payment via p2p apps or cards. My preference for speed is in conflict with my landlord's preference for paper. And in a two-sided market, like payments, each side has to agree on how to conduct a transaction.
These circumstances call for 18th century technology: it's time to write a paper check. Cue quill pen and ink bottle, cue envelope, cue sleeve protectors, cue stamp.
My initial choice of online banking bill pay is what you would expect given new data from the 2021 Survey and Diary of Consumer Payment Choice, released in mid October. These data show that while the prevalence of checks has declined, they are still used.
On the "decline" side:
- The shares of consumers who prefer to use checks to pay bills dropped from 17 percent in 2016 to 8 percent in 2021.
- In 2020, checks were 19 percent of bill payments by number and 23 percent by value. This dropped to 12 percent by number and 12 percent by value in 2021.
- In the past 30 days ending in October 2021, more consumers used online banking bill pay (51 percent) than used a paper check (46 percent).
On the "still used" side:
- The average dollar value of check payments per consumer in October 2021 was $550.
- The average consumer wrote about two checks in October 2021.
- The share of consumer with paper checks on hand—three quarters of all consumers—has remained constant since 2019.
In combination, these data say that, sometimes when you're cornered, nothing says speed and acceptance like a paper check.
So while I go off on vacation in my paid-off rental, you can investigate the adoption and use of other payment instruments, as well as consumer ratings and preferences, at the data release of the Survey and Diary of Consumer Payment Choice.
November 7, 2022
More Highlights from the CFPB BNPL Report
My October 3 post on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's (CFPB) 2022 report on the buy now, pay later (BNPL) industry highlighted some of the key metrics from the CFPB's data collection efforts of the five major BNPL operators in the United States. In this post, I review some of the benefits, concerns, and planned actions identified in the report.
The report acknowledges several financial benefits of the "pay-in-four" BNPL loans to the consumer—primarily that they don't charge interest, which makes them an attractive alternative to other forms of credit. For example, the report cites data from a 2021 report on the consumer credit card market : the cost of credit in 2020 for revolving cardholders using general purpose cards was 17.7 percent.
The main sales pitch that BNPL firms present to the merchant is that BNPL increases the potential for incremental sales; with this option, the customers may purchase a more expensive product or additional products. While the CFPB report does not have any specific metrics on incremental sales, it does cite a number of claims from the BNPL firms about how BNPL could increase average sales amounts and attract new customers. The report mentions another benefit for merchants: the BNPL firm providing the credit assumes all the risk of nonpayment. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the firms reported that 3.8 percent of loans were charged off in 2021—up from 2.9 percent in 2020.
Any extension of credit risks consumers assuming more debt than they can afford. In particular, the report cites "loan stacking" as a possible danger. Loan stacking occurs when the customer obtains multiple BNPL loans from different lenders, "stacking up" the payment obligations of each loan on top of one another. BNPL firms try to minimize this danger by limiting initial loan amounts. However, since most BNPL providers don't report loan activity to the major credit reporting agencies, they can't know how many BNPL loans the consumer may have gotten from other BNPL firms and, therefore, they have no knowledge of the consumer's full debt. This concern is increased by the trend shown in the data that the repeated use of BNPL has increased over the last three years. In the fourth quarter of 2021, the five lenders surveyed reported an average usage rate per unique customer of 2.8 loans used during the quarter. This figure only reflects the number of loans with a particular lender. In the first quarter of 2019, this average was 1.9 loans.
Besides the risk of credit overextension, the report details other potential harms, including:
- a lack of clear and consistent disclosures
- inconsistent practices regarding merchandise disputes
- mounting late fees and bank fees for multiple representments of returned payments
- the requirement to use autopay or the difficulty in selecting another payment method
- the use of customer data for purposes other than handling the transaction
The next question is this: With this data in hand, what does the CFPB plan to do about rules or guidance for the BNPL industry? In a prepared statement issued in conjunction with the report's release, CFPB director Rohit Chopra outlined several actions the organization would take immediately, including continually monitoring the BNPL industry. The CFPB staff will identify potential guidance or rules that will require the same consumer disclosures and protection that credit cards are subject to. The CFPB will continue to encourage the development of processes for BNPL firms to work with the credit reporting agencies so that loan experiences are reported regularly and accurately and a consistent methodology is used to estimate the debt burden of a household.
The execution of supervisory examinations has been inconsistent due to the variety of the business structures of the BNPL firms. The CFPB is encouraging voluntary examinations but is also looking into its authority to mandate examinations. Related to consumer data protection and privacy, the CFPB plans to work with the Federal Trade Commission on developing rules that will be applicable to all businesses regarding using data for something other than the BNPL transaction itself.
While the BNPL industry is in its early stages, it is becoming a major part of the retail credit landscape. We will continue to follow and report on developments in this industry.
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