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COVID-19 RESOURCES AND INFORMATION: See the Atlanta Fed's list of publications, information, and resources; listen to our Pandemic Response webinar series.


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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November 30, 2020

The Wholesale Story on Wires

Back in 2013, I had a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience: Paris in the spring. Also that year, I had a once-in-a-lifetime payments experience—literally: I walked into my local bank and requested a wire be sent to pay the rent for an apartment on the Rive Gauche. That's my lifetime experience with wires: one payment.

I'll bet your experience is similar; that is, you can count the wire transfers you have personally initiated or received on your fingers, leaving a few digits to spare. New data from the Federal Reserve Payments Study, released in October, show that this is typical for consumers.

The wire transfer systems—CHIPS, operated by The Clearing House, and Fedwire, operated by the Federal Reserve Banks—mostly handle monetary settlement transfers between financial institutions (FIs) and large-value payments by businesses. In 2018, 64 percent of wires were business payments and 25 percent were financial institution (FI) settlements or other FI business. Only 11 percent were initiated by consumers.

By my calculation, wires account for the lion's share of all noncash payments settlement by value: 93 percent of the dollar value of wires, checks, ACH in 2018 together. (Card payments are generally settled via ACH and otherwise do not move the needle in this calculation.) In addition, essentially all wires, by dollar value, are FI or business wires. In 2018, wires initiated by consumers accounted for one-third of one percent (0.33%) of all wires by dollar value. The average value of an FI or other business wire transfer was almost $5 million, compared to just about $120,000 for consumer wires.

While wire payments increased by number from 2015 to 2018, they grew more slowly than other payment methods, just 3.4 percent year over year. And the total value of wire transfers declined 2.5 percent per year. Wires initiated by consumers, that tiny slice of the wires pie, showed double-digit growth in both number and value in every year from 2012 to 2018.

The Federal Reserve Payments Study has been collecting data on wires since 2013. In October 2020, the Fed released allocations of wire transfers for 2012, 2015, and 2018, including by payer (consumer and business), by payee location (domestic and cross-border), and by clearing method (interbank and book transfer). You can download the data hereOff-site link. As real-time or faster-payments transactions gain popularity, it will be interesting to see if they affect consumer use of wires.

Qu'est-ce que vous pensez?

November 23, 2020

QR Codes or NFC: Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner?

It may be more appropriate to talk about turkey dinner this time of year, but some of my colleagues and I are arguing about whether one form of contactless payment or another is going to win the chicken dinner.

Earlier this year, my colleague Claire Greene posted about contactless payments and the difficulty a friend encountered when attempting to use a mobile wallet for in-person contactless payments. My colleagues and I have written other posts about the push to issue dual contact-contactless credit and debit cards that use near-field communications (NFC). This technology permits encrypted data transmission using an electromagnetic radio field over a short distance (less than two inches) between two NFC-enabled devices. While contactless card issuance has largely been limited to credit card portfolios, NFC has been a standard feature in most smartphones manufactured over the last decade, permitting the loading of debit and credit cards into the payment wallets. Despite the high penetration of the functionality on the consumer side, several major merchants have resisted enabling this technology at their points-of-sale because of the cost of doing so and card network acceptance rules, but that resistance seems to be waning. Moreover, consumer use of contactless payments has remained low. The 2019 Diary of Consumer Payment Choice (DCPC) indicates that contactless payments represented only about 3 percent of the average consumer's monthly credit card in-person payments.

Competing with NFC technology is the quick response (QR) code. Developed in 1994 by Japanese engineer Hara Masahiro to provide a more efficient way thandepiction of a QR code barcodes for tracking auto parts in an automobile assembly plant, the QR code for payments applications is ubiquitous in China and Japan, and rapidly growing in many other Asian-Pacific countries. It has achieved great popularity with several major U.S. coffee and food chains for their proximity-payment and loyalty-program applications. The 2019 DCPC showed that 6 to 7 percent of the average consumer's stored-value card payments were completed using some contactless method, presumably many of these using QR-code technology. Recent developments have triggered an increased interest in QR codes for payments and a wide variety of other applications. In May, PayPal announcedOff-site link it was supporting the use of QR codes in its app for the purchase and sale of goods in 28 countries including the United States. CVS Pharmacy announced that, before the end of 2020, it would be integrating PayPal and Venmo QR codes in its checkout system in its 8,200 U.S. locations before the end of 2020.

The COVID pandemic has sparked renewed interest in QR codes because of their contactless nature. Guests at restaurants can scan a QR code to call up menus, place their order, and pay for their meal. Museum patrons can get more information about an exhibit or artwork. Some major broadcast networks and product brands are including QR codes in their on-air advertising to provide an interactive session with consumers—the QR code takes them to a website featuring a product or a specific show. All the major social media platforms are supporting the use of QR codes to follow accounts.

For the merchant, QR code technology is easier and less costly to implement than is NFC as long as the merchant can display a QR code for the customer's phone to read. Only software development is required; no additional hardware has to be purchased. The industry association supporting non-FI-owned ATMs is working to develop standards for the use of QR codes on ATM screens to support cardless ATM transactions.

From my perspective, it is still the early days for QR code adoption by consumers in the United States, outside of some proprietary retailer programs, but the increasing rate at which consumers will be encountering the technology in their everyday routine holds promise. Merchants consistently report they want to offer payment methods their customers prefer to use. So will one of the contactless technologies win out over the other, or will they coexist? Let us know what you think as we drop the breaded chicken pieces in the fryer and stir the country gravy.

November 16, 2020

What Might Stormy Weather Mean for Banking Status?

Life is bad gloomy misery everywhere
Stormy weather just can't seem to get myself together
I'll be here all the time

These days, many of us are singing the 1933 song "Stormy Weather." That's because we all are engaged in a massive natural experiment:

  • What were our preferences and behaviors before the weather turned stormy?
  • How will they change—or not—after the sky clears?

Researchers sometimes call such a sharp demarcation a "treatment." When something dramatic happens, we want to know—ASAP—the long-term implications. It's hard to wait for the data to come in.

Echoing Catherine Thaliath a couple of weeks ago, I suggest you ground your speculations in what you know. For example, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's (FDIC) recent Survey of Household Use of Banking and Financial ServicesOff-site link (formerly, the FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households) released prepandemic data last month:

  • 124.2 million U.S. households had bank accounts in 2019, at 94.6 percent of households the highest shares since this FDIC survey began in 2009.
  • The increase in the share of banked households from its low point in 2011 was mostly associated with improvements in their socioeconomic circumstances.

After examining these historical data, the FDIC report concludes that the unbanked rate is likely to increase from its prepandemic level as a result of income or job loss. This conclusion is alarming given that access to digital payments has become even more essential in our COVID world of physical distancing. A recent Atlanta Fed paper advocated that there could be other ways to give cash users access to "digital payment vehicles that don't depend on traditional bank accounts." So now could be the time for this sort of innovation—for example, the expansion of cash-in/cash-out networks that let consumers convert benjamins, five spots, and other folding stuff into digital money and back.

Back to speculation: What could changes in banking status mean for payments? Perhaps some households will face challenges in accessing payment methods linked to a bank account. Entrepreneurs could find new opportunities for innovations in prepaid cards. Developers might rethink the foundation of apps intended to assist low- and moderate-income consumers. What are your ideas?

Harold Arlen composed the music to "Stormy Weather." Arlen also composed "Over the Rainbow," which promises that we'll wake up "where the clouds are far behind us." As that beloved ballad advises, remember that today in payments is not the future of payments. Our short-term choices during COVID are only one piece of imagining the future.

November 2, 2020

Payments in the Time of COVID: November 19 Webinar

Chatting with my mother-in-law about shopping online for groceries: "Your father-in-law ordered five bananas. We got five bunches. I'm making lots of banana bread."

Perhaps you have experienced the surprises of online shopping for food: Chocolate-covered peanuts instead of raisins. One apple instead of one bag of apples. And like my mother-in-law, unexpected baking opportunities.

Maybe you have experienced the joys of online shopping for food: Placing an order from bed. Avoiding the 10 percent kid tax when your shopping assistant begs for some grocery novelty. Unexpected baked goods.

The anecdotal evidence above implies that the prevalence of in-person shopping is changing. Many of us have become more flexible about grocery shopping, with less desire to individually examine every pepper or loaf of bread in the age of COVID.

Like our personal experiences, recent data collected for the Survey and Diary of Consumer Payment Choice also imply a shift in in-person shopping for goods and services. For example, in October 2019, 96 percent of consumers reported making an in-person payment at least once in a typical month. In April and May 2020, during the pandemic shutdown, just 34 percent of consumers had made an in-person payment at least once in the prior 30 or 60 days. (The particular time period depended on when respondents answered the question, which began, "Since March 10, 2020....")

However you do your shopping, I hope you'll join me and Kevin Foster from the Atlanta Fed alongside Shaun O'Brien from the Cash Product Office at the San Francisco Fed for the next Talk About Payments webinar, November 19, 2020, at 1 p.m. (ET). We'll look at pre- and during-pandemic data from the Survey and Diary of Consumer Payment Choice to get an understanding of how consumer payments behavior has changed. Are we shopping in person? When we do shop in person, how do we pay? We also will examine the jump in U.S. currency in circulation beginning in March and consumers' holdings of cash during COVID.

This webinar is open to the public but you must register in advance to participate. (Registration is free.) You can register onlineOff-site link. Once registered, you will receive a confirmation email with login and call-in information. We hope you will join us on November 19 where you will have an opportunity to ask questions about the results of the research.

P.S. Last week on Thursday, the Federal Reserve released detailed data about noncash payments in the United States from 2012 to 2018Off-site link. This data release provides detailed allocations of aggregate data from the 2019 Federal Reserve Payments Study, previously reported in December 2019. A spreadsheet with 11 tabs for accounts, cards, and payment instrument use as well as a release note describing the data sources and allocations are included.