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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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December 3, 2018

Building Blocks for the Sandbox

I just returned from a leave of absence to welcome my third child to this world. As I catch up on payments news, one theme emerging is the large number of state and federal regulatory bodies launching their own fintech sandboxes. Typically, these testing grounds allow businesses to experiment with various "building blocks" while they innovate. Some businesses are even allowed regulatory relief as they work out the kinks. As I've researched, I've found myself daydreaming about how my new little human also needs to work with the right building blocks, or core principles, to ensure he develops properly and "plays nice" in the sandbox.

But—back to work. What guidance do fintechs have available to them to grow and prosper?.

On July 31 of this year, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released a report suggesting regulatory reform to promote financial technology and innovation among both traditional financial institutions and nonbanks. The report in its entirety is worth a review, but I'll highlight some of it here.

The blueprint for a unified regulatory sandbox is still up for discussion, but the Treasury suggests a hierarchical structure, either overseen by a single regulator or by an entirely new regulator. The Treasury suggests that Congress will likely have to assist by passing legislation with the necessary preemptions to grant authority to the newly created agency or a newly named authoritative agency.

The report outlines these core principles of a unified regulatory sandbox:

  • Promote the adoption and growth of innovation and technological transformation in financial services.
  • Provide equal access to companies in various stages of the business lifecycle (e.g., startups and incumbents). [The regulator should define when a business could or should participate.]
  • Delineate clear and public processes and procedures, including a process by which firms enter and exit.
  • Provide targeted relief across multiple regulatory frameworks.
  • Offer the ability to achieve international regulatory cooperation or appropriate deference where applicable.
  • Maintain financial integrity, consumer protections, and investor protections commensurate with the scope of the project, not be based on the organization type (whether it's a bank or nonbank).
  • Increase the timeliness of regulator feedback offered throughout the product or service development lifecycle. [Slow regulator feedback is typically a deterrent for start-up participation.]

Clearly, the overarching intent of these principles is to help align guidance, standards, and regulation to meet the needs of a diverse group of participants. Should entities offering the same financial services be regulated similarly? More importantly, is such a mission readily achievable?

People have long recognized the fragmentation of the U.S. financial regulatory system. The number of agencies at the federal and state levels with a hand in financial services oversight creates inconsistencies and overlaps of powers. Fintech innovations even sometimes invite attention from regulators outside of the financial umbrella, regulators like the Federal Communications Commission or the Federal Trade Commission.

In the domain of financial services are kingdoms of industry. Take the payments kingdom, for example. Payments are interstate, global, and multi-schemed (each scheme with its own rules framework). And let's be honest, in the big picture of financial services innovations and in the minds of fintechs, payments are an afterthought, and they aren't front and center in business plans. Consumers want products or services; payments connect the dots. (In fact, the concept of invisible payments is only growing stronger.)

What is more, a fintech, even though it may have a payments component in its technology, might not identify itself as a fintech. And a business that doesn't see itself as a fintech is not going to get in line for a unified financial services regulator sandbox (though it might want to play in a payments regulator sandbox).

When regulatory restructuring takes place, I hope it will build a dedicated infrastructure to nurture the payments piece of fintech, so that all can play nice in the payments sandbox. (Insert crying baby.)

Photo of Jessica Washington By Jessica Washington, AAP, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

August 1, 2016

FFIEC Weighs In On Mobile Channel Risks

In late April, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) released new guidance regarding mobile banking and mobile payments risk management strategies. Titled "Appendix E: Mobile Financial Services," the document becomes part of the FFIEC's Information Technology Examination Handbook. While the handbook is for examiners to use to "determine the inherent risk and adequacy of controls at an institution or third party providing MFS" (for mobile financial services), it can also be a useful tool for financial institutions to better understand the expectations that examiners will have when conducting an exam of an institution's MFS offering.

Consistent with examiners' focus on third-party relationships for the last several years, the document points out that MFS often involves engagement with third parties and that the responsibilities of the parties in those relationships must be clearly documented and their compliance closely managed. Other key areas the document reviews include:

  • Mobile application development, maintenance, security, and attack threats
  • Enrollment controls to authenticate the customer's identity and the payment credentials they are adding to a mobile wallet
  • Authentication and authorization, emphasizing that financial institutions should not use mobile payment applications that rely on single-factor methods of authentication.
  • Customer education efforts to support the adoption of strong security practices in the usage of their mobile devices

The document also identifies and reviews strategic, operational, compliance, and reputation risk issues for the various elements of a financial institution's MFS offering. The final section of the document outlines an examiner's work plan for reviewing an MFS program with seven key objectives. I believe that it would be time well spent for the institution's MFS team to assume the role of examiner and use the work plan as a checklist to help effectively identify and manage the risks associated with an MFS program.

Photo of David Lott By David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

July 25, 2011

Is the final Durbin Amendment rule an impetus for EMV in the United States?

On June 29, the Federal Reserve Board released its much-anticipated final rule, Regulation II, to the Durbin Amendment. The Board's final rule significantly differs from its interim rule on this amendment, resulting in ample commentary from the payments industry, financial institutions, and the merchant community.

However, there has been little commentary provided about the potential impact the final rule may have on encouraging the migration of debit cards away from mag stripe to the EMV standard. Upon closer examination of the Board's lengthy final rule, it appears that issuers might have the ability to recoup a portion of EMV-related costs should they opt to migrate away from magnetic-stripe technology in the years ahead.

Initially, the Board limited allowable costs for the calculation of the interchange fee cap of $0.12 to include only variable costs associated with the authorization, clearance, and settlement (ACS) of transactions. In setting the final interchange cap base component at $0.21, the Board broadened its definition of allowable costs and included costs incurred to effect a debit transaction such as network connectivity and processing fees. The Board also included fixed costs, such as hardware and software costs, in developing its final interchange cap.

In addition to the $0.21 base component of the interchange cap, the Board included an ad valorem component of 5 basis points of the transaction value to reflect a portion of issuers' fraud losses. Finally, the final rule allows for a fraud-prevention adjustment of $0.01 per transaction, conditioned upon the issuer adopting effective fraud-prevention policies and procedures. These interchange fees become effective on October 1, 2011.

The final rule requires that the Board collect cost data from debit card issuers biennially. Presumably, the Board can make any necessary adjustments to the base component, the ad valorem component, and the fraud-prevention adjustment based on issuers' biennial reports of incurred costs.

What impact will the Board's final rule have on the future of EMV?
If the Board makes future adjustments to the interchange standard components based on the survey of costs every two years, language within the Board's final rule suggests that issuers may be able to recoup some, but not all, costs associated with an EMV migration. Given the Board's addition of fixed costs as allowable costs, hardware and software costs incurred by issuers to migrate to EMV might be included in future adjustments to the base component of the interchange cap. While the research and development (R&D) costs are not included in the base interchange standard, the rule states "the cost of research and development of new authentication methods would be considered in the fraud-prevention adjustment." Should issuers adopt EMV, R&D costs incurred are allowable under the fraud prevention adjustment standard. Finally, the final rule clearly excludes the cost of card production and delivery—a requirement for migration to EMV—as an allowable cost.

The impact of the Durbin Amendment on movement toward EMV remains open to debate. Is the potential for future debit card interchange rate increases enough to motivate issuers to finally migrate to the EMV standard? Do the current interchange cap and exclusion of some EMV-related costs from the interchange standard hinder a future move toward EMV? I am optimistic that future potential adjustments to the components of the interchange standard under the final rule's expanded set of allowable costs—along with the consideration of R&D costs as part of the fraud adjustment component—will have a positive impact on migration to EMV.

By Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

June 29, 2010

Managing risk in the ACH network: Minneapolis Fed study uses FedACH data to identify better benchmarks

ACH volumes have grown rapidly over the past decade, as the network has expanded beyond prearranged, recurring payments between known and trusted parties to include converted checks and one-time transactions originated over the Internet or by telephone. New ACH services have heightened concerns about risk because of the potential associated growth in ACH returns for reasons such as insufficient funds, presentment to closed accounts, and unauthorized transactions, to name just a few. To gauge the level of risk in a financial institution’s ACH origination business, it may seem reasonable to use the rate of these returned items as a possible benchmark. If an ACH originator's return rate is consistently below the industry average, we should be confident that its ACH risk management practices are generally sound, shouldn't we?

Not necessarily, according to a new Federal Reserve study. The researchers—Olivier Armantier, Michele Braun, and Dennis Kuo of the New York Fed and Ron Feldman, Mark Lueck, and Richard Todd of the Minneapolis Fed—recently conducted a study using FedACH data to look at ways to improve the benchmarks used to monitor ACH returns to shed some light on today's ACH risk environment. The study held some interesting and noteworthy findings.

Average return rates are not necessarily a good benchmark for measuring risk
The Federal Reserve study shows that about 75 percent of all consumer debit originators were below the FedACH average for consumer debit return rates during spring 2006. This large percentage stems from the fact that the average is elevated by a small number of very large originators who also have higher return rates. Consequently, some originators who fall below the average may still have rates significant enough to deserve attention. In short, while average return rates are almost the only benchmark currently available, they do not provide the most effective proxy for assessing ACH return risk management.

Better benchmarks could be constructed
The Fed study illustrates how more informative benchmarks could be computed by exploiting the ACH transactions data. The authors used FedACH data on all consumer debit forward and return items originated for a period in mid-2006. By developing a methodology that matched about 90 percent of return items to their original forward item, they could tabulate rich sets of statistics, covering the whole distribution of ACH return rates, not just the average. Their analysis tabulates return rate distributions for several individual standard entry class (SEC) codes, as well as the overall distribution of ACH transaction types, leading to the following additional results:

  • Size doesn't matter much. ACH return rates for small and large originators are not very different for most SEC codes. In fact, overall and for most types of consumer debits, the median small originator has a slightly lower return rate than the median large originator, when size is measured by deposits. Return rates were also not strongly related to the originating depository financial institution's volume of originations. Thus, it would be a mistake to read deposit size or institution size as a proxy for sophistication in managing the quality of ACH originations.
  • TEL and WEB are both risky, but in different ways. The average return rates for both telephone-initiated transactions (SEC code TEL) and web-initiated transactions (SEC code WEB) were high relative to most other types of consumer debits, but in different ways. TEL risks were higher across the board, so that well-below-median TEL return rates were still high compared to typical consumer debit return rates. By contrast, most WEB originators experienced lower returns on WEB than on consumer debits generally. However, a minority of WEB originators with significant volumes and very high return rates pulled the average return rate for WEB somewhat above the average return rate of all consumer debits.
  • Returns come fast and are mostly the result of insufficient funds. In mid-2006, more than 98 percent of all returns occurred within five days of origination, with more than 70 percent returned due to insufficient funds. For the small minority of returns that take more than five days, authorization issues predominate.

Better benchmarks can help banks manage ACH risk
Using and customizing the type of analysis done in the Fed study has the potential to help originating banks better understand risks and therefore more efficiently deter fraud. For example, both originating banks and bank regulators could analyze the distribution of return rates and reason codes by bank peer group to gain a better sense of an individual institution's risk management practices. At the broadest level, linking returns to forward items can efficiently provide a rich array of benchmarks to help originators better monitor their ACH returns and enhance the quality of information they provide to their boards of directors. Similarly, by going beyond the average return rate concept, regulators could use the approaches adopted in the Fed study to better supervise ACH originators, or industry associations could use them to improve industry standards. In short, the sun could be setting on the days of taking false comfort from the Lake Woebegonish achievement of a below-average return rate.

By guest blogger Richard M. Todd, vice president, Community Affairs and Banking and Policy Studies at the Minneapolis Fed

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