Will the API Economy breed a Credit Card/ACH hybrid after PSD2?

Will the API Economy breed a Credit Card/ACH hybrid after PSD2? regulation

is creating a new distinct species for retail digital payments in the EU. Shared by account servicing and third party payment initiators, there will be a customer-triggered Credit Transfer for transferring funds from a customer’s account to that of the Merchant providing the goods or services. Upon receipt of payment, the merchant ships the goods/releases the service. By relying on bank security, this method of payment is hard for fraudsters to replay elsewhere, the speed is moving to “immediate,” and there is an irrevocable payment to the merchant. Unlike a credit card, the method does not offer any repudiation mechanism and does not facilitate reversals or refunds. This new species will only live in the EU. Much of the underpinnings for PSD2 comes from the SEPA elements of the Economic and Monetary Union project in the EU.

This newly bred species faces entrenched competition from a dominant older Card species that has ruled the consumer payments Savannah globally for over 50 years. The DNA of this species is from the US. There are US firms in leading positions globally in the main elements of the payment card value chain. US-born VISA and Mastercard as Card Schemes are effectively the franchisors of the card payment ecosystem.

Although banks across the globe issue payment cards to customers, the highest volume issuers are typically US banks. Issuers introduce consumers into the card payments ecosystem, under license from the card payment schemes. Acquirers are responsible for capturing the POS transactions and submitting these transactions to the card scheme for authorisation. If the consumer has the funds or the credit, this process leads to the merchant receiving the value of the goods or services sold. There is also an extensive and distinctive value chain supporting Merchants.  Acquiring Processors provide sub-supply for Acquirers, and US firms are global leaders in this activity. There is a deep sub-supply value chain for Acquirers, with US expertise often to the forefront. The Point of Sale (POS) or Gateway providers offer hardware and software services for the secure capture of payment card details. POS or Gateway providers often innovate in adjacent categories to card payments such as retail inventory management and cash register software. US-led investment is also to the forefront in this area.

Within all these moving parts, there are processes that are relatively unique to the card schemes, such as , rules, penalties, standards, procedures, brand guidelines, financial settlement platforms, security protocols, chargebacks, holds, stand-in processing, reserve accounts, minimum monthly payments, interest-free periods, etc.

It is interesting to speculate about what Merchants would ask for if they could pick and choose their best possible combination of features from both species.  Here are a dozen simple and crude requests that a Merchant might make if they could define a hybrid payments collection service between ACH and Cards:

1.      “If the customer pattern moves to bank-to-bank credit transfers after PSD2, as a Merchant I want to see the same share of my sales being funded by unsecured consumer credit as when I saw a Debit Card/Credit Card split. I want customers to have still the same opportunity to buy on credit if some or all of my product range is priced at high values. “

2.      “Even if banks start to provide credit through unfunded bank accounts rather than card limits, I want my customers to have still the type of structured credit agreements that they liked with Cards, such as minimum monthly payments and interest-free periods. Ideally, they should get to choose the optional elements of their credit agreements.”

3.      “I reluctantly accept that I have to carry the overhead of a trusted dispute resolution mechanism for higher value purchases. I want my provider to educate the customers properly on when this protection exists and when it does not exist. “

4.      “I do not want any repudiation mechanism for the consumer for small value transactions. I have my statutory obligations built into my complaints and refund processes.”

5.      “I want the low-value purchases made without credit paid to me immediately.”

6.      “I want the simplicity and predictability of ACH pricing, not an array of fixed, variable, tiered and once-off card charges.”

7.      “I do not want “holds” put on my money if the business is unexpectedly good compared to projections nor do I want to have money retained in “reserve accounts” in case of chargebacks. My bank should do all the due diligence on my activities, and that should be enough.”

8.      “I do not want to store the digital credentials of my customers, and I do not want to have to comply with a “PCI” security standard that could bankrupt my business with fines and penalties. I am a retailer, not a professional cyber-security company or a bank.”

9.      “If the customer is buying from me remotely on a mobile phone, I want minimal delays and friction but also strong customer authentication with the minimum of variation for transaction size and payment type. These security controls should be so elegantly designed that only thieves and fraudsters abandon transactions.”

10.  “I want value-added services that come with my point-of-sale payment collection services, such as inventory management software, cash drawers, and an App Store, especially for retailers. I want these value added services to work with all payment types.”

11.  “I want working capital finance opportunities that capture all my trading process delivered seamlessly to my business at POS. I don’t want offers of finance that are specifically confined to Cards traffic or some other specific payment mechanism ”

12.  “I want payment schemes with great brands that are recognised globally and entice consumers from all locations, not just EU.”

Producing a hybrid scheme of this agility and desirability is a very tall order, given that the most important suppliers tend to have their capital, infrastructure and knowledge tied up in one of the two models. The biggest EU banks that will handle most of the PSD2 payment initiation volumes are very mature organisations with monolithic software platforms. The major card processors and platforms are also large and mature organisations with monolithic software platforms. They also have very distinctive knowledge bases, focused on either Cards or ACH. They look out at the world from within this history, with a perspective of customer needs influenced by their current model.

Given these rigidities, is a hybrid model that might delight Merchants a pipedream? Perhaps not, if the theoretical promise of the “ ” becomes a reality. The API Economy is a set of business models and channels based on secure access to functionality and exchange of data between businesses through Open APIs.   An Open API is a publicly available application programming interface. It provides third-party developers with programmatic access to a proprietary software application. APIs can also be used within businesses to clearly define automated methods of communication between various software components.

API advocates make many claims about their usefulness. They argue that APIs lower barriers to entry for programmers. They make designing complementary programs easier and faster. Modular design, enabled by APIs, allow software designers to create, modify and remove components. Modularity combines the standardisation needed for high volume processes with customisation required for bespoke design. APIs also enable measuring and metering the third-parties that are accessing and using these resources.

Both Banking and Card Processing specialists are in mature industries with many monolithic systems and divisional organisational structures. All mature industries face a range of challenges adapting to Open APIs. They will have to modify performance management and measurement systems. They have complicated and expensive investments to make to develop modular software with a microservices architecture. Open APIs are entirely different to own-brand products in mature industries. The monetisation goals for Open APIs will have to reconcile with the goals of own-brand products. Mature industries with very established patterns of pursuing profits at divisional level might struggle to see where they will capture value from Open APIs. Older businesses that were not born in the networked economy can be excessively focused on the downside risk of data travelling out to third-parties.

By definition, all of the service domains required for the market to assemble the Merchants wish list for “the ideal hybrid ACH/Card scheme” must already exist. In general, these services are locked inside the software architecture of the respective service providers, either banks or major card specialists.  These service domains have Machine to Machine and Human to Machine interactions.  Machine to Machine interactions has content suitable for data fields that can be passed between applications. The level of detail in the interactions influence the potential for Open APIs. These interactions contain identifiers and depictions that can be explicitly mapped to a data structure. The standard of detail is very high. Human to Machine interaction includes structured forms of information that are completed by a person during a service exchange. The API Economy has the potential to capture the Human input through more applications and more convenient applications.

In crude conclusion, notwithstanding the difficulties for mature firms in changing their business models, Open APIs could revolutionise how data and services are distributed. Given the regulatory intervention, the Card specialists in particular seem to have an incentive to make some or all of their characteristic and value adding service domains available to all models, whether there are 3 or 4 parties involved in a scheme. It could be a 2-model world with tighter margins, so they need to profit from both models. If the reality of the API Economy matches the theory, we could see some hybrid species in the future.


is Author, “PSD2 in Plain English” at Rohan Consulting Services Ltd.