Time Magazine Encourages Safe & Reliable Money for the World

by Tim Sloane 0

Bhagwan Chowdhry’s article in Time Magazine identifies the shortcomings of current payment mechanisms, highlighting why cash continues to succeed where other payment types fail:

“They said it was imminent. They said so two decades ago. But I am still waiting for a truly fast, reliable, and safe form of money for people—all 7 billion of us. So many other things that were once unimaginable to us are now true: we can connect with anyone on the planet almost instantaneously—to talk, see each other over video, and send each other pictures of our cats and dogs, even kids. But if we want to move a penny, or 10 rupees, it is no longer a brave new world, not even close. It’s virtually impossible for someone to easily transfer money to another at a low cost, unless both parties are physically present at the same place and same time.

Not so, you may protest. We have Apple Pay, Paypal, Google Wallet, Mastercard, Visa, M-Pesa, Bitcoin, hundreds of alt-coins spawned by Bitcoin, all of which claim that they will dethrone good old-fashioned cash off its mantle. But not so fast. Despite all the hype around the supposedly new-fangled digital alternatives to money, these remain either expensive or inconvenient. Credit card companies charge retailers two to three percent of any transaction, which we’re all paying for in the form of higher prices, passed on by merchants. Direct withdrawals from bank accounts are cheaper, but have traditionally taken a long time to clear, sometimes as long as a day.

The drawbacks of these digital alternatives are evidenced by the resilience of cash. Eighty-five percent of all transactions globally (and 40 percent in the U.S.) are still carried out using cash, particularly transactions involving small amounts of money. There are good reasons why that is the case. Cash is convenient. Cash is private. Cash is intuitive. Cash does not incur explicit transactions costs.

And yet cash is also cumbersome to carry and store. It can be stolen and forged, remains uninvested and usually loses purchasing power over time, and most importantly, cannot be transferred easily across large distances. And so, the pressing need for a digital currency that works.”

The article goes on to dismiss Bitcoin for valid reasons, my favorite being the quote from Nathaniel Popper that Bitcoin is “one big hack away from total failure.” I enjoy this quote because it not only identifies a real concern with any software based solution, it also identifies why software based payments tend to have fees – a strong defense costs money.

Mr. Chowdhry also identifies the unintentional consequences of regulators that establish a permanent economic underclass:

“Money attracts both fraud and regulation. And uncertainty. Financial regulators are conservative, wary of any new technology that is easy to use and accessible, unless it be proven completely fraud-proof (an impossible standard).

And so, regulators are over-zealous in clamping down on innovation. They will reflexively (and absurdly) invoke “Know your customer” (KYC) regulations and “Anti Money-Laundering” (AML) requirements every time someone proposes something new. It’s as if regulators never want to hear the benefits that might come from financial innovation, however much they might offset any potential downside. But someone who designs a faster car should not be prevented from manufacturing and selling it lest thieves use it get away after robbing a bank. We need to rely on other means of deterring crime.

When we discourage innovation and proliferation of convenient, secure, and costless digital alternatives to money for fear of money-laundering and related crime, we are continuing to disenfranchise nearly 3 billion poor people in the world who would benefit the most from the financial inclusion that frictionless digital money and payments will generate for them.”

Mercator has often documented this problem that further marginalizes those with low income, including in these three blogs here, here and here.

The article concludes with three recommendations that should be a guide for implementing a solution, regrettably that guide is woefully incomplete, but then this is a hard problem to solve!

Overview by Tim Sloane, VP, Payments Innovation Advisory Service at Mercator Advisory Group

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