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What Are Real-Time Payments Worth?

Editor at Large

As the U.S. gradually shifts to faster payments, banks will soon learn what kind of price the market will bear for consumers to send money in real time.

Support for real-time payments means major technology upgrades for most banks. BBVA Compass, for instance, spent $362 million on a new core banking system that can process transactions immediately. Some might argue that such tech overhauls are overdue and necessary. But it is a large outlay of money and bank management and investors will want to see a return on that investment.

Consumers, however, are not used to paying to send money – at least not in the contemporary context of everyday, person-to-person transfers on mobile apps.

“Venmo transactions cost nothing, unless the user funds them with high-octane credit cards, so most informal person-to-person payments will be hard to charge much for,” said Steve Mott, CEO of BetterBuyDesign, a payment system consulting firm in Stamford, Conn.

The question will become more and more pressing as the Federal Reserve pushes the industry to speed up the clearing and settlement of payments over the next decade or so.

Testing the Waters
A real-time person-to-person payments service launched last week by U.S. Bank and Bank of America with clearXchange will service as a litmus test for whether, and how much, consumers are willing to pay for quick money transfers.

clearXchange is a digital payments network that was bought in October by Early Warning, a bank-owned risk management solutions provider. Customers at both banks are now able to send real-time P2P payments to customers at either bank, using email addresses or phone numbers. Use cases could include quickly splitting a dinner tab with friends, or sending cash as a birthday gift to someone at the last minute.

“We live in a real-time world today, so our consumers are expecting it,” said Gareth Gaston, executive vice president of omnichannel at U.S. Bank. “The general consumer expectation is that we live in a real-time, instant world, so we see that being the norm.”

In this case, the participating banks don’t have to change their settlement processes to offer real-time payments. The sending bank sends a real-time message through the clearXchange network to the receiving bank, which agrees to instantly post the funds. Once the money is in the receiving customer’s account, she can withdraw it from an ATM or spend it on her debit card.

“If I’m at Bank of America and you’re at U.S. Bank, then Bank of America debits my account for the monies I’m sending you, and I’ll see my reduced availability immediately,” said Lou Anne Alexander, senior vice president at Early Warning. “They send the message through our network to U.S. Bank, U.S. Bank will alert you that those monies are being sent and also memo-credit those funds to your account, so that you have instant availability to them.” Behind the scenes, the banks settle up according to their normal schedule, she said.

Real-time settlement may never even be needed, Alexander suggested. “I think a lot of folks are questioning the value of going to real-time settlement, which is a major investment – multiple billions of dollars across the industry,” she said. “A lot of the issues consumers are having today can be solved with funds availability rather than instant settlement.”

To post the real-time payments, the banks have to develop an enrollment process, a front-end application, and the ability to handle fraud, risk, anti-money-laundering compliance and customer service that goes around them. (In the future, Early Warning plans to provide all this as a single solution.)

At U.S. Bank, which is based in Minneapolis and has $422 billion in assets, integrating with the clearXchange network was a “reasonable amount of work,” Gaston said. “Our goal is that this will be the easy solution for the whole industry to implement.”

Through clearXchange, U.S. Bank makes standard payments (which can take a few business days to clear) free, and charges $2.95 for next-day payments and $6.95 for real-time payments. Bank of America, which did not respond to requests for an interview, does not charge for the payments.

To the industry's recent entrants, a $6.95 fee sounds steep.

“For a consumer-to-consumer transaction that might be $60, that's nuts,” said Ben Milne, founder and CEO of Dwolla, a payments startup. “There are enough free tools at this point that people can get a better deal somewhere else. Charging that much on a small-volume consumer transaction is just opening yourself for your customer to look somewhere else.”

As soon as a mass of people start using real-time, person-to-person payments, Milne said, “some free provider is going to pop up, whether that’s a private provider like PayPal or Dwolla, or a bank provider like BBVA or Chase.”

Gaston pointed out that U.S. Bank has invested heavily in the infrastructure to create real-time person-to-person payments and is first to market. If the market won’t accept $6.95 for real-time transactions, the bank will adjust its pricing, he said.

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Comments (4)
For most retail payments, real time is here. It's called PayPal. What else do we need?
Posted by r.c. whalen | Monday, March 21 2016 at 10:49AM ET
If banks really need to charge fees for a service like this they should probably consider a 3-tiered approach: you get, say, 3 free real-time P2P transfers a month with your checking account and for, say, $6.95/month you get unlimited. For those who need more than 3 per month but not unlimited there could be a small (< $1) fee per transaction but not as long as someone like Square is making it free for "fast enough" transfers.
Posted by aeisler | Thursday, March 17 2016 at 10:58AM ET
A good article, but I am not sure how these guys are first to market. We implemented real-time payments in our bank last year, using a competing payment network (from FIS, called PayNet) and I think other banks have as well. Is this just the first example of two, large financial institutions doing it together in the same network and that's what's significant here?

We also don't charge for the service, unless the person wanted an actual check mailed, instead of an instant payment. We even support funds movement to PayPal (the recipient can choose), which I did not see as an option mentioned in the article (although I imagine most banks, large banks especially, would never offer an option like that).
Posted by thadster00 | Wednesday, March 16 2016 at 3:38PM ET
I've used clearXchange through Wells Fargo to move money for free from my accounts to my freeloading relatives' accounts. While it was easier and also free to use Square's Ca$h transfer service, using the WFC service gives me some psychological comfort.

But I'd flip back to Square (or its many imitators) in a nano-second if WFC ever tried to ding me with a fee.
Posted by Surf'nTurf | Wednesday, March 16 2016 at 2:25PM ET
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