Aiming to help banks better target their technology dollars, the Federal Reserve plans to take a comprehensive inventory of how many paper checks are written each year in the United States, who is writing them to whom, and how much the checks are for.
Bankers know that despite their best efforts check-writing is not on the wane, but they do not have a firm grasp of how large the market is. The Federal Reserve expects to make such statistics available this fall and update them regularly, with the hope that bankers can use the data as they plan their budgets.
The effort to move the paper to electronics has not gone as fast as most people would like or would have expected, and some of the toughest questions we have are how much to invest in the old technology, said Richard Oliver, the Federal Reserve Systems manager for retail payments and a senior vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Some consultants and industry groups estimate that there are 65 billion to 68 billion checks written per year, but no official industrywide count has been taken for a while and bankers say the Federal Reserve may be the only organization with the clout and reach necessary to conduct such a survey. Federal Reserve officials say they intend to spend March and April collecting statistics from 2,500 financial institutions, with heaviest emphasis on the top 100 check-processing banks.
In addition to the overall count, the study will take random blocks of checks from various banks and try to figure out what categories they fall into: people writing checks to other people, people writing checks to businesses, businesses writing checks to other businesses. Thats real pick-and-shovel work, Mr. Oliver observed.
A third component of the Federal Reserve study will attempt to quantify the total volume and value of noncash payments made through the Automated Clearing House with credit and debit cards and with emerging payment methods. Three consulting firms Global Concepts Inc., Westat, and Dove Consulting have been retained to help the Fed.
Were very enthusiastic about this, but success depends on the enthusiasm that the financial institutions have for providing this data, Mr. Oliver said. Were hoping to get very high levels of participation that would make the information we produce highly credible, and would encourage the Fed to keep repeating the survey.
Diogo Teixeira, president of TowerGroup Inc., a financial services consulting firm that specializes in technology and the payments system, said longitudinal data could be the most helpful to banks. The question we want to know is what is the growth rate, or growth decline of check-writing, he said. The industry is waiting for that magic moment when the total number will actually start to shrink.
Mr. Teixeira said the Fed project is a terrific one that is long overdue. There has been over the years an inability to discourage check-writing, he said. Particularly helpful will be the potential insight into who is writing checks to whom. Different groups of check-writers have very different patterns of electronic substitution, so this information might well help banks design more effective electronic check substitution programs.
Mr. Teixeira said banks would also like to know how many checks were written at no cost to the consumer, versus how many the consumer paid a fee to write.