Banking's infatuation with technology is reminiscent of the hula hoop fad 35 years ago. Getting past this stage will require a long-term commitment to working through the costs, benefits, gimmicks, product failures, and fickleness of consumers, and reaching a stage where the electronic products of the future become more clearly defined. Certainly this is true of the various forms of electronic money that are among the most intriguing of the new products. They may lead to a new concept of pocket money, give birth to a new commercial payment system for the Internet, change the way governments pay out benefits electronically, and revolutionize the movement of value over telephone lines and airwaves. In short, the business of financial intermediation may be heading for the most comprehensive overhaul of products and delivery systems this century. At the same time, a battle is brewing between regulated financial institutions and other companies that, because they are not regulated, may be more nimble in responding to the development and implementation of financial technology. Unlike in the past, when banks could simply purchase, lease, or license the technology they needed from companies eager to profit from such a relationship, the new technological giants may be positioning themselves for a much different role. Instead of being content to profit by helping banks serve their customers better, the nonbanks realize that technology may allow them to take banks' customers away, product by product. The electronic money products currently fall into several different formats. Some electronic money systems create new forms of value that are captured on a smart card or stored-value card. Others benefit from new methods of transmitting electronic instructions to financial institutions to move money in any one of a number of electronic media. Prominent examples are the Mondex system that National Westminster Bank and Midland Bank are currently demonstrating in Swindon, England; Digicash's E-cash, being offered by Mark Twain Bank in St. Louis; and the recently announced New York stored-value test by Chase Manhattan Bank, Citibank, MasterCard, and Visa. The programs' designers have carefully thought through a wide range of consumer, technology, business, and legal issues. However, beyond the initial questions about consumer acceptance, the most quietly contemplated issue is when and how governments and regulators will assume a role in the development of these products. Having had the occasion to evaluate some of these electronic money products and analyze the legal issues that will accompany their introduction into consumer markets, I believe they boil down to one fundamental question: Where is the money? The ramifications of this question are far more complex than they sound. Before any government entity or regulator can begin to construct and apply a set of laws and rules to the different forms of electronic money under development, it must determine whether the product actually creates a new currency with inherent value, or simply identifies a new form of electronic obligation that may be traded among a group of participants that agree to accept what it purports to represent. For example, if the "money" truly resides on a smart card that a consumer carries in his or her pocket, and it is not backed by any account or funds in a financial institution or other type of issuer, the consumer must logically bear the risk of loss. If the "money" continues to reside with the issuing bank or company until the consumer has transmitted payment instructions and settlement has occurred, then the consumer must have an account somewhere, and it may be one that is insured by the FDIC. Whichever the case, issuers and users will have to grapple with questions ranging from the public policy implications of creating a new "currency," to the practical repercussions of the failure of an issuing financial institution or nondepository company. Consider the smart card that acts much like conventional money. Consumer A gives $100 to an issuer, Bank A, which translates that $100 into electronic value on the card. On the card, Consumer A has an encrypted message representing $100, but the issuer has Consumer A's $100 of cash. If Consumer A "locks" his smart card with a personal identification number and then loses the card, assuming that his agreement with Bank A was that he would bear the risk of loss, Consumer A has $0, but the issuer still has Consumer A's $100 of cash. Must the issuer establish a ledger account representing the $100 it received from Consumer A, and for how long? Must Bank A hold a reserve against the value issued on Consumer A's smart card? Does Bank A get a $100 windfall from Consumer A's loss, or do state escheat laws control the future of that $100? These questions will be decided by three factors: contractual agreements between electronic-money issuers and consumers; common law principles of law and equity; and new laws enacted by federal and state legislatures. In this regard, public policy interests will guide the actions of governmental entities. Those interests include monetary control and the creation of currency, consumer protection, law enforcement, especially money laundering, and systemic safety and security. To underscore the importance of understanding where the money is, let us consider several fundamental questions closely associated with new technology-driven banking products and the laws that may currently apply. Every new electronic money system will have to consider whether at various points it may involve the receipt of a "deposit." Even more fundamental is the question of whether the receipt, issuance, collection, retention, or transmission of electronic money puts the proponent of the system in the business of banking or some other business that has special licensing requirements.

While several definitions of deposit litter the federal statutory landscape, perhaps no meaning is more problematic than that in the Glass- Steagall Act. It prohibits as a felony any receiving of "deposits subject to check or to repayment upon presentation of a passbook, certificate of deposit, or other evidence of debt" unless it is authorized by federal or state governments. If an electronic money system is not carefully crafted to avoid the creation of a "deposit" residing outside a bank, savings institution, or credit union, it may be subject to challenge.

Limited Time Offer

Save $400 off your subscription. Special offer ends April 30, 2017.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.