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RBI’s Payment Systems Vision 2012-15: Moving Beyond Regulation

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has released its Payment Systems Vision 2012-15. This is the central bank’s fourth such document. It published the first one in December 2001, detailing the payment system vision till 2003. Subsequently, it has continued publishing it every three years—in 2004 for 2005-08, in 2009 for 2009-12, with the latest one coming a couple of days back.

RBI had actually released a draft in June 2012 for comments. Based on the feedback, it has made some changes and released the final document.

A vision document by a regulator/policymaker achieves two great purposes.

One, it gives some clarity to the stakeholders on the direction of policy making, without the fear of flip-flops that we have seen in a few sectors such as telecom.  The actual rollout speed may be a little faster or slower, but it is not a guesswork.

Two, by making the vision clear to all, a good regulator can carry all stakeholders with itself to pursue a shared dream. That is progressive policy making.

This progressive yet cautious stance, that has won RBI appreciation worldwide, has helped India achieving significant success in converting a significant part of transactions to electronic transactions, though cheques still remain the biggest mode of payment, as far as volumes go.

It is interesting to examine how the vision has progressed. In its 2005-08, the vision was “the establishment of safe, secure, sound and efficient payment and settlement systems for the country”. So, it wan an intent, more than anything else.

The next vision document (2009-12) became bolder when RBI asserted that it wanted to “to ensure that all the payment and settlement systems operating in the country are safe, secure, sound, efficient, accessible and authorized” . It was now no more an intent; it was a mandate it gave to itself as a regulator. It promised the nation to make it happen.

Also, with the UPA government focused on aam aadmi and social inclusion,  financial inclusion as an idea was taking strong roots among policy makers. That thrust saw RBI adding “accessible” to its Payment Vision. It was sort of a passive intent towards inclusion.

That passive intent has become a proactive stance in the current vision statement as it adds the word “inclusive” to the vision. Financial inclusion initiatives have progressed a lot between then and now.

But that addition was along expected lines. What is more noteworthy are the addition of interoperability and compliance.

When RBI released the draft vision in June, the mission statement read something like this: To ensure payment and settlement systems in the country are safe, efficient, interoperable, authorised, accessible, inclusive and compliant with international standards.

There was a separate vision statement (a long-term goal perhaps): To proactively encourage electronic payment systems for ushering in a less-cash society in India.

But the final vision document released recently integrates the above goal to the vision statement itself and the final statement reads:

To proactively encourage electronic payment systems for ushering in a less-cash society in India and to ensure payment and settlement systems in the country are safe, efficient, interoperable, authorised, accessible, inclusive and compliant with international standards.

That is not surprising. In May this year, the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee released a white paper on black money, that stressed on the need to move to electronic payments to curb the circulation of black money. Since then, RBI has taken a few measures such as slashing of debit card transaction charges that would help more and more people turning to electronic transactions.

However, RBI realizes that a less-cash society is still more of a dream than a vision and it is worded accordingly: to proactively encourage. But by making it part of the main vision, it is ensuring that it is a dream that it will pursue. It is not  daydreaming.

Some of the major visions that the document lists are

  • efficiency and effectiveness enhancement in the payment systems (a continuous process)
  • standardization, portability and inter-operability (a new objective)
  • development of infrastructure and integrated payment system (RBI has been pursuing this for some time)
  • managing risk in payment systems (has been an overall objective)
  • compliance with international systems (though RBI has taken a number of steps, this is for the first time that it has been inserted to the vision)
  • promote access and inclusion (A major driver of RBI’s economic policies, but has been inserted to Payment Vision for the first time)
  • payment systems literacy and visibility (goes with RBI’s thrust on increasing financial literacy)
  • new products and innovation (something that  has been dealt with RBI in various forms of late)
  • moving towards a less cash society (a dream worth pursuing)

With this Vision Document, RBI has played more as a visionary economic policy maker than just a smart and progressive regulator.

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Containing Black Money: Promoting Debit Card Usage Holds the Key

Recently, RBI released its annual data on electronic payment transactions in India. The retail electronic payment systems data showed that the downward trend that credit card numbers had started showing from 2008-09 onwards has continued through 2011-12. Total number of outstanding credit cards dropped to 17.65 million by the end of March 2012 from 18.04 million a year ago. This was a 36% drop from the peak of March 08 when credit card numbers rose to 27.55 million. This was a conscious exercise on part of banks to minimize NPA. Most of the banks drastically cut issuing credit cards to those without good credit history. As a result, defaults went down drastically.

“In the last one year, the percentage of cardholders who have not met their payment obligations for more than 90 days has dropped from 2.82% in the fourth quarter of 2010 to 1.62% in Q4 2011,” says this recent report by Moneycontrol. By and large, analysts have interpreted it as a positive trend. As credit cards were denied to those with bad/suspect credit history, the limited number of cards remained with affluent people and professionals. That naturally took up the average spend on the cards. While the overall aggregate spend on credit cards jumped from Rs 57985 crore in March 2008 to Rs 96613 crore (that is a 68% jump), doing a little arithmetic on RBI data shows that during the same time, the average monthly spend increased more than two and half times—from Rs 1754 to Rs 4562.

There are, of course, reasons to cheer up the trends. But here is the stark reality. The total number of credit cards are just 17.65 million in a country of more than one billion people. Accounting for multiple card ownership by individuals—most of the people that I know have at least two active credit cards; I have three—the penetration of credit cards hovers around just a little above 1% of the population.

On the other hand, look at the rise of debit cards. In the same period—March 08 to March 12—when number of credit cards fell by 36%, debit cards grew 172%. At the end of March 2012, there were 278 million debit cards. Not surprising considering most banks today give ATM cards to their account holders which double up as debit cards. But look at the spend data. The 278 million cards accounted for a mere Rs 53423 crores. Simple calculations show that the average monthly spend on them is a mere Rs 136—that is 3% of the average monthly spend on credit cards.

That is not an encouraging figure. Especially when the finance ministry acknowledges that the card payments should be incentivized to arrest black money growth. The white paper on black money tabled in the Parliament by the finance minister Mr Pranab Mukherji was quite unequivocal about that. “Use of banking channels and credit/debit cards should be encouraged, while trade practices such as cheque discounting should be discouraged,” notes the paper. “Payments by debit/credit cards through e-service intermediaries will simplify and encourage payments in these modes and reduce the cash economy,” it further says. Reducing the cash economy is vital for arresting black money.

But so far, banks have not cared to do much for promotion of usage of debit cards. Most users do not even know that they can directly make payments through debit cards. They still rush to the ATM to withdraw cash to pay in a shop. In small towns, many shopkeepers actually encourage that even though they are aware about debit card payment. That is because they save on paying the transaction fees. Yes, banks still charge similar kind of transaction fees that they charge on credit cards.

Of late, RBI has voiced its concern about that. G Padmanabhan, Executive Director, RBI, in charge of payment and settlement systems recently called the practice illogical. “We are saying that the debit card interchange fee should be lower because credit cards get paid after sometime, whereas in debit cards, there is an instantaneous debit into my account. Hence, logically debit cards charges should be lower,” Business Standard reported him as saying, at the launch of RuPay debit cards, promoted by National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI).

There is no participation fee in RuPay for banks and there is aggressive plans by NPCI to take up its market share. If successful, it may actually cut down the transaction cost drastically—something similar to what the National Financial Switch (NFS) has done for ATM transactions. NFS, started by Institute for Development and Research in Banking Technology (IDRBT) is now managed by NPCI.

But that is some time away. Till such time, RBI can well go proactive on promoting use of debit cards, as they provide a risk free way for banks to increase electronic payment. Just asking banks to promote/build awareness on debit cards can go a long way in growing the use of debit cards. Removing artificial blocks like high transaction fees can further accelerate the trend. Any other incentive can only help.

We may well see some concrete action on this front this year, if the government is really serious about minimizing the hold of black money on our economy.

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