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ACH and Consumer-Only Payments: Will the Twain Ever Meet?
For many years, person-to-person (P2P) payment providers have touted the emergence of compelling P2P mobile-based products that exploit some combination of financial institutions (FIs) and fintech providers. Several players have made notable inroads into P2P with certain demographics and use cases, but the overall results in terms of absolute numbers are far from ubiquitous. This post uses hard numbers to explore what progress ACH has made with P2P payments.
During a payments conference earlier this year that showcased findings from the Fed's triennial payments study (here and here), the table below was presented showing the number and value shares of domestic network ACH payments in 2015. The table is complicated because it shows both debit pull and credit push payments by consumer and business counterparties. Despite the complexity, the table distills ACH to its essence by removing details associated with the 14 transaction payment types (known as Standard Entry Class codes) that carry value for domestic payments. Many of these individual codes reflect similar types of payments (for example, three codes are used for converting first presentment checks to ACH). As expected, virtually all payments involve at least one business party to each payment. Consumer-only payments are negligible.
In a typical use case for consumer-only ACH, a consumer transfers funds from one account to another account across financial institutions. As shown in the solid red oval, 0.04 percent of all domestic payments were consumer-to-consumer payments, where the payee initiated a debit to the payer's bank account. For consumer credit push payments, the figure is 0.3 percent. The combined figure rounds to 0.3 percent. On the value side for consumer-only payments (in the dashed red oval), debit pulls, credit pushes, and the combined figure were 0.02 percent, 0.2 percent, and 0.2 percent, respectively. These types of payments typically reflect P2P payments1, when one consumer pushes funds to another consumer.
The next table shows the figures that prevailed in 2012. Given the modest share by both number and value across both years, it is apparent—and interesting—that ACH has made little progress in garnering consumer-only payments. Although ACH is ubiquitous on the receipt side across all financial institutions, it is not so for consumers, given the lack of widely promoted and compelling service offerings from FIs and no standardized form factor like there is for card payments. Additionally, many small FIs do not offer ACH origination services.
This lack of adoption is not unique to ACH. Although some of the electronic P2P entrants are experiencing significant growth, it will be some time before they supplant the billions of P2P cash and check payments. P2P players on the FI-centric side include Zelle, which a large consortium of banks owns. Non-FI providers include PayPal and its associated Venmo service. Given the lack of ubiquity with the new offerings, the fallback option for consumer-only payments is cash and checks. As the payments study reports, check use is still declining, though the most recent trend shows that this decline has slowed. ACH or other electronic options still seem a good bet to continue to erode paper options, but perhaps the market is signaling that paper options have ongoing utility and are still preferred if not optimal for some users in some instances.
So what would it take for ACH to gain some traction in the consumer payments space? Perhaps the presence of same-day ACH, in which credits were mandated in September of 2016 and debits followed in September 2017, offers some opportunity for compelling service offerings coupled with a user-friendly way to send an emergency payment to your ne'er-do-well son.
What are your views on the viability of ACH garnering more P2P payments?
By Steven Cordray, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed
1 Sometimes account-to-account (A2A) transfers are lumped in with P2P payments.