The Bank of England Welcomes Fintech

In the FT, Chris Giles, Caroline Binham, and Delphine Strauss report about plans of the Bank of England to let fintech companies

bank at Threadneedle Street and thereby offer payments systems on a level playing field with commercial banks.

The editorial board of the FT welcomes the plans; it seems to have in mind not only competition but also “synthetic” CBDC:

By offering fintech companies access to the BoE’s vaults, the governor may inject much-needed competition into the sector. What must follow is proactive regulation …

Commercial banks have traditionally had exclusive access to deposits at the UK’s central bank, offering them a competitive advantage through cheap banking services. … Another potential advantage for consumers is they could be paid the central bank’s often favourable interest rate directly — rather than relying on traditional banks to pass on rate rises.

Mark Carney outlined the plans in his Mansion House speech. Here are some excerpts from the section on digital finance:

… the Faster Payment System (FPS) launched a decade ago has made payments quicker (within two hours) and more cost effective by encouraging direct bank-to-bank transfers.

While mobile app PayM uses FPS to facilitate direct bank-to-bank payments between individuals via text, it requires both the sender and recipient to be signed up to the third party service. But few are. And FPS is not yet used for in-store or online purchases as the infrastructure required at the point of sale does not reliably exist in the UK.

In these regards, the UK is still a long way behind countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands and India …

The revolution of payments may not be driven by the old bank-based systems … Major changes are on the horizon … That’s why the Bank fully supports the Payments Strategy Review the Chancellor has launched this evening.

To support private innovation and to empower competition, the Bank is levelling the playing field between old and new. This means allowing competitors access to the same resources as incumbents while holding the same risks to the same standards.

… we are now making it easier for a broad set of firms to plug in and compete with more traditional providers. In July 2017, we became the first G7 central bank to open up access to our payment services to a new generation of non-bank PSPs. …

Responding to demands from innovators, the RTGS rebuild will also now provide API access to users to read and write payments data, as well as implementing a system whereby each payment will be tagged with information in a standardised format across the world. This global messaging standard will speed up settlement both domestically and across borders.

… Today, the Bank of England is announcing plans to consult on opening access to our balance sheet to new payment providers. Historically, only commercial banks were able to hold interest-bearing deposits, or reserves, at the Bank. …

From the Bank’s perspective, expanding access can improve the transmission of monetary policy and increase competition. It can also support financial stability by allowing settlement in the ultimate risk free asset, and reducing reliance on major banks. Users should benefit from the reduced costs and increased certainty that comes with banking at the central bank. …

This access could empower a host of new innovation. … settlement systems using distributed ledger technology … consortia, such as USC, propose to issue digital tokens that are fully backed by central bank money, allowing instant settlement. This could also plug into ‘tokenised assets’ – conventional securities also represented on blockchain—and smart contracts. This can drive efficiency and resilience in operational processes and reduce counterparty risks in the system, unlocking billions of pounds in capital and liquidity that can be put to more productive uses.

The potential transformation in retail payments is even more fundamental. …

The Bank of England approaches Libra with an open mind but not an open door. Unlike social media for which standards and regulations are being debated well after they have been adopted by billions of users, the terms of engagement for innovations such as Libra must be adopted in advance of any launch.

Carney also outlines plans to support initiatives that aim at giving households and firms control over “their” data:

To make real inroads, SMEs must be able to identify the data relevant to their businesses, incorporate it into their individual credit files, and easily share these files with potential providers of finance through a national SME financing platform.

This would put into practice the recommendations from Professor Jason Furman’s Digital Competition Panel report on how to extract value from data and promote competition. One of the most important recommendations in this regard is to give consumers control of their data. This would allow consumers to move their personal information from one platform to another and avoid lock-in effects, opening the door to new services. To some extent, this is what Open Banking hopes to achieve. Although to make this a success means establishing common off the-shelf API standards and operating platforms onto which developers can build. …

It is not for the Bank of England to build this platform but we can help lay some of groundwork. The messaging standards we are adopting in the new RTGS will also include tagging payments with a unique ID called a Legal Entity Identifier (LEI).

Link to earlier post on the SNB’s policy.