SEPA: Chicken or the Egg?

4 January 2010

I was reading an update on SEPA : New Alliances Required to Tip the Market. The report gave me new perspective on how challenging it is to change a networked business. This challenge is exacerbated by the ‘well intended’ EU political compromises in SEPA (specifically) and EU regulation of retail finance (more broadly). Clearly “payment networks” can benefit from innovation, but as Juergen correctly states “In a network industry, cost reductions and/or additional revenues that can be realized by applying the new standards have to exceed the network effects currently realized with the old standard”.

SEPA is struggling to resolve issues in cost/benefit allocation given the slow growth and adoption for SDD and SCT. The greater growth in SEPA Cards Framework can be attributed to the “control” and investment from Visa/MA as they manage compliance (and marketing) or the new SCF brand. An excerpt from the report above:

Key strategic decisions have to be made almost simultaneously in organisations that are in competition with each other, follow different strategies and have different abilities to innovate or prepare for an industry change. Only if consensus on a new business model can be reached – among stakeholders who represent significant market shares and hold key positions in the industry– will it be possible to generate the synergies promised by SEPA. As already described, the cross-border business within SEPA represents only a small share of the payments market. The dominant national standards, which all would have to be replaced by the new SEPA standards, are built around national market requirements.

International banks (for example, Deutsche Bank) have separate organisational units in several European countries that run their own national payments engines. They maintain different payment infrastructures in Europe. Modifications in response to new compliance requirements (for example, money laundering or new requirements of the PSD) create several similar projects [for this single bank]..

The costs for SEPA (estimated at €10B) fall heavily on the banks, and the benefits (ex. e-invoicing, cross border competition in payment products, …etc) are expected to be realized by the consumers of bank payment services (with and estimate €7B revenue hit to banks). Fortunately for the Banks, in 2002 the approach decided on by the EPC was to create SEPA in a market-driven and self regulated process.

The over arching goal of SEPA is to make the EU a single market on “payment” par with the U.S. Perhaps the best way to start is not by incenting changes to “payments”, but to open the EU retail banking market. (Think of the US banks operating under a Fed charter).  “All banking is local” can be the mantra ascribed to the EU today, with each country maintaining tight regulatory control over domestic financial institutions (i.e. M&A and Liquidity). Significant market forces could be unleashed when local banks can operate throughout the EU, and a German consumer can seek the best rate and apply for an account at a “Spanish” bank.  Today the regulatory hurdles for this retail competition are significant.

The EU, ECB and the EPC started with payment standards and “infrastructure” as it did not alienate any of the existing participants (market driven.. .not mandatory). What we have is the fruit of this compromise, standards for payments across the EU without the ability for companies to compete for business across the EU domain. The unrealized value of the “SEPA Innovations” are thereby constrained by the market in which banking operates. Perhaps integrating EU retail financial markets would be a better first step. This “openness” would certainly provide an attractive carrot for bank led investment in common payments. Which comes first? The Chicken or the Egg?

See data here

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