Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Barriers to a single European payments market: Cultural-economic feedback loops

PERSPECTIVES By Erin B. Taylor, Canela Consulting, former IMTFI Fellow and co-creator of the IMTFI Consumer Finance Research Methods Toolkit

Look into the average traveller’s pockets today and you will find evidence of multiple means of payment. Debit cards, credit cards, traveller’s checks, several currencies, cryptocurrencies, and payment apps are now so common that it seems impossible to run out of ways to pay. Wherever we buy things—on the street, in shops, restaurants, at ticket machines—we have a way to pay. 

As cash falls out of favour, foreigners must switch between different debit 
and credit cards in order to pay. Photo By Erin B. Taylor.

Or so it would seem. In fact, as many travelers can attest, it is still possible to run out of ways to pay. 

Let me give an example. One fine winter’s day in early January 2016, I stopped at a kiosk at the University of Amsterdam to buy a coffee. It was the beginning of my six-month stint as a visiting academic, and the environment was brand new to me. 

I handed the teller some cash to pay for my coffee and croissant, and she looked at me in surprise: “We only accept PIN,” she said. She meant that the kiosk exclusively accepted payment via a Dutch debit card: no cash, no foreign cards—not even European ones. 

I was astonished. Not accepting foreign cards is bizarre enough, but who doesn’t accept cash? As it turns out, a growing number of retailers in northwestern Europe are turning away from hard currency, citing cost and safety reasons. Some stores don’t accept cash, but they accept virtually all foreign cards (debit and credit). Others accept cash and local debit cards, but not foreign cards. And a minority (like my kiosk) exclusively accept local debit cards. 

The unsuspecting traveller may encounter inconveniences not only when trying to pay in the odd kiosk, restaurant, or shop, but also when simply trying to get from A to B. In the Netherlands, an unusually cash-averse society, some parking meters and train ticket machines only accept Dutch cards, and many a traveller has been caught out trying to return to the airport but unable to pay for the fare. Even the simple act of making a meal can involve a complicated series of transactions (see text box at the end of this post, "A Recipe in pan European Payments"). 

This is not just a Dutch peculiarity: payments are a Europe-wide problem. The European common market is meant to deliver the “four ‘f’s”: freedom of movement in people, goods, services, and capital. Theoretically, this should endow people with far more choice as consumers, workers, and citizens. 

Yet despite decades of financial market integration, many consumer finance products and services cannot be readily used across national borders within Europe. This situation could worsen when Brexit is implemented. A diversity of financial systems and a willingness to experiment means that the consumer can never be quite sure what to expect when crossing national borders. Consumers who live, work, and socialize across Europe’s borders can encounter problems using a wide range of finance products and services (e.g., payments, mortgages, taxes, and pensions). Why is this the case?

Some ticket machines in the Netherlands only accept cash or
Dutch debit cards. Photo By Spoorjan (Own work)  CC BY-SA 3.0 

Barriers to integration

One major problem is that the process of financial integration is far from complete. Generally, this integration process is conceptualized as being primarily technological and regulatory. The Single European Payments Area (SEPA) has been largely rolled out across the continent, and the Target Instant Payment Settlement (TIPS)  service promises to abolish waiting times for transfers between European banks. European regulators are working to create legal solutions, such as developing Europe-wide pension schemes, and the Payment Services Directive 2 (PSD2) is due to be implemented next year, further deregulating payments and opening up the market to new players and products. 

However, there are also barriers to integration at the level of the firm and the consumer market interactions, and our understanding of these is threadbare. Some of these relate to market structures, such as pricing. For example, in some European countries, credit cards are not widely accepted because merchants consider the cost to be prohibitive. Other barriers have socio-cultural leanings, such as consumers’ preference for local services, which dissuades them from shopping around the EU, or a preference for using cash in Germany.

These barriers might appear to be either economic or cultural, but closer inspection often shows them to be both. Let me illustrate by way of an example. In an ECB Report, Kokola argues that the Dutch tend to be more averse to credit card debt than their neighbors, whereas Germans are more risk-averse. This kind of cultural heterogeneity influences how financial products and services are developed, marketed, and consumed. 

Such cultural predilections can have deep historic roots. In the Netherlands, there is a longstanding aversion to credit due to historical attitudes towards indebtedness, but bank cards were adopted early on. Because the Dutch are averse to credit, but used to debit cards, credit transactions are relatively rare compared with other countries. And because the Dutch don’t use credit cards much, the cost of credit card transactions remains expensive. Because they’re expensive, merchants don’t accept credit cards, and this reinforces the Dutch aversion to them. 

And so a cultural-economic feedback loop is created.

This lines up with what we know about the interplay between economy and culture globally. Social researchers have long observed that economy and culture are analytically inseparable, no matter what kind of economy people live in. This is easiest to observe in pre-capitalist societies, such as in the use of shell money in Melanesia. 

But economy and culture are intertwined everywhere. In Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City (2014), Allison J. Truitt discusses how money culture influences what banknotes people will accept (dirty or broken notes are rejected), how money is used for ritual purposes, and many more phenomena that cross the culture/economy divide. In Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (2009), Karen Ho describes how the decisions of investment bankers are  shaped by their sociocultural beliefs. Nobody, anywhere, is immune.  

The diversity of cultural-economic feedback loops has significant implications for the integration of consumer finance markets in Europe. It suggests that there are hard limits to what can be achieved through technological and regulatory means alone. As Sander, Kleimeier & Heuchemer note, “cultural distance limits international financial integration over and above what can be expected from economic trade and transaction costs.” Even if full integration is achieved, consumers will continue to face limits to their freedom of choice as they live, work, and socialize across European borders.

To understand why there is still no single market for financial services in Europe, it is not enough to look at technical or regulatory matters. But nor can we simply shift the blame to culture. Rather, a cultural-economic feedback loop comes into existence when an economic practice and a cultural practice reinforce each other’s existence. 

The standard EFTPOS machine is fast
being replaced by other POS devices.
Photo By Erin B. Taylor.

The EU’s problem is global

The globalization of payments and other financial services is also creating an imperative to figure out what happens when money cultures meet. Given that so many consumer finance products and services are now available over the Internet, consumers are no longer limited to what is available in their home town or country. Today, we can research and buy an increasingly wide range of savings, transfer, investment, credit, and money management services from anywhere around the world. 

Let’s stop for a moment to consider the irony here. A resident of one European country cannot use their bank card in a second European country, even though there is a single currency and theoretically an integrated payments system. But that same person can buy travel insurance from the U.S.A., invest money in a fund in India, exchange currency using a mobile app based in the United Kingdom, and trade cryptocurrency based in—well, anywhere really.

The problem we face is twofold. First, the integration of financial markets globally is proceeding at different rates in different places. This means that consumers are facing a rapid expansion of choice on the one hand, and the same old limitations on the other. (In fact, these limitations are becoming more problematic because people are more mobile across borders than they were before, and so they encounter these problems more often.) Regulators and financial services providers are over-providing services in some areas, and under-providing them in others. Corporate and government strategies for integrating financial markets need to find a balance between these extremes. 

Second, we have little idea what consumers do when faced with this strange situation. How do consumers work around obstacles to making financial transactions? Do any of the new products and services available globally fill gaps in local services? Why are some people willing to experiment and become “early adopters” of new digital finance products and services, while others remain “laggards” dependent upon traditional banks? And what will a more mature global market for financial goods and services look like in the future? 

Since consumers can now use financial services from around the world, we cannot assume that it is sufficient to approach any of these questions from a local or European angle. In the future, consumers are likely to care less and less about whether the financial services they use are local or not. This is particularly the case when brands that are already globally popular (such as Google, Apple, or PayPal) develop their own range of payments solutions, such as digital wallets. 

A Dutch ATM, fast becoming a rare commodity. 
Photo by Canadian Pacific CC BY-NC 2.0

Mixing methods to understand changing markets

Our challenge is not to get everyone using exactly the same tools, but to create a global ecosystem in which multiple tools and avenues are accepted. To do this, we need to first understand the market. This means we need to design research that investigates how a variety of factors–cultural, economic, regulatory, technical–shape market practices. This holds even if we are trying to specifically understand consumer behaviour. 

Due to the complexity of markets, relying on one single research method (e.g., a survey or interviews) is unlikely to be sufficient for many research questions. Just as financial markets for consumer services are diversifying, so must our research methods also diversify. Understanding consumer choices requires analysis of both qualitative and quantitative factors that influence behaviour, including price, market structures, personal preferences, social structures, and cultural norms. 

This is not news: product developers, designers, and marketers know well that in order to sell something, the offering must hit the right price point and the right “tone” with the consumer. But the shift to Internet-based and mobile consumer finance services presents a challenge because the transition is incomplete and the market is highly complex. 

While little can be done to predict how regulations will change, it is certainly possible to improve our understanding of changing consumer behaviour and thereby generate more robust market knowledge. As we discuss in the Consumer Finance Research Methods Toolkit (CFRM Toolkit), researchers from both industry and academia are innovating new ways to record and analyze the financial behaviours of individuals and households. 

Ethnography, interview methods, financial diaries, online/offline studies, experiments, and so on, are all being reconfigured and combined with other methods to account for the increasing mobility products and services through accessible digital spaces and technologies. Adapting and combining methods offers substantial potential to generate detailed data on a variety of cultural and economic problems. This is because they either include ways to collect qualitative and quantitative data simultaneously, or because they can be easily incorporated into mixed-methods research. 

Combining interdisciplinary thinking with mixed methods gives us a chance to understand the cultural/economic feedback loops that are shaping the emergence of a new generation of consumer financial practices and markets, not only in Europe, but around the world. Regulators, service providers, and researchers are best placed when they take this range of factors and geographies into account. 

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