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Digital money – investing in our future

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Bernhard-Lachenmeier

Bernhard Lachenmeier, head of products and marketing, SIX Payment Services

Bernhard-LachenmeierAs the incoming Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, hints that the days of paper cash in England may be limited, Bernhard Lachenmeier, head of products and marketing at SIX Payment Services questions why England’s Central Bank is investing in cash, when society is moving to a digital age.

It’s all change in the financial services industry. New technologies, changing customer loyalties and emerging ‘new finance’ players are all contributing to creating this unparalleled change in the ecosystem. July 2013 will see yet another change as, after 10 years in the post, Sir Mervyn King will step down as Governor of the Bank of England, to be replaced by Mark Carney. Carney, former Governor of the Bank of Canada, is entering an industry which is hungry for disruption, rejuvenation and innovation. It is unsurprising then, that one of the first ideas we have heard from Carney is that the Bank of England is looking into the possibility of introducing plastic banknotes in the UK in order to ‘future-proof’ Sterling. While innovation in financial services should always be encouraged, I have doubts about this particular move – when the rest of the world is looking to digital money, is now really the time to be investing in cash?

A history of cash

Plastic money is not a new idea. Australia has had plastic banknotes since 1988, while Carney’s home country, Canada, introduced plastic notes in 2011. There are a number of well-documented benefits of using plastic notes over paper – namely around durability and security. An Australian $5 note lasts an average of 40 months, compared to an English £5 note which is worn out after just six months. Canada claims that its plastic $100 bill, complete with hologram, is the world’s most secure banknote.

What’s more, the pound Sterling is the world’s oldest currency still in use. This is a heritage that the UK can certainly be proud of and no one would argue against innovation designed to preserve such history.

Yet to talk about the replacement of paper notes purely in terms of benefits and heritage is to ignore one of the key issues around plastic money: the significant infrastructural costs the change would entail. Not only would the full replacement of the currency cost time and money, but a whole nation of ATMs and cash registers would also need to be upgrade – an expensive and time-consuming process. Plastic money represents a great infrastructural investment and I question whether now is the right time to be ploughing valuable investment into cash-based payments?

The digital future

The payment landscape, much like the rest of the industry, has changed significantly in recent years. In the past five to ten years, the way consumers and businesses want to make payments has evolved, with ever increasing importance placed on convenience, speed and security. A number of factors have converged to influence this situation – these forces are complex but can be broadly broken down into three categories: the financial crisis, regulation and technology. The result has been a move away from cash and towards more innovative and digital payment channels.

It important to note that these changes are consumer-driven, and as such it is unsurprising that we have witnessed banks moving to offer digital payment products as standard. The new generation of bank customer, the Gen Y customer base, expect access to products such as online and mobile banking, while it is increasingly anticipated that mobile payments will enter the mainstream in the coming years – the UK Payments Council predicts that mobile phones will totally replace credit cards and debit cards in the next eight years. Unsurprisingly then, banks are moving to meet these demands in order to maintain customer loyalty. These traditional financial institutions are also using innovation as a way of maintaining relevance in this brave new world of payments – and against the likes of Google and Apple. Google has already begun to make noise in the payments space, with its Google Wallet mobile payment product; commentators suggest it is only a matter of time before Apple also enters the competitive marketplace. The digital payments landscape is one of new players and increased competition – banks must pull out the stops to keep their customers.

Merchants have also been adapting payment offerings in line with customer expectations. Increasing digitisation and smartphone ubiquity has fed an appetite for ‘commerce-on-the-move’, and merchants are increasingly expected to provide both e-commerce and m-commerce payment options. The new digital-savvy consumer is increasingly spending money via their smartphones and tablets, and they want retailers to appreciate and cater for this. In the US, findings suggest there was a 221% year-on-year increase in mobile sales on Thanksgiving Day 2012, but crucially, only on commerce sites where the experience has been specifically tailored and optimised for smart phones. With figures like this, merchants will do all they can to make their payment experiences as seamless as possible for consumers-on-the-move, and this means focusing attention on digital payments.

All of this combines to tell us one thing: consumers want to make digital payments – and we know that where consumers go, banks and merchants will follow. Which begs the question: if consumers, banks and merchants are all focusing attention and investment on digital money, why would the Bank of England not follow suit?

Safeguarding the future

Cashless payments are a cheaper, faster and safer method of payment – even when compared to plastic money. In a world where you can buy anything from a holiday to a packet of chewing gum using your card or mobile, who even wants to carry around cash anymore? The Gen Y consumer demands convenience, and banks and merchants are already working to provide the digital payment infrastructure, products and experiences that provide this. The UK has always led the way internationally on payments – if the UK is to maintain its place at the forefront of financial services, it needs to be investing now in the digital future, not in safeguarding the past.

Bernhard Lachenmeier, head of products and marketing, SIX Payment Services

 

 

 

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Teed off: As COVID fuels S. Africa’s housing crisis, golf courses feel the heat

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Teed off: As COVID fuels S. Africa's housing crisis, golf courses feel the heat 1

By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It sounds like a developer’s dream: A greenfield site in the heart of Cape Town, close to the best schools, hospitals and transport links and big enough to build more than 1,400 affordable new homes. The only hitch – it’s a golf course.

The 46-hectare (114-acre) Rondebosch Golf Club is one of hundreds of golf courses in South Africa facing scrutiny by land rights campaigners as a surge in evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic exposes an acute shortage of low-cost housing.

Rondebosch had its lease renewed by the city government late last year despite the presentation of some 1,830 objections by local housing rights group Ndifuna Ukwazi, which says turning golf courses over for homes is a way to tackle deep inequality.

“Using this land for the benefit of a few wealthy individuals at the expense of those in dire need of affordable housing is inefficient, unequal and unjust,” said Michael Clark, head of research and advocacy at Ndifuna Ukwazi.

Warnings by city officials that eviction is on the cards for occupiers of abandoned buildings, just months after Rondebosch’s lease was extended, have roused activists and sparked calls for cities to prioritise land use according to need.

“Golf courses occupy expansive tracts of land in well-located areas across cities,” said Edward Molopi, a researcher with the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), which uses litigation and advocacy to support human rights.

“South African cities face an acute need for affordable housing and this land can be used to address the problem,” Molopi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that he knows of hundreds of housing evictions since lockdown began.

Nearly three decades after the end of white minority rule, South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank, with urban areas still starkly divided along racial and class lines.

In other countries too, from South Korea to the United States, the swathes of green space needed for a round of golf have stirred debate around alternative uses for the land, whether apartment blocks, public parks or even vineyards.

‘NOT THE ONLY LAND’

But in South Africa, where tracts of land, including golf courses, were used as physical barriers to separate different racial groups during the apartheid regime, campaigners say repurposing such areas is key to achieving a fairer society.

Golf lovers have a choice of about 450 courses in South Africa, according to independent golf course ranking platform Top 100 Golf Courses.

They are easy to spot on a Google Maps view of the nation’s cities, many in close proximity to other golf courses, and also poorer neighbourhoods or townships.

But officials say finding space for affordable homes is more complex than repurposing golf courses.

Not all of the courses are publicly owned or suitable for residential use, said officials from the cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. The sport also draws tourists and creates jobs, they added.

“Densification, diversification and inclusionary housing requirements in well-located parts of our cities is a more realistic approach,” said Nthatisi Modingoane, a spokesman for the city of Johannesburg.

‘SPATIAL JUSTICE’

Johannesburg’s Observatory golf course lies less than five kilometres (three miles) from Hillbrow, an inner-city suburb notorious for derelict, overcrowded buildings and crime.

People unable to afford rent end up there in “dark buildings” – properties seized by rogue landlords that offer crowded but cheap rooms, often without electricity.

“Since COVID, people need cheap rent, but if you don’t pay the landlords you get kicked out or … they kill you,” said Ethel Musonza, a housing activist who used to live in a dark building.

“There is a big need for people to be resettled in a safe place they can afford,” she added.

But the Observatory course sits on the site of an old ash dump, making it a poor site for residential construction, said club captain Simon Leventhorp.

“There is need for affordable houses but golf courses aren’t the only land available,” he said, adding that the club had a lower membership fee that other courses, making it a more inclusive space.

Some courses – like Rondebosch in Cape Town – do fit the bill for affordable housing, said Clark.

Golfers at the course can still enjoy views of the city’s famous Table Mountain from the greens, but authorities did add a two-year cancellation clause to the club’s lease if an alternative use of the land is identified.

Land used for community and recreational use, including golf courses, is currently being reviewed for possible residential sites, the city added.

In the meantime, land campaigners will continue to put pressure on state and city governments to “proactively intervene in housing markets”, said Molopi from SERI.

“This will be central to dismantling the ‘apartheid city’ and moving towards urban spatial justice,” Molopi said.

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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UK might need negative rates if recovery disappoints – BoE’s Vlieghe

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UK might need negative rates if recovery disappoints - BoE's Vlieghe 2

By David Milliken and William Schomberg

LONDON (Reuters) – The Bank of England might need to cut interest rates below zero later this year or in 2022 if a recovery in the economy disappoints, especially if there is persistent unemployment, policymaker Gertjan Vlieghe said on Friday.

Vlieghe said he thought the likeliest scenario was that the economy would recover strongly as forecast by the central bank earlier this month, meaning a further loosening of monetary policy would not be needed.

Data published on Friday suggested the economy had stabilised after a new COVID-19 lockdown hit retailers last month, while businesses and consumers are hopeful a fast vaccination campaign will spur a recovery.

Vlieghe said in a speech published by the BoE that there was a risk of lasting job market weakness hurting wages and prices.

“In such a scenario, I judge more monetary stimulus would be appropriate, and I would favour a negative Bank Rate as the tool to implement the stimulus,” he said.

“The time to implement it would be whenever the data, or the balance of risks around it, suggest that the recovery is falling short of fully eliminating economic slack, which might be later this year or into next year,” he added.

Vlieghe’s comments are similar to those of fellow policymaker Michael Saunders, who said on Thursday negative rates could be the BoE’s best tool in future.

Earlier this month the BoE gave British financial institutions six months to get ready for the possible introduction of negative interest rates, though it stressed that no decision had been taken on whether to implement them.

Investors saw the move as reducing the likelihood of the BoE following other central banks and adopting negative rates.

Some senior BoE policymakers, such as Deputy Governor Dave Ramsden, believe that adding to the central bank’s 875 billion pounds ($1.22 trillion) of government bond purchases remains the best way of boosting the economy if needed.

Vlieghe underscored the scale of the hit to Britain’s economy and said it was clear the country was not experiencing a V-shaped recovery, adding it was more like “something between a swoosh-shaped recovery and a W-shaped recovery.”

“I want to emphasise how far we still have to travel in this recovery,” he said, adding that it was “highly uncertain” how much of the pent-up savings amassed by households during the lockdowns would be spent.

By contrast, last week the BoE’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, likened the economy to a “coiled spring.”

Vlieghe also warned against raising interest rates if the economy appeared to be outperforming expectations.

“It is perfectly possible that we have a short period of pent up demand, after which demand eases back again,” he said.

Higher interest rates were unlikely to be appropriate until 2023 or 2024, he said.

($1 = 0.7146 pounds)

(Reporting by David Milliken; Editing by William Schomberg)

 

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UK economy shows signs of stabilisation after new lockdown hit

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UK economy shows signs of stabilisation after new lockdown hit 3

By William Schomberg and David Milliken

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s economy has stabilised after a new COVID-19 lockdown last month hit retailers, and business and consumers are hopeful the vaccination campaign will spur a recovery, data showed on Friday.

The IHS Markit/CIPS flash composite Purchasing Managers’ Index, a survey of businesses, suggested the economy was barely shrinking in the first half of February as companies adjusted to the latest restrictions.

A separate survey of households showed consumers at their most confident since the pandemic began.

Britain’s economy had its biggest slump in 300 years in 2020, when it contracted by 10%, and will shrink by 4% in the first three months of 2021, the Bank of England predicts.

The central bank expects a strong subsequent recovery because of the COVID-19 vaccination programme – though policymaker Gertjan Vlieghe said in a speech on Friday that the BoE could need to cut interest rates below zero later this year if unemployment stayed high.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due on Monday to announce the next steps in England’s lockdown but has said any easing of restrictions will be gradual.

Official data for January underscored the impact of the latest lockdown on retailers.

Retail sales volumes slumped by 8.2% from December, a much bigger fall than the 2.5% decrease forecast in a Reuters poll of economists, and the second largest on record.

“The only good thing about the current lockdown is that it’s no way near as bad for the economy as the first one,” Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics, said.

The smaller fall in retail sales than last April’s 18% plunge reflected growth in online shopping.

BORROWING SURGE SLOWED IN JANUARY

There was some better news for finance minister Rishi Sunak as he prepares to announce Britain’s next annual budget on March 3.

Though public sector borrowing of 8.8 billion pounds ($12.3 billion) was the first January deficit in a decade, it was much less than the 24.5 billion pounds forecast in a Reuters poll.

That took borrowing since the start of the financial year in April to 270.6 billion pounds, reflecting a surge in spending and tax cuts ordered by Sunak.

The figure does not count losses on government-backed loans which could add 30 billion pounds to the shortfall this year, but the deficit is likely to be smaller than official forecasts, the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank said.

Sunak is expected to extend a costly wage subsidy programme, at least for the hardest-hit sectors, but he said the time for a reckoning would come.

“It’s right that once our economy begins to recover, we should look to return the public finances to a more sustainable footing and I’ll always be honest with the British people about how we will do this,” he said.

Some economists expect higher taxes sooner rather than later.

“Big tax rises eventually will have to be announced, with 2022 likely to be the worst year, so that they will be far from voters’ minds by the time of the next general election in May 2024,” Samuel Tombs, at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said.

Public debt rose to 2.115 trillion pounds, or 97.9% of gross domestic product – a percentage not seen since the early 1960s.

The PMI survey and a separate measure of manufacturing from the Confederation of British Industry, showing factory orders suffering the smallest hit in a year, gave Sunak some cause for optimism.

IHS Markit’s chief business economist, Chris Williamson, said the improvement in business expectations suggested the economy was “poised for recovery.”

However the PMI survey showed factory output in February grew at its slowest rate in nine months. Many firms reported extra costs and disruption to supply chains from new post-Brexit barriers to trade with the European Union since Jan. 1.

Vlieghe warned against over-interpreting any early signs of growth. “It is perfectly possible that we have a short period of pent up demand, after which demand eases back again,” he said.

“We are experiencing something between a swoosh-shaped recovery and a W-shaped recovery. We are clearly not experiencing a V-shaped recovery.”

($1 = 0.7160 pounds)

(Editing by Angus MacSwan and Timothy Heritage)

 

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