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October 24, 2011
Keeping pace as money transmitters proliferate
As the United States migrates from paper-based retail payments to electronically enabled methods, we are witnessing a proliferation of entrepreneurial and innovative nonbank stakeholders entering the retail payments market. As my colleague discussed in a previous post, these nonbanks provide a variety of services that banks can use to create more efficient payment systems. But the fast pace of technological change and the ease with which these new companies can enter the retail payments arena may also be translating into new risk vulnerabilities for the nation's retail payments systems.
There are many different types of nonbanks in U.S. payments systems today, including technology developers, aggregators, agents, third-party service providers, and money service businesses (MSB) and transmitters. As technology enables more nimble and innovative payments, the role of MSBs and, in particular, money transmitters is growing more important.
Am I an MSB?
According to this table from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), certain products or service offerings may dictate the capacities in which a business might fit the definition of an MSB. Note that money transmitters represent a specific type of MSB that engages primarily in funds transfer services.
Source: "Am I an MSB?," www.fincen.gov/financial_institutions/msb/amimsb.html
The innovations that PayPal introduced illustrate the value that transmitters add to the payment system through the provision of nimble service offerings that respond to consumer payment needs. Over time, PayPal has evolved into a mainstream payment service provider and household name, and has demonstrated a commitment to risk management and regulatory compliance across all the jurisdictions in which it operates. But PayPal's commitment contrasts with the overall state of the industry of MSBs, whose efforts are not completely transparent. MSBs and transmitters today operate in a fragmented regulatory environment determined by the specific governing laws, licensing requirements, and permissible business activities of each U.S. state.
As money transmitters become more prevalent players in our nation's payment system, is it time to reassess their regulatory environment and consider the potential benefits of a national supervisory framework?
Transmitters and the U.S. regulatory structure
Money transmitters are required to register with FinCEN and to comply with federal laws for anti-money-laundering and counterterrorist-financing provisions of the Bank Secrecy Act. In addition, 48 states require the licensing of money transmitters before they can do business. For money transmitters that operate in more than one state and across state lines, differences in state legal requirements create challenges to developing effective enterprise-wide compliance and risk-management programs. Furthermore, monitoring changes in various state legal regimes can be extremely complicated, not to mention costly.
Ironically, state regulatory authorities governing money transmitter businesses are generally budget-strapped in today's economically distressed environment, and lack the financial resources for taking action against all but the most egregious of bad actors. Unlike the prudential regulatory governance employed by the agencies of the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council for the nation's mainstream financial institutions, regulatory response for the oversight of money transmitters is prompted instead by complaints to state authorities, or by the filing of suspicious activity reports to FinCEN.
Future regulatory considerations
There are many risks to consider in this nascent segment of the retail payments industry. With the ease of entry into the market for money transmitters and the potential lack of funding in some states for comprehensive regulatory oversight, some startups may circumvent licensing and capital requirements by merely opening for business, undetected by state authorities. FinCEN has issued advisories requesting that financial institutions that discover such businesses file suspicious activity reports (SARs) as a means of mitigating unlicensed and potentially illegal activity. Unfortunately, as technology supports more sophisticated advancements in electronic payments as well as new alliances between carriers and money transmitters, regulatory efforts will become increasingly difficult.
The newly established Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is empowered to exercise enforcement authority for improper conduct on behalf of money transmitters, but the task is daunting, considering the disproportionate state-by-state regulatory framework currently in place. Is it time to consider a more consistent, national approach to the legal and regulatory oversight of money transmitters? And, considering the onerous compliance costs that the current environment imposes, would money transmitters in fact welcome a more consistent, uniform environment?
By Cindy Merritt, assistant director of the Retail Payments Risk Forum
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