The ATM at 50: how a hole in the wall changed the world

From The Conversation.

Next time you withdraw money from a hole in the wall, consider singing a rendition of happy birthday. For on June 27, the Automated Teller Machine (or ATM) celebrates its half century. Fifty years ago, the first cash machine was put to work at the Enfield branch of Barclays Bank in London. Two days later, a Swedish device known as the Bankomat was in operation in Uppsala. And a couple of weeks after that, another one built by Chubb and Smith Industries was inaugurated in London by Westminster Bank (today part of RBS Group).

These events fired the starting gun for today’s self-service banking culture – long before the widespread acceptance of debit and credit cards. The success of the cash machine enabled people to make impromptu purchases, spend more money on weekend and evening leisure, and demand banking services when and where they wanted them. The infrastructure, systems and knowledge they spawned also enabled bankers to offer their customers point of sale terminals, and telephone and internet banking.

There was substantial media attention when these “robot cashiers” were launched. Banks promised their customers that the cash machine would liberate them from the shackles of business hours and banking at a single branch. But customers had to learn how to use – and remember – a PIN, perform a self-service transaction and trust a machine with their money.

People take these things for granted today, but when cash machines first appeared many had never before been in contact with advanced electronics.

And the system was far from perfect. Despite widespread demand, only bank customers considered to have “better credit” were offered the service. The early machines were also clunky, heavy (and dangerous) to move, insecure, unreliable, and seldom conveniently located.

Indeed, unlike today’s machines, the first ATMs could do only one thing: dispense a fixed amount of cash when activated by a paper token or bespoke plastic card issued to customers at retail branches during business hours. Once used, tokens would be stored by the machine so that branch staff could retrieve them and debit the appropriate accounts. The plastic cards, meanwhile, would have to be sent back to the customer by post. Needless to say, it took banks and technology companies years to agree common standards and finally deliver on their promise of 24/7 access to cash.

The globalisation effect

Estimates by RBR London concur with my research, suggesting that by 1970, there were still fewer than 1,500 of the machines around the world, concentrated in Europe, North America and Japan. But there were 40,000 by 1980 and a million by 2000.

A number of factors made this ATM explosion possible. First, sharing locations created more transaction volume at individual ATMs. This gave incentives for small and medium-sized financial institutions to invest in this technology. At one point, for instance, there were some 200 shared ATM networks in the US and 80 shared networks in Japan.

They also became more popular once banks digitised their records, allowing the machines to perform a host of other tasks, such as bank transfers, balance requests and bill payments. Over the last five decades, a huge number of people have made the shift away from the cash economy and into the banking system. Consequently, ATMs became a key way of avoiding congestion at branches.

ATM design began to accommodate people with visual and mobility disabilities, too. And in recent decades, many countries have allowed non-bank companies, known as Independent ATM Deployers (IAD) to operate machines. The IAD were key to populating non-bank locations such as corner shops, petrol stations and casinos.

Indeed, while a large bank in the UK might own 4,000 devices and one in the US as many as 12,000, Cardtronics, the largest IAD, manages a fleet of 230,000 ATMs in 11 countries.

Bank to the future

The ATM has remained a relevant and convenient self-service channel for the last half century – and its history is one of invention and re-invention, evolution rather than revolution.

Self-service banking and ATMs continue to evolve. Instead of PIN authentication, some ATMS now use “tap and go” contactless payment technology using bank cards and mobile phones. Meanwhile, ATMs in Poland and Japan have used biometric recognition, which can identify a customer’s iris, fingerprint or voice, for some time, while banks in other countries are considering them.

So it’s a good time to consider what the history of cash dispensers can teach us. The ATM was not the result of a eureka moment of a single middle-aged man in a bath or garage, but from active collaboration between various groups of bankers and engineers to solve the significant challenges of a changing world. It took two decades for the ATM to mature and gain widespread, worldwide acceptance, but today there are 3.5m ATMs with another 500,000 expected by 2020.

Research I am currently undertaking suggests that ATMs may have reached saturation point in some Western countries. However, research by the ATM Industry Association suggests there is strong demand for them in China, India and the Middle East. In fact, while in the West people tend to use them for three self-service functions (cash withdrawal, balance enquiries, and purchasing mobile phone airtime), Chinese customers consumers regularly use them for as many as 100 different tasks.

Taken for granted?

Interestingly, people in most urban areas around the world tend to interact with the same five ATMs. But they shouldn’t be taken for granted. In many countries in Africa, Asia and South America, they offer services to millions of people otherwise excluded from the banking sector.

In most developed counties, meanwhile, the retail branch and the ATM are the only two channels over which financial institutions have 100% control. This is important when you need to verify the authenticity of your customer. Banks do not control the make and model of their customers’ smart phones, tablets or personal computers, which are vulnerable to hacking and fraud. While ATMs are targeted by thieves, mass cybernetic attacks on them have yet to materialise.

I am often asked whether the advent of a cashless, digital economy heralds the end of the ATM. My response is that while the world might do away with cash and call ATMs something else, the revolution of automated self-service banking that began 50 years ago is here to stay.

Author: Bernardo Batiz-Lazo, Professor of Business History and Bank Management, Bangor University

Cash is falling out of fashion – will it disappear forever?

From The Conversation.

On June 27, the ATM turns 50. Former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker once described it as the “only useful innovation in banking.” But today, the cash that ATMs dispense may be on the endangered list.

Cash is being displaced in so many ways that it’s hard to keep track. There are credit cards and electronic payments; apps such as Venmo, PayPal and Square Cash; mobile payments services; cryptocurrencies that operate outside the purview of central banks; and localized offerings such as Kenya’s mPesa, India’s Paytm and Bangladesh’s bKash. These innovations are encouraging cashlessness across communities worldwide.

It’s reasonable to expect cash to follow the path of other goods that have been replaced by digital alternatives, such as photos, music and movies. Will cash – and the ATMs that dispense it – experience a “Blockbuster” moment and disappear from our neighborhoods?

Not so fast. Cash will likely become less popular, thanks to the high cost of using cash and the growing array of alternatives. But I expect it will remain with us forever. The future will be “less cash,” rather than cashless.

The cost of cash

As of 2013, approximately 85 percent of the world’s transactions involved cash.

Reliance on cash is quite uneven across the world. While Singapore, the Netherlands, France, Sweden and Switzerland are among the least cash-reliant countries, in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Peru and Egypt, only 1 percent of transactions are cashless. Even some highly advanced countries, such as Japan, are still highly reliant on cash.

Cash usage in the U.S. is still high relative to EU countries. In 2015, cash usage in the U.S. represented 13.1 percent of its GDP, whereas it represented just 7.1 percent in France and 4.5 percent in Switzerland.

Concerns about social equity offer one motivation for lawmakers to push for cashless alternatives. My colleague Benjamin Mazzotta and I have studied the costs of cash across a wide range of countries, with a particular focus on the U.S., Mexico, Egypt and India. Our research shows that the poor and those with less access to institutions bear a disproportionate share of these costs of using cash.

In the U.S., for example, cash usage imposes a regressive tax on consumers, with the highest impact on people who do not have an account with a bank. We found that the unbanked pay four times more in fees to access their money than those with bank accounts. They also pay US$4 higher fees per month for cash access on average than those with formal financial services. Such fees include those charged for payday lending, buy-here-pay-here auto loans and check cashing. The unbanked have a five times higher risk of paying cash access fees on payroll and EBT cards.
Poorer consumers also have to spend far more time getting cash. On average, Americans spend 28 minutes a month traveling to get cash, but that time isn’t evenly distributed. People who don’t use a bank spend about five minutes longer getting to the place where they can get cash, and unemployed people spent nearly nine minutes more.

In the meantime, other scholars have argued for the benefits of a “less cash” society. Ken Rogoff at Harvard has argued that eliminating higher-denomination banknotes can prevent currency from being used to fund illegal activities.

A world without cash

A combination of public and private initiatives are currently chipping away at the global predominance of cash, with some countries moving more quickly than others.

Sweden, already high on the cashlessness scale, may become the first country to come close to a truly cashless state. Sweden’s history in banks promoting cash alternatives dates back to the 1960s, with digital bank transfers used to pay wages. Cards also become more popular in the 1990s, when banks also started charging a fee for checks. The app, Swish, developed by the major banks, is widely used today for digital money transfers by nearly half the population. Many businesses discourage use of cash, and retailers are legally allowed to refuse cash.

In several other countries, governments are experimenting with innovative digital alternatives. In 2012, the Royal Canadian Mint launched the MintChip project, recently handed over to the private sector. The plan is to store cash on computer chips, enabling the transfer of money between chips through encrypted messages.

In some countries, the private sector has led the way, creating “less cash” societies in the unlikeliest of places. Consider Somaliland, one of the poorest countries in the world. It stands at the forefront of a mobile payment revolution with its ZAAD platform. At over 30 mobile payment transactions a month on average, the average citizen of Somaliland is far ahead of the rest of the world’s average of 8.5 such transactions per capita per month.

Perhaps the most dramatic nudge toward “less cash” was experienced recently in India. Last November, the Indian government made a high-risk, high-stakes move by demonetizing the 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes, in effect voiding 86 percent of cash in circulation. Their initial aim was to root out corruption and illegal activity funded by cash. New 500 and 2,000 rupee banknotes were issued, so consumers had to go to a bank and exchange their demonetized currency.

In a country that is almost 90 percent reliant on cash, this move led to disrupted enterprises, unpaid wages and long lines at banks. Mobile wallet players were the unqualified winners of the decision, with market leader Paytm claiming a 435 percent increase in traffic and a 250 percent increase in overall transactions and transaction value.

However, despite the surge in mobile payments after demonetization, cash in India remains resilient. In March, five months after demonetization, cash withdrawals were actually 0.6 percent higher than a year earlier.

The future of cash

What explains the resilience of cash, despite its costs and a growing array of alternatives?

Cash is unique among payment instruments in that anyone can transact, any time, any place, with no third parties involved. With this freedom comes strong privacy protection. Currency neither knows nor cares who holds it or when and where a transaction occurred. People have a visceral sense of security when they have cash with them. Much of this sentiment was uncovered in our Cost of Cash studies spanning multiple countries.

These thresholds will, of course, evolve as our societies become more digitally native. However, old habits and perceptions take a long time to turn over. Some merchants will resist the costs of new equipment or fees that accompany cash alternatives. Cash is also considered more convenient and versatile, while with digital transactions there’s always concerns about hacking and fraud.

So, no matter where we are in the world, let us celebrate the ATM’s half-century of service. The human connection with cash will be hard to break. Though cash may become less popular, rest assured that there will always be someone who will stop you in the street asking for directions to the nearest ATM.

Author: Bhaskar Chakravorti , Senior Associate Dean, International Business & Finance, Tufts University

ATMs Out-evolved By Mobile Phones

There is an inevitable decline in the volume of transactions through Australian ATMs as alternative, mainly non-cash alternatives bloom.

Data from the RBA shows the volume of ATM cash withdrawal transactions has fallen by 15% over 3 years, whilst the gross value has slipped a little (and fallen in post-inflation adjusted terms). Debit card transactions are more than taking up the slack. But there is also more going on here.

We had the chance to discuss this on Perth radio and coverage in an article in the Herald-Sun.

There is a generation shift in play as digital natives continue to adopt smartphone based payment options, from Applepay, to NFC transactions in shops, or apps like paypal as well as the move to debt. Even digital migrants are using electronic mechanisms, such as smart phones,  internet banking, contactless payments and Bpay is also a popular option.

We are approaching a tipping point where the economics of ATMs will not make sense, other than at a few high traffic locations, as there a fixed costs relating to installation and maintenance (including the cash top-up) and income is linked to volumes. There was a proliferation of third party ATMs in for example retail sites in the 1990’s, but these are getting less use too. So we think the number of machines will fall.

Meantime the ubiquitous smart phone is set to become your personal finance assistant, your electronic wallet and electronic credit card. Just do not loose your phone!

As a result, traditional channels such the the branch, ATM and even plastic are all under threat. Cash will become less important in every day life, but it will remain, used perhaps by people less comfortable with the technology, or in the black economy. It would not surprise me if down the track larger bank notes started to disappear under the guise of migration to digitally based more cost-efficient payment solutions, which just happen also to be easier to track.

Meantime, the ATM just got out-evolved by the smartphone.