Hundreds of payments professional from banks across Europe gathered in Luxembourg this week at EBAday to discuss how best to unlock the full potential of the Single Euro Payments Area (Sepa) amid concerns that the financial services industry is being blindsided by tech-led innovations from nimble new entrants.
In his welcoming address, EBA chairman Hansjörg Nymphius told delegates that the Sepa foundations have been laid and it is now time to build.
Participants were left in no doubt that this building needs to begin in earnest by James Barclay, executive director, industry issues, JPMorgan, who told the e-Sepa session: "Sepa has had a slow take up, with expensive investment infrastructure together with sluggish returns."
Werner Steinmueller, member of the group executive committee at Deutsche Bank claimed a lack of European government involvement in pushing Sepa has hindered take-up, noting that while Italy has 30% Sepa acceptance, Germany has less than one per cent.
Governments were not the only ones on the receiving end of some sharp criticism - there was also self-flagellation at the co-operation in payments and the financial supply chain roundtable where Mark Buitenhek, global head, payments and cash management, ING, criticised banks for failing to take advantage of the revenue made from text message voting on TV reality talent shows, such as the X-Factor in the UK. His observation was part of a wider feeling among speakers that traditional banks have been slow to follow the payments behaviour of clients, leaving room for the likes of PayPal and mobile text services to move in.
The 'Designing e-Sepa' panel also highlighted the disconnect between how traditional bankers view the industry and how bank customers, from retail to corporates are behaving. Gerard Hartsink, chairman, European Payments Council said that in 2009 the Council overhwelmingly voted down developing any type of channel for e-payments, preferring instead to stay with cards only. Hartsink himself commented that "PayPal must have opened a bottle of champagne when they heard that".
Meanwhile, the potential of e-invoicing as a growing business area for banks was cautiously backed but not as a standalone offering. Peter Hazou, head, business development, Unicredit, warned that the business model is still not clear, especially for pan-European adoption, which has long been touted as a potential boon for Sepa. With e-invoicing standards differing by country, Experian's Jonathan Williams notes in a Finextra blog that "a standardised e-invoicing system as a compelling value-add for SEPA seems a long way off, currently suffering from similar issues as the Single Euro Payments Area. At this stage, e-invoicing is not going to bail SEPA out and it now looks like it is making the migration process even more complex."
Some attendees appear exasperated by the whole issue. IBM's Lee Fulmer tweeted: "Biggest frustration at #EBAday is that we're still having the same tired debates about mobile & e-invoicing. Kill them off & move on"
There was optimism among attendees though, particularly at the outsourcing, insourcing and strategic alliances session, where panel participants agreed that this area provides an opportunity for banks to branch out at an affordable price. Nymphius even ventured that outsourcing could be the 'killer app' for payments.