Jürgen C. Pingitzer

Jürgen C. Pingitzer

Bruce J. Summers

If, as described in Chapter 6, large-value transfer systems are the main arteries of the payment system, then small-value transfer systems can be considered the complex network of veins connecting the entire economy. The efficient operation of a market economy depends on the availability of a smoothly functioning small-value transfer system that connects all economic agents, including individuals and businesses, is low in cost, reliable, and safe. Commercial banks and other specialized businesses provide small-value transfer services to the economy, and these services generally provide a range of choice to users of payment services.

Payment services are an essential element of the product mix provided by banks to their clients. Such services, however, are expensive to produce. Accordingly, there is today a major emphasis on the application of new technologies to the area of small-value transfer systems to increase cost efficiency. Further, as the world’s economies become more integrated, compatibility among different small-value transfer systems across borders and currencies is also important.

This chapter describes the current status of small-value transfer systems in developed economies and discusses trends that are likely to influence these systems in the years ahead. It defines small-value transfer systems and describes the main types of small-value payment instruments. It identifies trends that will likely influence the future of such transfer systems.

Small-Value Transfer Systems Defined

Small-value transfer systems are defined as those systems that meet the payment needs of individuals and businesses for ordinary transactions in the economy. These systems support a variety of transactions, which might be generalized as being of two types—recurring and nonrecurring payments.

Recurring payments are those that are made regularly, often for fixed amounts. For example, an individual may regularly make fixed-value payments to businesses, such as for life insurance premiums, or variable payments, such as for utility bills. Similarly, businesses may regularly make fixed payments to individuals, such as for salaries and pensions.

Nonrecurring payments are payments for transactions that occur occasionally and for which the value varies from payment to payment. For example, individuals occasionally pay other individuals amounts that do not recur regularly, as in the case of gifts. Individuals also make large numbers of occasional payments in variable amounts to businesses for purchases of goods and services at the point of sale. In turn, businesses are responsible for a large number of intercorporate transactions related to their ongoing operations.

In addition, the public sector—for example, local and national governmental entities—makes and receives payments for a variety of both recurring and nonrecurring transactions involving individuals and businesses. One of the largest categories of recurring payments is salaries to public sector workers and the variety of social benefits paid by governments to citizens. Like businesses, government entities must also make a large number of nonrecurring payments to businesses in support of their regular operations.

A feature that particularly distinguishes small-value transfer systems from large-value transfer systems is their large number. Small-value transfer systems must be extremely versatile: they must be able to handle payments for a large variety of transactions. They must also have a large processing capacity to support the great volume of transactions that take place in a market economy each day. Unlike large-value transfer systems that provide services to a relatively small set of specialized market participants, small-value transfer systems support virtually every participant in the economy. Accordingly, there is a very large market for small-value transfer services, and product differentiation in a competitive environment has led to banks and others developing a variety of competing systems.

Although the average size of a payment processed through a small-value transfer system is typically quite small, some individual transactions could be substantial in size, since these systems support payments between corporations. In fact, “small-value” systems routinely handle individual transactions valued in the millions of dollars. The total value of all transactions processed through these systems daily, however, is quite small compared with the value processed through large-value transfer systems. Comparative data on the percent of the volume and value of cashless payments handled through small-value transfer systems are shown in Table 1 for Japan, Switzerland, and the United States (the three countries whose large-value transfer systems are discussed in Chapter 6).

Table 1.

Percent of Volume and Value of Cashless Payments Handled by Large- and Small-Value Interbank Payment Systems, 1992

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Source: Bank for International Settlements.

Payment Instruments

In analyzing the variety of ways to make small-value payments, it is useful to distinguish between transactions made using cash and cashless methods.

Cash Payments

Even in developed economies, cash (bank notes and coins) remains the most convenient method for making small-value payments, when payment is made at the point of sale. It is estimated that upward of 80 percent of all retail transactions are paid for in cash, although, of course, in terms of value the proportion is much less. The larger the amount of the transaction, the greater is the tendency to use a noncash or “cashless” instrument to make the payment.

Payment system trends in advanced market economies are affecting the use of cash in contradictory ways. On the one hand, the development of convenient, technologically advanced means for transferring money held in current accounts at banks has resulted in more intensive use of cashless payment services. On the other hand, technology has made it increasingly easy to access bank accounts for purposes of cash withdrawals. The use of automated teller machines (ATMs) and cash dispensers is now widespread in a number of countries and supports the use of cash for everyday transactions. Because transactions paid for in cash are not recorded through the banking system, a demand for this payment medium continues to exist for those transactions occurring in the underground economy.

Cashless Payments

Cashless payments are made using instruments by which current account balances held with banks are transferred. Until the last decade or so, legal prohibitions in many countries generally limited the ability of banks to pay explicit interest on current account balances. As a result, banks engaged in nonprice competition for the public’s deposits, often by offering payment services below cost, sometimes even free of charge. In the last decade, however, laws have been liberalized, and banks are now permitted to pay interest on current accounts in a number of countries, at least on current accounts held by individuals. Concurrently, there has been a trend toward explicit pricing of the payment services provided by banks. This is a rational development that should lead to greater efficiency in the use of bank payment services.

Table 2 shows the relative importance of different types of cashless payment instruments in ten industrial countries. These different instruments are briefly discussed below.

Check Payments

Checks are debit instruments in the form of written orders to pay a specified sum on demand when the instrument is presented to the issuing institution (the payor’s bank). As shown in Table 2, the check is the most widely used cashless payment instrument in Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and especially the United States. Nonetheless, over the last decade, the rate of growth of payments by check has generally been slower than that for newer, more technologically advanced instruments.

Table 2.

Percent of Volume of Cashless Payments Handled by Type of Instrument, 19921

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Source: Bank for International Settlements.

Some totals do not add to 100 percent owing to the existence of other types of instruments not captured in these categories.

Banks in some countries have increased the acceptability of checks by supplying their creditworthy customers with check guarantee cards. A check guarantee card provides assurance that any check accepted for payment will be honored up to a specified amount. The number of the guarantee card must be written on the reverse side of the check, and the payee has the duty to check the back of the card at the time the check is accepted for payment. Accordingly, check guarantee cards are useful only at the point of sale.

Because checks are debit instruments and take the form of physical documents that take some time to clear, those paying by check enjoy the advantage of float. As discussed in Chapter 10, inefficient handling of debit instruments, such as checks, leads to increased debit float, which rewards the payor with what amounts to an interest-free loan, and tends to impair both the efficiency and safety of the payment system. Accordingly, paper debit instruments, such as checks, that take a long time to clear, are considered substandard from a payment system design perspective. As long as pricing of checks does not charge float costs to the writers of checks, there will be a perverse incentive for their continued use.

Substantial progress has been made in the standardization of checks, including their physical characteristics and information content, to facilitate efficient handling. Check processing is now highly automated and is based on the use of magnetic ink character recognition (MICR) technology in countries such as the United States and optical character recognition (OCR) in other countries.

Recently, check truncation has become more widespread. Truncation is a process by which physical check documents are stopped at the point of first deposit, or at some later point in the collection stream, and relevant information for collecting the check is captured and converted into electronic form. Like the traditional check collection process, check truncation requires a large amount of cooperation among banks. Check truncation is already widely practiced in a number of European countries, including Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain. In the United States, truncation is still in its infancy.

In Europe, the Eurocheque system has been established to support acceptance of checks across national borders. Basically, the Eurocheque system makes it safer for merchants to accept checks by reducing the possibility that they will not be paid. The Eurocheque system is based on a uniform check instrument and a standard check guarantee card. The guarantee card may also serve as a cash withdrawal card for use at ATMs. When accepted in connection with a valid guarantee card, the bank issuing the check will guarantee payment on the check up to a fixed amount, equivalent to about 300 Swiss francs. The Eurocheque International organization, located in Brussels, is a private cooperative company whose shareholders are national banks and other associations of financial institutions from nearly 20 countries.

The Eurocheque system can be considered an open system, as banks, savings banks, cooperatives, and some postal authorities accept Eurocheques at their branches and all of them can become issuers. To establish a full international payment system, agreements have been introduced to harmonize clearing procedures among countries, most of which operate one check processing center. In countries in which Eurocheque is accepted but in which no formal agreements exist, traditional correspondent bank clearing procedures are followed. To handle international transactions, the national Eurocheque systems are linked to the multinational data transmission network set up to handle authorizations, clearing, and settlement for credit cards.

Giro Payments

Giro payments, which may take the form of paper or paperless payments, are credit payments. Therefore, giro payments are payment orders, or credit transfers, made for the purpose of placing funds at the disposal of a beneficiary. As shown in Table 2, the giro is the dominant payment method in a number of European countries, including Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland. In many of these countries postal banks have provided payment facilities for decades, operating primarily through the post offices and making and receiving mostly low-value payments.

Giro payments can be used for both recurring and nonrecurring payments. With recurring payments, customers give their banks instructions to initiate credit transfers in a specific amount, to a specific payee, on a specific, recurring date. Such standing orders cover payments for household commitments, such as rent, mortgage, and utility bills, and personal commitments, such as life and automobile insurance. Businesses also use the giro system as an efficient means of making bulk payments, such as salaries.

A significant trend is the growing use of automated or fully electronic communications methods by customers of banks to make payment orders. Increasingly, corporate customers are communicating their payment orders using magnetic tape or telecommunications. Corporate customers without the needed electronic data processing equipment and banks’ individual customers predominantly make payment orders in paper form, which frequently still have to be converted into machine-readable instructions. Some banks offer their customers home-banking services that may involve use of the telephone to make payments. Adequate electronic data security is an important element for these payment methods.

Direct Debit Payments

The direct debit is, next to the standing order-giro payment, the type of instrument best suited to automation. Direct debits, as shown in Table 2, are extremely popular in Germany and the Netherlands, and this payment method has made important inroads in a number of other countries. This payment method is widely used to simplify recurring payments (subscriptions, rents, public utility bills, taxes, etc.). In general, direct debit is becoming a relatively important method of making payments.

Direct debits must be preauthorized by the payor, who authorizes his bank to debit his account upon instructions issued by the authorized payee. No further action is then required on the payor’s part. As with giro transfers, businesses often submit automated files of payment information, containing direct debit instructions for recurring payments, such as the repayment of consumer loans. In addition, direct debits have become quite popular for intercorporate payments, including use for intracompany cash concentration, as described in Chapter 10. Further, when businesses use direct debit payment methods for trade payments, the direct debit payment message may be combined with invoice information in electronic data interchange (EDI) format.

Payment Cards

Payment cards include both credit and debit cards. Credit cards in particular have become a mainstream for making payments. A credit card indicates that its holder has been granted a line of credit enabling him or her to make purchases and/or to draw cash up to a prearranged amount. Interest is charged on the amount of the unpaid credit balance and cardholders are often charged an annual user fee. Debit cards enable the holder to make purchases and to charge those purchases directly to a current account at the bank issuing the card. The popularity of payment cards in different developed countries can be seen in Table 3.

Table 3.

Number of Cards Outstanding Per One Thousand Inhabitants, 1992

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Source: Bank for International Settlements.

Traditional payment cards contain a magnetic strip that allows for the automated capture of essential information about the cardholder. Newer technologies have been introduced in the so-called chip card, in which a microprocessor is embedded. Chip cards are much safer than traditional magnetic strip cards because of the sophisticated security features they offer and because they contain “on-board” information about the remaining authorized value associated with the card at any point in time. Acceptance of the chip card has been slow, however, as this technology is still relatively expensive, including the cost of the card itself. Moreover, as noted above with respect to the use of direct debit cards, this means of payment cuts down substantially on the float currently enjoyed through use of checks. Accordingly, other things being equal, this method of payment would not be attractive to consumers compared with the check.


Generally speaking, there is a continuing trend in the personal and the business sectors away from the use of cash toward use of cashless means of payment. This trend has been influenced by the increased use of accounts at banks. Nonetheless, in recent years, cash in circulation has not declined. This can be explained by the continued attractiveness of cash as a payment medium, the trend toward charging market-based fees for bank payment services, and, of course, any inflation embedded in an economy that drives up the cash “working balances” needed by consumers.

With respect to cashless payments, reliance on paper means of payment is declining in importance, although volumes are and will remain significant for some time. Plastic card transactions and automated payments are growing rapidly and will likely dominate the future of cashless payments.

Looking at the payment preferences of individuals, reliance on current accounts into which salaries are deposited directly is becoming more common. Although automated direct deposit has grown significantly in many developed countries, the rate of increase is slowing as saturation levels are being reached. The personal payment market will increasingly involve making payments predominantly by automated media (standing orders and direct debits) for regular payments and plastic cards (credit and debit cards) for nonrecurring payments. Cash will be obtained from current accounts through card access to ATMs.

Looking at the payment preferences of businesses, corporations are increasing their use of automated payments, particularly for making payments to and receiving payments from individuals. Also, there is a clear trend toward using automated means to pay other businesses. In many countries, automated trade payments are being used more heavily. In particular, when companies make use of electronic data interchange (EDI) for ordering, stock control, and invoicing, the EDI loop can be closed by integrating the payment process. The impact of electronic point of sale payments on the business sector is also worthy of mention. Growth in the use of credit and debit cards has led to a situation in which many retail businesses are receiving payments electronically.

With respect to the future use of different payment instruments, checks are known to be widely used for spontaneous payments. If the goal is to reduce the volume of checks, it appears likely that debit cards will need to make a significant contribution. The same trend can be forecast for giro transfers, mainly with nonrecurring payments. The aggregate cost of handling paper transactions is enormous, and will remain so, notwithstanding heavy investment in imaging technology whereby paper documents are converted to digital information stored on computers, and check truncation.

The volume of plastic cards has grown strongly in the past through the increased holding and usage of credit and ATM cards. By the year 2000, however, even these dynamic increases are likely to be overshadowed by debit card growth. The potential for debit card transactions depends mainly on the deployment of electronic point of sale terminals. For this to occur, inexpensive and portable terminals will be needed.

Cash is a cheap and efficient payment medium for low-value payments. The large-scale displacement of low-value cash transactions by debit cards would likely not be efficient.


Small-value payment systems must be extremely versatile and able to handle large volumes of transactions. In recent years, the exchange of physical payment instruments in paper form has increasingly been replaced by the exchange of payment data in automated or electronic form. In some cases, payments are purely electronic from their point of origin, as in automated credit and debit transfers. In other cases, for example, check truncation, a payment may be in paper form at the beginning of its life but converted to electronic form at a later point in the processing stream. Improved processing methods have been adopted for paper payment instruments, and the process has been made much more efficient. Although the volume of paper payment items will begin to decline, a significant fall-off in volume will be protracted.

Over the past few years, attention has been focused particularly on the need for interoperability among payment systems. Until recently, almost all small-value, cross-border payments have been processed through correspondent banks. Now, banks and some specialized institutions have developed proprietary systems suitable for handling small-value, cross-border payments at low cost. Thought is also being given to establishing linkages between national ACHs, which has been suggested by the European Commission.

Internationally, direct debits and payments made by cards are growing strongly. Plastic card fraud, however, is a particular problem that must be addressed, in part by using new security techniques.