How payments can adjust to the coronavirus pandemic—and help the world adapt

McKinsey & Company | By Philip B, Reet C., Olivier D., Tobias L., and Marc N  | March 2020

payments and covid19 1 - How payments can adjust to the coronavirus pandemic—and help the world adaptThe challenges are immediate, with long-term implications for global, regional, and local economies—and for the payments industry itself. Here’s what to expect.

Any projection of industry performance rests on assumptions about overall economic activity. The outlook largely depends on the spread of the virus, the public-health response, and the effectiveness of the fiscal, monetary, and broader public response. A relatively optimistic scenario, taking into account these variables, assumes that the virus will be contained after an economic lockdown of two to three months in Europe and the United States. Under this scenario, global GDP would decline in 2020 by 1.5 percent, which we estimate would result in, at most, a decline in payments revenues of around $165 billion, some 8 percent lower than they were in 2019.

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Cross-border consumer-to-business transactions are likely to drop. One-quarter of the total decline in revenues in our analysis is driven by cross-border payments, led by a 25 to 30 percent decline in cross-border C2B transactions. This would be explained mostly by the disruption of travel and tourism, but also by increasingly localized commerce ecosystems, such as those promoted through buy-local campaigns. Examples of highly vulnerable markets would be Saudi Arabia, with 40 percent of online payments related to travel and entertainment, and Thailand, a major destination of international travelers. Major expat markets, such as the United Arab Emirates, could also see a substantial share of their revenues disappear.

Cross-border business-to-business transactions have also been affected. Container freight is down since January, considerably lower than its level in the comparable period of 2019. However, supply chains will be disrupted over the longer term because different geographies will emerge from the crisis at different times. Chinese manufacturers, for example, won’t be able to sell engine parts to US automakers until US car production resumes.

Payments related to securities transactions are at record highs, reflecting the market’s instability and volatility. This volatility is creating a higher degree of risk for international securities-clearing transactions.

Retail payments and merchant-services businesses will be severely affected. Classic point-of-sale (POS) payments volumes could drop by as much as 30 to 40 percent in the short term, though online sales will be less affected. Data for retail show that as of March 18, foot traffic was down, compared with the same period in 2019, by around 20 percent in the United Kingdom and by more than 70 percent in Italy and the United States. Sales at restaurants and hotels and for recreation, culture, and travel have virtually collapsed. In 2018, these categories represented over 30 percent of EU household expenditures and an even higher percentage of POS transactions.

The gig economy—and fintech wallets based on it—is also suffering. Our industry observations suggest that flows are down by 20 to 30 percent for some leading wallets in Asia, despite a growing number of users. Offline merchant payments and ride hailing are most affected, while online payments and food delivery are holding up.

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Finding the next normal

As the crisis plays out, we will get more clarity about the depth and duration of the pain. One thing is clear now: there will be no return to the norms of 2019; the impact on the behavior and expectations of customers and businesses—indeed the entire fabric of the economy—will be profound. So it is critical not only for the payments ecosystem but also for the economy as a whole to develop, today, the payments solutions that will allow economies to emerge from the current crisis efficiently and define the post-COVID-19 future.

Here we highlight ten fundamental changes that require us all to be prepared. These are not only things we believe the industry should predict or anticipate but also things that we should all ensure will happen for the effective and lasting relaunch of our economies.

Rationalize cash. Physical means of payments, such as cash and checks, have been actively discouraged through the crisis for their potential of carrying the virus. Banks have closed branches for security reasons, and clients and staffs have readjusted to changed interaction models, either over the phone or by appointment only. Some branches will never open again. Now is the time to promote and design digitization programs for commerce and the economy.

Ensure universal access. The current crisis is highlighting the fact that not everyone has the same level of access to the necessary new technologies and digital tools. Moving away from cash affects unbanked citizens disproportionately. Merchants without access to digital payments lose out more as remote buying increases. Now is the time to design setups where all merchants and all consumers, irrespective of finances and education, will have access to the tools of the future. Limits in the payments infrastructure or prices should not be used as an excuse.

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Stabilize digital currencies. With values collapsing and trust eroding, digital currencies have proved incapable of delivering on their promise of a universal payments solution in a time of need. The crisis is reinforcing the importance of governments in maintaining the global financial system. Consider, for example, the momentous currency swap lines of credit made available by the US Federal Reserve to global central banks.

Make the leap to omnichannel payments solutions to support omnichannel commerce. The growth of online commerce has accelerated and will continue to do so, especially as markets, such as those in Southern Europe, close the gap with more advanced Northern European or Anglo-Saxon economies and China. Some smaller retailers forced to close in the crisis may not reopen physically but seek a digital future instead. The rapid build-out of omnichannel capabilities—which will bridge payments in any environment, physical or digital—will become an essential requirement for all payments players in most geographies.

Make all payments touchless. The fear of contact with contaminated surfaces has given a real boost to the use of contactless payments, card and wallet based. Cashiers are being trained not to take cards from customers and to promote the insertion of cards into readers by customers. The educational impact of, say, local shopkeepers who actively encourage customers to use contactless payments and refuse to take cash will convert some of the more reluctant users. As this habit becomes further engrained, it will become the key to removing barriers to further growth.

Expand digital-wallet solutions beyond payments. Payments using digital devices—phones or wearables—had already started to emerge before COVID-19 struck. Enabling wallets to offer other features, such as digital IDs and transaction monitoring and reporting, will promote even more growth. Your phone could tell you when it is too crowded to go shopping or alert you when your goods are ready to pick up when you arrive. Such capabilities will make a difference to the reopening of some stores. Companies that provide viable options for integrated and contactless payments, to both customers and merchants, will probably have a distinctive edge over competitors.

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Deploy data as a protection against fraud. The COVID-19 crisis has opened new avenues to use data. In China, phone data were used to help people understand “safe corridors” for movement and to track contagion cases rapidly. Even in Europe, consumers are more open to the use of data for their own benefit. The protections against fraud that can be developed should benefit users, not providers, in the weeks when activity resumes. Benefits delivered then will carry the mindset change forward. Fraud prevention is likely, more than ever, to be the priority here.

Promote a new era of cooperative competition. The universal disruption of our societies is triggering a new wave of innovation, with a cooperative mindset not common in past crises. The liquidity and profitability crunch provoked by the crisis will lead to a shakeout in the fintech industry, eliminating initiatives that lack clear long-term economic viability. We believe this development will lead to a new fintech landscape, geared more to marketwide cooperation and win–wins and less to challenging the incumbents. Given the change in valuations and market expectations, market consolidation and the development of local and regional champions may continue. In that context, companies will also be reviewing their prospects for growth, as well as considering partnership models and organic and M&A growth, to support their strategies.

Transform bank-payments operating models. Banks will also have to readjust to the new normal. Payments today are a major cost burden for many banks, and most spending maintains existing systems instead of creating change. In the postcrisis world, banks will need to reflect on how to organize themselves for change, possibly by running some of their payments businesses in a completely different way. They could, for example, consider structural moves on the use of onshoring versus outsourcing, cloud-based infrastructure, automation, and analysis-driven decisions to reimagine scale or the realignment of products. Payments-as-a-service business models, in their infancy before the crisis, are likely to get a boost, particularly where they can provide relief for reduced IT budgets.

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Redesign the regulatory model. In a time of change, we must move to setups that solve real-world problems—guaranteed by regulators but not imposed. This will require a new model of collaboration between the payments sector and regulators—a model focused on innovation in payments, adapted to the new economic reality in a sustainable and resilient fashion. Early indications are hopeful: for example, the US Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and the OCC announced, on March 27, that they will allow companies to delay the adoption of current-expected-credit-loss (CECL) standards on regulatory capital for two years. This will support lending activity in the wake of COVID-19 while maintaining the quality of regulatory capital.

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