Monday, April 24, 2023

Zelle vs Interac e-Transfer, or why it's so difficult to kickstart a payments network in the U.S.

It's difficult to grow a payments product to universality in the United States, and that's partly due to the fact that the U.S. has a stunning 4,127 banks, 4,760 federal credit unions, and 579 savings & thrifts institutions, for a total of 9,466 depository institutions.*

Let's compare that to Canada. The rule of ten applies to most Canadian/U.S. comparisons. That is, the U.S. has around 10 times the population, so to get Canadian equivalents just divide by ten. (For example, there are 13,515 McDonald's restaurants in the U.S. Meanwhile, Canada has 1,363. That's almost perfectly in-line with the rule of ten's prediction.)

The rule of ten suggests that if the U.S. has 9,466 depository institutions, then Canada should have 946. But that isn't the case. Canada has 81 regulated banks and around 208 credit unions, for a total of just 289 depositories. (I am counting the 213 credit unions belonging to the Desjardins co-operative federation as one entity.)**

The rule of ten particularly fails with respect to banks. Canada has just 81 banks, not 412 as suggested by the rule. Banks are more influential than credit unions because they tend to be much larger.

So why is this data relevant to payments? A payments network is really only useful if it has a lot of participants on it, but a lot of participants aren't going to be on it in the first place if it isn't useful. That's the chicken-and-egg problem of payments networks.

To solve the chicken-and-egg problem, it helps to have a few large actors a vanguard commit to using the network at the outset, which kickstarts its usefulness, and then everyone else gets dragged into joining up. Voila, universal payments.

When you've got 9,466 depository institutions, it's hard to build a strong vanguard group in order to drive quick adoption of a new payments network.

Take The Clearing House's Real-Time Payments (RTP) network, for instance, a U.S. payments network which was launched in 2017. Out of the U.S.'s 9,466 depositories, RTP has attracted just 285 participating institutions, effectively limiting RTP's reach to 65% of all U.S. checking accounts. (The 65% number is from RTP's website.)*** That's not bad, but it's not great.

Another example is Zelle, a U.S. bank-owned person-to-person payments network that was introduced in 2017. By 2021, Zelle boasted 1,700 banks and credit unions on its bank-to-bank payments network. That's better than RTP, but according to Zelle, this still only represented 74%, or 577 million of all U.S. checking accounts, in 2021. (As of early 2023, Zelle reports having 1,900 financial institutions on its network, so it probably now connects 75-80% of all U.S. checking accounts.)

In Canada's case, with just 81 banks and 208 credit unions, it's much easier to build a vanguard group to drive a payments network forward.

For instance, Interac e-Transfer is the Canadian equivalent to Zelle, providing instant person-to-person transfers via bank and credit unions. As of 2023, Interac e-Transfer has 250 participating banks and credit unions. (It lists Desjardin Group, a federation of 213 credit unions, as a single entity). That's almost all of Canada's 289 depositories, and effectively 100% of all Canadian chequing accounts. That's ubiquity for you.

Admittedly, Interac e-Transfer has been around a lot longer than Zelle and RTP, having debuted in 2003, and so it has had more time to spread into all the cracks. (I wrote about Canada's big head start in instant payments a few years ago.) But even at the outset of the adoption process, e-Transfer enjoyed buy-in from Canada's five biggest banks (Royal, TD, Scotiabank, CIBC, and Bank of Montreal), which together owned 86% of all Canadian banking assets at year-end 2003. That's a huge vanguard group. The chart below, which uses 2022 data, gives a good feel for how significant this is.

The above chart also illustrates how small any U.S.-equivalent vanguard group will ever be. Zelle's 2017 group of 30 first-adopters may have seemed large on the face of it. After all, it included America's largest banks: JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, US Bank, PNC, and Capital One. Yet this vanguard still only constituted 52% of total U.S. banking assets, much less than the 86% committed to Interac e-Transfer on day one.

The diffuse nature of U.S. banking (and the concentrated nature of Canadian banking) will play into the upcoming launches of FedNow and Real-Time Rail (RTR), two instant retail payments system belonging to the Federal Reserve and Bank of Canada, respectively. I'd expect RTR usage to amp up quickly, given that Canada's big-5 banks will likely help sponsor it. FedNow adoption will lag. It's just not that easy to get 9,466 institutions on the same page.

* Number of US banks and savings/thrifts is from FDIC. Data on credit unions is from the NCUA
** Number of Canadian banks is from OSFI. Number of credit unions is from CCUA
*** A tweet where I list my data source for RTP data


  1. Take up of FedNow will be interesting to watch. I think one of the key selling points for FedNow is that it levels the playing field for US community banks and allows them to compete with big bank sponsored platforms like Zelle. If that’s the case then maybe adoption of FedNow will surprise? That said, I think the Fed is also planning a gradual rollout so this might limit the initial up take…

    1. One hopes you're right.

      What concerns me is not only the many-banks problem I wrote about above, but also the many-networks problem. The US already has RTP and Zelle, and soon it will get FedNow. Any network has to resolve a complex chicken and egg problem, but the existence of three networks, each competing for members, prevents any single one from reaching a solution.

      Perhaps if the three networks were interoperable, the many-networks problem would recede, leaving only the many-banks problem.