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A new saving and payments system

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Tuesday, 5 August 2008


The interface between you and your bank used to be the branch. Today banks give your computer sufficient access to their computer over the net to let you do it all yourself.

“Reengineering of the interface” is happening everywhere as government agencies from the ABC to the ABS let us search and download their content anytime, anywhere. And in the UK where they’re sufficiently alive to such possibilities to have a “Minister for transformational government”, they’re taking things further.

For instance their National Archives are moving to “provide and enable” - so that your computer gets to mess with their computer. The archives are no longer to be a collection of documents. They’ll be a database of content which users can search, gather, repackage, “repurpose” and republish.

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In a similar way we could transform another interface to build a simpler, safer financial architecture for our savings and payments, an architecture capable of keeping your money safe during the worst depression or financial crisis.

You deposit money in the bank because it’s safe (mostly), earns interest and can be paid to anyone in the banking system. But why don’t we deposit money with the Government? After all it’s safer. And the government typically pays money market lenders higher rates than are available from a bank account.

Actually you can still buy a bond from the Reserve Bank. And buying war bonds used to be a patriotic duty and household portfolios often held Board of Works paper.

But it’s pretty marginal now for two reasons. First, governments have had less debt to sell (they’ve been under-investing and running down assets, but that’s another story). And financial innovators have repackaged government paper providing liquidity and convenience in cash management trusts.

But the internet now allows governments to go one better at the blink of a cursor. A modern government could give citizens internet access to bonds and the liquidity of an at-call account somewhere near the overnight cash rate.

The functionality of our system is maintained only by the state’s implicit assurance that fiat money will be kept in sufficiently scarce supply. So it is odd for citizens who must hold that money to be denied a way of storing it with complete security at the going interest rate.

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If we had such a system, we could let account holders pay each other by just logging onto their friendly government website and transferring the funds just as they do with bank accounts now. None of this should be subsidised. But the full cost could be met at be a tiny fraction of current bank margins or the 0.25 per cent commission the RBA charges to sell you a bond to cover the costs of its paper based system (or is it just to avoid competing with the banks?).

In fact most of us already have accounts with the government via the Tax Office. So all we need is a bit of “joined up government” and we’re on our way!

Meanwhile our existing payments system which is a paper based payments system supercharged with modern IT - Dickens on steroids - could continue whirring and whirling away with its 24-hour payment cycles, counterparty risks and high costs.

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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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