What the Heck is Web3?

With increased interest around Web3, making sense of the latest and newest technology trend — and its potential impact on financial services —  could add value to strategic discussions as leadership teams and boards consider their long-term strategies.

For early and seed stage venture capital, the top 15 firms invested $1.3 billion in Web3 and decentralized finance in the third quarter 2021, according to Pitchbook. The research company said investment in the space — which includes $900 million into the cryptocurrency exchange FTX and $120 million in Offchain Labs, a blockchain-based, smart contracts platform — beat out the separate fintech category, which landed in the No. 2 spot with $860 million invested.

Not everyone is convinced. In a December 2021 tweet, Tesla CEO Elon Musk called Web3 “more marketing buzzword than reality right now.” He was responding to a video of a 1995 interview of Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates with David Letterman, in which the TV host asked, “What about this internet thing?”

That question seems quaint today. Amazon.com had just opened for business as an online bookstore; Mark Zuckerberg would start Facebook roughly a decade later.

Facebook represents the current state of the internet, characterized by centralized platforms that own or leverage user content. But the web continues to evolve; venture capital firms and tech titans are using the term “Web3” to discuss this next phase. These changes encompass concepts that bank leadership teams and boards should be watching and regularly discussing.

“Web3 is really just a rebranding of a lot of the things we’ve already been talking about for a while,” says Alex Johnson, director, fintech research at Cornerstone Advisors. “It’s the collision of the internet and crypto in a way that allows for users of the internet to have verifiable ownership over the companies and products that they interact with.”

The expansion of digital assets underpinned by blockchain — including cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which represent ownership in art, music or even real estate — are reshaping the way that internet users think about ownership.

“There will now be the capability to give verifiable ownership — over content, over relationships, over access to special features, over [intellectual property] — to customers or users. And the potential impact of that is that companies that do that will have a significant marketing advantage and retention advantage,” says Johnson. Companies could use tokens to build loyalty and community, granting partial ownership to customers of products or ideas, similar to a referral bonus or share of stock.

Leveraging blockchain technology, investor Ryan Zacharia envisions consumers and businesses building digital identities. “People are going to effectively own and control their own identities and information, and hold that information in a digital wallet,” providing access when applying for a loan, for example. Zacharia is general partner at JAM Special Opportunity Ventures, which invests in up-and-coming bank technologies on behalf of partner institutions.

At the same time, a few banks are using blockchain to power real-time transactions. Last month, I watched the first real-time interbank transfer of stablecoins — cryptocurrency pegged to a stable currency or commodity — between two banks, $53 billion Western Alliance Bancorp., based in Phoenix, and $2.5 billion Coastal Financial Corp. in Everett, Washington. The transaction was facilitated by Tassat Group, which provides blockchain-based payment solutions for banks.

“The ability to have programmable money is a game changer for the whole economy,” says Chris Nichols, director of capital markets for SouthState Bank. “It’s the first time where you have value, the message and the ability to program all in one unit of code. … [T]his opens up a whole new set of products for banks.” Signature Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Customers Bancorp and New York Community Bancorp are among the banks exploring blockchain-based products and services focused on payments and asset securitization.

Fintechs competing with banks are also taking advantage of the disintermediation trends promised by a Web3 economy. In March 2021, Block (formerly Square) acquired TIDAL. The artist-centered music streaming platform allows the Jack Dorsey-led digital payments provider to tap into another niche. In a press release, current TIDAL head and Square executive Jesse Dorogusker said the two platforms would “explore new artist tools, listener experiences, and access to financial systems that help artists be successful.”

Musicians and artists have been early movers on NFTs. Just last month, Ozzy Osbourne launched a “CryptoBatz” collection of NFTs, commemorating the notorious 1982 gig where the rocker bit the head off a bat. Earlier in 2021, the band Kings of Leon released the first NFT album.

“There is an opportunity for content creators, music creators, owners and writers and musicians to eliminate intermediation, connect directly to their fans [and] sell their music as NFTs,” says Zacharia. “That can generate revenue for the musician, and the NFT holders can receive programmatic royalties based on [a song] being played …  or what have you.”

Web3 requires an open mind and a firm foot in reality. Research into these concepts quickly unearth ideas that seem more like science fiction than traditional economics and finance. Facebook, for example, recently changed its corporate name to Meta Platforms as Zuckerberg expects people to interact more in the metaverse. Will part of the economy take place in a digital world, where we interact via avatars in a virtual space?

”It’s important to have conversations that contemplate what the world could look like in five or 10 years,” says Zacharia. The metaverse is an unlikely next step for a typical bank, but he could see an early-mover advantage for an enterprising financial institution that figures out how to bank the space. And despite the sci-fi luster, the evolution of the web promises to soldier on, bringing opportunities and risks for banks to consider, including fraud and cybersecurity. “There’s a tremendous amount of talent and effort and capital that’s going into this,” he says. “Frankly, I don’t think it’s a fad.”

Why the Time is Right to Enable Payments on Real-Time Rails

Despite strong adoption worldwide, U.S. financial institutions have been slow to embrace real-time payments.

This reluctance is largely due to the complexity of the financial landscape, established consumer payment habits and lack of a federal mandate driving change. But the coronavirus pandemic fueled greater demand for real-time payments, as consumers and businesses increasingly transact digitally. As the share of real-time payment transactions in the U.S. doubled in 2020, financial institutions have an opportunity to launch real-time services that meet demand and enhance the customer experience.

Real-time payments are irrevocable, account-to-account payments that can be initiated through any device — laptop, mobile, or tablet. Because they are cleared and settled nearly instantly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the funds are available to the recipient immediately. This has significant cash flow and liquidity advantages over traditional payment options.

More than 60 countries are live with real-time payment systems today, and real-time payments grew 41% globally from 2019 to 2020. The U.S. ranks ninth worldwide with 1.2 billion transactions; well behind real-time leader India, which had 41 million real-time transactions per day in 2020.

The Clearing House was an initial driver of real-time in the U.S., launching its RTP® network in 2017. Currently reaching more than 60% of U.S demand deposit accounts, RTP is open to any federally insured depository institution. The Federal Reserve’s FedNow, which is now live with a pilot program, will drive further adoption when it launches in 2023. 

Real time payments have been primarily driven by person-to-person (P2P) and consumer-to-business (C2B) uses cases. Services like Zelle®, which was introduced in 2017 by Early Warning Services (EWS), have propelled adoption by making it easy for consumers to pay digitally; for example, paying a friend for dinner or making a rent payment on the day it’s due. In late 2020, Zelle® was integrated with RTP, making these transactions truly real time.

EWS reported a 51% year-over-year increase in Zelle® transactions in the third quarter of 2021, noting growing use of its service by businesses. Having the flexibility to pay rent, process payroll or pay for supplies in real time has particularly strong benefits for small businesses with liquidity challenges.

Disbursements also represent a growing use case, with businesses taking advantage of the ability to efficiently send refunds and make other payments in real time. An insurance company paying claims following a car accident or hurricane could avoid the overhead associated with processing paper checks. At the same time, real-time disbursements boost customer satisfaction by making funds available immediately. Payroll is another example, with the gig economy companies particularly benefitting from the ability to pay workers instantly.

Nowhere has the need for real-time payments been more apparent than in issuance of pandemic stimulus checks. As Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard said, “The rapid expenditure of COVID emergency relief payments highlighted the critical importance of having a resilient instant payments infrastructure with nationwide reach, especially for households and small businesses with cash flow constraints.”

Request for Payment
Popular in countries like India, Request for Payment is emerging as a convenient tool to facilitate real-time payments on a mobile device. A push notification and short series of prompts detail the payment request, and the payee can authorize payment from a banking app within a few clicks.

Businesses using Request for Payment benefit from immediate funds availability and a more efficient, cost-effective billing process; consumers gain convenience and control. Consumers issuing Requests for Payment can use it to avoid awkward reminders to friends or colleagues by simply sending a request digitally when money is owed.

Establishing a Real-Time Strategy
As financial institutions look to broaden their real-time payments offering, it’s important to consider the technological infrastructure needed to support them. As transactions and use cases continue to grow, both consumers and businesses will come to expect real-time options from their financial institution, and availability of well-established services like Zelle® and newer tools like Request for Payment will become table stakes.

A partnership with a digital banking provider that not only prioritizes real-time payment offerings today, but also has plans for future integrations with real-time focused fintechs, will prove critical to long-term success.

Community Banks and the Adoption of Real-Time Payments

The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically reshaped how community banks approach digital transformation.

This is largely in response to the shift in fundamental consumer behaviors and new technology, as Americans adapted to the realities of the pandemic. According to a report from Mojo, 44% of consumers who wait to adopt new technology have shifted to an “early adopter” stance. Additionally, 41% of “later adopters” stated they were likely to adopt new technology at a faster pace, even after the pandemic subsides.

Digital innovation is no longer an option for banks. Financial institutions must evaluate their digital products against consumer expectations. Leading the list of customer demands is access to more convenient and immediate payments. The pandemic’s remoteness made receiving and making immediate payments a necessity, accelerating the movement to real-time payments (RTP).

RTP are not a new concept; many countries have transitioned from paper-based payments and directly to real time. The U.S. has successfully worked with electronic payments, but is now behind in the global shift to real time. The Clearing House launched RTP in 2017; it experienced slow but steady growth initially but has been propelled by the pandemic more recently.

Addressing the growing need for immediate payments, the Federal Reserve announced plans for FedNow to streamline the clearing and settlement process. FedNow will enable customers to move funds instantly between accounts, pay bills and transfer between family and friends. Though FedNow garnered strong support from banks, it is not expected to launch until 2023 at the earliest.

No Time to Wait
Financial institutions are finding it difficult to wait for FedNow. Although vaccinations have blunted most of the impacts from the pandemic, the changes in consumer habits engendered by the pandemic persist — including demand for innovation in real-time payments. Consumers looked to technology for shopping, entertainment, paying bills and banking in general. A recent PYMNTS survey found that 24% of consumers would switch to financial institutions that offered RTP capabilities. It’s critical that banks recognize and react to this paradigm shift in payment by prioritizing RTP solutions.

Popular P2P payments apps like Venmo, PayPal Holdings, and other solutions from big tech companies underline that consumers are willing to adopt new technologies to meet a need. Now, these firms are offering credit cards, loans and even demand deposit accounts. (I even received an invitation to open a checking account from my cell phone company!) This should be a wake-up call to banks. In the same PYMNTS survey, researchers found 35% of consumers consider access to real-time payments as “extremely” important. These survey results reflect a growing trend and reality that financial institutions must recognize and address.

The race is now on to compete with non-traditional providers and megabanks to attract and retain tech-interested customers. Real-time payments are where consumers and businesses are headed. Financial institutions need to be fully engaged to connect to RTP or FedNow.

This is not an easy path for financial institutions that are used to making project decisions based on calculating the return on investment of the project alone. Strategic technology initiatives should be evaluated broadly, including the cost of doing business in banking. Large financial institutions have already moved forward to deliver top-notch digital services and experiences. To level the playing field, smaller institutions should look to technology savvy leaders and fintech partners to help deliver innovative solutions. Unheralded sources for fintech solutions are the bankers’ banks, which play a vital role for technology and as funding agents in RTP/FedNow and are offering innovative solutions to help community banks connect to real-time payments.

Changes in customer behavior and heightened demand for immediate payments driven by Covid-19 are here to stay; adoption of RTP will only continue to grow. In just the last year, real-time payments in the United States grew 69% year-over-year, according to Deloitte.

To act now, financial institutions should consider fintech partnerships to remain relevant in a dynamic financial and regulatory landscape. Financial institutions that tap into technology companies’ speed to market and access to a broader audience can approach RTP as a competitive advantage that distinguishes them in their local markets and attract new customers. Those taking a “wait and see approach” are already behind.

Can Banks Afford to Be Short-Sighted With Real-Time Payments?

The industry’s payments ecosystem is developing rapidly in response to increasing consumer demand for faster, smarter payments.

The need for real-time payments was accelerated by the global pandemic — but most banks are moving far too cautiously to respond to market demand, whether that is P2P, B2B, B2C or other segments. Currently, The Clearing House’s RTP® network is the only available real-time payments platform, while the Federal Reserve’s instant payments service, FedNow℠, is in a pilot phase with plans to launch in 2023. FedNow will equip financial institutions of all sizes with the ability to facilitate secure and efficient real-time payments round the clock.

For most banks, operating on core legacy technology has created a payments infrastructure that is heavy-handed, disjointed, costly and difficult to maintain, with no support for future innovation. Most banks, fearing the cost and effort of modernization, have settled for managing multiple payment networks that connect across disparate systems and require the support of numerous vendors. With the introduction of real-time payments, can these new payment rails afford to be a mere addendum to the already-byzantine payment architecture of banks?

Answering “yes” begets more questions. How resilient will the new offering be on the old infrastructure? Can banks afford to be myopic and treat real-time payments as a postscript? Are short-sighted payment transformations elastic enough to accommodate other innovations, like the Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) that are in the offing?

Preparation starts with an overhauling of payments infrastructure. If banks are to place themselves at a vantage point, with a commanding perspective into the future of payments, they should consider the following as part of the roadmap to payments modernization:

  1. From transactions to experience. Payments are no longer merely functional transactions; they are expected to provide qualitative attributes like experience, speed and intelligence. Retail and business customers increasingly demand frictionless and intuitive real-time payments, requiring banks to refurbish the payment experiences delivered to clients.
  2. The significance of payment data. The ISO20022 data standard for payments is heavier and richer compared to legacy payments data, and is expected to be the global norm for all payments by 2025. Banks are under increasing pressure to comply, with players like SWIFT already migrating to this format and more than 70 countries already using ISO20022. Payment solutions that can create intuitive insights from centralized data stored in ISO20022 format, while also being able to convert, enrich and validate legacy messaging into ISO20022, are essential. Banks can benefit from innovative services like B2B invoices and supply chain finance, as Request for Payment overlay services is a key messaging capability for customers of real-time payments.
  3. Interoperability of payment systems. The interoperability between payment systems will be an imperative, especially with the ecosystem of different payment rails that banks have to support. Interoperable payment rails call for intelligent routing, insulating the payer and payee from the “how” of payment orchestration, and paving the way for more operational efficiency. Operating costs account for more than 68% of bank payment revenues; centralizing the management of multiple payment networks through an interoperable payment hub allows bankers to minimize these costs and improve their bottom lines.
  4. Streamlining payment operations. Work stream silos lead to fragmented, inefficient and redundant payment operations, including duplicated fraud and compliance elements. This is where payment hubs can add value by streamlining payment operations through a single, consolidated operation for all payment types. Payment hubs are a great precursor for subsequent modernization: intelligent payment hubs can handle omnichannel payments, as well as different payment types like ACH, Fedwire, RTP and FedNow in the future. This takes care of the entire payment lifecycle: initiation, authorization, clearing, settlement and returns.
  5. Future-proofing payment systems. Following the path of trendsetters, banks have to equip themselves with future-proof solutions that can adapt to real-time domestic and cross-border payment systems processing multiple currencies. As open-banking trends gain traction, it is important to consider that the winds of change will eventually find payments, too. It is imperative that banks are cloud based and API driven, so they can innovate while being future-ready.

The opportunity cost of not offering real-time payments is becoming more evident for banks, as they wait for their core providers to enable real-time payments. Calls for banks to modernize their payments infrastructure are swelling to a roar; now is the time for banks to define their payments modernization strategy and begin to act.

Secure Payments in Real Time: You Can’t Have One Without the Other


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In the race for faster payments, it seems that many consumers place a higher value on convenience over security. This doesn’t mean banks’ focus on security is or should be any less critical. Rather, it highlights the need for authentication to become more than just a seamless experience for the consumer. It also needs to be both invisible and deterministically consistent.

Any bank’s plans to offer real-time payments is unquestionably accompanied by initiatives to ensure fraud mitigation can also occur in real time. Most fraud programs in place today are simply not built to support the imminent speed of payments. While banks already have access to many sophisticated systems that make real-time payments technologically possible, are they equipped to guarantee funds are sent to and received by the correct, authorized individual? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Accommodating customers’ desire for faster funds availability means putting them at the center of authentication process. The risk banks must mitigate as they strive for a faster payments process lies in confirming that the person transacting is the right person, transacting on the right account. With millions of customer interactions daily, organizations must be able to authenticate who is interacting, and on what device. This information is critical to assessing the risk of a specific transaction and deploying optimal authentication technologies accordingly.

Authenticating consumers also requires fast, broad access to a variety of industry data sets. There is no way for a single financial institution to gain a complete financial picture of a consumer. Instead, a broad and collaborative view of identity and transaction activity creates the type of holistic customer profile needed to quickly authenticate.

Lastly, behavioral biometrics are proving essential to the introduction of a real-time payments ecosystem. How a person interacts within an app, and even with his or her mobile device itself, is quickly becoming a critical risk management factor that banks need to understand to successfully launch their real-time payments offerings. If not already, banks should be exploring biometrics as part of a multi-factor authentication strategy, to leverage —what you do’ characteristics in concert with those indicating —what you know’ and —what you have.’

Authentication is not about mitigating fraud at certain points in time–it should be ongoing. Continuous authentication is important to facilitating faster, safer payments for a couple of reasons. First, fraud doesn’t necessarily occur at the onset of a transaction; organizations must be equipped to detect fraud at any stage of the transaction. Additionally, only when authentication is continuous can it truly remain in the background, requiring the consumer to do nothing more than assume his or her normal behavior.

By focusing on putting the right technology and authentication capabilities in place first, banks will be able to provide the faster payments environment that customers want. Instead of looking at security as a distinct challenge, consider how enhanced security and authentication enable faster payments and create the most convenient payments experience possible.