Monday , August 26 2019
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Swish > cash and bitcoin

Summary:
Ok, another Sweden post. I keep returning to Sweden because no country has gone further down the road to being cash-free. Since all of us seem to be following the same trajectory, we should probably be paying attention.Lucky for us, every two years the Riksbank—Sweden's central bank—-carries out a payments survey and puts the data up on its website. One of the most interesting questions that is asked is "which of the following payments methods have you used in the last month?" I plotted out some of the data and tweeted the result: Sweden is at the forefront of digital payments. I made this chart with data from the Riksbank payments survey: https://t.co/WTZlFYOl2Y: 1. Debit cards are universal, beating out credit 2. Cash use is plunging but still high 3. Swish adoption is exploding 4. Not

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Ok, another Sweden post. I keep returning to Sweden because no country has gone further down the road to being cash-free. Since all of us seem to be following the same trajectory, we should probably be paying attention.

Lucky for us, every two years the Riksbank—Sweden's central bank—-carries out a payments survey and puts the data up on its website. One of the most interesting questions that is asked is "which of the following payments methods have you used in the last month?"

I plotted out some of the data and tweeted the result:


What follows are a few observations.

Swish beats cash

Only 61% of Swedes used cash in the last month, down from 94% just eight years ago. But 62% now use a service called Swish. Swish is a mobile payments app that Swedes use to pay each other in real-time and on the weekend. Think Venmo or Zelle in the US, or Interac e-Transfer in Canada. These sort of payments options are not really used much at the point-of-sale. They're a person-to-person (P2P) payments technology.

Swish was developed by Sweden's banks, not by an upstart tech company. Incidentally, both Zelle and Interac e-Transfer are also owned by banks. (Venmo is owned by PayPal, a fintech). Which goes to show that banks aren't always the slow moving monoliths that a lot of people make them out to be. They'll protect their turf.

Swish was introduced in 2012, around the time that Sweden's legacy banknotes were all being scheduled to be replaced by a new issue of notes. By any measure, the timetable that the Riksbank selected for the switch over was inconvenient for cash-users. Rather than allowing for permanent note switches (like we do in Canada and the US) or a long window (like Sweden did in the 1980s and 1990s), the Riksbank gave Swedes only a year or two to make the swap. In the case of the 1000 kroner note, they'd have to do two swaps in five years. Due to the inconvenience of the changeover, many more Swedes chose to go cashless than would otherwise have been the case. I make this point in an earlier post which I called Swedish betrayal.

The Riksbank chose this timetable because it was recommended to them in 2012 by a collection of private financial institutions including Sweden's big banks. This was at the same time that the banks were introducing Swish. Since Swish and banknotes are direct competitors in the P2P payments space, an inconvenient note switch would have given banks quite the helpful tail-wind.

So Swish's success (at the expense of cash) probably isn't solely a function of enlightened consumer choice--it also benefited from a gentle nudge from the Riksbank (and the private sector, who advised the central bank). 

Debit card way more popular than credit cards

Canada is the land of credit cards. According to a recent Bank of Canada survey, around 39% of all retail payments are made with credit, or 56% of all value spent. Debit is a distant 26%. While debit is more popular in the U.S., credit cards aren't far behind.

So why is debit card usage so popular in Sweden? I'd guess low interchange fees. An interchange fee is how much a retailer must pay for each transaction that a customer makes using a card. In Sweden, interchange fees for credit cards are set at 0.3% while debit is 0.2%. In Canada, credit card interchange fees vary between 1%-2.5% compared. For debit, they are set at 0.25%.

Canadian banks can use the income from credit card interchange fees to fund handsome reward programs and 2% cash back. Swedish banks can't because credit card interchange fees are so low. So from a Canadian shopper's perspective, why use you debit card to buy $100 in groceries when you can use you credit card to get the same groceries and also get $2 cash back? Swedes don't face this same payments calculus—low mandated interchange fees mean that credit card can't come equipped with massive amounts of rewards. So buying 1000 kronor worth of groceries with a credit card doesn't provide any advantages to a debit card.

What happened to the bitcoin payments revolution?

If you want an example of a payments revolution, Swish is it—not bitcoin. Only six out of 2011 Swedes surveyed by the Riksbank used bitcoin to make a payment over the course of the month. That's an adoption rate of just 0.3%.

That being said, it's not as if bitcoin is unpopular in Sweden. Stockholm's Nasdaq/OMX exchange has the distinction of listing Bitcoin Tracker One, the world's first (and one of its only) exchange-traded bitcoin financial products. Bitcoin Tracker One is one of the exchange's most active tracking certificates. At the peak of the bitcoin bull market in December 2017, assets under management ballooned to $600 million.

These statistics illustrate the odd nature of bitcoin's success. Bitcoin was supposed to be a payments, or monetary technology. But this vision has never panned out. Rather, bitcoin has taken off as a great way for Swedes (and everyone else) to gamble. I took up this theme in a recent article for the Sound Money Project:

"Forget online payments; Bitcoin has become the most successful gambling technology to be invented since Henry Orenstein introduced the poker pocket cam in 1999. The pocket cam allowed viewers to see players' cards, revolutionizing the way people watched the game of poker and launching the 2000s poker frenzy.

In what sense did Bitcoin succeed as a gambling technology? At its core, Bitcoin is a pure Keynesian beauty contest. People try to guess what other people guess other people guess Bitcoin's value will be. The price that results from this contest is incredibly unsteady. But these explosive rises and stunning falls provide a fun, challenging, and addictive bet for casual gamblers and deep-pocketed professional speculators alike."

With bitcoin's first and primary function being gambling, a small minority of Swedes (six out of 2011) have been able to piggy back off it and use it for payments. An analogy can be made to other products that have alternative uses, say like how tooth paste's primary use case is to clean teeth, but a few people might use it to remove carpet stains.

The problem is that the very feature that makes bitcoin such a great gamble—its beauty contest nature—interferes with its serviceability as a payments system. I don't think this problem is solvable. Which is unfortunate because in theory at least, bitcoin seemed to have several features that would have made it a decent replacement for cash. 

About Jp Koning
Jp Koning
Working in the bowels of the finance industry. Blogging about monetary phenomena is my side gig.

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