Industry News

Businesses like blockchain, but still aren't touching it for payments


David Heun | Monday, June 26, 2017

PaymentsSource

More than 90% of chief financial officers are confident in blockchain technology and claim they understand how this form of distributed ledger could affect account payables at their U.S. businesses.

But initiatives to introduce it to payments or other use cases are nearly non-existent.

However, 72% of CFOs say they have electronic payables initiatives underway and 26% are considering one, all of them working to launch a paperless system in the next six to 12 months, according to new data from WEX Virtual.

"All of these CFOs know what blockchain is and believe it will transform their business, but no one is doing anything about it," said Jim Pratt, general manager of South Portland, Maine-based WEX Virtual.

The financial and payments industry hear much hype about blockchain and its success as the foundation for bitcoin currency, but remain cautious, Pratt said. "That doesn't mean it won't be a useful technology, it just means that the use cases and applications of blockchain really aren't out there right now."

WEX Inc., a provider of payment processing and information management services for the commercial and government vehicle fleet industry in the U.S., surveyed 500 CFOs across various U.S. businesses earlier this year regarding their views on the payments landscape.

As WEX has expanded from fleet payments to healthcare and other travel sectors, the company has viewed blockchain as "an important technology" that is at least two to three years away from having scale in payments, Pratt said. "But it is important to understand it and its use cases," he added.

Blockchain is a type of distributed ledger that digitally records transaction and other data in "blocks" stored in a linear chain that remains unchanged, thus illustrating it has not been tampered with.

To further advance blockchain development, WEX initiated developer events they describe as competitions in which those studying blockchain technology develop proof of concept proposals for potential products.

"Blockchain is not an application, it's a technology and enabler that will allow for applications to be built on top of it to serve specific purposes," Pratt said. "But before that can happen at any scale, a lot of work has to be done with the technology to address many questions regarding its use."

At the core of that debate, Pratt said, is whether those in financial services and payments can agree if one global distributed ledger should be created, or if various private blockchains will ultimately unfold.

"Until those are answered satisfactorily, it will be difficult to scale," Pratt added.

It might be best for the key players in payments to consider a single blockchain in the future, said Enrico Camerinelli, a senior analyst in wholesale banking and payments for Aite Group based in Milan, Italy.

"It would make more sense for one main blockchain, as we have it already for bitcoins," Camerinelli said. "Having many blockchains will inevitably create integration issues."

The integration concerns are front and center as a potential roadblock for future blockchain projects that unfold beyond those already in place for providers and different use cases like Ethereum, Ripple, Hyperledger, MultiChain, Eris and some private solutions.

"It's mostly interoperability, connecting to different blockchains," Camerinelli said of a key obstacle. Other concerns will address identity recognition and authorization on a blockchain, but the top priority will remain educating businesses about the technology application, he added.

Still, the WEX survey indicates a growing interest in electronic and mobile processes that will improve current payment processes, and reduce operational costs and environmental concerns, while also improving security.

In that regard, WEX has also positioned its virtual payment cards as a logical security step on the payments landscape, one that can operate as a form of tokenization as the EMV chip migration continues to unfold in the U.S.

"CFOs are telling us they want faster innovation and products brought to market more quickly," Pratt said. "It was a pleasant surprise that 39% of them expect that meaningful innovation in payments will come from payment processing companies as opposed to big banks or fintechs."

WEX is hoping it can deliver on the faster innovation through its recent integration with Crawler2api in which the WEX payments services become available to any travel company using Crawler2api for its application interfaces or bots.

As such, Crawler2api operates as a site aggregator for WEX, making the payment integration easier for WEX.

"Ten years ago, we could have done this on our own," Pratt said. "But we would have had to integrate with all of those companies, like integrating into the reservation systems of travel management companies. But now, a company like Crawler2api can do all of that for you."

This article was licensed through Dow Jones Direct.

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