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What Are Real-Time Payments?

Posted by Christian Hibbard on 22 Jan 2021

Real-Time Payments or “RTP” refers to payment rails (platforms or networks via which payments are made) that share a few characteristics. The first is in the name: they are real-time, or at least very close—initiating, clearing, and settling in a matter of seconds. Real-time payment networks are ideally 24x7x365, meaning they are always online and available for a transfer. As a result, in order to connect to a RTP rail, the bank or credit union’s backend systems will need to be 24x7. “Open-loop” is also an important characteristic—this means the payments are connected directly to a personal account, rather than relying on a prepaid balance. A data-rich messaging format like ISO 20022 is also necessary. Without this clear and nuanced form of information, it is more difficult to resolve errors, which leads to processing delays. Strong formatting standards also provide greater security to all participants in the network.

Current examples of RTP networks include The RTP® Network from The Clearing House (TCH) in the U.S., UPI in India, Faster Payments in the UK, and PIX in Brazil. The terms “instant payments”, “immediate payments”, and even “fast/faster payments” are also sometimes used interchangeably to refer specifically to real-time payments rails. 

This can get very complex very fast, so let’s hone in on what’s most relevant in the U.S.

Real-Time Payments in the U.S.

RTP® Network from the Clearing House

Launched in 2017, RTP® Network was the first of its kind in the United States. It is developed and operated by The Clearing House Payments Company L.L.C. (PayCo), which is privately owned by a group of the world’s largest banks. It currently reaches over half of all U.S. demand deposit accounts but is accessible to 70%. Access is available to all federally registered depository institutions, either via a direct connection or a third party service provider (TPSP). Financial institutions with the resources to make their backend processes compatible with the network can connect directly, but most may need to use a TPSP. Such providers specialize in complex and resource-intensive infrastructural issues like ensuring 24x7x365 processing. As with all specialization, this makes TPSP’s more efficient. The current cap for an RTP® transaction is $100,000, with lower limits sometimes set by connected institutions.

This network allows for several types of messages:

  • Credit Transfer: the only way funds can be transferred on TCH RTP, a credit push
  • Request for Payment: prompts a user to send a credit transfer
  • Payment Acknowledgement 
  • Request for Information and Response to RFI 
  • Stand-Alone Remittance Advice 

FedNow from the Federal Reserve

Pending further updates, the Federal Reserve will launch its own RTP network in 2023 or 2024. Much of what goes for The Clearing House’s network also applies to FedNow, the main difference being that FedNow will be operated entirely by the Federal Reserve banks. The goal is that the launch of a second domestic RTP rail will drive competition, in price and ease of use but most importantly adoption. Given that the service is still in heavy development, specifics are still being worked out. What we do know is that FedNow’s rollout will be phased, the first stages involving support for core capabilities. The Fed is aware that the main obstacle for many financial institutions is 24x7x365 processing, so they are hoping to ease that transition. Concerns have been raised involving interoperability and public-private sector competition, but the Federal Reserve seems to be taking these concerns, as well as other lessons from extant systems into consideration. The current expected value cap for a FedWire payment is $25,000, but the Fed is considering an increase before release.

Common Questions

Even if you’re fully versed in payments lingo, there are some overlapping terms that it helps to clarify. Although the industry markets the benefits of RTP to end-users, many still don’t have the information they need. The meanings of terms can depend on who’s using them, as well as the country they are being used in.

Faster Payments is a blanket term that, in the U.S., refers to an accelerated payment rail. Examples include same-day ACH, real-time payments, Zelle, push-to-card, and others. They are advocated for by the US Faster Payments Council. In the U.K., Faster Payments refers to the actual payment rail itself. 

Is ____ a real-time payment?

Mobile Payments: Not really, not yet at least. Apps like Venmo and CashApp offer instant transfers between users, but in reality, the value is held in a “closed-loop”, in contrast with the aforementioned “open-loop”. Within the loop, i.e. the app, users can exchange funds instantly, but if they want to retrieve money from within that closed-loop, they will have to use another payment rail, typically an ACH payment. However, some are eyeing real-time payments as a method of facilitating transfers between their eWallets and a checking account. This doesn’t make mobile wallets themselves open-loop but would allow for an easier connection to an open-loop system, like RTP.

Zelle: Kind of! Operated by Early Warning Services LLC, a company owned by several prominent U.S. banks, Zelle is an independent transfer service linked to many banks and credit unions. It has recently been integrated with The Clearing House’s RTP® network, which allows payments sent with Zelle to be delivered by the RTP network. If the payee or payer’s financial institution is not connected to the RTP network, then it still settles in minutes via Zelle’s network but is not technically real-time.

Wire Transfer: Kind of. Typically reserved for low-volume, high-value transactions, wire transfers do settle instantly. For this reason, they are referred to as real-time gross settlement or RTGS transactions. Despite the similarities, the difference is a practical one: real-time payments are ideal for high-volume transactions, whereas wires are used for high-value transactions. You might use RTP to send money to a family member, or pay rent; while wire transfers make more sense for buying expensive real estate or corporate acquisitions.

Same-day ACH: No. While same-day ACH transactions are an improvement over plain old ACH transactions, they only shorten the three-day window down to one. More importantly, they are batched, so rather than being individually processed like RTP or wire transfers, they are all compiled and settled together at the end of the working day. 

Push-to-Card: Almost. Push-to-card leverages existing card networks but reverses the flow of information so that funds can be sent to a debit or credit card, rather than from. It can settle in minutes, which is fast, just not as fast as an rtp network.

Check: What? No!

Why Use Real-Time Payments?

There is a myriad of benefits to using real-time payments, across every level of the financial system. The most familiar example to most Americans today is disbursements from the U.S. Government—stimulus checks. The cost of these Economic Impact Payments is high enough without the cost of printing and mailing checks or cards. Add in inevitable errors—misspelled names, payments sent to the deceased—and the price rises even higher. However, what’s even more crucial than money is time. People need aid to keep them out of the red, and to do that the payment has to arrive before their money runs out. The Treasury Department and IRS have the Herculean task of sending out hundreds of millions of payments, and there is just no way to do it without delays. Had the government been able to leverage a faster network, every American would have been able to receive their stimulus the day it was approved.

The good news is that soon we won’t have to think about the “what ifs”. More institutions are connecting to TCH’s RTP® network, and with the arrival of FedNow, real-time payments should very soon be the standard that ushers the U.S. into the next generation of commerce.

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Christian Hibbard Marketing Associate Christian Hibbard is the newest member of the Marketing team at Alacriti. His areas of interest are: Faster Payments, Data-driven Marketing, and Sustainable Business. Christian holds a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Temple University.

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