Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The smart cards in smart cities

Everyone is familiar with the oyster card in London and similar cards world over. Singapore has its own ez-link card. Yet, I carry few debit cards, few credit cards, School Access card (for parents), the Museum passes, Office access card, home access card and the works. There are simply too many cards.

Too many cards that I carry SIGH!
How about just 3?

Is it difficult? Not at all. Let us imagine 3 cards. One is your all-in-one Government ID. Second is high-security-access card (HS Card)— used for all debit card / credit card processing/home access and the like. Third is a lower security card (LS Card) — pre-paid cash card, travel, office access and the like.

Well, this system is in fact easier and more cost effective to setup. The service provider (say a bank, home security system) need to do is to add the card number and details present on the face of the card itself to their system and bingo your card can now function as a Citibank, HSBC or Chase or whatever card you prefer. On the back of the card they can stick a little sticker so that I remember what cards option I have. By limiting its access you can control what data the “swiping device” can collect. So one way could be to use photo of the card. Other way would be to simply tap that card — this would allow basic data for shopping say upto $2000/-. A swipe would let you swipe more than $2000 till your limit. A house access would require a tap and pin (say).

Same goes for the LS Card too. In fact all the shops who want to give you “points” and reward your “loyalty” can do so with this LS Card. Anyone wants you to give access can enter this card number in his system and you will have access to it. This could be transport systems including taxis and buses, boats and the works. It could also be your office door etc.

The government ID card can be kept separate because of the legal issues that result in case of mishandling of the card. If some vendor makes a mistake you may lose access to your insurance or something far worse — you may no longer be a citizen. The redundancy allows for the system to be more stable than depending on simply the transaction card.
Who mentioned Apple Wallet or Android Pay?

At its best I would have Apple, Android and mobile phone manufacturers do this. Just by getting my mobile number all the companies can give me access using the phone. I should be able to share basic data with companies wanting to reward me for my “loyalty” just by sharing my phone number and a sms based pin and then it should be easy for the companies to keep rewarding me.

However, I am wary of putting ever more power at the hands of these companies. For one, it seems difficult for these systems to work together at least till now. Therefore, we have cards that are not Apple pay compliant or the shops don’t have terminal for Apple pay. These problems are easily solveable — we simply need a will to do it. It would be beneficial if these companies adopt a universal standard for such operations.
This otta make cities Smart

Now I am not a fan of smart cities focussing on useless tech without convenience. But the smart card concept we discussed above seems to be practical and it should make cities smarter, peoples lives easier.

A city state like Singapore should initiate experiment in this direction. Singapore already has its own payment standard called NETS, formed by collaboration between various banks and adopted by monetary authority of Singapore. Now all cards should be NETS compatible — debit cards, credit cards and yes access cards, transport cards etc. With this in place we will take the first step towards card utopia.

Why is QE — ZIRP/NIRP not working?

Most people wonder as to why Quantitative Easing (QE) along with low interest rate policy is not making their life easier. John Mauldin and Neil Jensen in their letters are wondering where the road to recovery is? Where is the inflation? Where are the corporate profits? Where is the growth? QE and low interest rate policy were the response of FED to the crisis of 2008. Some central banks have already gone Negative interest rate policy. But as yet, they are not working. Why? Because they are not supposed to work.

The crisis of 2008 was the result of few forces striking together — an over leveraged borrower, inflated prices of collateral and banking system with management’s hand in the cookie jar (lower provisioning and accounting gimmicks to announce record profits), resultant working capital -denied supplier and a proprietary money-desk betting on failure of the main street engineered by bank runs. When the crisis unfolded the prop-bets made a X amount of money, main-streets bets lost a 10X amount of money and banks ended up in trouble. FED’s response — lowering interest rates and priming the pump through QE was designed to recapitalize the banks and not rebalance the economy. When viewed through this lens the action of the FED makes more sense.

With low-yield funds from the FED, banks bet in the markets and earn capital gains to buffer their balance-sheets. With the balance-sheets bolstered with excess capital, the banks may, if they take fancy to it, then start lending to the main street thereby kickstarting the main-street which will hire more, jobs will come back, incomes will rise and debt will be repaid and world will be glorious once again.

This lens also tells us that FED is not going to raise interest rates any time soon. Not yet. The reason is that banking system is ever more skewed. The banks figured out way to make money for the management and shareholders without going through all that trouble. Just bet on the markets — inflate the asset prices (we are at upper end of the PE multiple band for stocks, Housing prices are recovering when quality of jobs is declining) make the bets, earn the money, keep provisioning low but DON’T announce record result as some costs have gone up. If you are wondering which costs are going up when inflation seems to have losts its mojo — don’t ask me. “The math dont add up mate!” Since provisioning is not adequate, if asset prices were to correct, banks will be in ever more trouble. The “Too big to fail” have become “If I fail you really get fucked” big. They need high asset prices and INCREASING asset prices to justify and unwind this shit.

Oh and if you want a way to fix the banking for real — fix the main street and banks will fix themselves.


Was European Federation possible at the end of 2008 crisis?

European Federation — a political integration of Europe, seemed to be one solution to the European Crisis. Then again others argue it was doomed to fail.

A political integration is an emotional, cultural and political process. By themselves, these each of these are quite challenging. Secondly, the budgetary/financial discrepancies between member countries had to be resolved in a Federal style — even before a federation came to being. Again a big issue. So was federal Europe possible? It was. In fact, “other things being equal” European people would have had no problem integrating — this time or a bit later. But other things were not equal. The central issue, I think, was the political situation.

The compulsion for political union came at the time of immense political turmoil. What started as a refugee crisis, quickly turned into a religious friction and today Europe sits at a major inflection point. Instead of expanding their identity into a bigger European identity, the citizens are faced with reducing it to exclude some religions, minorities and others-not-like-us. The reductionist forces are winning — radicalisation of european muslims, terror attacks, rise of IS and other thorny issues are shoe-boxing the European identity further and further. Without guidance of able leadership, the mindset will become closed. Hate will once again building up.

There was a massive leadership crisis. A great european leader would have focused on the migrants who were malleable and worked on them. She could have identified the refugees keen to integrate and empowered them to expand the integration process to their communities. Sadly, european leaders tried to shepherd their own population into a forced acceptance of refugees. Like a forced marriage, it was bound to fail. At such stage, we wish we had leaders of caliber. If there was an insurmountable obstacle this is it. The level of politics is shameful.

The fault is also with the people. The pedestrian politics of our times is narrowing our minds into seclusion and hate. That it is so possible in the time of internet and social media is the blight on our humanity. And past 10–20 years have brought the peoples of the world closer through the internet. Our choice, the one our politicians ignore, is to expand our minds. We need to remember that eventually the identities must expand and embrace all of humanity. To expansion, there is no end.

Similar circumstances faced the American a few hundred years back. They expanded themselves into a federation, bet on humanity and came to lead the world. The people of Europe face a similar test today. Sadly, there is no Washingtons, no Jeffersons and no Franklins. Or are there?