Friday, February 19, 2010

The Image Clearing Opportunity

Posted by Mark Brousseau

Image clearing networks provide an opportunity for bankers banks to grow their revenues and attract new customers. US Dataworks President and COO Mario Villarreal ( explains:

At a time when paper cash letter volumes are rapidly declining, and the banking industry approaches the "last mile" in its migration toward electronic clearing, forward-thinking banks are leveraging Check 21 and their existing IT infrastructure to offer new image clearing services to community banks. If there is one thing that bankers have learned from the credit crisis, it is that focusing on their core services can provide a huge payoff.

Bankers banks provide valuable services to community banks, allowing them to compete with their larger counterparts. Bankers banks that have invested in the best technology to clear image exchange items also can offer this as a value-priced service to other bankers banks, extending their ability to service additional community banks, reduce costs, and expand their clearing network for improved funds availability and returns processing.

The Business Case
Prior to Check 21, check clearing was an extremely labor and capital-intensive process. For this reason, most bankers banks provided only settlement services: most community banks deposited paper cash letters at their nearby Federal Reserve Bank, while community banks that weren't members of the Federal Reserve settled their items through a bankers bank.

With the adoption of image clearing reaching more financial institutions, and advances in technology eliminating the need for bankers banks to print substitute checks in order to clear all of their items, more bankers banks are discovering that they can offer check clearing services to their customers with a much smaller investment in staff and equipment than in the past.

The goal for these bankers banks is to provide a lower-cost clearing option for their community bank customers or members, while generating non-interest income through clearing fees. By establishing a regional clearinghouse for in-network financial institutions, bankers banks can help their customers achieve lower costs through direct exchanges, as well as additional discounts through the bankers banks' aggregated volume. In most cases, community banks see savings of up to 20 percent compared to Federal Reserve Bank fees. Similarly, working with a bankers bank provides lower fees to receive image files from other banks. And bankers banks can offer value-added services such as item-level duplicate detection, which reduces errors and helps identify potential fraud. Other services include long-term payment archiving, expedited research and adjustments, and payment trend analysis.

In turn, bankers banks can strengthen their customer relationships, attract new bank customers, and increase the percentage of items cleared through their network. Bankers banks that have implemented this service have increased the rate of membership in the geographic region they serve, which results in a bigger network and more value to all participants.

Bankers banks also gain operational improvements by implementing an image exchange system that is not based on the old way of paper-check processing, but designed from the ground up to process today’s growing variety of payment types. In one case, a bankers bank reduced the time necessary to complete its check image processing from eight hours to less than 45 minutes using the new standard in image exchange processing. And, unlike traditional check systems, advanced image clearing solutions allow for configuration changes -- such as adding or disabling a clearing endpoint -- without a significant lead time or custom code.

Key Buying Criteria
When evaluating clearing solutions, there are four key criteria bankers banks should consider:

1. Scalability -- Image clearing requires the processing of large volumes in an extremely short processing window, as well as the effective management of a large number of image files.
2. Exceptions handling -- To minimize costly errors, an image clearing solution must have capabilities for duplicate detection.
3. Enhanced clearing capabilities -- In order to reduce fees, a clearing solution should have capabilities for in-network and consolidated decisioning, as well as bi-directional clearing.
4. Expandability -- Because of the fast-changing nature of the financial services industry, bankers banks should look for solutions that are designed to support future services.

Other evaluation criteria include startup and ongoing costs, time-to-market, the vendor's track record in high-volume operations, any value-added functionality (such as data analytics), and the level of control the bankers bank will have over product pricing, processing deadlines and service levels.

The Bottom Line
With fee income on the line, and community banks desperate for cost-effective clearing alternatives, more bankers banks will establish internal image clearing networks to harness the cost savings of in-network clearing and direct sends to major financial institutions, Returned items and research and adjustments are also simplified with the network approach. With these networks, bankers banks can provide the highest quality of correspondent services to community banks, as well as help their colleague bankers bank serve their customers. To provide even greater benefit to their customers, some of these bankers banks will create expanded same-day exchanges and exchanges with national and regional banks, and bundle their image clearing services with cash management products such as remote deposit capture (RDC) and automated clearing house (ACH) processing.

All of this will strengthen the role of bankers banks in the emerging financial services environment.

What do you think?

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