Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Most people don't regularly check the California Senate Committee on Banking, Finance and Insurance for the latest news about potential legislation, and so it's no surprise that most people have never heard of California Assembly Bill 2789. That's too bad, because California AB 2789, passed into law in September, 2010 and effective January 1, 2011 as the Money Transmission Act (see http://www.dfi.ca.gov/lic
What the law accomplishes sounds mundane enough: it requires money transmitters--companies that act like banks, but aren't, such as PayPal--to get licenses. As usual, however, the devil is in the details. Previously, California corporations were only required to get money transmitter licenses for international funds transfers, and domestic transfers were unregulated. Now both kinds of transfers are regulated. Also, the price of each license is a little bit steep: half a million dollars and change.
Oh, and if you want to do business nationwide, you'll need 43 more of those licenses from almost every state. The forms and requirements are different everywhere, most states want your fingerprints to do a criminal background check (the exact same criminal background check, it turns out), and the price varies wildly from a measly $10,000 to $1,000,000+ per state. Want the forms? Good luck finding them; some states don't post them on-line.
Why does California's law matter at all when the regulatory framework for money transmitters is already such a mess? Well, Silicon Valley is located in California, and if Valley startup founders risk going to jail (which, under the updated PATRIOT Act, they do; see http://www.law.cornell.ed
In other words, the Money Transmission Act is designed to kill innovation.
The only silver lining is that the very last clause, section 1872, allows companies that had already been operating under the old law to continue doing so without repurcussion until July 1, 2011, which is when the music stops. On that date, every affected company needs a license application on file, or else the founders, employees and even investors will be committing state and federal crimes by merely continuing to operate.
Who would sponsor such a draconian law? According to legislative analysis of AB 2789 (see ftp://leginfo.public.ca.g
- Western Union
- American Express
While it's no surprise that these companies might want to keep out the competition, that doesn't make anti-competitive behavior something we should accept. The big four payment card companies (Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express) have managed to raise interchange fees for years and years thanks to legislative tricks, and only now is Congress trying to solve the problem by regulating debit (but thanks to lobbyists, not credit) card interchange rates via the Durbin Amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act, which has severe problems of its own.
You might argue that innovation in the financial industry is alive and well, but you'd only be right if you mean that in the most cynical terms. Case in point: Square, a payments company that is a media darling frequently cited as a leading innovator, does not disrupt the financial infrastructure in any way. In fact, Visa just invested in Square directly because it does such a good job of propagating the status quo. PayPal similarly exists to promote existing financial infrastructures, not replace them with something better.
Aaron Greenspan is the creator of FaceCash.com. Comments to the post can be found here. Reprinted with permission from Quora.