Healthcare is consuming an ever-greater share of corporate America’s balance sheet. According to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation survey, today’s employers spend, on average, $12,591 for family coverage—a 54% increase since 2005.
Some companies have finally had enough. Twenty of America’s largest corporations—including American Express, Coca-Cola and Verizon—recently formed a coalition called the Health Transformation Alliance. They’re planning to pool their four million employees’ healthcare data to figure out what’s working and what’s a waste of money.
Eventually, they could leverage their collective purchasing power to negotiate better deals with healthcare providers.
It’s a worthwhile experiment. The government has largely failed to rein in spiraling healthcare costs; in fact, by over-regulating the healthcare marketplace, it’s largely made the problem worse.
The private sector will have to take matters into its own hands and find ways to creatively deploy market forces to its benefit.
Collectively, U.S. employers provide health coverage to about 170 million Americans. Because many pay part—if not all—of their workers’ premiums, they’ve borne the brunt of the upward march of healthcare costs. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, premiums for employer-based family insurance have increased 27% over the last five years, and 61% over the last 10.
Unfortunately, this growth won’t slow any time soon. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that average premiums for employer-based family coverage will reach $24,500 in 2025—a 60% increase over premiums today.
Understandably, companies are desperate to find ways to curb their healthcare spending.
Last year, one of every three employers reported increasing cost-sharing for employees, through higher deductibles or co-payments. Another 15% said they cut worker hours to avoid falling afoul of Obamacare’s employer mandate, which requires firms to provide health insurance to anyone working 30 or more hours a week.
But shifting costs elsewhere simply masks employers’ health-cost problem. They’ll have to address inefficiencies in the way healthcare is delivered to bring about savings that will actually stick.
The Health Transformation Alliance sees three primary ways to do so.
First, companies will have to mine their healthcare data for insight, just as they analyze the numbers for sales, operations and other core business functions.
The Alliance will examine de-identified data on employees’ health spending and outcomes. The hope is to determine which providers are delivering the best care at the lowest cost and to then direct workers toward these high-performing providers.
The U.S. healthcare sector today is awash with ambiguity and a lack of transparency. A knee replacement can cost $50,000 at one hospital but $30,000 at another. Two hospitals may offer the same price on a procedure, but one may have a higher rate of infection.
Such differences matter. According to a 2013 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, an infection can add, on average, $39,000 to a surgery’s price tag.
Second, employers will have to use their combined buying power to secure better deals on healthcare. Tevi Troy, the CEO of the American Health Policy Institute, the organizing force behind the Alliance, said, “If you brought together multiple employers, you would have more leverage, more covered lives, more coverage throughout the country in terms of regional scope.”
In other words, there’s safety—and potentially lower healthcare costs—in numbers.
Third, employers will have to educate their workers about how they can secure better care at lower costs.
Most consumers are clueless about where they should seek healthcare. They may welcome a gentle nudge from their employer toward a high-quality, low-cost clinic or provider. If it saves their bosses some money, all the better.
And as the Alliance hopes to prove, it’s a lot easier to borrow another company’s successful strategy for executing those nudges than to create one from scratch. An educational campaign that resonates with Verizon’s 178,000 employees, for instance, may do just the same with IBM’s 300-some-thousand staffers.
As Marc Reed, chief administrative officer of Verizon, explained, “What we’re trying to do is to make this sustainable so that kind of coverage can continue.”
Corporate America has been saying for years it cannot afford the healthcare status quo, with costs rising ceaselessly. But if employers use their healthcare data wisely—and capitalize on their collective bargaining power—they may discover that salvation from their health-cost woes lies within.
I recently led a workshop at the BRITE Conference at Columbia University on how to connect to customers and was honored to be among speakers including Shelly Lazarus, Ogilvy’s chairman emeritus; Vikram Somaya, ESPN’s global CDO; Linda Boff, CMO of GE; and Columbia Professor and innovation thought leader Rita McGrath. Organized by faculty members David Rogers, Matt Quint and Bernd Schmitt, and now in its ninth year, BRITE promotes dialogue on top brand, innovation and technology trends across business and academia.
I’ve condensed about half the workshop into a self-directed exercise, so you can try it.
People-based offerings are the basis for market relevance. Product pushing cannot endure. We are doing business in an “I want” world where companies like Amazon and Apple have set an “anything is possible” standard. The standouts will be companies that know how to walk in the shoes of the people they aspire to serve. These successful brands will follow the customer’s journey through life with authenticity — not just fixated on how to push product selection and purchase.
Customers wear different hats – they may be users, buyers or payers for your offering. People see different brand benefits based on their role. Building brand/customer connections requires you to parse these roles and tune into the relevant benefits. The benefits may not be the same — this matters when it comes to product, communications and experience decisions.
Network thinking overrides linearthinking and action. Building a business through binary relationships with suppliers on the one hand and customers on the other hand has been supplanted by businesses driven by value networks, or “value constellations.” Once you have a clear picture of the user, buyer and payer roles, you have in hand raw material to begin to assemble the members of your constellation. More on this topic in a future post.
Growth and Transformation: The Holy Grail
There’s not a conversation I’ve had with a senior executive in the past few years – irrespective of business size or sector – that didn’t share two linked priorities: growth and transformation. Technological possibilities, customer expectations and the need for speed demand a departure from historically beneficial but now outmoded strategies.
To Solve A Big Problem, You Have to Chunk It Down
To paraphrase a favorite colleague of mine from my days at American Express, “you just have to chunk” the big, hairy problems to make progress toward solving them.
Traditional business strategy starts with questions like: “What business are we in?” and “What core competencies can we use to compete?” These are inside-out questions whose answers assume “sustainable competitive advantage” is something you can achieve and own.
Set these assumptions aside. Our economy demands you define your strategy from the “outside” — where the customer is. Twentieth-century notions of strategy revolved around your position relative to competition. Twenty-first century strategy revolves around the customer.
This means the first chunk to work at is “Who is our customer?” And next, “Can we engender a transformational relationship with our customer, starting with focusing on needs, and then align all of our activities and decisions to deliver?”
A Simple, DIY Tool to See Your Customers as People, Not Data Points
Here’s a tool you can use to deepen your brand’s connection to customer needs and begin to conceptualize new business models for enablement.
Whether you complete it in your head or around the table at a team meeting, this simple template can nudge even stubborn traditionalists to ask new questions about how customer insight translates into business results.
Milton Rokeach: The Hierarchy of Needs and the User/Buyer/Payer Model
How Does This Theory Apply to Brands and Innovation?
Brand managers tend to enumerate product features to explain value to customers. Better brand strategists get to the benefits, too. But almost always, brands stop short of the much richer territory – connecting the brand to the values people strive toward in life.
By pushing a little harder to understand which values your brand satisfies (i.e., back to Rokeach’s inventory) you can find new growth levers, and pragmatic transformation priorities can emerge.
What Does Soup Have To Do With It?
So, in the simple example of a can of soup purchased for my family, the benefits may be a tasty, quick, low-cost meal that satisfies my daughter’s hunger and provides some nutrition. But as a mom, my values are things like fulfilling my sense of duty to family, maintaining family harmony at the dinner table, keeping my life under control and getting time back in my day. Brands that demonstrate connection to these sorts of deeper values will win my perpetual loyalty. Features and benefits are temporal. Values endure.
Next, by delineating what is sought by users vs. buyers vs. payers (and understanding what the implications are when these roles are played by different people), you will establish a new angle on segmentation and shine a light on otherwise hidden innovation opportunities.
So back to the can of soup, note the differences below between the benefits that matter to the user, the buyer and the payer. These may be one, two or more people. But even when one person plays all three roles, the benefits that one person sees through each lens are different.
So what about features?
Features may provide reasons to believe in the brand benefits, or even ladder up to the brand values. But by themselves, they will almost never endear customers to you. And, in fact, they may burden people with detail that distracts from a quick determination of whether the brand represents a good choice. At a minimum, features must be shared for the sake of ingredient transparency – the latter representing a brand value that has gained in importance especially for millennial buyers.
Try to complete the user/buyer/template model as a team exercise or on your own. See how it can get you thinking about improving customer focus and engagement by connecting to the higher-order needs of whatever marketplace you serve.
Please join me for “Path to Transformation,” an event I am putting on May 10 and 11 at the Plug and Play accelerator in Silicon Valley in conjunction with Insurance Thought Leadership. The event will not only explore technological breakthroughs but will explain how companies can test and absorb the technologies, in ways that then lead to startling (and highly profitable) innovation. My son and I have been teaching these events around the world, and I hope to see you in May. You can sign up here.
“I don’t care if you have to take drugs, you have to build it in six months,” said my boss, Khurshed Birdie, when I told him that he was on drugs if he thought my team could create a software development tool set in less than three years. This was in 1986 at Credit Suisse First Boston, one of New York City’s top investment banks. We were rebuilding the company’s trade processing systems to run on a client–server model of computing. This technology is common now, but then it was as futuristic as “Star Wars.”
My team worked day and night to build a technology that became the foundation of the company’s information systems. It gave Credit Suisse First Boston a competitive edge and led IBM to invest $20 million in a spinoff company that was formed to market the tools we had developed.
I was a lowly computer programmer, an analyst when Birdie hired me, a computer geek who didn’t own any three-piece suits, white two-ply cotton shirts or wing-tipped Oxford shoes — the uniform of investment bankers. Yet I was hired on the spot. I had some far-out ideas about how computer systems could be built but didn’t believe for a second that I could implement them. My boss did: He believed in me more than I did, and he bet a $100 million project on my vision.
He allowed me to expand my team from four to 54 people and shielded me from criticism by other teams who had to use my tools to build their systems — and who thought I was crazy. There were a lot of problems along the way, and Birdie allowed me to learn from my mistakes. And then he promoted me to vice president of information technology when I achieved success.
As Finkelstein explains, superbosses take chances on unconventional talent. Oracle’s founder, Larry Ellison, hired candidates who had accomplished something genuinely difficult, rather than those with formal qualifications, because he believed they would rise to the technical challenges. Designer Ralph Lauren offered jobs to strangers whom he met while dining in New York City restaurants. Superbosses take raw talent and build self-confidence. They hire for intelligence, creativity and flexibility — and are not afraid of people who may be smarter than they are.
Under Finkelstein’s definition of superbosses, Birdie would be categorized as a “glorious bastard”: someone who cares only about winning. Deep down, he had a good heart — but was ruthless in setting expectations and driving people to work extremely hard. I’ll never forget him telling me that “Christmas was an optional holiday.” These bosses realize that, to get the very best results, they need to drive people to perform beyond what seems reasonable and achievable.
Even though I achieved a lot, I hated working for Birdie, because I had to neglect my family for months on end. This isn’t something I would ever do to my employees. My next boss, Gene Bedell, was very different. He left his job as managing director of information technology to found Seer Technologies, the start-up that IBM had funded. Bedell convinced me to leave my high-paying investment-banking job to join him in a No. 2 role, as chief technology officer, at the low-paying, high-risk, start-up.
Bedell was what Finkelstein calls a “nurturer”: someone who coaches, inspires and mentors. These superbosses take pride in bringing others along and care deeply about the success of their protégés; they help people accomplish more than they’d ever thought they could.
Bedell managed by a method he called “outstanding success possibilities.” He challenged his executives to set ultra-ambitious goals and then find unconventional ways to achieve them. Instead of managing to what was achievable and possible, we shot for the impossible. And then did whatever it took to get there — without worrying about failure or looking back. It is amazing what you can achieve when you have a single-minded focus. We took Seer Technologies from zero to $120 million in annual revenue and an IPO in just five years — faster than any other software company of that era, including Microsoft and Oracle.
Superbosses create master–apprentice relationships. They customize their coaching to what each protégé needs and are constant fonts of practical wisdom. Bedell taught me how to sell. A year after the company was formed, he sent me to Tokyo to sell IBM-Japan on an $8.6 million deal to fund the creation of a Japanese version of our product. I didn’t think that a techie like me could do these things; he taught me that selling was an art that could be learned and perfected. I helped our salespeople close more than $200 million in software deals. And that is another skill that superbosses have, building what Finkelstein calls the “cohort effect”: teamwork and competition combined. Lorne Michaels, for example, who created “Saturday Night Live,” judged writers and performers by how much of their material actually went to air — but they had to do it with the support of their coworkers, the people they were competing with.
A common trait of superbosses is the ability to delegate work and build jobs on the strengths of their subordinates. They trust subordinates to do their jobs and are as supportive as can be. They remain intimately involved in the details of the businesses and build true friendships. Bedell often invited my family to his vacation home near the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He took me to Skip Barber Racing School to learn how to race a Formula Ford and built a gym in his basement so that his executive team could lift weights together.
You will find the alumni of our project at Credit Suisse First Boston and Seer Technologies in senior leadership roles now, at companies such as IBM, PayPal, American Express and every one of the top investment banks. Many started their own companies, as I later did. There are literally hundreds of people who built successful careers because of my two superbosses. When I became an academic later in life, I was fortunate to have two superboss deans at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, Kristina Johnson and Tom Katsouleas, who nurtured me. Superbosses aren’t just in corporations — they can be found everywhere.
Yes, I know that I got lucky in having good bosses; most are jerks who demotivate employees, slow their growth, backstab and take credit for others’ work. You are usually stuck with whomever you get. But there is nothing that stops you from being a superboss. As you begin to achieve success, start helping others and nurturing your colleagues and subordinates. Show the leadership qualities that you’d like your own boss to have. You will gain as much as the people you help — and build a better company.
Although it may not seem like it, in the second quarter of this year the U.S. economy passed into the beginning of its seventh year of expansion. In the 158 years that the National Bureau of Economic Research (the arbiters of “official” U.S. economic cycles) has been keeping records, ours is now the fifth-longest economic cycle, at 75 months. For fun, when did the longest cycles occur, and what circumstances characterized them? Is there anything we can learn from historical perspective about what may lie ahead for the current cycle?
The first cycle longer than the current, by only five months, is the 1938-1945 U.S. economic expansion cycle. Of course, this was the immediate post-Depression recovery cycle. What preceded this cycle, from 1933-1937, was the bulk of FDR’s New Deal spending program, a program that certainly rebuilt confidence and paved the way for a U.S. manufacturing boom as war on European and Japanese lands destroyed their respective manufacturing capabilities for a time. More than anything, the war-related destruction of the industrial base of Japan and Europe was the growth accelerant of the post-Depression U.S. economy.
In historically sequential order, the U.S. economy grew for 106 months between 1961 and 1970. What two occurrences surrounded this economic expansion that were unique in the clarity of hindsight? A quick diversion. In 1946, the first bank credit card was issued by the Bank of Brooklyn, called the “Charge-It” card. Much like American Express today, the balance needed to be paid in full monthly. We saw the same thing when the Diners Club Card became popular in the 1950s. But in 1958, both American Express and Bank of America issued credit cards to their customers broadly. We witnessed the beginning of the modern day credit culture in the U.S. economic and financial system. A support to the follow-on 1961-1970 economic expansion? Without question.
Once again in the 1960s, the influence of a major war on the U.S. economy was also apparent. Lyndon Johnson’s “guns and butter” program increased federal spending meaningfully, elongating the U.S. expansion of the time.
The remaining two extended historical U.S. economic cycles of magnitude (1982-1990, at 92 months, and 1991-2001, at 120 months) both occurred under the longest bull market cycle for bonds in our lifetime. Of course, a bull market for bonds means interest rates are declining. In November 1982, the 10-year Treasury sported a yield of 10.5%. By November 2001, that number was 4.3%. Declining interest rates from the early 1980s to the present constitute one of the greatest bond bull markets in U.S. history. The “credit cycle” spawned by two decades of continually lower interest rates very much underpinned these elongated growth cycles. The question being, at the generational lows in interest rates that we now see, will this bull run be repeated?
So fast-forward to today. What has been present in the current cycle that is anomalistic? Pretty simple. Never in any U.S. economic cycle has federal debt doubled, but it has in the current cycle. Never before has the Federal Reserve “printed” more than $3.5 trillion and injected it into U.S. financial markets, until the last seven years. Collectively, the U.S. economy and financial markets were treated to more than $11 trillion of additional stimulus, a number that totals more than 70% of current annual U.S. GDP. No wonder the current economic cycle is pushing historical extremes in terms of longevity. But what lies ahead?
As we know, the U.S. Fed has stopped printing money. Maybe not so coincidentally, in recent months macroeconomic indicators have softened noticeably. This is happening across the globe, not just in the U.S. As we look forward, what we believe most important to U.S. economic outcomes is what happens outside of the U.S. proper.
Specifically, China is a key watch point. It is the second-largest economy in the world and is undergoing not only economic slowing, but the very beginning of the free floating of its currency, as we discussed last month. This is causing the relative value of its currency to decline against global currencies. This means China can “buy less” of what the global economy has to sell. For the emerging market countries, China is their largest trading partner. If China slows, they slow. The largest export market for Europe is not the U.S., it’s China. As China slows, the Euro economy will feel it. For the U.S., China is also important in being an end market for many companies, crossing industries from Caterpillar to Apple.
In the 2003-2007 cycle, it was the U.S. economy that transmitted weakness to the greater global economy. In the current cycle, it’s exactly the opposite. It is weakness from outside the U.S. that is our greatest economic watch point as we move on to the end of the year. You may remember in past editions we have mentioned the Atlanta FED GDP Now model as being quite the good indicator of macroeconomic U.S. tone. For the third quarter, the model recently dropped from 1.7% estimated growth to 0.9%. Why? Weakness in net exports. Is weakness in the non-U.S. global economy the real reason the Fed did not raise interest rates in September?
As you are fully aware, the Fed again declined to raise interest rates at its meeting last month, making it now 60 Fed meetings in a row since 2009 that the Fed has passed on raising rates. Over the 2009-to-present cycle, the financial markets have responded very positively in post-Fed meeting environments where the Fed has either voted to print money (aka “Quantitative Easing”) or voted to keep short-term interest rates near zero. Not this time. Markets swooned with the again seemingly positive news of no rate increases. Very much something completely different in terms of market behavior in the current cycle. Why?
We need to think about the possibility that investors are now seeing the Fed, and really global central bankers, as to a large degree trapped. Trapped in the web of intended and unintended consequences of their actions. As we have argued for the past year, the Fed’s greatest single risk is being caught at the zero bound (0% interest rates) when the next U.S./global recession hits. With declining global growth evident as of late, this is a heightened concern, and that specific risk is growing. Is this what the markets are worried about?
It’s a very good bet that the Fed is worried about and reacting to the recent economic slowing in China along with Chinese currency weakness relative to the U.S. dollar. Not only are many large U.S. multi-national companies meaningful exporters to China, but a rising dollar relative to the Chinese renminbi is about the last thing these global behemoths want to see. As the dollar rises, all else being equal, it makes U.S. goods “more expensive” in the global marketplace. A poster child for this problem is Caterpillar. Just a few weeks ago, it reported its 33rd straight month of declining world sales. After releasing that report, it announced that 10,000 would be laid off in the next few years.
As we have explained in past writings, if the Fed raises interest rates, it would be the only central bank on Earth to do so. Academically, rising interest rates support a higher currency relative to those countries not raising rates. So the question becomes, if the Fed raises rates will it actually further hurt U.S. economic growth prospects globally by sparking a higher dollar? The folks at Caterpillar may already have the answer.
Finally, we should all be aware that debt burdens globally remain very high. Governments globally have borrowed, and continue to borrow, profusely in the current cycle. U.S. federal debt has more than doubled since 2009, and, again, we will hit yet a U.S. government debt ceiling in December. Do you really think the politicians will actually cap runaway debt growth? We’ll answer as soon as we stop laughing. As interest rates ultimately trend up, so will the continuing interest costs of debt-burdened governments globally. The Fed is more than fully aware of this fact.
In conjunction with all of this wonderful news, as we have addressed in prior writings, another pressing issue is the level of dollar-denominated debt that exists outside of the U.S.. As the Fed lowered rates to near zero in 2008, many emerging market countries took advantage of low borrowing costs by borrowing in U.S. dollars. As the dollar now climbs against the respective currencies of these non-dollar entities, their debt burdens grow in absolute terms in tandem with the rise in the dollar. Message being? As the Fed raises rates, it increases the debt burden of all non-U.S. entities that have borrowed in dollars. It is estimated that an additional $7 trillion in new dollar-denominated debt has been borrowed by non-U.S. entities in the last seven years. Fed decisions now affect global borrowers, not just those in the U.S.. So did the Fed pass on raising rates in September out of concern for the U.S. economy, or issues specific to global borrowers and the slowing international economies? For investors, has the Fed introduced a heightened level of uncertainty in their decision-making?
Prior to the recent September Fed meeting, Fed members had been leading investors to believe the process of increasing interest rates in the U.S. was to begin. So in one very real sense, the decision to pass left the investment world confused. Investors covet certainty. Hence a bit of financial market turbulence in the aftermath of the decision. Is the Fed worried about the U.S. economy? The global economy? The impact of a rate decision on relative currency values? Is the Fed worried about the emerging economies and their very high level of dollar-denominated debt? Because Fed members never clearly answer any of these questions, they have now left investors confused and concerned.
What this tells us is that, from a behavioral standpoint, the days of expecting a positive Pavlovian financial market response to the supposedly good news of a U.S. Fed refusing to raise interest rates are over. Keeping rates near zero is no longer good enough to support a positive market sentiment. In contrast, a Fed further refusing to raise interest rates is a concern. Let’s face it, there is no easy way out for global central bankers in the aftermath of their unprecedented money printing and interest rate suppression experiment. This, we believe, is exactly what the markets are now trying to discount.
The U.S. Stock Market
We are all fully aware that increased price volatility has characterized the U.S. stock market for the last few months. It should be no surprise as the U.S. equity market had gone close to 4 years without having experienced even a 10% correction, the third-longest period in market history. In one sense, it’s simply time, but we believe the key question for equity investors right now is whether the recent noticeable slowing in global economic trajectory ultimately results in recession. Why is this important? According to the playbook of historical experience, stock market corrections that occur in non-recessionary environments tend to be shorter and less violent than corrections that take place within the context of actual economic recession. Corrections in non-recessionary environments have been on average contained to the 10-20% range. Corrective stock price periods associated with recession have been worse, many associated with 30-40% price declines known as bear markets.
We can see exactly this in the following graph. We are looking at the Dow Jones Global Index. This is a composite of the top 350 companies on planet Earth. If the fortunes of these companies do not represent and reflect the rhythm of the global economy, we do not know what does. The blue bars marked in the chart are the periods covering the last two U.S. recessions, which were accompanied by downturns in major developed economies globally. As we’ve stated many a time, economies globally are more linked than ever before. We live in an interdependent global world. Let’s have a closer look.
If we turn the clock back to late 1997, an emerging markets currency crisis caused a 10%-plus correction in global stock prices but no recession. The markets continued higher after that correction. In late 1998, the blowup at Long Term Capital Management (a hedge fund management firm implosion that caused a $3.6 billion bailout among 16 financial institutions under the supervision of the Fed) really shook the global markets, causing a 20% price correction, but no recession, as the markets continued higher into the early 2000 peak. From the peak of stock prices in early 2000 to the first quarter of 2001, prices corrected just more than 20% but then declined yet another 20% that year as the U.S. did indeed enter recession. The ultimate peak to trough price decline into the 2003 bottom registered 50%, quite the bear market. Again, this correction was accompanied by recession.
The experience from 2003 to early 2008 is similar. We saw 10% corrections in 2004 and 2006, neither of which were accompanied by recession. The markets continued higher after these two corrective interludes. Late 2007 into the first quarter of 2008 witnessed just shy of a 20% correction, but being accompanied by recession meant the peak-to-trough price decline of 2007-2009 totaled considerably more than 50%.
We again see similar activity in the current environment. In 2010, we saw a 10% correction and no recession. In 2011, we experienced a 20% correction. Scary, but no recession meant higher stock prices were to come.
So we now find ourselves at yet another of these corrective junctures, and the key question remains unanswered. Will this corrective period for stock prices be accompanied by recession? We believe this question needs to be answered from the standpoint of the global economy, not the U.S. economy singularly. For now, the jury is out, but we know evidence of economic slowing outside of the U.S. is gathering force.
As you may be aware, another U.S. quarterly earnings reporting season is upon us. Although the earnings results themselves will be important, what will be most meaningful is guidance regarding 2016, as markets look ahead, not backward. We’ll especially be interested in what the major multinationals have to say about their respective outlooks, as this will be a key factor in assessing where markets may be moving from here.
A recent Gallup survey found that 69% of Americans worry “frequently” or “occasionally” about having a credit card compromised by computer hackers. It’s not shocking. Consumers are becoming more educated on the topic, and financial institutions are beginning to do more to combat fraud, including introducing new types of credit cards. One example of the latter is chip-and-PIN technology, which everyone from consumers to the president has hailed for its ability to help prevent fraud. But is it the panacea that it’s been made out to be?
Let’s take a closer look at exactly what this technology entails. Unlike cards that use a magnetic stripe containing a user’s account information, chip cards implement an embedded microprocessor that contains the cardholder’s information in a way that renders it invisible even if hackers grab payment data while it is in transit between merchants and banks. The technology also generates unique information that is difficult to fake. There is a cryptogram that allows banks to see if the data flow has been modified and a counter that registers each sequential time the card is used (sort of like the numbers on a check), so that a would-be fraudster would have to guess the exact historical and dynamic transaction number for a charge to be approved.
Already used in every other G20 country as a more secure payment method, chip-and-PIN cards can be found on the consumer side of a global payment system known as EMV (short for Europay, MasterCard and Visa). The system will be rolled out in the U.S. in 2015, and many of us in the banking and data-security industries believe that it will stanch the flow of money lost to hackers while simultaneously cutting down on credit- and debit-card fraud.
MasterCard, Visa and American Express have already begun sending out chip cards to their American cardholders. The technology is expensive—the rollout of chip cards in the U.S. will cost an estimated $8 billion—and this cost may balloon exponentially if the implementation of the new technology is done incorrectly, as a recent spate of fraudulent charges using chip-and-PIN-based technology shows.
This recent trend is one early sign that chip-and-PIN may not be the cure-all many consumers were hoping for, at least during the rollout phase. According to Brian Krebs, during the past week, “at least three U.S. financial institutions reported receiving tens of thousands of dollars in fraudulent credit- and debit-card transactions coming from Brazil and hitting card accounts stolen in recent retail heists, principally cards compromised as part of the breach at Home Depot.”
The curious part about this spate of credit- and debit-card fraud is that fraudsters used account information pilfered from old-school magnetic stripe cards skimmed in that attack and ran them as EMV purchases in what’s called a “replay” attack. “After capturing traffic from a real EMV-based chip card transaction, the thieves could insert stolen card data into the transaction stream, while modifying the merchant and acquirer bank account on the fly,” Krebs reported. It sounds confusing, but the bottom line is money was stolen.
As with many scams, this particular evolution in the world of hacking for dollars cannot succeed without human error, which is probably the biggest liability in the coming chip card rollout. Krebs spoke with Avivah Litan, a fraud analyst with Gartner, who said, “It appears with these attacks that the crooks aren’t breaking the EMV protocol but taking advantage of bad implementations of it.” In a similar attack on Canadian banks a few months ago, one bank suffered a large loss because it was not checking the cryptogram and counter data, essential parts of the protocol.
As with all solutions in the realm of data-security, there is no such thing as a sure thing. Whether the hackers banked a false sense of security at the institutional level, knowing that the protocols might be deemed an unnecessary expense, or the recent attacks are merely part of the chip card learning curve, this latest technology is only as good as its implementation.
So, despite the best efforts of those in the financial services industry, the truth is I can’t blame anyone for worrying a bit about credit card fraud. The good news is that in almost all cases, the consumers aren’t responsible when they’ve been hit with fraud. The banks take care of it (though it can be trickier with debit cards, because money has actually left your account). These days, though, the reality is that you are your own first line of defense against fraudulent charges. That means pulling your credit reports at least once each year at AnnualCreditReport.com, monitoring your credit scores regularly for any sudden and unexplained changes (you can do that for free using free online tools, including those at Credit.com), keeping a close eye on your bank and credit card accounts daily and signing up for transactional monitoring programs offered by your financial institutions.