September 17, 2021 3:09 am

The cheque clearing system had been born.

The cheque clearing system had been born.

There were other benefits to be gained from this new system too. By having all the banks present at a single exchange session permitted interbank obligations to be settled on a multilateral net basis. This provided a huge savings in the amount of cash that each of the clerks had to carry to settle his banks obligations.

Pretty soon the next innovation kicked in when the banks dispensed with settling in cash. This was replaced when the banks set up a process of exchanging IOUs drawn 13-best-banks-who-dont-use-chexsystems on their respective accounts at the Bank of England, for the net amounts payable or due. The IOU was called… you guessed it; a clearance voucher.

In the next two hundred years the process or system was replicated around the world as the only method for the collection and settlement of cheques, which at that time was the only domestic payment instrument.

Different countries adapted the system with minor variations. However the principal remained the same. While the various systems operated beautifully in terms of operational and technical efficiency, the legal risk in the netting process was neatly ignored. This lacuna was only corrected in the 1990s with the realization of the systemic risk that this gap had created.

The nineteenth century saw the previously handwritten cheques being replaced by printed forms issued by banks to their clients, often embodying some form of security feature to hamper attempts at forgery.

Nothing much changed until the 1960s and 1970s when automation was introduced into the cheque clearing system. Growing volumes of cheques around the world necessitated new ways to process the flood of new payments being made. During this period we saw a proliferation of automated clearing houses in which machine-readable cheques were processed, sorted, batched, cleared and settled. The method used for this was the code-line printed on the cheque, either in magnetic ink (MICR -Magnetic Ink Character Recognition) or using a special font (OCR – Optical Character Recognition).

Subsequent innovations have seen this data being transmitted electronically from bank to clearing house and then to the bank again. Images of the cheques are now also regularly transmitted between banks. In many jurisdictions the digitized image of the cheque has become the legal replacement of the original paper cheque allowing the paper instrument to be truncated at source.

Despite the growing popularity of pure electronic payments in many parts of the world, the use of the cheque still remains popular in the United States. Perhaps the ultimate accolade to the durability of the cheque and the cheque clearing system is the fact that many American banks today allow their customers to photograph their cheques, using a bank developed app, for deposit via their smartphone. The cheque image, both front and back, is transmitted to their bank for credit of their account.

This original banking system has certainly come a long way in two and a quarter centuries since the first cheque clearing house began its operations in a room at the Five Bells Tavern in the City of London, as a smart idea to give a bunch of young bank clerks more drinking and leisure time, out of the cold and the damp.

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