(Roughly) Daily

“The only thing useful banks have invented in 20 years is the ATM”*…

ATM’s have been around in the U.S. since 1969; there were, as of 2018, 470,135 of them in operation, from which $5.1 Billion was withdrawn. The market for the machines and the technology that connects them was $20 Billion in 2020, projected to grow to $30 Billion in 2028. They were originally– and are still primarily used for cash disbursement; but over the years they’ve added a number of other functions: account deposits, bill payment, even lottery and movie ticket purchase– there are over 10 Billion ATM transactions in the U.S. alone. As cash plays a less central role in transactions, the the number of machines and transactions has slightly declined. Still they are a major factor in today’s financial infrastructure– and that few of us really understand. Patrick McKenzie is here to help– and to remind us that their history has lessons that are broader…

The first automated teller machines, which debuted in the late 1960s, were, as the name suggests, strictly cost-saving devices for bank branches. Branches exist as sales offices but have incidental cash-management functions. The denser depositors are around a branch, the more transactions happen during peak windows like e.g. the morning commute and lunchtime. The more transactions you need to support in a window, the more tellers you need to employ. Tellers are both surprisingly inexpensive relative to the degree of trust placed in them but surprisingly costly relative to occupations like e.g. cashiers which look outwardly similar. Banks have long wanted to control the costs of the teller base.

The original thesis behind the ATM was that you could move the most routine teller transactions, like cash withdrawals and balance inquiries, to a machine, and then reserve the teller for higher-complexity routine transactions like cashing checks. The machines gradually gained more features as they achieved ubiquity.

Interestingly, teller employment is actually up substantially since the introduction of ATMs. Secular demand for retail banking grew with the economy and the larger number of branches has compensated for reduced numbers of tellers per branch. See Bessen 2016

ATMs are a fascinating example of a pattern we see a lot in finance: an internal operations improvement which was built into a business which eventually begat an infrastructure layer that may be a much bigger business. And for all their ubiquity, almost no one, even people professionally involved in finance, understand how they work…

See also: “Automated Teller Machines” (source of the image above)

The plumbing of finance: “The infrastructure behind ATMs,” from @patio11.

* Paul Volcker (2009)


As we insert our cards, we might send carefully-denominated birthday greetings to Kaushik Basu; he was born on this date in 1952. An economist, he served as  Chief Economist of the World Bank from 2012 to 2016. Having taught at MIT, Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the London School of Economics, he is currently a professor at Cornell. From 2009 to 2012, during the United Progressive Alliance‘s second term, Basu served as the Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India. His recent work has been on collective moral responsibilities and the role that individuals play in fulfilling them. In 2021, he was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Award.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 9, 2023 at 1:00 am