Lost Within The Rate Cut: The Fed’s Drive To Establish A New Payment System

Authored by Steven Guinness,

Part way through delivering a press conference following the Federal Reserve’s first rate cut since December 2008, chairman Jerome Powell let it be known that the central bank was ‘looking carefully‘ at developing a new faster payments system. Unsurprisingly, his words on the subject proved the equivalent of screaming into the face of a force ten gale. Besides a handful of financial outlets, nobody heard him. All that analysts and observers were really interested in was the Fed’s stance on interest rates.

This was unfortunate because whilst they may appear banal and complex on the surface, payments systems are of far greater significance than whether a central bank opts to cut or raise interest rates. Anyone keeping pace with the myriad of speeches and publications emanating from central banks will know that globalists are working incrementally to introduce a cashless monetary system under their control. The Federal Reserve are one strand of this strategy as we will discover.

Less than a week after the rate cut, the Fed announced that they were planning to devise a new ‘round-the-clock real-time payment and settlement service.’ Called ‘FedNow‘, the system would be an RTGS run service designed to initiate faster payments.

RTGS stands for ‘Real Time Gross Settlement‘, and is the same model through which the Bank of England and the European Central Bank operate their payment systems. The BOE announced back in May 2017 a blueprint for the introduction of a ‘renewed‘ RTGS service, whilst the ECB in late 2018 launched a new system dubbed TIPS (TARGET Instant Payment Settlement). It was around the time that TIPS launched that the Fed issued a ‘request for comment‘ on reforming their own system. Taken as a whole, this is a further example of central banks working in coordination.

In a press release announcing ‘FedNow‘, the Fed justified the venture on the premise that the ‘rapid evolution of technology‘ had presented them with a ‘pivotal opportunity‘ to modernise the U.S. payment system. Exactly how long the Fed have been looking into adopting a new payment system is unclear. But if the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, they have been exploring a faster system since at least 2013.

The press release also pointed out that over 10,000 financial institutions are incorporated into the current Fed payment system known as ‘Fedwire‘, and argued that new real time infrastructure developed through the central bank would be best placed to offer full nationwide coverage.

The next stage of ‘FedNow‘ sees the Fed ‘requesting comment on how the new service might be designed‘. As for when it becomes available, the expectation is either 2023 or 2024. The Bank of England’s renewed RTGS system is due to be operational by 2025.

On the day ‘FedNow‘ was announced, Lael Brainard, a member of the Fed’s board of governors, offered up more information on the system in a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. As you might expect, Brainard was there to extol the benefits. The big selling point was 365 days a year access, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Funds would be available immediately after payment is sent. It would be a system built on convenience and one that was fit for the speed of the 21st century.

Of greater interest than these superficial benefits, however, is the motivation behind what the Fed are seeking to achieve with ‘FedNow‘. Brainard was equally as explanatory in this regard.

We learned from her speech four key bits of information.

Firstly, fintech companies are openly supportive of the Fed’s new system. These are companies that are part of an industry that has pioneered the creation of distributed ledger technology.

Secondly, the planned implementation for either 2023 or 2024 is not a fixed objective. More important to the Fed is the goal of achieving ‘nationwide access for all‘, meaning that their overarching aim is for ‘FedNow‘ and private sector payment services to work in conjunction (or, as Brainard put it, to ‘interoperate by exchanging payments among services directly).

Thirdly, Brainard told us that no one private sector provider of a U.S. payment system has ever been able to establish nationwide reach by itself. Nationwide coverage would have to encompass the many thousands of small and medium sized banks. Hence why the Fed are now making a determined move to utilise private sector technology and incorporate it into their own system. I would contend that the Fed’s goal is to achieve full spectrum control of America’s payment infrastructure, with all digital transactions falling under their jurisdiction. ‘FedNow‘ would be the mechanism in making this happen.

Fourthly, as Brainard laid out, the path that the Fed are embracing is not one of ‘incremental‘ change. Rather, it is of ‘transformative‘ change. I would take this to mean that the infrastructure underpinning current payment systems must be overhauled to allow for the implementation of fintech devised technology.

An accompanying list of FAQ’s lent credence to the understanding that fintech is central to the construction of ‘FedNow‘. Here, the Fed expounded that the market for faster payments in the U.S. remains in the ‘early stages‘. Banks and fintech firms can provide a range of services, but the functionality of them is limited which restricts their level of coverage and reliability. They lamented the ‘lack of a universal infrastructure to conduct faster payments‘, which means that at present users who are signed up to one service such as Paypal invariably cannot send or receive payment from a user signed up to another service. As a result, the market remains ‘fragmented‘.

With the Federal Reserve system encompassing twelve regional banks, and the relationships the Fed has with 10,000 plus banking institutions, their belief is that they are ‘well positioned to overcome the challenge of extending nationwide access.’

Throughout their communications there is a preoccupation with the objective of achieving nationwide access. So much so that the Fed board are apparently intending to ‘explore interoperability and other paths to achieving the ultimate goal of nationwide reach.’

‘FedNow’ would provide the necessary universal infrastructure that the Fed are seeking, and allow banks of all description to offer real-time payments.

Undoubtedly this presents an opportunity for the Fed, and indeed central banks throughout the world, to move in and claim hegemony over the next generation of global digital payment systems. But they, along with the Bank for International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund that preside over them, cannot do this by themselves. This is where the private sector comes in, for it is here where the expertise and technological innovation is found.

Within the FAQ’s it is also stated that the ‘FedNow‘ service would ‘operate alongside private sector RTGS services for faster payments‘. Prior to the announcement of the new system, the Federal Reserve board had come to the conclusion that private sector RTGS services ‘cannot be expected to provide an infrastructure with reasonable effectiveness, scope and equity alone.’ A roundabout way of saying that whilst the Fed do not possess the technology, they do have the reach in order to disseminate private sector innovation to every corner of the U.S. The beauty for the Fed is that they would have full regulatory authority over ‘FedNow‘. In conjunction with fintech, their level of control over the payments infrastructure would be unassailable.

If central banks manage to utilise fintech successfully, it will give them a clear path to begin the gradual implementation of central bank issued digital currencies. Back in April I published an article (BIS General Manager Outlines Vision for Central Bank Digital Currencies) that looked into the subject of CBDC’s more deeply.

In regards to ‘FedNow‘, equally as interesting as what was discussed by the Fed is what was left unsaid. There was no mention throughout any of the supporting documentation of plans to incorporate distributed ledger technology. Instead, there will be ‘engagement between the Fed and the industry to inform the final service design.’ This is a process that is now getting underway.

I would expect that once the final design of ‘FedNow‘ is confirmed, it will have the capability of interacting with systems that use distributed ledgers. This would follow on from the Bank of England who in 2018 announced that their new RTGS service would enable such systems to achieve settlement in central bank money.

Once this has been achieved, the next logical step for central banks is to complete the process of digitising all financial assets through the issuance of central bank digital currency. And as BIS general manager Agustin Carstens warned back in March 2019, this would mean that people would no longer have the option of paying with cash. ‘All purchases would be electronic‘.

In a follow up article I will be exploring the process underway at the Bank of England and the European Central Bank to reform their payment systems, and how China is proving to be the test bed for fintech innovation.

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