Digital Nightmares

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by Bob Rinear, The International Forecaster:

The world is going digital. It can’t be ignored, it can’t be avoided. It’s coming, whether you want it or not.  Via the use of newer blockchain technologies they have the ability to issue digital currency with a host of intriguing features, none of them make me warm and fuzzy.

Anyone that has been with me for any length of time knows that the current system is FUBAR. It can’t be fixed. The debts are impossible to pay. The levels of derivatives, too deep to even comprehend. It has to change and it’s going to.

But I’m sure not looking forward to it. Over the past year, everyone from the Bank of International Settlements, to the IMF, to many of the central banks, have all been talking about digital currency. To keep people a bit confused they change the language, they banter about “thinking about” it, versus doing it, etc. But make NO mistake, it’s already designed. They simply have to pick the right time to usher it in.

Here’s something Powell said last week: POWELL: FED EVALUATING BENEFITS OF A DIGITAL CURRENCY: BBG *POWELL: FED HAS NOT MADE A DECISION TO ISSUE A DIGITAL CURRENCY

Really?  No decision to do this thing, eh? Well I tend to think that’s another Powell lie. I want you to consider a few of the things I’m going to post below. This isn’t Bob writing this, this is from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

Payments and the Pandemic

Loretta J. Mester
President and Chief Executive Officer
Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland
Keynote Speech
20th Anniversary Chicago Payments Symposium
Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago
Chicago, IL
(via videoconference)
September 23, 2020

I know I do not need to tell this audience that the payments system is a crucial part of the infrastructure of the U.S. and a well-functioning and secure payments system is vital for a sound economy. As is true of pretty much every aspect of life this year, the pandemic has affected the payments business, including payment patterns and volumes. The most important thing to recognize is that the U.S. payments system has been weathering the pandemic without significant disruptions. This has taken the hard work of many people in both the public sector and the private sector. Many of these workers were deemed to be essential, and we owe them all our deep gratitude for their dedication and public service. Because of the vital role played by the payments system, priorities had to change to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic. At the same time, progress continued on important projects that have longer-run consequences for the payments system.

There will be many lessons to take away from the current pandemic situation; two seem particularly relevant to the payments work in which we are all engaged. First, although it is safe to say no one anticipated an event quite like the pandemic, the industry’s forethought, investment, and preparation to ensure that the payments system would be resilient to extreme scenarios has paid off greatly. It has allowed us to avoid a collapse of the payments system – an event that would have made what was already a grave situation much, much worse. One big takeaway is that once we get through the current pandemic, making necessary investments to ensure that the U.S. payments system remains resilient in the face of extreme stress events will need to remain a priority.

(NOTE>>>BOB HERE… this rattles on and on about how the pandemic saw people hoarding cash and coins, and using such things as credit cards for online shopping, etc. It’s pretty long winded. But to summarize they basically say the old way of doing things is archaic and they need to modernize, so lets get back to them)

Another key lesson is that having the right technology in place can make a big difference in being able to address the challenges posed in an environment of rapid change in payments behavior. Industry participants may need to rethink their payments technology investment strategy once we are through the pandemic. The changes we have seen in customers’ payment behavior since February have happened quickly. The spread of COVID-19 heightened the reliance of businesses and individuals on digital services and faster connectivity, as many employees began to work from home and consumers turned to online shopping. This is a global pandemic, and demand for consumer-to-consumer and cross-border payments has risen, as people want to send and receive payments in support of family and friends. Some payments technology is more resilient, scalable, and adaptable to such rapid changes in user behavior and volume. Some industry participants note that cloud technologies are inherently more scalable and adaptable, and early adopters of the cloud are likely better positioned during these times compared to those operating on mainframes.1 It would be wrong to say that the pandemic has been the catalyst for payments system modernization: the Federal Reserve Banks have been assessing our payments technology for some time.

(BOB AGAIN…tons more blather about how they’ve been studying the payments processes and how to most easily get money into people’s accounts, etc. So lets get to the good part)

FedNow

The Federal Reserve’s FedNow service, which is currently being built, will be an around-the-clock service whereby payments can be originated, cleared, and settled within seconds. The service is expected to provide clear public benefits in the form of safety, efficiency, and accessibility of instant payments. Yesterday, my colleague Ken Montgomery provided an excellent overview of FedNow features and functions, so let me touch upon a few points about how we’ll be rolling the service out.

While COVID-19 has affected many parts of the payments system, it has not slowed down our work on FedNow. Our goal is to bring FedNow to market as soon as practicably possible. The target release date remains 2023 or 2024, but we will announce a more specific time frame once additional work is completed. In order to get the service up and running as soon as possible, we are taking a phased approach to its features. We will begin with the most important features and introduce enhancements quickly and iteratively thereafter. To inform the design and to determine which features to include at the start, we have been engaging extensively with stakeholders through focus groups, industry meetings, and the establishment of a stakeholder-wide FedNow community, and through the more formal public comment process. We are working to finalize a technology strategy that will create a flexible infrastructure, one that is scalable and can evolve with the times.

In addition to offering secure instant payments, an important goal of FedNow is to establish a nationwide reach for the service so that this new type of payment is broadly accessible to consumers and businesses alike. The Federal Reserve’s payments services have a broad reach, with connections to and customer relationships with more than 10,000 diverse financial institutions across the country. This existing reach will help support a nationwide infrastructure for FedNow instant payments. We are also working closely with private-sector payment providers to explore the best approach to achieve wide accessibility.

Thinking ahead, a service like FedNow, coupled with a directory service with accurate information on where to route payments for final distribution to households and businesses, has the potential to solve some of the challenges the government faced when distributing pandemic relief payments.

Central Bank Digital Currencies

The experience with pandemic emergency payments has brought forward an idea that was already gaining increased attention at central banks around the world, that is, central bank digital currency (CBDC).Legislation has proposed that each American have an account at the Fed in which digital dollars could be deposited, as liabilities of the Federal Reserve Banks, which could be used for emergency payments. Other proposals would create a new payments instrument, digital cash, which would be just like the physical currency issued by central banks today, but in a digital form and, potentially, without the anonymity of physical currency. Depending on how these currencies are designed, central banks could support them without the need for commercial bank involvement via direct issuance into the end-users’ digital wallets combined with central-bank-facilitated transfer and redemption services.8 The demand for and use of such instruments need further consideration in order to evaluate whether such a central bank digital currency would allow for quicker and more ubiquitous payments in times of emergency and more generally. In addition, a range of potential risks and policy issues surrounding central bank digital currency need to be better understood, and the costs and benefits evaluated.

8 See Mester (2020) for further discussion.

9 Brainard (2020).

The Federal Reserve has been researching issues raised by central bank digital currency for some time. The Board of Governors has a technology lab that has been building and testing a range of distributed ledger platforms to understand their potential benefits and tradeoffs.9 Staff members from several Reserve Banks, including Cleveland Fed software developers, are contributing to this effort. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston is also engaged in a multiyear effort, working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to experiment with technologies that could be used for a central bank digital currency. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has established an innovation center, in partnership with the Bank for International Settlements, to identify and develop in-depth insights into critical trends

FedNow and central bank digital currency have to do with the future, but the Fed is also working to enhance our current portfolio of payment services to ensure they meet evolving customer needs.

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