FRB Governor Powell Describes Challenges to Real Time Payment Systems and Blockchain Technology

Federal Reserve System Governor (“FRB”) Jerome Powell described the challenges and policy objectives behind (i) the creation of a real-time retail payment system, (ii) the use of distributed ledger technology for clearing and settlement services, and (iii) the issuance of digital currencies by central banks.

In an address before the Yale Law School Center for the Study of Corporate Law, Governor Powell criticized the sluggishness of the U.S. payment system. He stated: “our traditional bank-centric payments system, sometimes operating on decades-old infrastructure, has adjusted slowly to the evolving demands for greater speed and safety. Innovators have built new systems and services that ride on top of the old rails but with mixed results, and over time, our system has grown more fragmented.” Arguing that “it will take coordinated action to make fundamental and successful nationwide improvements,” Mr. Powell said that efficiency and safety were the FRB’s primary objectives regarding the development of a faster payment system utilizing real-time payments (see FRB Policy on Payment System Risk). Mr. Powell highlighted some of the work being done by the FRB Faster Payments Task Force, which recently completed reviews of 19 faster payment proposals.

On the use of DLT and blockchain technology, Mr. Powell noted recent developments and collaborations between banks and market infrastructures, including plans to use DLT by a few major U.S. clearing organizations. However, Mr. Powell observed that:

  • the financial industry has focused on the development of systems that require permission for access to ledgers, functions or information, rather than the open access system contemplated by Bitcoin;
  • firms are still trying to determine the business case for upgrading and streamlining payment, clearing, settlement, and other functions related to DLT;
  • technical issues – including issues of reliability, scalability, and security – remain unresolved;
  • governance and risk management will be “critical” to the success of DLT; and
  • the legal foundations supporting DLT, including jurisdictional issues, need more attention.

Mr. Powell also discussed the prospect of central banks issuing digital currencies. He cautioned that major technical and privacy challenges, as well as competition with private-sector products, might “stifle innovation over the long run.”

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