Thought Leadership
8 minutes

In response to the demand for faster and more convenient payment options, the Federal Reserve has successfully implemented a modernization plan for the US payment system, called FedNow. 

Having been in the pipeline for over a decade, FedNow's operational debut marked a significant milestone in banking innovation, offering streamlined real-time payments for customers. Now that it's been rolled out for over six months, we can see how the transaction processes are being reshaped.

As we dive into the specifics of this new Federal Reserve Payment System, its impact on the fintech industry, eligibility criteria for participation, and its operational dynamics, we draw on insights from finance experts to demystify FedNow's functionalities and advantages.

Real-Time Payments vs ACH

The transition to FedNow signals a move away from the decades-long reliance on the Automated Clearing House (ACH) system, which, despite its effectiveness, has been outpaced by the immediacy required in today's financial transactions. FedNow offers a rapid alternative, ensuring transactions are not just same-day but instantaneous.

What did ACH Fed Payment look like? It's a batch processing system that facilitates electronic transactions between bank accounts, including direct deposit of paychecks, bill payments, and other types of transfers. However, ACH transactions typically take one or two business days to complete, which can cause delays and inconvenience for customers who need to make or receive payments quickly. 

Fednow overview: what are real-time payments ACH illustration

What are Real-Time Payments?

Real-time payments revolutionize money transfer, enabling immediate fund availability, a stark contrast to the ACH's next-day settlement. This advancement aligns the US with global standards, adopting a 24/7/365 operational model that ensures transactions are seamless, secure, and swift.

RTP rails are networks or platforms that allow digital money to move from one person to another regardless of the method, currency, or country. Once adopted by the Federal Reserve, RTP would allow domestic US payments to be processed 24/7 and all year round with immediate settlement and instant funds availability.

Real-time payments are not a new concept. In the 1970s, Japan was one of the first to develop an RTP system, and countries such as the UK, India, and China followed suit in the 2000s. There are an estimated 54 countries that have already set up real-time payment systems. 

Real time payments presents significant benefits for banks

What are the Benefits of Real-Time Payments?

RTPs make payments frictionless for customers since they are initiated, cleared, and settled within seconds of a purchase. To make payments in real-time, the bank's backend system must be available 24/7, keeping both users and the bank secure and protected from fraud. RTPs ensure that customers will have speed in payments, instant financial and settlements, and easy access to their money whenever they need it. 

Building payment rails will support better end-to-end communication, and it will be a significant change compared to one-way communication (payer to payee). Their lean and open architecture will simplify the setup and operating costs and will make business processes and communication around payments much more efficient.

What is FedNow?

Emerging as a pivotal component of the Federal Reserve's payment infrastructure, FedNow facilitates direct, real-time transactions across financial institutions of any size. This inclusivity, coupled with robust security protocols and the flexibility of around-the-clock operation, positions FedNow as a cornerstone of modern banking.

In contrast to RTP, FedNow will service all federal reserve banks through the FedLine network, providing payment and information services, including secure electronic messaging systems and IP-based solutions, to over 10,000 financial institutions.

Dan Baum, FedNow’s head of payments product, said 90% of businesses have reported that the availability of instant payments will be an important part of their banking decision-making. This isn’t so surprising when we consider that up to 80% of consumers are actively using faster payment solutions, while another 70% of users say that they consider faster payments as a major factor in whether they are satisfied with their financial services providers.1

What is FedNow?

How Will FedNow Work?

At its core, FedNow simplifies the transaction process, maintaining user familiarity with banking interfaces while ensuring transactions are processed instantaneously. This system promises to enhance the banking experience, streamlining operations without compromising security.

Users of the FedNow Service are unlikely to notice any significant differences from other real-time payment systems. They will continue to log in to their bank account to initiate payments, and financial institutions will continue to provide security measures, screen payments, and manage account changes and reconciliations.

However, the primary difference with FedNow is the payment transfer process between financial institutions. FedNow will act as an intermediary between the sender's and receiver's financial institutions, validating payment messages, and debiting and crediting the appropriate accounts, all within seconds.

FedNow has been designed to operate alongside other real-time payment systems and will utilize the ISO20022 standard. Initially, it will only cover domestic payments.

How Will FedNow Work? Fednow payment flow

What is ISO 20022?

ISO 20022 is a globally recognized payment messaging standard that offers richer and more structured data during the payment process. Compared to other standards, ISO 20022 allows for about 10 times more data to be sent per payment. This additional data may include information about the payment's purpose, source, and ultimate beneficiary. This enhances the payment system's data structure, creating a common language and model for payment data worldwide. 

However, building a new real-time product that meets all these requirements is complex as it involves modernizing legacy systems. The US adoption of ISO 20022 has brought more focus on messaging and data for real-time payments within an international financial framework.

Federal reserve system illustration

Launch Date and Early Adoption

Since its launch in July 2023, FedNow has seen significant interest, with a rapidly growing number of financial institutions participating. This widespread adoption underscores the system's potential to redefine payment processing.

Who Can Use FedNow? 

FedNow's broad accessibility serves both individuals and businesses, with initial transaction caps designed to foster inclusion. The system's scalability ensures it will continue to meet the evolving needs of the financial ecosystem. The Federal Reserve set a transaction limit per customer credit transaction of $500,000, but the initial setting of the transaction limit will be $100,000.

What are the Benefits of FedNow Payments?

Beyond operational efficiency, FedNow promises enhanced compliance capabilities, reduced transaction costs, and a fertile ground for fintech innovation. Its integration offers a pathway to more agile, user-centric financial services.

The benefits of instant payments aren't limited to fintech companies and banks. The elimination of chargeback risks that merchants currently face could lead to greater user satisfaction, and instant payments could make banking and payment processing more accessible to underbanked and unbanked communities. The implementation of real-time payments can allow employees to receive their wages promptly, and merchants to receive payment without the waiting period for funds to settle.

What Does FedNow Mean for Fintechs

What Does FedNow Mean for Fintechs?

If you work in the financial technology space, you need to get acquainted with FedNow. While it's currently only available through banks, FedNow will likely be made available for fintechs in the near future.

Fintechs could benefit greatly from the program, as it would allow them to expedite payments at a lower cost to consumers. From depositing checks to paying bills, instant payments could be a game-changer for fintech giants, like Stripe and Wise, and could lead to greater innovation in the banking industry.

The Financial Technology Association (FTA), which represents a range of fintech companies, has called for "broader entity access" to the program. If Fintechs are eventually granted access, it could open up a world of possibilities for faster and more convenient banking and payment processing. 

For example, real-time payments could enable suppliers to be paid instantly, mortgage payments to be processed more quickly, and contract work to be paid out on the day it is completed.

In the meantime, we suggest fintech companies continue to work on overlaying their technology onto existing bank systems, which could still provide significant improvements in the speed and convenience of banking and payment processing. 

It’s time to craft a practical FedNow strategy - Don't let your fintech business get left behind in this rapidly changing industry! Softjourn has deep experience in helping fintechs digitally transform their business to keep up with the most powerful emerging technologies, such as integrating with existing payment gateways or building their own payment gateways.

Our fintech advisors, with almost two decades of experience, can help you navigate the digital-first approach and overcome any challenges that arise. We will help you understand the benefits and drawbacks of real-time payments, develop a plan to integrate it into your system and ensure compliance with regulatory requirements. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you stay ahead of the curve in the fintech industry.

How Will Fraud be Tackled with Instant Payments?

The instant nature of FedNow transactions does not inherently increase fraud risk. On the contrary, it leverages advanced security measures to safeguard against unauthorized transactions, emphasizing the importance of user education and system integrity.

Instant payments and fraud are often discussed together, with the assumption that faster payments lead to more fraud. However, according to Jim Colassano, the Senior Vice President of RTP product management at The Clearing House, this is not necessarily the case for credit 'push' transactions, which are inherently safer than direct debit transactions. While some people worry about the potential irreversibility of instant payments, the transactions are actually processed through secure bank rails, which are among the most secure payment channels in the world. 

With real-time payments changing the game, banks must educate customers to think of instant payments like cash payments and act accordingly. To ensure even greater safety, some fintech companies are developing standard APIs to help financial institutions integrate with fraud providers. Ultimately, banks and networks have an obligation to protect their clients, which includes educating them and providing additional layers of security.

Does FedNow Use Blockchain and Will There be a Federal Reserve Cryptocurrency?

Though FedNow does not use cryptocurrency or distributed ledger technology, it has been advanced as a complement to central bank digital currencies (CBDC). There is no plan for the Federal Reserve to use a FedNow Digital Currency.

It is uncertain whether a CBDC or "digital dollar" will ever exist in the US. Whether or not the US government will launch a cryptocurrency, we do know that Fed Now will precede a CBDC or similar projects in months or even years.

How Will FedNow Impact Other Real-Time Payment Products?

How Will FedNow Impact Other Real-Time Payment Products?

You may have seen the recent news about the FedNow Ripple controversy. Ripple offers similar technology to FedNow, except it uses blockchain-based solutions. Ripple has been gaining popularity for offering cheap cross-border payments using XRP - a token used for representing the transfer of value across the Ripple Network. However, Ripple has an ongoing case with the SEC over whether XRP is an unregistered security.

FedNow strives to provide a safer alternative to Ripple and other similar real-time, cross-border payment solutions in the US, for banks to move funds within the US financial system. 

Jim Colassano, the Senior Vice President of Real-Time Payments product management at The Clearing House (THC), said the following about the launch of FedNow:

There’s a massive amount of upside in this space, and I welcome the introduction of FedNow. FedNow and TCH have worked to make sure that there are no technical issues for any originator who would want to use both networks.

Colassano believes that over time, FedNow, TCH, and other real-time providers will have healthy competition. “Over time,” he said, “we’re going to be competitive partners and we will learn to differentiate our services such that we can gain competitive advantages… This will be healthy for the industry, and will improve the services that we’re providing to our clients.”

Real-Time Payments Use Case: What FedNow can Learn from PIX

Real-Time Payments Use Case: What FedNow can Learn from Brazil's PIX

Although India's Unified Payments Interface is the leader in RTP by volume and share of all transactions, PIX has emerged as the fastest-growing national RTP system, processing twice as many real-time transactions per capita as India. PIX is the national real-time payment (RTP) system developed by Brazil's central bank and has achieved remarkable success since its emergence in 2020. 

PIX offers free and instant settlement of digital money transfers, resulting in its success as a cheaper and more convenient all-in-one infrastructure compared to existing alternatives, which has generated widespread adoption across different contexts. 

The key reasons for its success are its strong proposition and effective implementation decisions, such as requiring financial institutions with 500k+ users to offer PIX within their digital application at launch, allowing fintechs to participate, and standardizing digital payment initiations for merchants.

FedNow may differ from PIX in implementation and accessibility to banks in the Fed System, with voluntary participation and discretionary consumer fees. PIX adoption may have also accelerated due to sponsorship by challenger neobanks, which may not have large profit pools in some disrupted service lines and have therefore been strong advocates of the free service.

Looking Ahead: Post-Launch Feedback

The integration of FedNow into the banking ecosystem not only heralds a new era of financial transactions but also reflects evolving expectations among businesses and consumers alike.

Adoption and Growth: A Year in Perspective

The post-launch period has been marked by a significant embrace of FedNow by the banking community. With over 300 banks joining by the end of 2023, and an increase to 400 in early 2024, the trajectory of FedNow's integration into the financial landscape is clear.2 This growth, reflective of a mere fraction of potential users among the nearly 10,000 banks and credit unions, indicates a vast horizon for expansion.

Participants in FedNow span an impressive spectrum, from smaller institutions to those with assets in the trillions, across 45 states. This diversity not only demonstrates FedNow's broad applicability but also its potential to revolutionize various facets of the financial sector.

Market and User Feedback

The response from the early adopters of FedNow underscores the system's immediate impact, particularly in facilitating B2C transactions. Use cases such as earned wage access, loan funding, and insurance payouts have proven the value of instant payments, offering both businesses and consumers a new level of financial agility and satisfaction.

On the other hand, financial institutions still appear to be wary of the potential risks associated with instant payments, such as fraud and the disruption of traditional revenue streams. Addressing these concerns remains a pivotal challenge for FedNow's broader acceptance, especially in unlocking the potential of B2B transactions.

The Unexplored Potential in B2B Payments

B2B payments represent a significant untapped opportunity for FedNow. The ability to execute instant payments offers businesses unprecedented control over their financial operations, enhancing the efficiency of vendor payments and invoicing processes. This shift could redefine the competitive landscape, offering a compelling alternative to conventional payment methods.

As FedNow continues to evolve, a strategic focus on overcoming institutional hesitations and broadening its application scope will be crucial. The system's expansion will depend on reinforcing its security framework and demonstrating the tangible benefits of instant payments, particularly to the business sector.

Now's the Time to Strategize for FedNow

FedNow's journey from launch to its current state reflects a significant step forward in the quest for a more efficient, accessible, and secure payment system in the United States. The service's growing adoption, coupled with its potential to revolutionize both B2C and B2B payments, underscores its pivotal role in the future of finance.

As the ecosystem around FedNow expands and matures, the focus will remain on harnessing its capabilities to meet the evolving needs of consumers and businesses alike, ensuring that the U.S. remains at the forefront of the global payments landscape.

Don't miss out on the opportunities that real-time payments offer! Now is the time to start contemplating the integration of FedNow and envisioning the future of real-time payments in the long term. Our experts can provide valuable insights to help you prepare for this exciting shift in the payments industry. Don’t hesitate to reach out and get started!

1. Will FedNow’s July Launch Ignite Real-Time Payments in the US? PYMNTS
2. Launching July 2023: Instant Payments with the FedNowSM Service The Federal Reserve
3. Get on board with the FedNowSM Service FedNow
4. Federal Reserve announces July launch for the FedNow Service Federal Reserve Board
5. The Fed Is Rewiring The U.S. Payments System—Here’s What That Means For You Forbes
6. FedNow® Service starts new year with 400 participants FRB Services
7. Evaluating FedNow: Banks are still warming up to instant payments ABA Banking Journal