The country's Federal Reserve banks have made clear that they want to see a much faster nationwide payments system within 10 years. Now comes the hard part: developing a plan to make that happen.
Any shakeup of the existing system is likely to produce winners and losers, so companies of all shapes and sizes are speaking up now in hopes of shaping the Fed's next moves.
The input, submitted before a Dec. 13 deadline, is coming from big banks, small banks, credit unions, an assortment of corporations that rely on the payments system, firms that are developing payment technologies, and other companies.
The Fed went on the record this fall in favor of a retail electronic payments network, to be operational by 2023, that makes funds available in something close to real time, can be accessed by all U.S. financial institutions, and does not require the sender to know the recipient's bank account number. It asked for public comment on that vision.
The Fed received more than 130 comments and diverging responses of the nation's biggest bank, JPMorgan Chase , and its largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores, offer a stark example of the broad divide that the Fed will be seeking to bridge.
JPMorgan's comments emphasize that an overhaul of the payments system will cost financial institutions a lot of money. A "business case assessment will be important to help prioritize this investment," the bank wrote.
Walmart strongly supports a faster payments system and advises the Fed to pay more attention to the views of merchants and consumers. "For decades, the various payments systems have been owned, operated, and governed by financial institutions with limited input from other stakeholders," the retail giant said.
The Fed has vowed to consider the views of everyone, not just banks, as it plots its next moves. Fed officials expect that research they're conducting on the demand for faster payments, as well as on payment security issues, will be completed by early next year. A second paper that is likely to be more specific about the Fed's views is expected later in 2014.
The central bank's decision to push for a faster payments system follows the demise last year of a bank industry plan to speed up processing of automated clearing house system transactions. That plan was generally viewed favorably by smaller banks, but failed due to the opposition of many of the nation's largest depository institutions.
Despite the banking industry's failure to reach consensus so far, Fed officials have taken a cautious approach; they've refrained from suggesting that they might mandate improvements to the payments system, as regulators in some other countries have done.
Still, in one recent speech, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland President Sandra Pianalto acknowledged that Fed action may be necessary to nudge the industry toward faster payments.
"There have been times when individual action on the part of banks, vendors, and nonbank service providers was not sufficient to move the payments system forward," she said.
Lots of innovation with respect to real-time payments is already happening in the private sector, but the Fed is concerned that such proprietary initiatives will end up being less beneficial to the public than a system that's open to all financial institutions would be. Many community bankers also fear being frozen out of the emerging proprietary systems.
JPMorgan, Bank of America and Wells Fargo are building one of these proprietary, near-real-time payments systems. That joint initiative, known as clearXchange, says in comments filed with the Fed that it is already doing much of what the Fed proposes should be accomplished within 10 years.
"Our member banks provide online banking to over 85 million customers and mobile banking to over 40 million customers," clearXchange notes in its comment letter. "We look forward to connecting directly with as many banks as are interested in participating in the clearXchange network."