What is the Fed: Payment Services

Introduction

The Fed plays a central role in the nation’s payment systems. Reserve Banks keep enough currency and coin in circulation to meet public demand, provide check collection services to banks and other depository institutions, operate electronic payment systems, and provide financial services to the U.S. government and certain foreign institutions.

Currency and Coin

The Federal Reserve Banks ensure that there is enough fit currency and coin in circulation to meet public demand. There was $888 billion of currency in circulation at the end of 2009. Using high speed machines, Reserve Banks processed 32 billion pieces of currency in 2009 and destroyed 6 billion pieces of unfit currency.

Checks

The Federal Reserve Banks process approximately one-third of the paper items that ultimately clear as checks in the country. In 2009, the Federal Reserve System cleared 8.6 billion checks, most of which were processed as electronic images.

Electronic Payment

The Federal Reserve Banks process electronic payments such as direct deposits of payroll, online bill payments, and large value transfers between banks. In 2009, Reserve Banks processed 11.2 billion electronic payment transactions, valued at $19.7 trillion, through the Automated Clearinghouse (ACH) payments system.

The primary customers for the Federal Reserve’s payment services are commercial banks and other depository institutions. The Federal Reserve Banks distribute currency and coin to banks, clear checks, and electronic payments between banks to settle their customers’ account transactions, and facilitate large electronic transfers between banks. The Federal Reserve acts as the banker for the U.S. government. In this role, the Federal Reserve Banks maintain the U.S. Treasury’s checking account and process a wide range of electronic payments such as Social Security and government payroll checks. The Reserve Banks also support the issuance, transfer, and redemption of U.S. Treasury securities.

Currency and Coin

The Fed is responsible for distributing currency and coin to depository institutions.

The Fed is responsible for distributing currency and coin to depository institutions, and for ensuring that enough currency and coin are in circulation to meet public demand. Federal Reserve notes are printed by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., and Fort Worth, Texas. Coin is produced at U.S. Mints in Philadelphia and Denver. New currency and coin are shipped to Reserve Banks and branches across the country. When people need additional cash, such as during the holidays or at times of natural disaster or crisis, a depository institution may order more currency and coin from its Reserve Bank or branch. Institutions pay for these orders by drawing down their Federal Reserve account balances.

Depository institutions may return excess cash to their local Reserve Bank for credit to their reserve accounts. Reserve Banks sort and verify the deposits. They store coin and reusable paper notes in their vaults. Soiled and worn-out notes are destroyed. Counterfeit notes are sent to the Secret Service. Bags of coin are weighed to verify amounts. Reserve Banks do not check coins for wear and tear.

Checks

The number of checks has been declining since the mid-1990s as the use of electronic payments options has grown.

Reserve Banks also provide check collection services to depository institutions. The Fed processes approximately one-third of the paper items that ultimately clear as checks in the United States. Commercial banks also may clear checks directly with each other through clearinghouse associations or through agreements with other banks. Nationwide, the number of checks written has been declining since the mid-1990s as the use of electronic payments has grown. In addition, the Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act, or “Check 21,” enacted in 2004, allows an electronic image of a check to be used for clearing. Today, almost 99% of checks are processed as images. Since late 2003, Reserve Banks have reduced the number of locations where checks are processed from 45 offices to a single site in Atlanta.

Electronic Payments

The Fed processes approximately three-fourths of the automated clearinghouse payments in the country.

Automated Clearinghouse (ACH)

While the Fed’s volume of check processing has been declining, its volume of electronic payments has been rising. The Fed’s Automated Clearinghouse (ACH) payment system provides an electronic means to exchange debit and credit entries between depository institutions to settle customer transactions. The Fed processes approximately three-fourths of the nation’s ACH payments. Electronic Payments Network, a private organization, is the nation’s other ACH operator. Common ACH credit transfers include direct deposits of payroll, Social Security benefits, and tax refunds. ACH debit transfers commonly include recurring payments for mortgages, insurance premiums, utility bills, and the like. Converted paper check payments and one-time payments made over the Internet or by telephone are other examples.

Fedwire

For larger transactions, debits and credits are transferred electronically through Fedwire, a highly sophisticated, computerized communication system that transfers funds almost instantly from one depository institution to another anywhere in the United States. Fedwire, which is operated by the Reserve Banks, includes the Fedwire Funds Service and Fedwire Securities Service. The Funds Service allows depository institutions and certain other financial institutions to make large payments to each other in real time. The Fedwire Securities Service is a transaction settlement system that enables depository institutions and certain other government and financial institutions to hold, maintain, and transfer securities. These include securities issued by the U.S. Treasury, other federal agencies, government-sponsored enterprises, and certain international organizations, such as the World Bank.

Government Payments

Federal Reserve Banks process a wide range of electronic payments for the government, such as Social Security and payroll checks.

The Fed also acts as the U.S. government’s banker. Reserve Banks maintain the Treasury Department’s checking account and clear U.S. Treasury checks. They also process a wide range of electronic payments for the government, including Social Security and payroll checks. Reserve Banks also support the issuance, transfer, and redemption of U.S. Treasury securities, manage Treasury securities auctions, and process U.S. savings bonds. Reserve Banks handle a variety of other operations for government units, including processing food coupons and postal money orders.

Sources:

Federal Reserve Board of Governors: About Automated Clearinghouse Services, May 24, 2010.

Key Facts About the Twelfth Federal Reserve District, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, December 2012.

Federal Reserve Financial Services Policy Committee Press Release: Federal Reserve Banks Complete Check Processing Infrastructure Changes, March 2, 2010.

Federal Reserve Board of Governors: About Check Services, November 6, 2009.

Federal Reserve Board of Governors: About Fedwire Funds Services, November 6, 2009.

Federal Reserve Board of Governors: About Fedwire Securities Services, November 6, 2009.

Federal Reserve Board of Governors: About Fiscal Agency Services, November 6, 2009.

The Federal Reserve System Purposes & Functions, Federal Reserve Board of Governors, Ninth Edition, June 2005.

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