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Boston Fed, MIT unveil model for electronic cash as policymakers mull whether to launch it

Researchers say the prototype can handle 1.7 million transactions per second

The Federal Reserve building in Washington in 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Some members of the Federal Reserve are continuing to explore the launch of its own digital dollar, as the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston on Thursday unveiled its first attempt at designing an electronic form of cash.

The Boston bank’s research, conducted in a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, does not offer a recommendation about whether the Fed should create its own digital currency. The central bank’s leaders in Washington are in the process of collecting public feedback on that question now, and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell said it will only proceed with congressional authorization.

But in the meantime, the Boston team said Thursday that it has solved technical challenges such a product would need to meet. Researchers said they designed a system that can settle the vast majority of payments in less than two seconds, handles more than 1.7 million transactions per second and operates around-the-clock with no service outages in the case of a disruption in its network.

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The ultimate product could help extend financial services to people who lack a bank account and make cross-border payments such as remittances safer and easier, said Neha Narula, director of the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT. Narula, in a conference call with reporters, noted that the Boston researchers “aren’t the ones making policy decision on how such a system might operate,” so they have aimed to “create a flexible system that can work with a variety of models.”

Along with a paper describing the team’s work to date, researchers on Thursday published open-source code for the platform that would support the digital currency. Jim Cunha, executive vice president of the Boston Fed, called that a first for the central bank, intended to encourage public input that improves the technology.

For the second stage of what researchers are billing as a multiyear project, the team plans to focus on improving the system’s privacy protections and its exchangeability with other currencies, among other goals. “There’s a lot of work to do here,” Cunha said.

The work follows the release late last month of a paper from the Fed’s Board of Governors weighing the pros and cons of adopting a central bank digital currency. It studiously avoided favoring an outcome. But the Fed appeared to dismiss the possibility of allowing Americans to create consumer banking accounts directly at the central bank, an option touted by some liberals but aggressively opposed by the banking industry.