George W. Mitchell, the former Federal Reserve Board vice chairman who died Jan. 25 at the age of 92, should be remembered as "the father of electronic payments."
He pushed harder than any other American to move us in that direction. His tireless devotion to improving the payments system, moving it from paper-based toward electronic, brought substantial benefits to the banking industry, the corporate community, and millions of consumers.
I had the pleasure of knowing George Mitchell for almost 25 years. Until I moved in 1973 from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to the board of governors staff in Washington, I knew him only by his "Let's do it, and let's do it now" reputation. He lived up to it.
In June 1974, he told the Federal Reserve Board staff that he wanted the first nationwide automated clearing house program up and operating by summer's end for Air Force payroll payments. The governor was undeterred by the fact that neither the Air Force, Federal Reserve System, nor banking industry were prepared. But in September 1974, the Air Force's direct- deposit program began. Today, 91% of all federal government employees are paid by direct deposit.
Governor Mitchell's commitment to direct deposit did not stop with the federal government. He persuaded the Fed to require all the Federal Reserve banks to implement automated clearing house operations, and encouraged the creation of clearing house associations to help the banking industry organize to promote electronic payments.
His work to improve the payments system went beyond the automated clearing house and led to dramatic improvements in check collections. It was his vision that led to the creation of the Regional Check Processing Center program, helping reduce float to the point where 90% of all checks are presented to the paying bank one business day after they enter the banking system.
In the wire transfer area, before the 1970s, the Fed Wire was for all practical purposes used only for federal funds and correspondent-bank transfers. Governor Mitchell believed it was costly and risky to use checks for large-value corporate payments. Under his leadership, barriers to using Fed Wire for corporate payments were eliminated, and today corporations transfer trillions of dollars a year over the network.
Dozens of other countries now have large-value electronic payment networks, largely because Governor Mitchell, who encouraged international deliberations on payment systems risk through the Bank for International Settlements, urged their central banks to adopt them.
Governor Mitchell was one of 26 members of the National Commission on Electronic Fund Transfers from 1975 to 1977, and its intellectual driving force. The commission's most important legacy was the Electronic Funds Transfer Act of 1978, the basis of consumer protections in this area ever since.
Not all of the governor's plans proved successful, but it wasn't for lack of effort on his part. He wanted the Federal Reserve banks to develop systems for clearing and settling debit card payments, but was stymied by opposition from many large banks and from other government agencies.
Aside from his payments system work, Governor Mitchell was a strong defender of an independent central bank and used his uncommon political skills to great advantage. Once he made a joint television appearance with William Proxmire, then the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, that was billed as a debate on Fed independence. Governor Mitchell turned on the charm and it became more of a mutual admiration society.
We will miss this founding father of electronic payments systems. In tribute, the National Automated Clearing House Association will name its annual Payments System Excellence Award-which Governor Mitchell won in 1988-after him.