Fed opens debate over a U.S. central bank digital currency

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The Federal Reserve has released a report on the possibility of issuing a digital currency that explores the potential costs and benefits and sets the stage for public comment. Shown is the Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C. (Paul Brady / TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve took its first step toward more seriously examining issuing a central bank digital currency, releasing a report Thursday taking into account the idea’s potential costs and benefits and opening the door for public comment.

In the long-awaited report, the Fed avoided taking sides but set out a list of arguments for and against issuing a digital currency, and posed questions that will shape the debate.

“We look forward to engaging with the public, elected representatives and a broad range of stakeholders as we examine the positives and negatives of a central bank digital currency in the United States,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in a statement. In May, Powell had indicated that a report would be forthcoming.

Central banks from the Bahamas to Sweden and China are experimenting with digital currency offerings, fueling concerns on Capitol Hill that the Fed might fall behind the competition. Breakneck innovation in the private sector has suggested that the Fed, a key financial regulator, needs to understand budding private digital payment technologies.

A central bank digital retail currency would, basically, be electronic cash. While consumers already use digital money when swiping a credit card or buying something online, that money is actually backed by the banking sector. A Fed version would be backed by America’s central bank, just like a U.S. dollar bill is.

Given the U.S. currency’s dominant position in global finance, the Fed has been clear that it is moving slowly and carefully as it looks into the possibility of a digital dollar. And officials have emphasized that they would not move forward without congressional approval, which the report reiterated.

“The Federal Reserve does not intend to proceed with issuance of a CBDC without clear support from the executive branch and from Congress, ideally in the form of a specific authorizing law,” it noted.

Researchers from the central bank outlined how a digital currency could offer benefits and entail risks.

Such a currency “could provide a safe, digital payment option for households and businesses as the payments system continues to evolve, and may result in faster payment options between countries,” the Fed release accompanying the discussion paper stated.

But the paper said a central bank digital currency would also raise policy questions, including “how it might affect financial-sector market structure, the cost and availability of credit, the safety and stability of the financial system and the efficacy of monetary policy.”

The Fed paper also seemed to slam the door on several possibilities — including the idea that a central bank digital currency could be created alongside consumer bank accounts at the Fed, something Democrats and proponents of broader financial inclusion have at times suggested.

“The Federal Reserve Act does not authorize direct Federal Reserve accounts for individuals, and such accounts would represent a significant expansion of the Federal Reserve’s role in the financial system and the economy,” the paper said, suggesting such accounts would need to be intermediated by banks and other service providers.

Commercial banks, for their part, have been worried that the creation of a central bank digital currency and Fed accounts could take away their deposit base and upend their business model.

The Fed’s paper pointed out that design choices could mitigate disruption to the banking system — and that disruption may be bound to happen regardless.

“A CBDC could spur innovation by banks and other actors and would be a safer deposit substitute than many other products, including stablecoins and other types of nonbank money,” the paper said. “These forms of nonbank money could cause a shift in deposits away from banks even without a CBDC.”

The Fed is asking for public comment on more than 20 questions about central bank digital currencies, and is accepting responses for the next 120 days.

This story was originally published at nytimes.com. Read it here.