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Digital Currency Is a Divided Issue at the Federal Reserve


Officials at the Federal Reserve seem to be increasingly divided over whether it ought to issue a digital dollar — a digital currency that traces straight back to the central bank rather than to the private banking sector.

Speeches by several Fed officials show they have yet to align on the issue, even as the Fed’s peers in China, parts of Europe and smaller economies like the Bahamas have created digital currencies or are working toward issuing them. The Fed plans to release a report on the potential costs and benefits of a digital dollar this summer.

Lael Brainard, a Fed governor appointed during the Obama administration, made it clear during remarks last week that she envisions a future in which America’s central bank explores and issues a digital currency. But Christopher Waller, her colleague on the Fed’s Board of Governors and a Trump nominee, made it equally obvious during a speech on Thursday that he questions whether that is necessary.

“The dollar is very dominant in international payments,” Ms. Brainard said during remarks in Aspen, Colo., adding that she could not imagine a situation in which other countries issue digital currencies and the United States doesn’t have one.

“I just, I can’t wrap my head around that,” she said. “That just doesn’t sound like a sustainable future to me.”

Mr. Waller, by contrast, suggested that there is little a central bank digital offering could do that the private sector cannot and that the potential benefits of a digital dollar are most likely overstated, while the risks are substantial. He added that the United States need not worry about the U.S. dollar’s being supplanted by China’s digital offering.

“I am left with the conclusion that a C.B.D.C. remains a solution in search of a problem,” Mr. Waller said on Thursday, referring to a central bank digital currency. He also voiced concerns that a central bank currency would give the Fed too much information about private citizens.

Randal K. Quarles, the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, has also sounded dubious about the need for a central bank digital currency, painting the idea as a passing fad. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, has at times questioned whether such an offering is necessary, but he has more recently stressed that it is important to investigate the idea and has called himself “legitimately undecided.”

Supporters of central bank digital currency say it is critical for the United States to stay on top of the technology, even if it is not yet clear what benefits such currencies will offer in practice. Some suggest that a Fed digital dollar could prevent stablecoins — private digital assets backed by a bundle of currencies or other assets — from becoming dominant and creating a big financial stability risk.

But opponents worry that a central bank digital currency would not offer benefits that the private sector did not or could not provide and that it might introduce cybersecurity vulnerabilities, issues that Mr. Waller raised Thursday.

Commercial banks have also pushed back on the idea, worrying that their consumer banking services will be supplanted by Fed accounts and warning that such a situation would cause them to cut back on their lending. Mr. Waller — despite his overall skepticism — sounded unsympathetic to that argument.

“There’s a lot of ways that banks could raise funds,” he said, noting that it might hit bank profit margins but that he wouldn’t have an issue with that. “The whole idea is that if they compete, then the funds don’t flow out, so it could be the case that just the existence of a C.B.D.C. causes fees to go down, deposits to go up.”


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