Fed opens debate over a U.S. central bank digital currency with long-awaited report.

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

In a long-awaited report, the Fed avoided taking sides and set out a list of arguments for and against 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,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said in a statement . Mr. Powell had previewed that a report would be forthcoming in May 2021.

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 making online purchases, that money is actually backed by the banking sector. A Fed version would be backed by America’s central bank, just like a US dollar bill.

Given the US currency’s dominant position in global finance, the Fed has been clear that it is moving slowly and carefully as it weighs a digital dollar. And officials have emphasized that they would not move forward without congressional approval.

“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,” the report 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 also noted that a central bank digital currency would raise policy questions, including about its effect on the financial sector, 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 law behind the Fed “does not authorize direct Federal Reserve accounts for individuals, and such accounts would represent a significant expansion” of the central bank’s role, the paper said, suggesting that such accounts would need to be operated 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 paper probably does not address all their concerns, but may serve to calm worries that consumers could fully leapfrog the traditional banking system.

The Fed’s paper pointed out that a potential bank currency could be designed in a way that would mitigate disruption to the banking system.

“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.

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