The Fed's Wary Embrace of Digital Dollars

It is not difficult to fathom why the United States’ central bank is especially resistant to any quantum change in the existing financial system. But while policymakers' reluctance to rush into launching a digital dollar is understandable, that is no excuse for the slow pace of cryptocurrency regulation.

CAMBRIDGE – Many countries’ governments, most notably China’s, are continuing to experiment with central bank digital currencies (CBDCs). Money 3.0 is moving full speed ahead, and with its recent white paper, entitled “The US Dollar in the Age of Digital Transformation,” the US Federal Reserve, a conspicuous laggard, has finally started to weigh in, if only tepidly. The Fed’s caution is understandable, but is it excessive?

The Fed sets an extremely high bar for introducing a retail digital dollar. For starters, we are told that the new form of money must provide benefits more effectively than other methods, presumably meaning dollar-linked digital and existing bank accounts. For example, one purported benefit of a digital dollar is to provide “real time clearing” for small payments, which of course paper currency already achieves, and the Fed plans to introduce 24-hour electronic payments through banks soon. The digital currency also must protect privacy (then again, the Chinese authorities say that, too) and must not facilitate , which is ironic given the popularity of the $100 bill in the global underground economy.

Most challenging of all is the Fed’s requirement that the expected gains from introducing a digital dollar outweigh any risks it might create. This is a very tough, but reasonable hurdle. For all the flaws of the world’s existing financial infrastructure, its inner workings have remained largely intact for decades. Imagine a nightmare scenario in which a poorly designed digital dollar left open a “back door” that allowed a hostile foreign power to shut down the entire dollar-based global financial system in one fell swoop.

Risks aside, it is not difficult to fathom why the Fed is especially resistant to any quantum change in the existing financial system. After all, the dollar’s international dominance brings the United States myriad benefits. It lowers the interest rates that American citizens and corporations have to pay, not to mention those for the world’s biggest borrower, the US government – what Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, then France’s finance minister, famously called America’s “exorbitant privilege.”

Dollar dominance also gives US authorities leverage over the global financial system’s plumbing, including privileged access to information on worldwide dollar transactions. Moreover, it allows the US to impose significant financial sanctions. Russia has been subject to targeted financial sanctions since its 2014 annexation of Crimea, but President Joe Biden’s administration is now threatening much stronger steps in the event of a .