Fed outlines pros and cons of a US 'digital dollar' -- but avoids taking a stand (for now)

Curious about central bank digital currencies? Here's the latest, plus everything else you need to know about CBDCs.

Marcos Cabello
Marcos Cabello
Marcos Cabello
Based in Boston, Marcos Cabello has been a personal finance reporter for NextAdvisor and CNET. Marcos has covered cryptocurrency, investing, banking, and the US economy, among other personal finance subjects. If you don't find Marcos behind his computer screen, you'll probably find him behind another screen, playing the newest Nintendo Switch title, streaming the latest TV show or reading a book on his Kindle.
Marcos Cabello
7 min read
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Bitcoin was invented, at least in part, to circumvent governments and national currencies. In the original white paper, released in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Satoshi Nakamoto expressed a desire to create "a new electronic cash system" that was "completely decentralized with no server or central authority." 

But as cryptocurrencies gain in popularity, grabbing an increasing share of the global financial pie, governments have taken notice, and now many of them are exploring how to get a piece of the action. One possibility is what's known as a CBDC, or a central bank digital currency.

On Thursday, the Federal Reserve took a major step forward towards taking CBDCs seriously in the US, releasing a long-awaited report that examines the potential benefits and risks of CBDCs. This so-called digital dollar would incorporate elements of decentralized cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin, but with a major difference: It's issued and regulated by the country's financial authority.

And the US isn't alone. There are dozens of countries engaged in some stage of researching CBDCs, according to Kristalina Georgieva, managing director at the International Monetary Fund. 

But CBDCs are complex. They offer some potential benefits (providing financial resources to underbanked populations, for example) and potential drawbacks (including significant privacy concerns). For now, here's an introduction to some of the basics, as well as an overview of which countries are working on CBDCs and some clues about how a central bank digital currency might work in practice. 

What is a central bank digital currency?

It's the virtual form of a fiat currency -- that is, government-issued money that isn't backed by other commodities like gold or silver. In short, a CBDC is just the digital form of a country's official currency. As nothing more than a computer code, these currencies could be stored on central ledgers within a country's national bank or on a distributed ledger the way private cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are.

What factors are driving interest in CBDCs?

The rise of cryptocurrencies is serving as a wake-up call to national governments, which have long held a monopoly on currency issuance. Concerns over that monopoly being threatened appear to be what's driving interest in CBDCs, according to Gustav Peebles, a professor of anthropology and an expert in monetary history, theory and policy at The New School in New York City.

"Currencies throughout history can either be issued by the public or by private entities, and what crypto has shown us or has delivered is a reignition of an age-old fight between private and public currency issuance," said Peebles. "Central bankers suddenly got blindsided; and so, a central bank digital currency is central bankers trying to hold on to their monopoly over currency issuance in the face of erosion of that monopoly."

What has the Federal Reserve said about CBDCs?

The Federal Reserve released a January 2022 report outlining the potential benefits and downsides of issuing a CBDC in the US. While the Fed didn't take a stance either for or against the issuance of CBDCs, it is asking for public comment on more than 20 questions on the topic. People will have until May 20 of this year to participate in this stage of the Fed's CBDC research. Moreover, the report made clear that the Fed wouldn't move forward with CBDCs unless it received clear support from the executive branch as well as Congress.

How would a digital dollar work in practice?

Americans are using and carrying less cash nowadays, turning to card and electronic payments instead, with 40% of individuals reporting that they didn't use cash for in-person payments in April, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve System's Cash Product Office. Mobile payment services like Venmo, Zelle and PayPal are increasingly popular, with 64% of survey respondents saying they regularly use a digital payment platform, according to a 2020 survey by the Travis Credit Union

But what if you didn't need to go through your bank or a third-party platform to pay or store your money?

That's what the digital dollar would promise. CBDCs could bypass the traditional banking system by allowing money to flow directly between parties, just like exchanging cash or transferring funds electronically. 

Still, the logistics haven't yet been hammered out. One option is for the Federal Reserve to issue digital wallets to Americans, making money accessible through a smartphone app or debit card, according to Peebles. El Salvador did this in the fall by giving Salvadorans access to a crypto wallet app called Chivo when it adopted bitcoin as legal tender in the country.

The money would essentially be in an account you'd have with the Federal Reserve or some entity such as a private bank that the Federal Reserve partners with. When you paid for something, the Federal Reserve would take money from your digital wallet and deposit it directly into the other party's digital wallet, bypassing the complex web of networks currently involved in electronic payments. As a plus, this would remove fees generally associated with such payments. 

US digital wallets could upend commercial banking

Digital wallets issued by the Fed, though, would be a destabilizing form of CBDC. "It really messes with the general pyramidal structure of central banking as a concept, which has always been that central banks are not bankers to average citizens," according to Peebles. As a rule, central bankers oversee the banking system, whereas private banks interact with the consumer. 

Such a shift would be destabilizing, Peebles noted, because if the average person can make everyday payments through a Fed account, there's less reason to keep an account at a private bank. "That might push private banks away from what they've gradually morphed into today -- this deposit facility -- and send them back to their original task: just providing loans," Peebles said.

Not only is it destabilizing, the Fed's report appears to throw shade on the idea that the Fed currently has the authority to create such accounts. Moreover, the Fed could be signaling that it's wary about expanding its current role to these proportions.

"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 report said. 

A less destabilizing CBDC proposal wouldn't require a federal account but would involve a "cash card," that is, a card that customers of private banks could use at ATMs to load up on digital cash instead of paper money. "Just like paper money, if the holder lost that card or had their wallet stolen, the card would have value on it that anyone could use," Peebles said. 

CBDCs could help unbanked households

As of 2020, 5% of US adults, or roughly 16 million individuals, were unbanked, meaning they rely on nonbank products and services for cash, according to the Federal Reserve's 2020 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking. Underbanked rates were higher among Black and Hispanic adults and those from historically excluded and low income groups. For those who have bank accounts, it's already possible to set up direct deposit with the government for federal money like tax refunds or stimulus payments. With a CBDC, the Federal Reserve could make such funds instantly available by depositing them into a digital wallet, regardless of whether the person had a bank account. 

Privacy concerns over CBDCs

The primary concern over a government-issued digital dollar centers on privacy, particularly when it comes to the issuance of Federal Reserve accounts. The US government could track all citizens' purchases through an e-wallet, giving the Fed an account of everything we do and eliminating space for unsurveilled monetary exchange, according to Peebles. 

If the US government monitors everything you buy -- from milk at your local store to poker chips during your next casino trip -- there's potential for abuse. "All sorts of profiling could emerge out of that, and hackers might deem that database to be quite valuable, too," Peebles said. "So you could picture predatory marketing to the elderly, for example, if the data got out."

One possible sticking point could be if people are using their Fed accounts to purchase illicit goods, such as cannabis. While states across the country have legalized cannabis for medical and recreational use, it's still illegal on a federal level. If someone purchased the substance from a dispensary using digital dollars, the government could theoretically decide to impose criminal sanctions for the transaction. 

Which countries are exploring CBDCs?

About 110 countries are at some stage of CBDC development, according to the IMF. The Bahamas, Nigeria and several countries in the eastern Caribbean through the Eastern Caribbean Currency Union (including Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Lucia and St. Kitts and Nevis) have already issued CBDCs. The names of their e-currencies are the Sand DollareNaira and DCash, respectively. 

China, which outlawed cryptocurrency last year, is leading the "in-development" pack with the digital yuan, having trialed over $5 billion worth of transactions since June 2021. China has conducted various real-world pilot runs to test the "reliability of economic theories, the stability of systems and the controllability of risks," according to a recent report by the People's Bank of China. These pilot runs included giving digital yuan to a random pool of applicants to be spent at designated offline locations or on the site of China's largest online retailer, JD.com. 

Instead of adopting its own digital coin or CBDC, El Salvador made bitcoin legal tender last year, meaning the established cryptocurrency must be accepted as a form of payment throughout the country. Soon after, Panama followed in El Salvador's footsteps and unveiled a similar plan to make bitcoin legal tender.

The US is now the next country entering the fold with the release of the Fed report, opening the gates for debate over the digital dollar.