The US Risks Getting Left Behind on CBDCs

The US Risks Getting Left Behind on CBDCs

(Emilio Takas/Unsplash)

This week, as world leaders gather virtually for DC Fintech Week in Washington, D.C., a key focus will be on central banks issuing their own digital currencies (CBDC). A pivotal player here is the United States, which faces an increasingly urgent decision: whether to take serious steps towards issuing a CBDC, as the Bank of China and others have begun. The sooner it decides, the better.   

Many countries are addressing this issue seriously and quickly, as surveyed by tracking projects at the and . Pilot programs are ongoing in multiple nations, most notably China, which recently ran a trial with – reigniting concerns about its rapid progress and geostrategic implications. By contrast, the U.S. remains comparatively cautious and quiet. 

On CBDCs, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell that it is more important for the U.S. to “get it right than to be first.” The most concrete CBDC exploration is at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which to survey available technologies over two to three years. Treasury Department officials more work is happening behind the scenes, but little has been made public.

If the U.S. wants to lead on CBDCs, there is much more it could reasonably do, and soon – even short of being “first.” It could test out several pilot projects at the same time, as a group led by Chris Giancarlo, former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission) and along the lines of what the and People’s Bank of China are already undertaking.

U.S. stakeholders, including Congress, should start wrestling with the crucial and complicated issues of the digital dollar’s design, including the paramount issue of privacy. Giancarlo that may turn out to be “ace to play in the contest for the future of digital money” and could help contrast the “digital dollar” against other nations’ CBDCs that reflect different values and priorities.

If, on the other hand, the U.S. wants to continue waiting while other countries move forward on CBDCs, it could lean into a substantial role for the private sector. The prospect of private sector “digital dollars” scared some policymakers when Facebook announced its last June, but recently Powell and his colleagues have started . In the absence of a clear national policy, the private issuance of “digital dollars” is already happening, evidenced by the surge in privately issued “crypto-dollars,” a phenomenon . 

Moreover, the Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) recently to hold bank reserves on behalf of certain “digital dollar” issuers. If the U.S. engages the private sector, we believe it should embrace and demand the model that worked for the early internet: open-source and interoperable technology standards. 

At one level, the Federal Reserve’s current “wait and see” approach is understandable: It is a historically conservative institution and, as the issuer of the world’s reserve currency, has much to lose if its CBDC efforts flounder. Cybersecurity flaws might scotch a digital dollar launch, for example.

Still, there is surely a greater cost to all this waiting. 

As CFTC Chairman Heath Tarbert candidly admitted on Monday at DC FinTech Week, “The only thing that scares me is the U.S. falling behind [on CBDCs].” 

CBDCs Mean Evolution, Not Revolution


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