Digital Dollar and Digital Euro Just Took a Big Step Closer to Becoming a Reality

Digital Dollar and Digital Euro Just Took a Big Step Closer to Becoming a Reality 1

As the US government begins setting up the regulatory guardrails for a digital dollar, the EU selects a five-company consortium led by Amazon to develop a prototype for a digital euro.

It is a rare experience to find oneself in more or less full agreement with a senior central banker, particularly these days. Yet that is what happened to me just over a month ago. In early August, Neel Kashkari, ex Goldman, ex Pimco employee, currently the President of the Minneapolis Fed, lambasted the idea of creating a digital dollar, arguing that US consumers already had access to instant digital payments through private-sector platforms.* Speaking at the 2022 Journal of Financial Regulation conference at Columbia University, he also flagged concerns about the threat central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) could pose to privacy, anonymity and other basic freedoms.

“I can see why China would do it,” Kashkari said. “If they want to monitor every one of your transactions, you could do that with a central bank digital currency. You can’t do that with Venmo. If you want to impose negative interest rates, you could do that with a central bank digital currency. You can’t do that with Venmo. And if you want to directly tax customer accounts, you could do that with a central bank digital currency. You can’t do that with Venmo. I get why China would be interested. Why would the American people be for that?”

Kaskari is right, of course: they probably wouldn’t. But they’re not being consulted on the matter. In fact, in most cases they’re not even aware it is happening.

White House Recommends Creating a Digital Dollar

Today, the digital dollar is closer to becoming a reality than ever before. On Friday (Sept. 16), the Biden Administration released a framework for the responsible development of digital assets, including cryptocurrency, CBDCs and other items of value that exist only in digital form. An alphabet soup of government agencies, including the US Treasury, the Justice Department, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and the Securities and Exchange Commission, have been tasked with contributing to reports that will explore the risks, development possibilities and usage of digital assets.

All of this was put into motion just over six months ago by Joe Biden’s Executive Order 14067, officially dubbed “Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets.” Signed on March 9, it  represented the first ever “whole of government approach” to regulating digital assets. Among the executive order’s many goals is to make the handling of digital assets easier and more secure; to safeguard US global leadership in digital asset innovation; and, as laid out in section 4, to lay the groundwork for the creation of a digital dollar:

Sovereign money is at the core of a well-functioning financial system, macroeconomic stabilization policies, and economic growth. My Administration places the highest urgency on research and development efforts into the potential design and deployment options of a United States CBDC. These efforts should include assessments of possible benefits and risks for consumers, investors, and businesses; financial stability and systemic risk; payment systems; national security; the ability to exercise human rights; financial inclusion and equity; and the actions required to launch a United States CBDC if doing so is deemed to be in the national interest.

On Friday, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen posited two reasons for developing a digital dollar: one, because “some aspects of the current payment system are too slow and too expensive”; and two “to reinforce the US’ role as a leader in the world financial system”.

This is increasingly necessary as China continues to forge ahead with its digital yuan. China’s central bank has been exploring the possibilities offered by digital currencies since 2014. The digital currency is being piloted in more than 20 regions and cities and the Chinese government is now looking to integrate it with already ubiquitous private payment systems — most importantly Alibaba’s AliPay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay whose payment systems are already usable outside China.

In theory, CBDCs will allow for the creation a simpler, cheaper, more direct payment system, by cutting out most, if not all, intermediaries, as the Washington-based analyst NS Lyons notes:

A customer would open an account directly with a country’s central bank, and the central bank would issue (create) digital money in the account. Crucially, this makes the money a direct liability of the Fed, rather than of a private bank. Using a simple smartphone app or other tools, the customer can then initiate direct transactions between Fed accounts. The digital money is deleted in one account and recreated in another instantaneously.

However, in its Future of Money and Payments report, the US Treasury envisages a two-tiered model under which the Fed would issue and redeem digital dollars but the distribution of those digital dollars would be handled by intermediaries eligible for an account at the Federal Reserve. Payment services would also be managed by banks and other private sector players:

This would be similar to how paper currency is distributed through commercial banks. It also shares similarities to responsibilities surrounding noncash retail payments today: the intermediaries onboard, provide customer support, and manage payments. In addition, intermediaries would likely implement AML/CFT obligations, while relevant supervisors would monitor compliance with those obligations.

In other words, a select group of banks and non-banks will continue to have a role to play in the new financial system, while most financial institutions — including small local lenders and credit unions  — will presumably get disintermediated. As the European Central Bank recently warned, a broadly adopted CBDC is likely to lead many people and businesses to pull their money out of commercial banks during a financial crisis and put it into the supposedly safer accounts held with the central bank.

Playing Catch Up

Currently, just over 100 jurisdictions representing 95% of global gross domestic product are exploring or have already created a central bank digital currency, according to the Atlantic Council. They include the US, the Euro Area, China, India, Russia, the UK, Australia, Canada, Brazil and Mexico.

Naturally, the Atlantic Council — a Washington DC-based US think tank that aspires to shape the global future — believes the US should lead the way, which will be easier said than done given the head start China has on it (and most other large economies):

The Treasury Department says it wants to talk more with other countries, share knowledge on digital currencies, and help set international standards. Treasury recognizes that it is in the national interest to create a digital dollar and that there are national-security concerns connected to it.

What does that mean? It means that, as China is creating its own digital currency, the United States wants to make sure the model that proliferates around the world is one that respects democratic values—for example, privacy. But in order to do that, the United States needs to bring its own model to the table. Treasury is saying today that the United States is going to do that and that it’s a whole-of-government priority. The issue is urgent.

It is not as if the US has been sitting on its hands all this time. The Digital Currency Initiative at MIT has been working with the Boston Federal Reserve to explore the steps necessary to create a safe and effective central bank digital currency, “applying the learnings from a decade of cryptocurrencies toward designing CBDCs and integrating them into our increasingly digital lives.” In February, the Deposit Trust and Clearing Corporation (DTCC) launched a prototype, known as Project Lithium, to explore how a CBDC might operate in the U.S clearing and settlement infrastructure leveraging distributed ledger technology.

Amazon to Test-Run a Digital Euro

The EU seems to be somewhat further along the path toward creating a digital euro. On Saturday (Sept 17), the European Central Bank (ECB) announced it had handpicked a team of five companies — Amazon, Spain’s CaixaBank, France’s Worldline SA, Italy’s Nexi S.p.A. and the European Payments Initiative, a consortium of 31 large Euro Area banks and third-party acquirers — to develop a prototype for a digital euro, with each firm exploring a specific digital use for the euro-area currency.

“The aim of this prototyping exercise is to test how well the technology behind a digital euro integrates with prototypes developed by companies,” the Frankfurt-based institution said. This follows an announcement from the ECB in July that work on a digital euro has entered its second development phase, which will involve testing the CBDC for retail use cases in preparation for a 2023 rollout.

So, while the US government is in the process of setting up the regulatory guardrails for a CBDC, the EU is in the two-year “investigation phase” of the digital euro project. Although the ECB claims that no formal decision on whether to launch a digital euro has been taken (what else would it say?), the most likely outcome, as Bloomberg reports, is that the ECB will be among the first advanced-economy central banks to issue a digital form of its currency, with officials pointing to the middle of this decade for a possible rollout.

A research paper recently published by the ECB, titled “The Economics of Central Bank Digital Currency,” concludes that CBDCs are the only possible means of safeguarding sovereign money in an age of declining cash use and proliferating private digital currencies such as cryptocurrencies and stable coins. It also posits that cash, whose volume in circulation in the Euro Area has almost doubled in the last decade even as usage has fallen, does not meet the needs of the digital age:

“Since cash is only available in physical form, it is by construction not ‘fit’ for the digital age… Accordingly, the introduction of digital cash in the form of a CBDC appears to be the only solution to guarantee a smooth continuation of the current monetary system.”

Of course, the ECB disclaims that the research paper paper only reflects the opinions of its authors. It has also repeatedly stated that a digital euro would coexist alongside physical cash. But the ECB has a habit of saying a lot of things it ends up not doing.

The paper’s authors also note that although repeated surveys have shown that consumers place a high value on privacy, they are usually willing to give up their data for free or in exchange for small rewards or gains in convenience. But what about those who aren’t?

Even more importantly, the creation of a CBDC would not just require consumers to give up their data. As Kashkari noted in his speech, it would be about giving up what remains of your privacy and anonymity. It would be about handing even more power — a lot more power, arguably total power — to the governments, central banks, tech companies and large commercial banks that will end up running this new monetary system.

That power could be used, among other things, to take interest rates into far deeper negative territory. If there is no cash, there is no means for people to escape negative rates no matter how negative they go. In a CBDC world central banks will not only know exactly what we spend our money on; they will also be able to determine what we can and cannot spend our money on.

They could even be used to strongly encourage “desirable” social and political behavior while penalizing those who do not toe the line, as recently happened in Canada. As Lyons points out, “The most dangerous individuals or organizations could simply have their digital assets temporarily deleted or their accounts’ ability to transact frozen with the push of a button, locking them out of the commercial system and greatly mitigating the threat they pose. No use of emergency powers or compulsion of intermediary financial institutions would be required: the United States has no constitutional right enshrining the freedom to transact.”

Given how much is at stake, CBDCs and the digital IDs that will accompany them are among the most important questions today’s societies could possibly grapple with — not only from a financial or business perspective but also from an ethical and legal standpoint. They should be under discussion in every parliament of every land, and every dinner table in every country in the world.


* This is not the first time Kaskkari has deviated from the official script. In her first speech as President of the Minneapolis Fed, he said all sorts of unpleasant truths, as Yves reported at the time. He spoke about the huge costs the financial crisis imposed on society as a whole, about how Dodd Frank didn’t go far enough and how the authorities won’t be willing to risk using untested new powers in a financial meltdown and will bail out banks again. He also argued that the financial system was now stable enough to make (by implication overdue) transformative changes to end the “too big to fail” problem, such as breaking up banks and regulating them like utilities.

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