Where just a handful of years ago, the idea would have been immediately dismissed or even met with ridicule, the United States Federal Reserve is now taking the concept of an official dollar stablecoin seriously.
Markets have heard more frequent guidance from the Fed on cryptocurrencies in recent years, and thanks to two curious U.S. representatives — French Hill and Bill Foster — this guidance now includes an enlightening response from Fed Chairman Jay Powell to their letter on a central bank digital currency, or CBDC.
Evolving trends force regulators’ hands
The infiltration of blockchain into our global financial sector is nothing new, but a few trends have seen these experimental decentralized solutions tackled head-on by authorities. One of the most significant events to bring about this pivot is that the first major economy has emerged as a proponent of government-issued stablecoins.
China’s announcement that it will launch a digital currency reveals the country’s direction, and other federal banks must now consider doing the same, especially during the ongoing trade war that is testing the standalone strength of individual economies and their monetary policy.
Related: China Walks Back Hardline Media Rhetoric Toward Crypto and Blockchain
Facebook’s Libra is another sign that cannot go ignored, and though the Libra Foundation just experienced an exodus of backers, its underlying idea is enough to represent a bucket of cold water tossed on slumbering regulators and policymakers.
If governments don’t move first to permit immutable cryptocurrency transactions for their own digital coins, private corporations are ready to pounce. Likely on high alert thanks to China’s abrupt change in stance on cryptocurrencies, Powell provided fresh, tangible insights on how the U.S. regards this developing movement in his recent letter.
“The Fed has realized that cryptocurrencies, in one form or another, are here to stay,” says Saga’s chief economist, Barry Topf — a consultant for the International Monetary Fund and former central banker. He told Cointelegraph that Powell’s answer reveals there are “far-reaching implications for monetary policy, currency regimes and central banks themselves.” He went on to add that:
“Federal bankers have been slow on the uptake, but now realize they must evaluate and assess developments and possible implications. Otherwise, they risk being surprised and unprepared for a changing environment which may include China as a dominant force. A CBDC issued by China would be a major extension of China’s influence in the world economy.”
Topf continued by saying that the implications of such a move by China must be carefully weighed, “Mark Zuckerberg told Congress this directly when he said, ‘While we debate these issues, the rest of the world isn’t waiting.’”
The Powell letter is revealing
Compelled by concerned lawmakers to indicate which way the Fed is leaning when it comes to its own stablecoin, Powell underlined that the agency currently has no plans to develop a central bank digital currency. However, it has discussed the idea at length and continues to assess potential pros and cons of such an idea. According to Powell:
“Issuing a central bank digital currency for general use would raise important legal, monetary policy, payments policy, financial stability, supervision and operational questions that need to be considered more carefully.”
A Fed-backed digital currency could bring significant advantages to the way money is settled currently, offering consumers a way to transact without fees and without middlemen such as smaller banks, but this would have several implications that Powell considers in his letter.
By operating a digital ledger, the Fed would technically be responsible for transaction metadata, and it is not outfitted to protect personal information — nor does it want to be. Interestingly enough, the chairman also seems to indicate that the current system’s illiquidity and cost inefficiency are preferable due to the way it obstructs capital flight and “runs from private markets” during stress episodes.
Other documents from the Fed published in November also claim that market runs could occur if stablecoin operations were to break it down, causing a loss of faith.
Stablecoins support Powell’s theories
The logic contained in Powell’s letter rings true if one is familiar with the fundamental concept of stablecoins. A national stablecoin would be a token based on a blockchain, where each once would be backed by $1 from the Fed.
The theory goes that eventually, other assets and currencies will be “tokenized” as well, reducing speed and cost as variables in any transaction. However, there are some weak claims made in the letter, such as the notion that, "To date, our observation is that many of the challenges they [CBDCs] hope to address do not apply to the U.S.” Powell is arguably correct that if the U.S. economy did switch to dollar tokens overnight, there would be issues.