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Fed officials express skepticism about a U.S. central bank digital currency

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(Reuters) -Two Federal Reserve officials on Monday expressed strong skepticism about the need for the central bank to issue a digital currency, saying that many dollar transactions are already virtual and some of the potential benefits of an official digital currency may be accomplished through other means.

FILE PHOTO: Randal K. Quarles, vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on “Oversight of Financial Regulators” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 5, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott

The remarks, made at two separate events on Monday afternoon, suggest policymakers could face intense discussions as they explore the potential benefits, costs and logistics of creating a central bank digital currency, or CBDC.

Fed Vice Chair for Supervision Randal Quarles said any proposals to create a U.S. CBDC must clear a “high bar,” and that he needs to be convinced the potential benefits would outweigh the risks.

“Before we get carried away with the novelty, I think we need to subject the promises of a CBDC to a careful critical analysis,” Quarles said in remarks delivered in person during the annual Utah Bankers Association Convention.

The Fed official said the U.S. dollar is already “highly digitized” and expressed skepticism that a CBDC would help to improve financial inclusion or lower financial costs. Some of those issues may be better addressed with other solutions, such as improving access to low-cost bank accounts, Quarles said.

Richmond Fed Bank President Thomas Barkin expressed similar skepticism when speaking to the Rotary Club of Atlanta. “We already have a digital currency in this country, it’s called the dollar,” he said.

Barkin said many transactions are already completed virtually through services such as Venmo and online bill pay. “We ought to have a sense of what are we trying to accomplish when we do it,” Barkin said.

The policymakers’ remarks come as the U.S. central bank is ramping up its efforts to explore the potential launch of a digital currency.

The Fed will release a discussion paper this summer about the benefits and costs of a CBDC and the Boston regional arm of the Fed is doing research with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the technology that could be used for a digital currency. That paper, along with open-source code, will be released in the third quarter.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell has made it clear that the central bank would not be able to launch a digital currency without congressional action, a point Quarles reiterated on Monday.

The conversation about CBDCs is heating up as some other countries, including China, move more aggressively to pilot digital versions of their currencies, a shift some analysts say poses a threat to the U.S. dollar. But Powell said in the spring that the U.S. would not be rushed by those efforts, stressing it is more important to get it right than to be first.

Quarles on Monday said the U.S. dollar’s status as the global reserve currency is unlikely to be threatened by a foreign central bank digital currency.

He also said a CBDC issued by the Fed could also hinder financial innovation in the private sector and pose a threat to the banking system, which relies on deposits to issue loans, he said.

Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Additional reporting by Lindsay DunsmuirEditing by Paul Simao and Nick Zieminski

Read more at www.reuters.com

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