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Powell: Fed open to private sector collaboration in possible digital dollar

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Monday that the Fed is open to collaborating with the private sector on a possible digital U.S. dollar, but reiterated that the central bank has not committed to actually launching one.

“We will have lots of conversations with industry and stakeholder engagement, and that’ll help us in our work on digital currencies and cross-border payments,” Powell said in an International Monetary Fund panel.

Powell said private sector initiatives like Facebook’s Libra project have accelerated central banks’ interest in setting up their own digital currencies.

But Powell cautioned that the Fed faces “difficult policy and operational questions,” such as the monetary policy implications of a digital dollar. Powell also listed illicit activity and cyber attacks as risks.

“I actually do think this is one of those issues where it’s more important for the United States to get it right than it is to be first,” Powell said.

Powell pointed to the importance of the U.S. dollar in the global economy, noting that the majority of the $2 trillion Federal Reserve notes in circulation are held outside of the country.

Powell emphasized that any possible digital dollar would serve as a “complement” to physical cash — not a replacement.

Real-time payments

The U.S. finds itself lagging other countries on payments infrastructure. The Bank of Mexico last year launched a Cobro Digital (CoDi) system that allows users and merchants to transact in digital pesos using QR codes. The People’s Bank of China recently began user testing a digital renminbi, which would allow transactions even without connection to the internet.

Although the Fed is not committing to launching its own digital currency, the Fed is charging ahead with its efforts to bring real-time payments among financial intermediaries. Services like Venmo and Cash App offer quick peer-to-peer payments, but check clearing still takes days for funds to arrive at one’s checking account because of aged infrastructure connecting the nation’s banks.

The Fed hopes to stand up a FedNow system to allow 24/7 real-time payments by 2023 or 2024. Kansas City Fed President Esther George, one of the leaders on the initiative, said the project is “on track” with that timeline.

Although many central banks are researching digital currencies, only about 10% say they will actually issue one of their own in the short-term, according to the Bank of International Settlements.