Should the U.S. Government Create a Token-Based Digital Dollar?

Alt-M | Larry White |

Digital US Dollar - Should the U.S. Government Create a Token-Based Digital Dollar?Proposals for "central bank digital currency" (CBDC) come in two basic types: account-based and token-based. I have been critical of proposals for an account-based system. Until recently, there didn't seem to be much active interest in a token-based system. But now comes a significant token-based proposal in a new white paper by the Digital Dollar Project. Would a token-based system be any better than an account-based system? It might, but it all depends on the design details. Let me explain.

An account-based CBDC would mean that households and businesses have retail checking accounts directly on the Federal Reserve System's balance sheet. A detailed proposal for such a "FedAccounts" system by three legal scholars (Morgan Ricks, John Crawford, and Lev Menand) is available here. (I recently exchanged views with Ricks in an online event hosted by the Cato Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives.) It is implausible that a FedAccounts system, run by a bureaucracy with no experience in retail payments, unguided by profit and loss, will provide better or more efficient service than systems offered by banks and other competitive private firms. But it isn't implausible that threats to privacy would arise from a system that gives a government agency real-time access to all deposit transfers.

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A token-based CBDC would mean that households and businesses hold circulating digital Fed liabilities in digital wallets (think mobile phone apps), the way they hold Bitcoin or Tether[1], or the way they hold Federal Reserve Notes in analog wallets. This model has been labeled "FedCoin." The Federal Reserve System would know the dollar quantity of FedCoin in circulation, but in principle, as with physical notes and coins, it needn't know which users hold how many of these digital dollars. One prominent supporter of the FedCoin concept since 2015 has been Federal Reserve economist David Andolfatto. An early sketch of the concept was provided in 2014 by blogger J. P. Koning.

In May 2020 a group calling itself "The Digital Dollar Project" released a report entitled "Exploring a US CBDC." Although it deliberately leaves many important details to be determined later, the report deserves our scrutiny as an updated and prominent proposal for a token-based system. The report expands on an earlier WSJ op-ed by two of the Project's principals, J. Christopher Giancarlo and Daniel Gorfine. Giancarlo once headed the Commodity Futures Trading Commission while Gorfine was the CFTC's chief innovation officer. The named authors of the report include Giancarlo and Gorfine, plus Charles H. Giancarlo (CEO, Pure Storage) and David B. Treat (Accenture) as additional Project directors, together with eight more contributors from Accenture.

From the user's point of view, the Digital Dollar Project's "champion model" is akin to a well-backed dollar stablecoin, that is, a transferable digital token pegged to $1.00 per unit by its issuing entity. (Tether is by far the leading US-dollar-linked stablecoin with more than $9 billion currently in circulation. Here is a list of the many other available stablecoins.) But there are some differences between the Project's model and the typical stablecoin: the model's coin issuer is not a private entity, the fix to the dollar is free of default risk, and the exchange-rate variation around the $1.00 peg is zero. The issuer is to be the same US government agency currently responsible for supplying fiat US dollars in paper and ledger-entry form: the Federal Reserve System.

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Rather than buy FedCoins on an exchange, a user would get them from banks the way she gets fresh Federal Reserve Notes, redeeming her deposit dollars for them. She would hold FedCoin balances in a digital wallet, perhaps an app on her cell phone, and spend them online or in person, or transfer them to her friend, using the phone app.

The Fed would stand ready to interchange FedCoins (which the report calls "Digital Dollars," but FedCoins is less ambiguous) 1:1 with existing types of base money, Federal Reserve Notes (which are not to be abolished), and commercial banks' reserve balances on the books of the Fed. In this way FedCoins are to be a form of fiat money, part of the US dollar monetary base. They are to have "the same legal status as physical bank notes," which I interpret to mean that they are to be legal tender like Federal Reserve Notes. That is, they cannot be refused in the discharge of any dollar-denominated debts. Commercial banks will be as happy to accept them on deposit, and to pay them back out, as they are to accept and pay out Federal Reserve Notes.

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NCFA Jan 2018 resize - Should the U.S. Government Create a Token-Based Digital Dollar? The National Crowdfunding & Fintech Association (NCFA Canada) is a financial innovation ecosystem that provides education, market intelligence, industry stewardship, networking and funding opportunities and services to thousands of community members and works closely with industry, government, partners and affiliates to create a vibrant and innovative fintech and funding industry in Canada. Decentralized and distributed, NCFA is engaged with global stakeholders and helps incubate projects and investment in fintech, alternative finance, crowdfunding, peer-to-peer finance, payments, digital assets and tokens, blockchain, cryptocurrency, regtech, and insurtech sectors. Join Canada's Fintech & Funding Community today FREE! Or become a contributing member and get perks. For more information, please visit: www.ncfacanada.org

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