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Fed governor outlines CBDC risks
On April 18, Federal Reserve Governor Michelle W. Bowman cautioned that the risks of creating a U.S. central bank digital currency (CBDC) may outweigh the benefits for consumers. Bowman said the Fed continues to engage in exploratory work to understand how a CBDC could potentially improve payment speeds or better financial inclusion, and noted that the agency is also trying to understand how new potential forms of money like CBDCs and other digital assets could play a larger role in the economy. In prepared remarks delivered before Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business Psaros Center for Financial Markets and Policy, Bowman raised several policy considerations relating to privacy, interoperability and innovation, and the potential for “unintended effects” on the banking system should a CBDC be adopted. She also commented that due to the upcoming rollout of the agency’s FedNow Service in July (covered by InfoBytes here), real-time retail payments will happen without the introduction of a CBDC. With respect to privacy, Bowman cautioned that any CBDC “must ensure consumer data privacy protections embedded in today’s payment systems continue and are extended into future systems.” She added that “[i]n thinking about the implications of CBDC and privacy, we must also consider the central role that money plays in our daily lives, and the risk that a CBDC would provide not only a window into, but potentially an impediment to, the freedom Americans enjoy in choosing how money and resources are used and invested.”
Treasury seeks to advance CBDCs
On March 1, Treasury Undersecretary for Domestic Finance Nellie Liang announced that the Treasury Department will lead a new senior-level working group to advance work on a U.S. central bank digital currency (CBDC). As previously discussed in a Treasury report released last September on the future of money and payments (covered by InfoBytes here), Treasury was called to lead an interagency working group to complement work undertaken by the Federal Reserve Board to consider the implications of a U.S. CBDC. The working group will consist of leaders from Treasury, the Fed, and White House offices, including the Council of Economic Advisors, National Economic Council, National Security Council, and Office of Science and Technology Policy. In the coming months the working group “will begin to meet regularly to discuss a possible CBDC and other payments innovations,” Liang said during a workshop titled “Next Steps to the Future of Money and Payments.” The working group will focus on three main policy objectives: (i) how a U.S. CBDC would affect U.S. global financial leadership; (ii) potential national security risks posed by a CBDC; and (iii) the implications for privacy, illicit finance, and financial inclusion if a CBDC is created.
To support discussions on a possible CBDC and other payment innovations, Liang said the working group will develop an initial set of findings and recommendations. Those findings and recommendations may relate to whether a U.S. CBDC would help advance certain policy objectives, what features would be required for a U.S. CBDC to advance these objectives, choices for resolving CBDC design trade-offs, and areas where additional technological research and development might be useful.
Liang commented that the working group will also “engage with allies and partners to promote shared learning and responsible development of CBDCs.” She pointed out that CBDC efforts are already underway in jurisdictions around the world, with 11 countries already having fully launched CBDCs, “while central banks in other major jurisdictions are researching and experimenting with CBDCs, with some at a fairly advanced stage.” Liang stressed that regardless of whether a CBDC is adopted in the U.S., the country “has an interest in ensuring that CBDCs interact safely and efficiently with the existing financial infrastructure; that they support financial stability and the integrity of the international financial system; that global payment systems are efficient, innovative, competitive, secure, and resilient; and that global payments systems continue to reflect broader shared democratic values, like openness, privacy, accessibility, and accountability to the communities that rely upon them.”
FDIC’s Gruenberg discusses the prudential regulation of crypto assets
On October 20, FDIC acting Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg spoke before the Brookings Institution on the prudential regulation of crypto-assets. In his remarks, Gruenberg first discussed banking, innovation, and crypto-assets, which he defined as “private sector digital assets that depend primarily on the use of cryptography and distributed ledger or similar technologies.” He stated that innovation “can be a double-edged sword,” before noting that subprime mortgages, subprime mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps were considered financial innovations before they were “at the center of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.” Gruenberg further discussed that such innovations resulted in catastrophic failure because, among other things, consumers and industry participants did not fully understand their risks, which were downplayed and intentionally ignored. He then provided an overview of the FDIC’s approach to engaging with banks as they consider crypto-asset related activities, and the potential benefits, risks, and policy questions related to the possibility that a stablecoin could be developed that would allow for reliable, real-time consumer and business payments. He stated that “[f]rom the perspective of a banking regulator, before banks engage in crypto-asset related activities, it is important to ensure that: (a) the specific activity is permissible under applicable law and regulation; (b) the activity can be engaged in a safe and sound manner; (c) the bank has put in place appropriate measures and controls to identify and manage the novel risks associated with those activities; and (d) the bank can ensure compliance with all relevant laws, including those related to anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism, and consumer protection.”
Gruenberg pointed to an April financial institution letter from the FDIC (covered by InfoBytes here), which requested banks to notify the agency if they engage in crypto asset-related activities. He added that as the FDIC and other federal banking agencies develop a better understanding of the risks associated with crypto-asset activities, “we expect to provide broader industry guidance on an interagency basis.” Regarding crypto-assets and the current role of stablecoins, Gruenberg noted that payment stablecoins could be significantly safer than available stablecoins if they were subject to prudential regulation, including issuing payment stablecoins through a bank subsidiary. He cautioned that disclosure and consumer protection issues should be “carefully” considered, especially if custodial wallets are allowed outside of the banking system as a means for holding and conducting transactions. Specifically, he said that “payment stablecoin and any associated hosted or custodial wallets should be designed in a manner that eliminates—not creates—barriers for low- and moderate-income households to benefit from a real-time payment system.” Gruenberg added that if a payment stablecoin system is developed, it should complement the Federal Reserve's forthcoming FedNow service—a faster payments network that is on track to launch between May and July of next year—and the potential future development of a U.S. central bank digital currency. In conclusion, Gruenberg stated that although federal banking agencies have significant authority to address the safety, soundness and financial stability risks associated with crypto assets, there are “clear limits to our authority, especially in certain areas of consumer protection as well as the provision of wallets and other related services by non-bank entities.”
Fed governor “highly skeptical” of U.S. CBDC
On October 14, Federal Reserve Governor Christopher J. Waller spoke during the “Digital Currencies and National Security Tradeoffs” symposium presented by the Harvard National Security Journal regarding the U.S. dollar and central bank digital currencies (CBDC). Waller said that he is “highly skeptical of whether there is a compelling need for the Fed to create a digital currency.” Regarding foreign CBDCs, Waller first considered the emergence of foreign CBDCs in a world without the U.S. CBDC. He noted that “advocates for a CBDC tend to promote the potential for a CBDC to reduce payment frictions by lowering transaction costs, enabling faster settlement speeds, and providing a better user experience.” Because of “the well-known network effects in payments,” Waller pointed out that “the more users the foreign CBDC acquires, the greater will be the pressure on the non-U.S. company to also use the foreign CBDC.”
However, Waller considered that the broader factors underpinning the dollar’s international role would not change. Waller further noted the possibility that a foreign-issued CBDC could have the opposite of its intended effect and make companies even less willing to use that country’s currency. Waller further noted that creating a U.S. CBDC “would come with a number of costs and risks, including cyber risk and the threat of disintermediating commercial banks, both of which could harm, rather than help, the U.S. dollar's standing internationally.” He said he believes that a U.S. CBDC would raise many issues, including money laundering and international financial stability. Waller also considered a scenario in which a privately issued stablecoin pegged to a sovereign currency is available for international payments. He stated that they may be more attractive than existing options due to their ability to provide real-time payments at a lower cost and their ability to provide a safe store of value for individuals residing in or transacting with countries with weak economic fundamentals. He further warned that stablecoins “must be risk-managed and subject to a robust supervisory and regulatory framework.” Waller reiterated that "no decisions have been made" at the Fed on CBDCs and noted that his remarks are intended to provide a free and open dialogue on their utility. He also noted that he is “happy to engage in vigorous debate regarding my view,” and “remain[s] open to the arguments advanced by others in this space.”
Treasury discusses future of digital assets, says CBDC may take years
On September 23, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Under Secretary for Domestic Finance Nellie Liang discussed ways in which digital assets could alter the future of money and payments in the U.S. Speaking at the Brookings Institution, Liang highlighted recommendations presented in an agency report released earlier in September as part of President Biden’s Executive Order on Ensuring Responsible Development in Digital Assets (covered by InfoBytes here). The report, Crypto-assets: Implications for Consumers, Investors, and Businesses, outlined several significant areas of concern, including “frequent instances of operational failures, market manipulation, frauds, thefts, and scams.” The report advised federal agencies, including the CFPB, SEC, CFTC, and DOJ, to (i) continue to aggressively pursue enforcement actions focused on the crypto-asset sector; (ii) clarify existing authorities to ensure they are appropriately applied to crypto-assets; (iii) coordinate efforts to increase compliance; and (iv) take collaborative measures to improve the quality of information about crypto-assets for consumers, investors, and businesses.
Liang also commented on the potential benefits of adopting a U.S. central bank digital currency (CBDC), “such as preserving the uniformity of the currency, or providing a base for further innovation,” but warned that further research and development on the technology needed to support such a currency may take years. “There are many important design choices that would require additional consideration,” Liang said, stating, for example, “a retail CBDC would be broadly available to the public, while a wholesale CBDC would be limited to banks and other financial institutions.” Liang said Treasury plans to lead an inter-agency working group to advance further work on a possible CBDC and “consider the implications of CBDC in areas such as financial inclusion, national security and privacy.”
Liang also discussed other recommendations made in the report related to the possible establishment of a federal regulatory framework for nonbank providers of payment services. “A federal framework could provide a common floor for minimum financial resource requirements and other standards that may exist at the state level,” Liang pointed out. “It also would complement existing federal [anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism] obligations and consumer protection requirements that apply to nonbank payment providers,” and “could work in conjunction with a U.S. CBDC or with instant payment systems.” She also commented on Treasury’s work to develop a faster, cheaper cross-border international payment system and noted the agency will consider potential risks, such as privacy and human rights considerations.
Treasury seeks info on illicit finance, national security risks of digital assets
On September 19, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a request for comment (RFC) seeking feedback on illicit finance and national security risks posed by digital assets. The RFC, issued pursuant to Executive Order 14067 “Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets” (covered by InfoBytes here), requests public input on illicit finance risks, anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regulation and supervision, global implementation of AML/CFT standards, private sector engagement, and central bank digital currencies. The RFC also seeks feedback on actions the U.S. government and Treasury should take to mitigate these risks, in addition to whether public-private collaboration may improve efforts to address risks. Comments on the RFC are due November 3.
“Without appropriate controls and enforcement of existing laws, digital assets can pose a significant risk to national security by facilitating illicit finance, such as money laundering, cybercrime and terrorist actions,” U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson said in the announcement. “As we work to implement the Illicit Finance Action Plan, hold bad actors accountable and identify potential gaps in existing enforcement, we look forward to receiving the public’s input on this urgent work.”
The RFC follows the September 16 release of Treasury’s Action Plan to Address Illicit Financing Risks of Digital Assets (covered by InfoBytes here).
White House presses regulators on framework for digital assets
On September 16, the White House published a comprehensive framework for the responsible development of digital assets, calling on federal regulators to “provide innovative U.S. firms developing new financial technologies with regulatory guidance, best-practices sharing, and technical assistance.” The framework follows an executive order (E.O.) issued by the Biden administration in March (covered by InfoBytes here), which outlined the first “whole-of-government” strategy for coordinating a comprehensive approach to ensuring responsible innovation in digital assets policy. Consistent with the E.O.’s deadline, nine reports have been submitted to President Biden to date that “call on agencies to promote innovation by kickstarting private-sector research and development and helping cutting-edge U.S. firms find footholds in global markets.” The reports also “call for measures to mitigate the downside risks, like increased enforcement of existing laws and the creation of commonsense efficiency standards for cryptocurrency mining.”
Among other things, the reports (i) direct the Federal Reserve Board to continue its research and experimentation on issuing a central bank digital currency, and request the creation of a U.S. Treasury Department-led interagency working group to support Fed efforts; (ii) encourage the SEC and CFTC to “aggressively pursue investigations and enforcement actions against unlawful practices in the digital assets space”; (iii) urge the CFPB and FTC to address consumer complaints related to unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices in the crypto space; (iv) encourage agencies to issue guidance and rules for addressing current and emergent risks in the digital asset ecosystem; (v) urge agencies and law enforcement to take joint measures to address digital asset risks impacting consumers, investors, and businesses; and (vi) encourage agencies to share data on consumers’ digital asset complaints. To promote access to safe and affordable financial services, the administration said it plans to explore how crypto-related technologies can bolster financial inclusion, and will encourage the adoption of instant payment systems, weigh recommendations for creating a federal framework for non-bank payment service oversight, and prioritize efforts to improve cross-border payment efficiency. Additionally, the administration said it is exploring the possibility of amending the Bank Secrecy Act and other related statutes to “explicitly” apply to digital asset exchanges and non-fungible token platforms, and is considering a legislative request to toughen penalties for unlicensed money transmitters and give the DOJ more jurisdictional digital asset prosecution authority.
The Treasury released three reports addressing the future of money and payment systems, consumer and investor protection, and illicit finance risks in response to the E.O. The reports, The Future of Money and Payments, Crypto-Assets: Implications for Consumers, Investors, and Businesses, and Action Plan to Address Illicit Financing Risks of Digital Assets call on regulators to mitigate crypto-related risks to consumers, investors, and businesses. “Innovation is one of the hallmarks of a vibrant financial system and economy,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said. “But as we have learned painfully from the past, innovation without appropriately addressing the impact of these developments can result in significant disruptions and harm to the financial system and individuals, especially our more vulnerable populations.” The reports examine the future of digital assets and offer recommendations to address consumer and investor protection concerns, combat illicit finance risks, and improve the payments system to support a more competitive, efficient, and inclusive landscape.
The same day, the DOJ also released a report in response to the E.O. The Role Of Law Enforcement In Detecting, Investigating, And Prosecuting Criminal Activity Related To Digital Assets examines ways illicit actors exploit digital asset technologies and addresses challenges posed by digital assets to criminal investigations. The report provides recommendations to further enhance law enforcement’s ability to address digital asset crimes, such as strengthening criminal penalties and extending the statutes of limitations for crimes involving digital assets from five to ten years, and identifies three priorities: (i) “expanding to virtual asset service providers the laws preventing employees of financial institutions from tipping off suspects to ongoing investigations”; (ii) “strengthening the law criminalizing the operation of unlicensed money transmitting businesses”; and (iii) “extending the statute of limitations of certain statutes to account for the complexities of digital assets investigations.” The DOJ also launched the Digital Asset Coordinator Network, which will serve as the agency’s primary source for obtaining and disseminating information related to digital assets crimes.
Financial Services Committee Republicans ask Fed for clarification on CBDC
On September 7, Republican members of the House Financial Services Committee submitted a letter to Federal Reserve Vice Chair Lael Brainard in response to a May hearing examining the potential impact of a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). The letter, among other things, requested that Brainard provide her testimony regarding the Fed’s authority under the Federal Reserve Act to issue a CBDC (and without separate specific authorizing federal legislation). Specifically, the members requested that Brainard clarify: (i) the Fed’s motivation for issuing a CBDC; (ii) the need for Congress to support a Fed-issued CBDC; (iii) the Fed’s position on individual retail accounts at the Fed; (iv) the need for Congress to authorize an intermediated CBDC model; and (v) the need for “strong support” from the Executive Branch. The members asked for a response in writing by September 30.
Treasury releases fact sheet on digital asset international engagement
On July 7, the Secretary of the Treasury released a Fact Sheet on the Framework for International Engagement on Digital Assets. The Fact Sheet was delivered to President Biden, as directed in the Executive Order on Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets (E.O.) and in consultation with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Commerce, and the heads of other relevant agencies. The E.O. outlined an interagency approach to address the risks and harness the potential benefits of digital assets and their underlying technology, and directed the Administration to promote the “development of digital asset and central bank digital currencies (CBDC) technologies consistent with [the Treasury’s] values and legal requirements.” According to the announcement, “the framework is intended to ensure that, with respect to the development of digital assets, America’s core democratic values are respected; consumers, investors, and businesses are protected; appropriate global financial system connectivity and platform and architecture interoperability are preserved; and the safety and soundness of the global financial system and international monetary system are maintained.” The announcement also noted that “a history of robust engagement provides a strong foundation for expanded, strategic engagement going forward” and highlighted other key international engagements.
U.S.-UK partnership exchanges views on crypto, digital assets
On July 1, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a joint statement providing an overview of recent meetings of the U.S.-UK Financial Innovation Partnership (FIP) where Regulatory and Commercial Pillar participants exchanged views “on topics of mutual interest in the U.S. and UK regarding crypto and digital asset ecosystems.” Participants also discussed options for deepening ties between U.S. and UK financial authorities on financial innovation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FIP was created in 2019 as a way to expand bilateral financial services collaborative efforts, study emerging fintech innovation trends, and share information and expertise on regulatory practices. The first meeting of the FIP took place in August 2020 (covered by InfoBytes here). Topics discussed in the most recent meeting included, among other things, crypto-asset regulation and market developments, including recent developments related to stablecoins and the exploration of central bank digital currencies, and other recent market developments on digital assets. Participants acknowledged “the continued importance of the ongoing partnership on global financial innovation as an integral component of U.S.-UK financial services cooperation.”