Federal Reserve’s Digital Dollar Push Worries Wall Street
The financial services industry, braced for what could be its biggest disruption in decades, is about to get an early glimpse at the Federal Reserve’s work on a new digital currency.
Wall Street is not thrilled.
Banks, credit card companies and digital payments processors are nervously watching the push to create an electronic alternative to the paper bills Americans carry in their wallets, or what some call a digital dollar and others call a Fedcoin.
As soon as July, officials at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which have been developing prototypes for a digital dollar platform, plan to unveil their research, said James Cunha, who leads the project for the Boston Fed.
A digital currency could fundamentally change the way Americans use money, leading some financial firms to lobby the Fed and Congress to slow its creation — or at least ensure they’re not cut out.
Seeing the threat to their profits, the banks’ main trade group has told Congress a digital dollar isn’t needed, while payment companies like Visa Inc. and Mastercard Inc. are trying to work with central banks to make sure the new currencies can be used on their networks.
“Everyone is afraid that you could disrupt all the incumbent players with a whole new form of payment,” said Michael Del Grosso, an analyst for Compass Point Research & Trading LLC.
Lawmakers, U.S. Treasury Department officials and the Fed haven’t yet approved the rollout of a U.S. virtual currency, which could still be years away. Nor have they decided how a digital dollar would interact with the existing global payments network. Still, the U.S. and other countries seem committed enough to digitizing their currencies that it’s making financial industry executives nervous.
“The fire has been lit,” said Josh Lipsky, who has helped convene government officials from the U.S. and other countries working on digital currencies as director of the GeoEconomics Center at the Atlantic Council. “The world is moving very quickly on these projects.”
At issue are forms of digital cash being considered by the U.S. and other governments. The growing popularity of Bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies, whose market value has grown to more than $1 trillion, inspired the projects. Unlike those privately created tokens, the new currencies would be issued by central banks as an alternative to paper bills. Cash wouldn’t go away, but its use would likely decline.
Using the currencies could be as simple as holding up the screen of a mobile phone to be scanned. Behind the scenes, the digital cash would move from one account to another. This is similar to how most money already works — the majority of U.S. dollars are just digital entries in bank accounts — but the new currency could potentially avoid the go-between of a commercial bank or credit-card network. For vendors, settlement would happen almost immediately, without having to wait for the money or worry about fraud.
The U.S. effort got an extra push last month, when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said such a project could help Americans who don’t have access to the banking system.
In video remarks last week to a payments conference in Basel, Switzerland, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell may have eased some of the banks’ concerns when he said “digital currencies would need to be integrated into existing payment systems alongside cash and other forms of money.”