What Will a U.S. Central Bank Digital Currency Look Like?

Introduction

The U.S. central bank digital currency (CBDC) will be the digital or electronic form of the U.S. dollar issued by the Federal Reserve. This form of digital fiat money will be similar to cryptocurrencies, but the fundamental difference will be that a CBDC will be backed and regulated by the Federal Reserve and act as a legal tender.

With a future U.S. CBDC, the public could use another form of central bank money besides physical cash and digital balances held in individual or corporate bank accounts. The United States doesn’t currently have a CBDC, but with this option under discussion, it is important to understand what will be a U.S. CBDC, the benefits and risks attached, and the current steps toward implementation.

Key Takeaways

  • A U.S. CBDC will be the digital or electronic form of the dollar that acts as legal tender and is regulated by the government.
  • A U.S. CBDC will act as a supplement to existing forms of payment.
  • Identity verification, intermediaries, and privacy protection are required parts of launching a CBDC. 
  • The Biden administration’s position on a U.S. CBDC gives insight into the policy and technical design implications of the launch.
  • Eleven countries have implemented a CBDC option among their payment services.

What Is a U.S. Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC)?

Forms of money are continually evolving, as they have since the days when people accepted seashells for payment and a gold standard existed to the arrival of fiat currency. Digital currencies are yet another money metamorphosis.

Fiat currency is a government-issued currency not backed by a physical commodity, such as gold or silver, but rather by the government that issued it. This type of money is the dominant means of making transactions in most countries. People use it to facilitate the exchange of goods and services in an economy. The central bank issues fiat currency for the nation’s use; in the U.S., the Federal Reserve plays this role.

A U.S. CBDC will serve as a complement to existing central bank reserve account balances and widely used fiat currency, but, as a bonus, it should provide a medium for executing instant and seamless cross-border transactions. 

Understanding a U.S. CBDC 

On Sept. 16, 2022, the White House released a framework outlining the regulation of digital assets to explore the digital dollar. Even the Federal Reserve acknowledges the technological innovation of digital assets as a form of money. Despite understanding the potential, the Fed warns that there are risks that might leave customers vulnerable to theft and fraud. A U.S. CBDC would present similar pros and cons.

Before launching a U.S. CBDC, the Fed must be satisfied that it is a safe digital asset accessible to the public, that it’s without credit and liquidity risks, and that it’s privacy-protected, intermediated, transferable, and identity-verified. More specifically:

  • Privacy protection implies safeguarding consumers’ privacy rights as well as impeding criminal activity. 
  • Intermediated means that the Federal Reserve will permit management and payment of CBDC via digital wallets and accounts offered in the private sector, including commercial banks and nonbanks. 
  • Transferable means that the CBDC is accessible to U.S. customers regardless of the intermediaries they use, making payment more efficient. 
  • Identity-verified aims to prevent money laundering and the financing of terrorism by verifying whoever adopts the CBDC.

The Federal Reserve’s goals for a CBDC take into account households, businesses, entrepreneurs, and consumers by offering more uses and efficiency than fiat or other supplementary monetary options.

Requirements for a U.S. CBDC

Before the U.S. issues a digital currency to the public, specific requirements must be satisfied. Some of these, developed through years of intensive study by policymakers and Federal Reserve staff, include:

  • A U.S. CBDC must provide benefits to U.S. households, businesses, and the overall economy that exceed its costs and risks.
  • It must yield these benefits more effectively than alternative fiat or physical money. 
  • The U.S. CBDC should complement, rather than replace, current forms of money and methods for providing financial services.
  • It must protect consumer privacy and prevent criminal activity. 
  • It must receive support from critical stakeholders.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a U.S. CBDC 

The Federal Reserve has identified the advantages and disadvantages of having a CBDC in circulation. The following are some of the key benefits and risks:

Advantages

A U.S. CBDC should safely meet future needs for payment services and be free of credit risk and liquidity risk for the public. 

  1. The currency should improve cross-border payments and use underlying technology in a simplified distribution channel for payments, as well as interoperability among different jurisdictions. 
  2. It should support the dollar’s international role and benefit the public and government by contributing to reducing transaction and borrowing costs. 
  3. It should be financially inclusive, potentially helping lower transaction costs and assisting lower-income households.
  4. It should give public access to safe central bank funds by increasing the payment options available.

Disadvantages

However, a U.S. CBDC could affect the current financial structure of the U.S. and alter the duties and responsibilities of the private sector and the central bank. 

  1. The safety and stability of the financial system could be compromised during the conversion process from another form of money to a CBDC, which could trigger runs on financial institutions.
  2. The effectiveness of the nation’s monetary policy implementation could be lessened and distort the supply of reserves in the banking system without control over interest rates.
  3. Privacy and data protection issues and financial crimes could threaten consumers’ privacy rights and result in the loss of assets. 
  4. Operational resilience and cybersecurity could pose a problem, as a CBDC is prone to the same threats as existing payment services.

Executive Order on a U.S. CBDC

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and President Biden have worked together on launching a U.S. CBDC. The president’s interest was explicit when he shared the importance of using technology “to advance democracies to lift people up, not to hold them down.”

In March 2022, Biden directed the OSTP in partnership with other institutions to scrutinize and come up with a viable answer to the question of digital assets and a U.S. CBDC. The White House placed urgency on creating a digital dollar, outlining plans to guide its creation. 

The framework took six months and the collaborative efforts of several federal agencies. It contained three core aspects: 

  • Policy objectives
  • Interconnected technical and financial design choices
  • A research & development (R&D) agenda

U.S. Digital Currency Framework

The policy objectives for a U.S. CBDC system require that the CBDC expand equitable access to the financial system, preserve the role of physical cash, and collect only strictly necessary data. The framework also emphasized ensuring that the U.S. CBDC fosters a greener environment and provides excellent customer experience. These policy objectives formed the foundation for the currency’s technical design choices.

The framework also pointed to the need for technical experts with good knowledge of money and payment systems to oversee the technology involved in building the U.S. CBDC. Finally, the framework’s digital assets R&D plan is concerned with how cryptography technology can help develop a CBDC that matches the Federal Reserve’s mission.

Central Bank Digital Currencies Around the World

Eleven countries have concluded their risk and benefits studies on the effects of a CBDC on their economies and have implemented one as a supplement to their existing monetary systems. The 11—mostly small, island countries—are the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Dominica, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Jamaica, and Nigeria. 

As of September 2022, 105 countries were piloting, researching, developing, or otherwise exploring a CBDC initiative for their economies.

Canada, France, China, India, and South Korea are among the many countries studying or testing a CBDC. The level of interest has grown quickly: In May 2020, just 35 countries developed an interest in the possibility of having a CBDC.

Differences Between the U.S. CBDC and Cryptocurrency

It is easy to confuse a CBDC and cryptocurrency, but they aren’t the same. A U.S. CBDC will be centralized and under the purview of the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank. On the other hand, cryptocurrency is decentralized, without any governing body, giving users more control. Also, cryptocurrencies run on distributed ledger technology, meaning that multiple devices all over the world, not one central hub, are constantly verifying the accuracy of the transaction.

Will the U.S. central bank digital currency (CBDC) replace physical cash?

The U.S. central bank digital currency (CBDC) won’t replace the U.S. dollar. Rather, it will complement physical cash by opening more payment options to select from. According to the Federal Reserve, a CBDC is “not to reduce or replace [U.S. dollars].”

What will back a U.S. CBDC?

The U.S. CBDC will be backed and controlled by the Federal Reserve. The central bank will issue the digital currency, and it will be accessible through digital wallets from intermediaries such as banks.

Could a U.S. CBDC be used for cross-border transactions?

A U.S. CBDC should improve cross-border payments and use technology in a simplified distribution channel for such payments, as well as allow for transactions among different jurisdictions.

The Bottom Line

CBDCs are digital forms of central bank money that are widely available to the general public. It helps include the bankless population in the financial system. The wide usage of CBDCs has led to over 100 countries exploring the possibility of incorporating them into their financial systems. The recent by the U.S. government is a significant leap into new technology.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Federal Reserve System. “Money and Payments: The U.S. Dollar in the Age of Digital Transformation.”

  2. Federal Reserve System. “Money and Payments: The U.S. Dollar in the Age of Digital Transformation,” Page 1 (Page 5 of PDF). 

  3. Federal Reserve System. “Money and Payments: The U.S. Dollar in the Age of Digital Transformation,” Pages 13–14 (Pages 17–18 of PDF).

  4. Federal Reserve System. “Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC).”

  5. Federal Reserve System. “Money and Payments: The U.S. Dollar in the Age of Digital Transformation,” Pages 15–20 (Pages 19–24 of PDF).

  6. The White House. “Remarks by President Biden at the Summit for Democracy Closing Session.”

  7. The White House. “Fact Sheet: President Biden to Sign Executive Order on Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets.”

  8. The White House. “Technical Possibilities for a U.S. Central Bank Digital Currency.”

  9. Atlantic Council. “Central Bank Digital Currency Tracker.”

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