On Aug. 13, a top official confirmed that the U.S. Federal Reserve is preparing for a digital currency.
Lael Brainard, a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors since 2014, told an audience last week that the Federal Reserve was experimenting with “a hypothetical digital dollar for research purposes,” according to Bloomberg.
Brainard also said the Federal Reserve was partnered with research teams from the Boston Federal Reserve and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in a “multi-year effort to build and test a hypothetical digital currency oriented to central bank uses.”
The challenges for a “digital dollar” include security and privacy concerns for a technology that would reach hundreds of millions of people and could easily see billions of transactions per day.
This Fed-enabled digital dollar will also be designed with an ability to bypass the banking system.
Imagine a network of consumer digital wallets — perhaps associated with a government ID, like a social security number — with an ability to receive digital dollar deposits directly from the central bank, or conversely to have digital dollars taken out.
Bypassing the banks would be game-changing on multiple fronts.
In terms of distributing stimulus or emergency funds, the U.S. government and Federal Reserve would have a level of fine-tuned control like never before. Payments could be sorted out by income level, employment status, geographical location, or any number of other things.
Digital dollars would likely also be programmable in and of themselves, allowing for instant tax payments at the point of sale. Tax refunds and rebates could be instant, too.
And attempts to purchase a restricted item — like, say, a firearm without proper background clearance — could be automatically denied.
In many ways, programmable digital money would be a fantasy come true for economists. This is because economists believe economies are driven by human behavior, and human behavior is driven by incentives, and all kinds of incentives could be built into digital money.
Imagine, for example, a maximum limit on the loan-to-value (LTV) ratio of home mortgages, designed to prevent future housing bubbles.
If such limits were programmed into the digital currency, as a form of “smart contract,” the transaction would not go through for a loan amount deemed too large.
Economists, political leaders, and central bank officials could then use the “smart contract” feature of digital dollars to tweak or massage incentives in all sorts of ways.
For example, fossil fuel use might be embedded with a higher VAT (value-added tax) surcharge than green energy use. Buying sugary cereal might create a small debit, whereas buying broccoli creates a small credit. And so on.
In addition to the above, all transactions would be instantly available for review, or easily aggregated into “big data” analysis patterns. This would give the Federal Reserve unprecedented new levels of visibility into the current state of the economy.
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