A top Fed official says digital currency may be the money equivalent of parachute pants.

A top Fed official says digital currency may be the money equivalent of parachute pants.

Randal K. Quarles, the Federal Reserve’s vice chair for supervision, suggested on Monday that the global rush to research and develop central bank digital currencies — often called CBDCs — reminds him of another four letter acronym. Fear of missing out, or, as it is better known, FOMO.

Citing America’s “susceptibility to boosterism and the fear of missing out,” Mr. Quarles warned that the nation has a habit of falling victim to a “mass suspension of our critical thinking and to occasionally impetuous, deluded crazes or fads.” He invoked the parachute pants of the 1980s as a parallel to the current currency craze, noting that sometimes fads are just silly.

“But the consequences can also be more serious,” Mr. Quarles said, speaking from prepared remarks. “Which brings us to my topic today: central bank digital currencies.”

Mr. Quarles’ extremely skeptical take on the need for — and wisdom of — a possible digital version of the dollar made it clear that while Jerome H. Powell, the Fed’s chair, announced in May that the central bank will research the possibility of issuing such a currency, that effort does not enjoy unanimous enthusiasm among his colleagues. The Fed is expected to release a paper on the potential for a digital currency this summer.

Mr. Quarles said he does not want to prejudge the process, but that he thinks there’s a “high bar” for central bank-issued digital money.

Presently, the Fed directly issues physical dollars and digital bank reserves, but the money you spend when you swipe a credit card or make a Venmo transaction traces back to the private banking sector. A digital currency would be like an electronic version of physical cash, in that it would trace straight back to the Fed. Proponents say it might improve financial inclusion and cross-border payments while protecting the dollar’s status as a leading currency. Opponents, including banks, warn that it could be a destabilizing development that would not bring about any benefits that the private sector could not achieve on its own.

His remarks come as other central banks, and notably China, are beginning to discuss or establish their own digital currencies. That has galvanized interest in a Fed version, as lawmakers and financial policy experts worry that America might fall behind.

Mr. Quarles said he would “have to be convinced” that the use case outweighed the risks. He said it “seems unlikely” that the dollar’s status as a dominant global currency will be threatened by a foreign central bank digital currency, since its power is grounded in trade linkages, deep financial markets, the rule of law in the United States and credible monetary policy from the Fed itself.

“None of these are likely to be threatened by a foreign currency, and certainly not because that foreign currency is a CBDC,” Mr. Quarles said.

Mr. Quarles also pushed back on the idea, held by some of his colleagues, that the Fed should be worried about by the advent of stablecoins, which are digital currencies that derive their value from a bundle of underlying commodities or currencies.

“In my judgment, we do not need to fear stablecoins,” Mr. Quarles said. He argued that the Fed has a history of fostering private sector innovation and “a global U.S. dollar stablecoin network could encourage use of the dollar by making cross-border payments faster and cheaper, and it potentially could be deployed much faster and with fewer downsides” than a central bank version.

That view comes in stark contrast to the concern some of his colleagues have expressed about stablecoins, which caught their attention after Facebook announced that it might try to introduce one through a project initially called Libra.

“If widely adopted, stablecoins could serve as the basis of an alternative payments system oriented around new private forms of money,” Lael Brainard, a Fed governor, said in a recent speech. She added that “there is a risk that the widespread use of private monies for consumer payments could fragment parts of the U.S. payment system in ways that impose burdens and raise costs for households and businesses.”

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