The international conversation around the formation of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) has steadily grown louder and more prevalent over the last few years. Starting with the advent of Bitcoin, the possible need for central banks to put their countries’ currencies on the blockchain seems to have become more pressing, more “real” with each passing year.
This is particularly true within the context of last year. With the dawn of Facebook’s Libra project, the news that China would be expediting the creation of its own national digital currency, and the financial crisis created by the outbreak of COVID-19, the case for CBDCs seems to be stronger than ever–particularly in the United States.
However, forming a ‘digital dollar’ isn’t simply a matter of building a blockchain: there are myriad things to consider in terms of technology, regulations, distribution, interaction with the existing financial system, and much more. Still, the only way forward may be through: with Libra, China, and the coronavirus crisis vaulting the economy into the future, the formation of a digital dollar may be inevitable.
Therefore, there are some who believe that while now may not be the time to begin building a digital dollar system, now is certainly the time to be exploring what a digital dollar might look like and how it might operate. Among them are former CFTC Chairman Christopher Giancarlo and former LabCFTC Director Daniel Gorfine, who championed the formation of the Digital Dollar Foundation (DDF) earlier this year. The foundation has started the Digital Dollar Project, which is currently exploring how a digital dollar could be safely built.
The project has partnered with multinational professional services firm Accenture to expand this exploration. Recently, Finance Magnates spoke with Daniel Gorfine and Accenture’s Danielle K. Martell on the vision that the Digital Dollar Foundation has for the future.
Prior to the formation of the Digital Dollar Foundation, Daniel Gorfine was appointed by former CFTC Chairman Christopher Giancarlo (another of the DDF’s co-founders) to serve as the agency’s first-ever Chief Innovation Officer and Director of LabCFTC. In that capacity, Daniel led the Commission’s new technology innovation and regulatory modernization efforts. He is also the founder of Gattaca Horizons LLC, a boutique advisory firm, and also currently serves as an Adjunct Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center teaching FinTech Law & Policy.
Danielle K. Martell is a Managing Director in Accenture’s Banking & Capital Markets Strategy Practice, and is leading Accenture’s participation in the Digital Dollar Project, a partnership with the Digital Dollar Foundation to explore options for a US Digital Dollar. Prior to joining Accenture, Danielle was an executive in PwC’s Financial Services Practice. She is a CFA Charterholder and a graduate of Columbia Business School and has degrees in economics and engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.
Why was the Digital Dollar Foundation formed in the first place?
Daniel Gorfine explained that during his time serving as director of LabCFTC, “I spent a lot of time meeting with a broad range of innovators, and many of them were focused on blockchain tokenization and various types of crypto projects.”
After leaving the agency, “one of the biggest things that I learned–and that I was seeing during that time–is that tokenization and DLT, or DLT-inspired technologies, can present more efficient ways to send information about value and about unique ownership.”
For example, “today, we can send an email (which contains information) halfway around the world with very few intermediaries, and at very low cost.”
“What tokenization represents is that you can do the same with information about value and ownership with fewer intermediaries, and in a more efficient manner,” he continued.
“So, what struck me is that at the end of the day, that technology is going to impact the way that we transact and move all types of financial assets, and that will include money.”
Daniel explained that the conversation around DLT-based financial systems continued after he left the CFTC: “having left the agency, I’ve stayed in close touch with former CFTC Chairman Chris Giancarlo, and he also expresses a very strong view that our financial infrastructure today is becoming increasingly outdated, or even obsolete,” he said.
“So, in conversations that we were having, it struck us that there was an opportunity to pull together a bit more of a coherent ‘call to action’ around the need for the United States to really think hard about what it would mean to tokenize the US Dollar–[to form] a central bank digital currency (CBDC) supported by the Federal Reserve.” Eventually, Daniel and Christopher Giancarlo published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on there views, which led to a number of connections with like-minded thinkers and organizations.
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Thus, the Digital Dollar Foundation (DDF) was eventually born: both Daniel Gorfine and Christopher Giancarlo also found themselves in conversation with was the Accenture blockchain team, of which Danielle Martell was a leading member. Eventually, Accenture partnered with the DDF.
“We see benefits for this across resale and wholesale applications of this both domestically and internationally.”
Danielle explained that the partnership came about because of the like-mindedness between the DDF and Accenture’s thoughts on helping to create a global CBDC ecosystem: “we have a lot of global experience in the space, and we’re very enthusiastic about our partnership” with the DDF.
Danielle explained that Accenture has garnered quite a bit of experience in the CBDC space over the last few years: “we’ve been exploring use cases for CBDCs for years now,” she said. “We really see a ton of opportunity for the US.”
But first, a bit of clarification: “when we say ‘digital dollar’, we are not talking about simply an electronic cash infrastructure; rather, we mean a third format of central bank currency: this is a new digital token [that would exist] in addition to banknotes and reserves that exist today. It would be issued by the Fed and enjoy the full faith and credit of the US governments.”
In other words, “it’s not a representation of the dollar, it actually is the dollar,” Danielle explained, “just in a new format. It would have the same legal status as the physical cash that’s in your wallet today.”
So, why does the US need a digital dollar? “While electronic transfers of cash have been evolving for decades, there really has been little innovation to US central bank money over the past century,” Danielle explained. The formation of a digital dollar would “really drive innovation across the financial system in a fundamental way,” such as “providing new ways to send and receive central bank money.”
“We see benefits for this across resale and wholesale applications of this both domestically and internationally,” she said.
For example, “today, online transactions cannot be conducted in central bank money–you can’t use physical cash to make a purchase online. For those of us with a credit card, this may not seem like a big deal, and we may even want to use a credit card on certain purchases to take advantage of the protections that they offer.”
“But what about what this means to those who are unbanked, or underbanked? It means that they may be limited–or even excluded–from e-commerce,” Danielle said. “In reality, more of this population has access to a mobile phone than they do to a bank account. So, in this example, a tokenized digital dollar that’s held in a mobile wallet would increase access to transact online for this underserved population.”
“[…] This would not disintermediate the two-tiered banking system.”
But how, exactly, would the custodianship of a digital dollar system be designed? Would there be a digital wallet stored on mobile phones, or would third-party companies be responsible for holding onto digital dollars in such a way that they were accessible to their owners?
Daniel Gorfine explained that the answers to these questions lie in the future: “we are offering a suggested path, and we will pressure-test whether the benefits actually live up to the expectations for the various types of design choices that you could implement.”
However, “one thing that we have proposed is that this would not disintermediate the two-tiered banking system,” he said.
In other words, “individuals would still primarily receive a minted digital dollar through a regulated institutional, so that could be a bank, or it could be a regulated money transmitter. Now, obviously, there are a range of actors that are currently subject to state money transmission regulatory requirements, and we think that might be a layer that you can include in how folks would be able to access a digital dollar.”
Therefore, any iteration of a digital wallet that would hold digital USD “would still be regulated, and would still be subject to the Bank Secrecy Act and AML requirements,” he said, and “of course, there’s a lot discussion that has to go into how to balance certain very important privacy interest with the need to satisfy the BSA AML regulatory requirements.”
In any case, though, the DDF has envisioned that “these digital wallets would reside on a mobile device (a smart phone), and likely…the cost of providing that digital wallet should be relatively low for a variety of reasons: one, the technology should be more efficient, and second, the regulatory costs of offering that service may be lower than what you would traditionally see through the offering of a traditional bank account.”
“Those are some of the elements that would allow access to increase to this type of a service, and make it more ubiquitous for un- or under-banked populations.”
Now is “the right time to start exploring these issues.”
While “banking the unbanked” is certainly a matter of priority and concern in the US and elsewhere in the world, this is only one of the possible use cases–and perhaps most pressing reasons–for the creation of a Digital USD.
However, the concept of a digital dollar has also made quite a bit of news in the past year for several other reasons: first, the formation of Facebook’s Libra, which seemed to pose a possible threat to the dominance of the USD; second, China’s announcement that it would be expediting the creation of its own national digital currency. Finally, some of the earlier drafts of the United States’ post-COVID-19 stimulus bill included mention of a digital dollar.
But is the formation of a digital dollar any more imminent because of any of these factors?
Not necessarily. Daniel Gorfine explained that while the advent of Libra and China’s national digital currency, as well as the coronavirus crisis, may have increased the amount of conversation around a United States CDBC, now isn’t the time to suddenly try and roll out a new financial system.
Instead, “at the end of the day, I think the takeaway is that it’s the right time to start exploring these issues,” rather than building something in haste. “We need to do so in a thoughtful and deliberate way.”
(This is an excerpt. To hear Finance Magnates’ full interview with Danielle K. Martell and Daniel Gorfine, visit us on Soundcloud or Youtube. Special thanks to Daniel and Danielle, and to the folks at the Digital Dollar Foundation and Accenture.)