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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The U.S. is starting a national conversation around a central bank digital currency (CBDC).

Why it matters: Several other countries have already experimented with or released early versions of CBDCs. Such a pivot could aid underbanked populations, and help make banking and monetary policy more efficient.

Driving the news: The Senate Banking Committee held a hearing on CBDC Wednesday, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). 

  • The Federal Reserve is set to release a discussion paper next month on how it’s thinking about a digital dollar.

How it would work: First, a CBDC is a digital version of the dollar, so its value wouldn’t fluctuate versus the dollar… since it is the dollar.

  • Put simply, a CBDC is just a digital version of an existing currency that is issued, governed and backed by a central bank.
  • CBDCs would be recognized as legal money, unlike bitcoin

The pros: It would enable more people to become part of the banking system, reduce the cost to bank and increase the rate of payments innovation.

  • The Federal Reserve could also gain more precision over money supply, and lawmakers could distribute government assistance programs such as social security and food stamps to a wider underserved group of the country. 
  • A U.S. CBDC could also help maintain the global predominance of the dollar.

The cons: Potential drawbacks include the traceability of digital payments. The anonymity of cash offers privacy.

  • Security of financial data on hundreds of millions of people will not come easy. 
  • Financial institutions are also fearful banks could lose a large proportion of their deposit base. 

What they’re saying: “CBDCs are ultimately quite likely for many countries,” Darrell Duffie, of Stanford's Graduate School of Business, tells Axios. Duffie was a witness at the Senate hearing.

  • “I'm not confident that they are actually necessary — that needs to be judged based on the best CBDC designs that will emerge,” Duffie adds.

State of play: More than 60 central banks have been looking into CBDCs since 2014, according to a PwC report from April.

  • The Bahamas and Mainland China have active trials dubbed, the "Sand Dollar" and the "Digital Yuan," respectively, that individuals can use as a form of digital cash.
  • The Federal Reserve has been researching digital currencies since at least 2018, but at a less consistent pace compared to other central banks reviewed by PwC. 

Be smart: While there is general agreement about what a CBDC is, countries are faced with hundreds of choices and decisions with respect to how they build their systems — and, in turn, what the long-term implications will be.

  • So far, most observers have assumed that CBDCs will be account-based, rather than being token-based like most existing cryptocurrencies.

What to watch: Lev Menand of Columbia Law School, who also testified, tells Axios he believes the pandemic highlighted the inequities and inefficiencies of current payments system.

  • "It took far too long to distribute critical economic aid in April and May of last year," says Menand.
  • Some experts also say that criminals may have stolen as much as $400 billion of unemployment benefits, Axios' chief financial correspondent Felix Salmon reported.

Felix's thought bubble: "Digital currencies are still in their infancy, despite bitcoin being 10 years old. I wouldn’t expect to see a U.S. CBDC this decade."

Go deeper on the threat that CBDCs pose to digital stablecoins.

Go deeper

Facebook admits "trust deficit" as it looks to launch digital wallet

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook says it's finally ready to launch its most ambitious new product in years: a digital wallet called Novi. But the man leading the charge says Washington could stand in its way.

Why it matters: Facebook needs to convince regulators skeptical of its power that it's a good idea. "If there's one thing we need, it's the benefit of the doubt," Facebook's David Marcus said in an interview with Axios. "[W]e're starting with a trust deficit that we need to compensate."

El Salvador buys 400 bitcoin ahead of making it legal currency

President Nayib Bukele in the Legislative Assembly building in San Salvador, El Salvador, in June. Photo: Camilo Freedman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

El Salvador bought its first 400 bitcoins on Monday, and President Nayib Bukele pledged to buy "a lot more" ahead of adopting the cryptocurrency as legal tender.

Why it matters: El Salvador will become on Tuesday the first country to formally adopt bitcoin — marking the "biggest test" the digital currency has faced in its 12-year history, per Bloomberg.

Updated 50 seconds ago - Energy & Environment

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations were "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.