Top U.S. financial regulators met on Monday to discuss stablecoins, asset-backed digital currencies that are exploding in popularity so quickly that the government is struggling to keep up — and which economic officials increasingly see as a risk to financial stability.
Stablecoins are cryptocurrencies that derive their value from an underlying currency or basket of assets, and they have long been a point of unique concern. When news broke in 2018 and 2019 that Facebook was looking into creating a stablecoin, the Federal Reserve and other regulators took note, worried that the project could gain scale rapidly. Pressure to develop a framework for overseeing them has ramped up even more recently, as prominent stablecoins including Tether and Binance have exploded in popularity.
The Treasury Department announced on Friday that Secretary Janet L. Yellen would convene a meeting of the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets to discuss regulators’ work on stablecoins. That group includes Jerome H. Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, and the leaders of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Monday’s meeting was expanded to include the heads of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
Meeting participants “discussed the rapid growth of stablecoins, potential uses of stablecoins as a means of payment, and potential risks to end-users, the financial system, and national security,” according to a Treasury statement released after the meeting on Monday. Ms. Yellen “underscored the need to act quickly to ensure there is an appropriate U.S. regulatory framework in place.”
Mr. Powell has been particularly outspoken about the need for better oversight of stablecoins and said repeatedly during two congressional appearances last week that they are inadequately regulated.
“If we’re going to have something that looks just like a money-market fund, or a bank deposit, a narrow bank, and it’s growing really fast, we really ought to have appropriate regulation — and today we don’t,” he said during testimony before the Senate Banking Committee.
Eric Rosengren, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, has similarly warned about Tether, arguing that it relies on underlying financial assets that could experience investor runs in times of trouble. New York’s attorney general said earlier this year that Tether had misled investors by claiming to be fully backed by U.S. dollars at all times.
The Treasury said that the working group expects to issue recommendations in the coming months for stablecoins. The group has previously warned stablecoin operators that they need to maintain adequate cash reserves to back their offerings.
The Fed could also try to elbow aside digital offerings by offering its own alternative.
The central bank is looking into a digital currency offering, which would probably function much like the digital cash you spend when you swipe your debit card. But where that debit card money ties back to the commercial banking system, the central bank digital currency would have direct backing from the Fed, just like physical cash does.
Mr. Powell told lawmakers last week that obviating the need for stable coins could be one of the stronger arguments for a digital dollar.
But Mr. Powell remains undecided on whether a central bank digital currency makes sense, he told lawmakers. The Fed is planning to publish a comprehensive report on the possibility of a digital dollar, probably around September.