FILE PHOTO: Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing in Washington

Federal Reserve report on digital currency centers on banks

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve on Thursday released a highly anticipated report on central bank digital currencies that suggested it is leaning toward having banks and other financial firms, rather than the Fed itself, manage digital accounts for customers.

A central bank digital currency would differ in some key ways from the online and digital payments that millions of Americans already conduct. Those transactions are funneled through banks, which wouldn’t be necessary with a digital dollar.

The Fed’s paper, while stressing that no final decisions about a digital currency have been reached, said it would likely follow an “intermediated model” under which banks or payment firms would create accounts or digital wallets. An alternative system would be for the Fed to issue digital dollars directly to consumers. But as the paper notes, the Fed isn’t authorized under law to create individual accounts.

WATCH: A second Powell term will make economy run ‘hotter,’ expert says. Here’s what that means

In issuing its study, the Fed characterized its likely introduction of a digital currency as a far-reaching step that would require broad acceptance in the financial world.

“The introduction of a (central bank digital currency) would represent a highly significant innovation in American money,” the Fed’s study said. “Broad consultation with the general public and key stakeholders is essential.”

The Fed’s paper comes as digital money is proliferating in a variety of forms. Millions of people own cryptocurrencies, though they are often used more as investments than as forms of payment. But so-called stablecoins, which are often pegged to the dollar, have also soared in use in the past year, mostly for cryptocurrency transactions.

And most central banks around the world are studying government-backed digital currencies. China’s central bank has already tested a digital version of the yuan. Some Caribbean nations have already issued digital currencies.

A digital dollar could bring a host of benefits as well as risks. It would be a safer form of digital payment, because the Fed, unlike a bank or the companies issuing stablecoins, can’t go bankrupt. It could be easier and less expensive to access for people without bank accounts.

At the same time, a digital currency could pose privacy risks because it would be issued by the government. The Fed’s paper suggests, though, that banks and other third-party firms would shield consumer data from the Fed while also implementing existing rules against money-laundering and other illicit activity.

Such a government-issued digital dollar could also have major consequences for commercial banks because many Americans might prefer to hold such currency in a “wallet” issued by a payment provider like PayPal or Venmo, potentially cutting into bank deposits. It would also compete with stablecoins and could reduce the cost of financial transactions, particularly overseas remittances.

Still, the Fed is likely years away from actually issuing a digital currency, if it decides to do so. The paper released Thursday kicks off a 120-day comment period, during which the Fed will seek input from the public. Fed officials said the central bank has made no decisions about a digital currency or how it would work. The Fed said it would proceed only if Congress specifically passed a law authorizing a digital currency.