Ever since Facebook announced the dawn of its Libra project midway through this year, governments around the world have been forced to examine the question of the role that digital currencies should play in a global society.
Indeed, the responses of regulators around the world seemed to fall along a spectrum: on one extreme, regulators doubled down on their anti-digital currency sentiments: Libra should not be allowed, and maybe other cryptocurrencies should be put back in their place as illegal and dangerous financial instruments, too.
Somewhere toward the other end of the spectrum, however, is the attitude that while Libra shouldn’t be allowed to position itself as one of the largest and most powerful financial forces in the world, that perhaps digital currencies shouldn’t be left to the wayside as a sort of financial novelty or pariah.
Instead, a growing number of governments seem to be adopting the attitude that the concept of digital currencies should be embraced, and in fact, that they should start to create their own digital currencies issued by their central banks–Central Bank Digital Currencies, or CBDCs.
Countries around the world are pushing ahead effort to explore CBDC issuance following the dawn of Libra
Indeed, even before Libra was announced by Facebook, the development and exploration of CBDCs in a number of countries around the world were well underway.
For example, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) believes that central banks may issue digital currencies in the future. According to a report by the IMF on June 27th, less than two weeks after Libra was officially announced.
A second report published by the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) published in January 2019 found that as many as 70 percent of the world’s central banks were in the process of researching the issuance of a CBDC, although only several had concrete plans to do so.
At the time, Sweden and Uruguay were named as the two jurisdictions in which CBDC issuance was the most advanced.
However, in the time since the report was published, a number of other nations have pushed forward with the development of CBDCs–France, South Africa, Ghana, Uruguay, Singapore, Thailand, Russia, and many others are all somewhere along the spectrum of CBDC research, development, and issuance; some nations, including Tunisia, the Marshall Islands, and a few others have already adopted their own digital currencies.
If Libra never happens, will countries still be interested in launching CBDCs?
Additionally, Reuters reported in early November that the European Union was ramping up efforts to explore the creation of a CBDC of its own.
At the ‘Global Blockchain Congress, which took place in Malaga, Spain, last month, ECB Innovation leader Dirk Bullman said that we have a dedicated team looking at this in the ECB. Even if we’re not particularly vocal on this compared to other central banks, we’ve been doing a lot in the past.”
And then, of course, there’s China.
China originally said that it was exploring the issuance of a national digital currency long before Libra was on the horizon; however, after Libra was announced midway through the year, China announced that it would be expediting the creation of the currency, with the original date of launch expected in November (those expectations were never met.)
However, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) is planning to launch its central bank-backed digital currency (CBDC) in two cities – Shenzhen and Suzhou – initially for testing purposes, perhaps even before the end of this year.
Meanwhile, however, the creation of Libra has stalled as the process of the launch seems to have been jammed up by regulators across several continents; Facebook itself said earlier this year that the network might never launch.
Still, though, the list of countries exploring the issuance of CBDCs is growing. What could the incentives behind issuing a CBDC be if Libra (or a similar initiative) is no longer on the table?
What are CBDCs, exactly?
The truth is that with or without the presence of Libra, there are many possible advantages that CBDC issuance poses for national financial systems.
For the governments that are exploring the issuance of CBDCs, it seems that the ultimate goal is to take advantage of the best things that cryptocurrency has to offer financial systems–specifically, the security and convenience of DLT networks–and combine those features with certain aspects of conventional banking systems.
CBDCs are designed to be fully regulated by their issuing state. Unlike most common cryptocurrencies (i.e., Bitcoin), CBDCs are not created with the purpose of being “decentralized,” although they are most likely based on blockchain or another form of distributed ledger technology (DLT).
Motives, modalities, and possible consequences of central bank digital currency (CBDC) issuance. https://t.co/TohZYZ77ze
— CASANOVA J.François (@CASANOVA_JF) October 26, 2019
Rather, these currencies are simply non-volatile digital representations of a country’s fiat currency; each unit of a CBDC corresponds with the equivalent amount of a paper bill.
Banks that issue CBDCs automatically become both regulators and custodians of the currency; most likely, they become the first institutions that hold their clients’ funds, and they are in charge of backing the reserves of these CBDCs and circulating them.
”CBDC would add another digital payment alternative backed and regulated by countries.”
Iain Wilson, Advisor to NEM Ventures, told Finance Magnates that “Central Bank Digital Currencies have been a fertile ground for research in recent years as central banks grapple with the impact of rapid technological change on payments and settlement systems.”
“we find that CBDC issuance of 30% of GDP, against government bonds, could permanently raise GDP by as much as 3%” https://t.co/4WVnQPIMKO
— Ciarán Murray (@C1aranMurray) July 27, 2016
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And indeed, Wilson pointed out that the world may not be as far away from the issuance of CBDCs as it seems at first glance: “conceptually developed market central banks already issue a form of digital money by allowing core banks to hold electronic accounts, whilst the public is restricted to holding central bank money in the form of banknotes,” he said.
“Indeed, with the advance of credit cards and the Internet, the world is moving toward a cashless society. CBDC would add another digital payment alternative backed and regulated by countries,” said Ramón Ferraz, CEO of collaborative financial platform 2gether.
“The possibility that central bank digital currency (CBDC) issuance will soon become a reality in major countries is still small.” – Hong Kyung-sik – Head of the Bank of Korea’s Banking and Financial Affairs #Crypto #Cryptocurrency #Blockchain pic.twitter.com/y9GN7CmYJZ
— Token Metrics (@tokenmetricsinc) October 31, 2019
Ferraz also pointed out that “[issuing a] CBDC will help save on the high costs associated with physical cash handling for issuance, transports, storage, et cetera.”
For some countries, the potential for surveillance and data collection that CBDCs pose also serves as a major incentive towards building and releasing CBDCs.
“Digital currencies are traceable by design, in authoritarian countries it will definitely be used as a surveillance tool,” Ferraz told Finance Magnates. “This is probably why China is pushing research in this area, especially to stop capital flight. In western countries, it will probably be accompanied by appropriate consumer protection laws.”
There’s no such thing as free lunch
However, the advantages that CBDCs pose to national financial systems do not come without a cost.
For example, European money and finance forum SUERF said in a report published by the Universita Bocconi that “contrary to bank accounts, CBDC would also be free of credit and liquidity risks.”
However, “this advantage might deprive private banks of a major source of funding, which in the euro area currently makes up 20% of the euro area banking system’s funding, with potentially adverse consequences for the cost and supply of bank lending.”
Iain Wilson also pointed out that taking “the next step”–which is to say, “full issuance so individuals and companies could directly hold central bank e-money both as a store of value and a means of payment”–would have “profound implications for both financial stability and monetary policy.”
“Banks would lose their privileged positions as a P2P network developed which allowed both payments and the transmission of effective monetary policy to the private sector,” he said.
I do fear that some central banks, like the ones you allude to, may incorrectly think that CBDC will solve deep fundamental currency trust issues. CBDC issuance should be built on top of strong central banking foundations.
— John Kiff (@Kiffmeister) June 9, 2019
Additionally, Fabio Panetta, Deputy Governor of the Bank of Italy, said that “given the range of electronic payments options available and the resulting existing strong competition, the marginal value of central banks’ additional involvement in an area already well-served by the private sector would appear small.”
And, last but not least, there’s also the issue of uncertainty; the unknown consequences of CBDC issuance may seem too high a risk for some countries to take, particularly because of the predictions of an approaching global financial crisis that many analysts have predicted for quite some time.
Will the US explore CBDC issuance? Ask again in a few years
It is perhaps for these reasons that the United States–the country with the largest economy in the world–currently has no interest in issuing a CBDC. However, things might be different in five years.
Indeed, United States Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee on December 5th that neither he nor Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell believes that a central bank digital currency will be necessary before
“Chair[man] Powell and I have discussed this,” Mnuchin said. “I think we both agree that in the near future—in the next five years—we see no need for the Fed to issue digital currency.” Mnuchin said that the reason for this was that “we have a very sophisticated system”–however, he did concede that the U.S. does need a real-time electronic payment system, and added that the Federal Reserve is working on this.
However, not everyone sees eye-to-eye with Mnuchin–Philadelphia Federal Reserve President Patrick Harker said in early October that it is “inevitable” that central banks including the Fed will issue digital currency, though he did not give an estimation as to when this issuance might be.
Still, Former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said in early November that there is no need for central banks to issue digital currency: “there’s no point for them to do it,” he explained, speaking at Chinese finance magazine Caijing’s annual economic outlook conference. “The fundamental sovereign credit of the United States is far in excess of anything Facebook can imagine.”
The year ahead
But for as many countries that are currently working on CBDC issuance–will any of them come to life within the coming year?
Ferraz thinks not. “I doubt any major country will launch a CBDC in 2020,” he said, “but I expect more countries to test the technology. Indeed, China and France have both announced that tests of CBDCs are imminent.
“I see the interest in rapidly advancing the issuance of at least one central bank digital currency (CBDC) in order to be the leading issuer globally & get the benefits associated with providing an exemplary CBDC.” – Bank of France Governor
The Great Currency Race has begun!
— Pomp 🌪 (@APompliano) December 4, 2019