Tag Archives: Digital money

Interview, Riksbank RN, 2021

Riksbank Research News 2021, December 2021. PDF (pp. 2–3), HTML.

Q: You have been leader of the CEPR Research and Policy Network on FinTech and Digital Currencies since 2021 and explored issues at the heart of monetary theory and payment systems in your research. What do you think is new about digital central bank money and what makes it different from other digital means of payment?

A: Societies have been using digital means of payment for decades. Commercial banks use digital claims against the central bank, “reserves,” to pay each other. Households and firms use digital claims against commercial banks, “deposits,” as well as claims on such deposits, as money. Financial innovations typically improved the convenience for users or helped build additional layers of claims on top of each other, fostering fractional reserve banking and raising money multipliers.

Recently, new digital instruments have appeared on the fringes of the financial system. Some think of them as currencies and others as mere database entries. These instruments exploit the fact that smart ways of managing information, and even smarter approaches to providing incentives in anonymous, decentralized networks can replicate some functions of conventional monies. Monetary theorists are not surprised. They have debated for decades to what extent money is, or is not a substitute for a large societal database. The information technology revolution has made this debate much less theoretical.

Of course, the new entrants such as Bitcoin have not been very successful so far when it comes to actually creating substitute monies. But they have been quite successful in terms of creating new assets, mostly bubbles. Bubbles are also a great mechanism for their creators to extract resources from other people.

What is new about digital central bank money for the general public (central bank digital currency, CBDC) is that households and firms would no longer be restricted to cash when they wanted to pay using a central bank (i.e., government) liability. That is, banks would lose a privilege and households and firms would gain an option. CBDC, which I like to think of as “Reserves for All,” seems natural when you consider the history of central banking. It also seems natural when you consider that many governments strongly discourage the use of cash. Nevertheless, compared with the status quo, “Reserves for All” would amount to a major structural change.

Q: What do you think are the main challenges of issuing a CBDC?

A: From a macroeconomic perspective, introducing “Reserves for All” could have major implications. The balance sheets of central banks would likely expand while commercial banks would likely lose some deposits as a source of funding. Mechanically, they would reduce their asset holdings or attract other sources of funding. The question is, which assets they would shed, and subject to which terms and conditions they would attract new funding. These are important questions because banks play a key role in the transmission of monetary policy to main street.

While many central bankers are concerned about the implications of CBDC for bank assets and funding costs academic research conveys a mixed picture. To assess the consequences of “Reserves for All” it is natural to first ask what it would take to perfectly insulate banks and the real economy from the effects of CBDC issuance. As it turns out, the answer is “not much:” Under fairly general conditions the central bank holds a lot of power and can neutralize the implications of CBDC for macroeconomic outcomes.

Of course, central banks might choose to implement other than the neutral policies. In my view, this is in fact very likely, for reasons related to the political economy of banking and central banking. On the one hand, CBDC would make it even harder for central banks to defend their independence. On the other hand, CBDC would increase the transparency of the monetary system and trigger questions about the fair distribution of seignorage. On top of this, “Reserves for All” might trigger demands for the removal of other “bank privileges:” Interest groups might request LOLR-support, arguing that they are systemically important and just temporarily short of liquidity. Others might want to engage in open market operations with the central bank.

Beyond macroeconomics and political economy, CBDC could substantially change the microeconomics of banking and finance. In the current, two-tiered system there is ample room for complementarities between financing, lending, and payments. The information technology revolution strengthens these complementarities but it also generates new risks or inefficiencies. How the connections between money and information currently change is the subject of ongoing research. I don’t think we have been able to draw robust conclusions yet as to what role CBDC would play in this respect.

Q: Should we, and will we have CBDCs in the near future?

A: Some countries have already decided in favor. Others, like the Riksbank I believe, are still on the sidelines, thinking about the issues, watching, and preparing. Yet others have only recently taken the issue more seriously, mostly because of the Libra/Diem shock in June 2019, which made it clear to everybody that the status quo ceases to be an option.

I think the normative question is still unanswered. Not only does CBDC have many consequences, which we would like to better understand. There are also the unknown consequences that we might want to prepare ourselves for. Moreover, many of the problems that CBDC could potentially address might also allow for different solutions; the fact that CBDC could work does not mean that CBDC is the best option.

In a recent CEPR eBook* several authors share that view, which suggests a case-by-case approach. CBDC might be appropriate for one country but not for another, for instance because cash use has strongly declined in Sweden and this may favor CBDC (as Martin Flodén and Björn Segendorf discuss in their chapter) while the same does not apply in the US or elsewhere.

Regarding the positive question, I think that many more countries will decide to introduce “Reserves for All,” and quite a few of them in the next five years. One reason is that it is politically difficult to wait when others are moving ahead. Another is the fear of “dollarization,” not only in countries with less developed financial markets. The strongest factor, I believe, is the fear that central banks might lose their standing in financial markets. This is connected with the important question, which the Riksbank has been asking early on, whether in the absence of CBDC declining cash circulation could undermine trust in central bank money.

Among the eBook authors, most but far from all expect that a CBDC in a developed economy would resemble deposits in terms of user experience. Almost everyone expects that private banks and service providers rather than the central bank itself would interact with end-users. I share these views. But there is disagreement as to whether digital currencies would be interest bearing and how strictly they would protect privacy. I believe that it is also unclear how strictly central banks would enforce KYC regulation or holding restrictions on foreigners. These two factors might critically affect the threats to monetary sovereignty in other countries, and as a consequence they might shape the chain reaction of adoptions.

What seems clear to me is that the implications of CBDC go far beyond the remit of central banks. Parliaments and voters therefore should have the final say.

* Dirk Niepelt (2021), editor: “CBDC: Considerations, Projects, Outlook”, CEPR eBook. Changes in the research staff

“Reserves For All? Central Bank Digital Currency, Deposits, and their (Non)-Equivalence,” IJCB, 2020

International Journal of Central Banking. PDF.

This paper offers a macroeconomic perspective on the “Reserves for All” (RFA) proposal to let the general public hold electronic central bank money and transact with it. I propose an equivalence result according to which a marginal substitution of outside money (e.g., RFA) for inside money (e.g., deposits) does not affect macroeconomic outcomes. I identify key conditions for equivalence and argue that these conditions likely are violated, implying that RFA would change macroeconomic outcomes. I also relate the analysis to common arguments found in discussions on RFA and point to inconsistencies and open questions.

“Цифровые деньги и цифровые валюты центральных банков: главное, что нужно знать,” Econs, 2020

Econs (a non-profit project of the communications department of the Russian central bank), February 13, 2020. HTML.

Russian version of my VoxEU column on digital money and CBDC. What are we actually talking about? What do we know? And what should policymakers do? I discuss the following points:

  • Finance has been digital forever – what’s new about ‘digital money’?
  • Does the nature of money change?
  • What is central bank digital currency?
  • What is the link between CBDC and the blockchain?
  • Would CBDC have macroeconomic effects?
  • Would CBDC foster bank disintermediation and bank runs?
  • Why consider CBDC at all?
  • What opportunities does CBDC offer?
  • Where do the risks lie?
  • Do the opportunities justify the risks?
  • Do central banks have a choice?

“Digital Money and Central Bank Digital Currency: An Executive Summary for Policymakers,” VoxEU, 2020

VoxEU, February 3, 2020. HTML.

What are we actually talking about? What do we know? And what should policymakers do? I discuss the following points:

  • Finance has been digital forever – what’s new about ‘digital money’?
  • Does the nature of money change?
  • What is central bank digital currency?
  • What is the link between CBDC and the blockchain?
  • Would CBDC have macroeconomic effects?
  • Would CBDC foster bank disintermediation and bank runs?
  • Why consider CBDC at all?
  • What opportunities does CBDC offer?
  • Where do the risks lie?
  • Do the opportunities justify the risks?
  • Do central banks have a choice?

India’s Unified Payments Interface

In the FT, Benjamin Parkin reports about the transformation of India’s payments landscape.

Behind the boom is an innovation launched by the Indian government in 2016: the unglamorous sounding Unified Payments Interface, or UPI, which allows immediate mobile payments directly between bank accounts.

Conceived as a public utility, the service is transforming India’s cash-dependent economy into fertile soil for mobile-money apps. … Both the volume and value of transactions had more than doubled in a year.

“Reserves For All? Central Bank Digital Currency, Deposits, and their (Non)-Equivalence,” IJCB

Accepted for publication in the International Journal of Central Banking. PDF.

This paper offers a macroeconomic perspective on the “Reserves for All” (RFA) proposal to let the general public hold electronic central bank money and transact with it. I propose an equivalence result according to which a marginal substitution of outside money (e.g., RFA) for inside money (e.g., deposits) does not affect macroeconomic outcomes. I identify key conditions for equivalence and argue that these conditions likely are violated, implying that RFA would change macroeconomic outcomes. I also relate the analysis to common arguments found in discussions on RFA and point to inconsistencies and open questions.

“Reserves For All? …” on Several SSRN Top Ten Lists

My July 2018 CEPR working paper “Reserves For All? Central Bank Digital Currency, Deposits, and their (Non)-Equivalence” has made it on several SSRN top ten lists. PDF. (Personal copy.)

Abstract: I offer a macroeconomic perspective on the “Reserves for All” (RFA) proposal to let the general public use electronic central bank money. After distinguishing RFA from cryptocurrencies and relating the proposal to discussions about narrow banking and the abolition of cash I propose an equivalence result according to which a marginal substitution of outside for inside money does not affect macroeconomic outcomes. I identify key conditions on bank and government (central bank) incentives for equivalence and argue that these conditions likely are violated, implying that RFA would change macroeconomic outcomes. I also relate my analysis to common arguments in the discussion about RFA and point to inconsistencies and open questions.

“Reserves For All? Central Bank Digital Currency, Deposits, and their (Non)-Equivalence,” CEPR, 2018

CEPR Discussion Paper 13065, July 2018. PDF. (Personal copy.)

I offer a macroeconomic perspective on the “Reserves for All” (RFA) proposal to let the general public use electronic central bank money. After distinguishing RFA from cryptocurrencies and relating the proposal to discussions about narrow banking and the abolition of cash I propose an equivalence result according to which a marginal substitution of outside for inside money does not affect macroeconomic outcomes. I identify key conditions on bank and government (central bank) incentives for equivalence and argue that these conditions likely are violated, implying that RFA would change macroeconomic outcomes. I also relate my analysis to common arguments in the discussion about RFA and point to inconsistencies and open questions.

Saga—A Global CBDC?

In the FT, Martin Arnold reports about plans to launch “Saga,” a reserves-backed krypto currency, maybe the closest substitute yet to central bank digital currency.

It is being launched by a Swiss foundation with an advisory board featuring Jacob Frenkel, … Myron Scholes, … and Dan Galai, co-creator of the Vix volatility index. The currency aims to avoid the wild price swings of many cryptocurrencies by tethering itself to reserves deposited in a basket of fiat currencies at commercial banks. Holders of Saga will be able to claim their money back by cashing in the cryptocurrency.

Saga also aims to avoid the anonymity of bitcoin that raises financial crime concerns with regulators and bankers. It will require owners to pass anti-money laundering checks and allow national authorities to check the identity of a Saga holder when required.

Deposits will be made in the IMF’s special drawing right basket of currencies, which is heavily weighted in US dollars.

Reserves for All come into sight.

Update (30 March): From the white paper:

Saga … deploys a reserve anchoring algorithm, serving to stabilise the currency in terms of leading state-issued currencies. As Saga gains trust, its reserve ratio will decrease in favour of an independent establishment of value.

???

Should a Central Bank Issue Cryptocurrency?

On Alphaville, Izabella Kaminska asks why a central bank would want to issue cryptocurrency rather than conventional digital currency.

… if anonymity is not the objective of issuing a centrally supervised cryptocurrency, what really is the point of using blockchain or crypto technology? Just issue a conventional digital currency and be done with it. If, on the other hand, anonymity is the objective of issuing a centrally supervised cryptocurrency, how can this be justified by a central bank in light of years of regulatory policy focused on making sure cashflows are more easily tracked and monitored … The idea it should be the central bank unwinding this trend is utterly bizarre.

And:

… the only incentive central banks really have for introducing cryptocurrencies is in performing a giant monetary bait and switch. “Hey guys! We’re offering this amazing anonymous central bank currency which is as strong and stable as the dollar and yet just as anonymous as bitcoin!!! Come, all you illicit users of physical cash, come use our amazing new currency! We swear it’s absolutely anonymous and will never lead to prosecutions. Honest!!”

Her post relates to a recent BIS Quarterly Review article by Morten Bech and Rodney Garratt.

Initial Coin Offerings and the Pecking Order

On Alphaville, Izabella Kaminska comments on the pecking order induced by initial coin offerings (ICOs).

All of this raises an important point about actual shareholder rights within these structures. Say a legally-incorporated institution with actual shareholders dishes out an uncapped amount of tokens promising a share of revenues or dividends via the ICO process. Do shareholders’ rights to those revenue/dividends trump rights of the token holders? And if so, how does that square with the way risk is distributed through these systems? As Unseth notes, more often than not, it’s the token holders taking the bulk of the early concept risk, yet the inferiority of their ranking relative to shareholders kind of sees the latter receiving a free lunch.