A CBDC Crash Course: Can sovereign-focused digital currencies become a monetary reality?

By Rob Odell

Article originally published on ValueWalk

China’s central banking system officially launched large-scale testing of what could be the world’s first digital sovereign currency. The People’s Bank of China, the nation’s central bank, is working with main banks in major cities, with a focus on digitizing the renminbi. During this trial, users register their mobile phone numbers for access to digital wallets. Through that access, they can use digital currency, issued by the central bank, to withdraw and transfer money, and to pay bills.

If this test is successful, it means that China could be one of the first countries to develop and maintain central banking digital currency, or CBDC. But China’s move toward CBDC doesn’t necessarily mean that other countries’ central banking systems will, or can, automatically follow. Moving an economy from bills and coins — whether physical or virtual — to 100% digitization isn’t something a country just does. Furthermore, there is the question of whether central banks can — or should — work directly with consumers and businesses, in direct competition with commercial and investment banks.

As such, the CBDC reality is a few years away.

Defining Digital Currency And Central Banks

Mention the words “digital currency” and the first thought that might come to mind is Bitcoin.

Certainly, Bitcoin, Ether, Litecoin, and other cryptocurrencies are digitized value exchanges, which can be used to buy goods and services. But cryptocurrencies and central banking digital currencies are two very different sides of the digital coin. While cryptocurrencies are privately developed and distributed, CBDCs are government-backed sovereign currency systems, complete with appropriate denominations. In other words, think digitized fiat currency, overseen by the central banks.

Much like cryptocurrencies, however, CBDCs are recorded on digital ledgers, which keep track of ownership and transactions by users with ledger accounts. But unlike cryptocurrencies, these ledgers would be overseen by central banks, which would also issue the currencies and process transactions.

Speaking of central banks, these institutions have big-picture monetary goals for the nations in which they operate. The above-mentioned People’s Bank of China, as well as the U.S. Federal Reserve, Bank of England, Deutsche Bundesbank, and others are responsible for national monetary policies. They also deal with the nation’s commercial and investment banks, as lenders of last resort. They aren’t in business to work with consumers or businesses.

Just because central banking systems don’t work on the commercial level, it doesn’t mean they haven’t. In writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), economists Michael Bordo and Andrew Levin pointed out that central banks’ histories are filled with examples of interactions with consumers and businesses, and “often, these activities were considered more important for the central banks than the conduct of monetary policy, both in terms of daily operations and the priorities of top management.”

For example, the Bank of England conducted general business and consumer banking activities during the 17th and 18th centuries. And, in the United States, a highly successful post office savings bank system operated from 1911 through 1967, using the post office network to offer government-backed deposit accounts and other financial services. In many cases, postal banking performed central banking functions — such as funding two world wars — before the Federal Reserve stepped in to determine national monetary policy.

Digital Sovereign Currency Structure: The Theory…

Researchers and scholars have been pondering the idea of centralized digital currencies for a few years. The most recent study along these lines was released in June 2020 by the Federal Reserve of Philadelphia, and entitled “Central Banking Digital Currency: Central Banking for All?” Led by University of Pennsylvania economist, Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, the authors explored whether a central bank, such as the U.S. Federal Reserve, could successfully implement a 100% digital sovereign currency structure, which could realistically compete with commercial financial institutions without too much disruption.

The authors determined that, in theory, and absent any kind of financial panic, a digital conduit between central banks and consumers might be effective in optimizing fund allocations. Furthermore, a direct-to-consumer sovereign digital currency could help streamline and potentially eliminate current time-consuming and costly payment systems.

Bardon and Levin also suggest that central banking systems could offer digital currencies to the general public through specially designated accounts, opened in partnership with commercial banks. The banks could keep corresponding amounts of commercial funds in segregated reserve accounts at the central banks. Furthermore, setting up a CBDC infrastructure would be a straightforward process. Thanks to the internet, brick-and-mortar branches wouldn’t be necessary.

So, in theory, a CBDC is workable.

Now, The Reality…

China is pushing ahead to set up the first bona fide, workable CBDC. Meanwhile, other central banking systems, including the Bank of England, Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank, are working with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) on additional CBDC research.

But the BIS cautions that jumping on the CBDC bandwagon right now will mean bumps in the road, mostly in the forms of security, convenience and accessibility. The current coins-and-bills banking system has sophisticated infrastructures in place to handle peak demands for money, and can support potential bank runs. Then, there are the questions about privacy and potential data breaches. Take for example, a situation in which the Federal Reserve issues $1 million to an individual’s stablecoin address. That individual then spends $100 from the same address at an online retailer.

Right now, with the way most blockchain technology functions, that retailer can look at that stablecoin address and see without question that there is nearly $1 million in the account. Cryptocurrency proves that while blockchain technology is great for anonymity, it is far from private. We must find a way to bring the same level of privacy to CBDCs as we currently experience with traditional banking, so that it is both private and public in all of the right ways. Until then, CBDC will likely remain more of a futuristic vision than become a reality.

And, from a larger-picture perspective, Fernández-Villaverde and his colleagues caution that the move to CBDCs could give central banking systems monopoly power, siphoning business away from commercial banks. Commercial and investment banks are set up to support maturity transformation — in other words, using consumer and business deposits for longer-term loans, such as mortgages. Central banks don’t have the capacity to do this; such a lack could be dangerous to economic policies.

Keeping It Cash … For Now

Though the Chinese central bank is experimenting with sovereign-backed digital currency and centralized ledgers, the CBDC concept isn’t close to implementation. Even China is phasing in CBDC very slowly. Coins and bills will be with us for a while longer, at least until security, accessibility and privacy issues — not to mention potential monopolization scenarios — can be worked out.

Still, the increasing use of cryptocurrency continues to prove that digital mediums of exchange are workable. As the People’s Bank of China continues working with sovereign-backed digital exchanges, other central banks will likely examine their own regulatory, legal and technical risks to determine the feasibility of CBDCs.

Blockchain: The Path Forward

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What began just over 10 months ago as high-level conversations around blockchain technology culminated this week with what was arguably the world’s most significant blockchain conference. Hosted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and designed for regulators and industry participants, the OECD Blockchain Policy Forum was the most important discussion around the deployment of blockchain in dozens of industries to date. The OECD is an intergovernmental economic organization committed to democracy and developing best practices across domestic and international policy that lead to improved social, economic, and environmental health on a global scale.

As a premier sponsor for the event, SALT is proud to say that our Co-Founder and Director of Global Strategy, Benjamin Yablon, has not only served as Special Advisor to the OECD for the past year, but also that he had the opportunity to represent SALT this week as a company leading the global conversation around blockchain.

According to Ben, the forum led to three major positive outcomes, all of which illustrate the promise of blockchain and the international community’s ability to work together to fulfill that promise:

“The sheer fact that three heads of state attended the forum speaks to the fact that a broader audience is recognizing the value of blockchain technology,” said Benjamin Yablon. “This level of international participation is unheard of in this emerging space and I’m grateful to both José Ángel Gurría Treviño, Secretary-General of the OECD, and Greg Medcraft, Director of the Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs of the OECD, for allowing me to contribute in an advisory capacity with a platform starting to address the OECD directorate in such a direct way. Our collaborative work is what made this Forum happen.”

Ben is looking forward to continuing to serve as an advisor to the OECD, helping to shape the global narrative around blockchain, and execute on many of the ideas and proposals that came out of this week’s Forum. “There’s more interest and excitement around this topic than you can imagine, and the

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OECD was the perfect conveyer to have this type of discussion, primarily because the global ecosystem values the OECD as a neutral standard setting body that is uniquely positioned to bring our voices together for the greater good — an environment that others just can’t offer,” he said.

As Ben noted in his panel discussion earlier this week, achieving mass adoption of blockchain technology and digital financial assets will require the development of a taxonomy — an agreed-upon set of terms and definitions that will enable us to speak about these concepts in way that drives understanding and alignment among industry and governmental leaders. “Once we have a true taxonomy, principles-based regulatory frameworks will to start to exist,” Ben noted.

It’s clear from this week’s forum that a lot of progress has been made in the past couple of days, but it’s even more evident that there’s still a great deal of work to be done. It will take years to bring this process to maturity, but as long as we have solid leaders in place to guide discussions, propose solutions, and make decisions, we can feel confident that we’re heading in the right direction.

OECD Blockchain Policy Forum: Maximizing the Potential of Blockchain will require LEADERSHIP

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“The opportunities of the long-term developments of blockchain far outweigh its risks.” 

These are the words with which Prime Minister of the Republic of Mauritius Pravind Kumar Jugnauth kicked off the OECD Blockchain Policy Forum. Not only did these words set the stage for the event, but they reflect the very sentiment of it — it’s not about whether we should take blockchain to the next level, but how we should go about doing so. Leadership was the recurring theme throughout the day’s discussions and, more specifically, how we as leaders have a responsibility to leverage blockchain technology in ways that benefit the greater good.

As Editor of The Economist and today’s emcee, Anne McElvoy, so elegantly put it, “At first we thought this technology was the engine of security, then it was thought to be the engine of trust — and it is all that — but I think of it as the engine of innovation.” While blockchain has changed the way we think about security and trust via trustless transactions, it now calls on us to continuously develop new ways to apply the technology to our everyday lives. How can we leverage blockchain technology to positively impact our societies and economies? How can we continue pushing the limits of innovation when there are still so many variables? What steps can we take as an international community to drive universal alignment and understanding as it relates to blockchain tech? Collaborative leaders — people committed to working together to effect change — will be paramount to pushing blockchain technology to its full potential.

As an advisor to the OECD for the past year, it was exciting to see SALT’s co-founder and Head of Global Strategy, Ben Yablon, foster discussion around these challenges during his panel, titled “Building a Global Policy Environment for Digital Financial Assets.” Of note, he touched on the need to develop a single lexicon as an initial step toward creating a framework around how we describe blockchain technology and digital financial assets. It’s an ongoing discussion, and I’m proud that Ben will continue to offer his leadership to the OECD on how to begin working through some of blockchain’s biggest roadblocks. While there were numerous panelists and speakers at the event, all with different expertise and perspectives, the underlying theme of all of them was the same — we must take it upon ourselves to ensure we are leveraging blockchain technology in the best ways and remaining open-minded as we think about the opportunity it creates for the world.

-Jennifer Nealson, SALT CMO

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