It’s a period of heady and unprecedented innovation in both money and payments. But don’t expect central banks to join the party.
That’s the sober message delivered today by Agustín Carstens, head of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). The BIS is a coordinating body for central banks and plays a leading role in monitoring the global financial system’s infrastructure.
In the Whitaker Lecture at the Central Bank of Ireland, Carstens justified the glacial rate of progress in developing new central bank-issued digital currencies (CBDC) by saying that there is no clear justification for this addition to the global money markets.
At the moment, there is only one form of CBDC in existence: settlement accounts on the central bank’s books, open exclusively to commercial banks.
These digital settlement accounts, together with traditional notes and coins, are the only form of money in the current system that is issued directly by central authorities.
In the UK, for example, notes and coins make up 3 percent of the overall money supply, while commercial banks’ digital settlement accounts at the the Bank of England represent another 18 percent of the supply. But nearly four-fifths of the UK’s money is created by the private sector.
“The debate is whether to widen access to CBDC beyond the current circle of commercial banks,” said Carstens.
New forms of CBDC could include a consumer-facing payment instrument targeted at retail transactions; and a restricted-access, digital settlement token for wholesale payment applications.
No central bank has firm plans to issue a CBDC
The BIS published a survey on CBDC earlier this year, summarising the results of a poll of 63 central banks. These central banks represented countries with 80 percent of the world’s population and over 90 percent of global economic output.
The survey results showed that, when it comes to new digital currency, there’s still a long way from drawing board to implementation.
While 70 percent of the 63 central banks surveyed said they are working on CBDC through research or proofs-of-concept, only five had progressed to pilot projects. And no central bank has yet declared firm plans to issue a CBDC.
“A gung-ho attitude is common in the fintech industry”
In his Dublin speech, Carstens said that central bankers and those working on financial technology (fintech) projects face very different constraints.
For technologists, said Carstens, the Irish novelist James Joyce might be a guide.
In Joyce’s words, “a man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
As a result, for the individuals concerned, the cost of getting it wrong is just brief personal disappointment, said Carstens.
“But the upside is huge, and a masterpiece could follow,” he said.
“This gung-ho attitude is common in the fintech industry,” Carstens went on.
“‘Just do it!’ is the mantra. To them, worrying about the consequences of mistakes is for wimps.”
But while some fintech and cryptocurrency entrepreneurs buy Lamborghinis, central bankers are in charge of the traffic lights, the BIS head reminded listeners.
“Central bankers do not think of themselves as geniuses, and prefer to tread cautiously into new territory,” Carstens said in his speech.
“There is a good reason for this. The monetary system is the backbone of the financial system. Before we open up the patient for major surgery, we need to understand the full consequences of what we’re doing.”
In his Dublin address, Carstens explained why the potential introduction of CBDC could have unintended consequences.
“The trickle could turn into a flood”
First, a CBDC might incentivise a run on commercial banks in periods of market stress, he said.
“In times of uncertainty, more customers would prefer to have deposit accounts at central banks, and fewer at commercial banks,” said Carstens.
“A shift of funds from commercial banks to the central bank could be gradual at first. But the trickle could turn into a flood.”
Then, said the BIS head, if deposits flowed en masse to the central bank, it would have to recycle them, entering unfamiliar territory.
“In addition to the deposit business, the central bank would be taking on the lending business. The central bank would need to meet business owners, interview them about why they need a loan, and decide on how much each should receive,” he said.
Further, said Carstens, a destabilising valuation gap might open up between the CBDC and other versions of the same currency.
“We know that, during times of financial stress, money moves away from banks that are perceived as risky towards banks that are perceived as safer,” said Carstens.
“Imagine that depositors also have the choice of putting their money in a digital currency of the central bank or in the central bank deposit account directly,” Carstens said.
“It is not far-fetched to imagine that a premium would open up, where one euro of deposits in the commercial bank buys less than one euro’s worth of central bank digital currency.”
“Such changes are not ones that central banks take lightly”
Finally, said Carstens, the introduction of CBDC might cause unforeseen structural changes to the financial system.
CBDCs could change the demand for base money and its composition, they might modify the sensitivity of the demand for money to changes in interest rates, and they would lead to a larger central bank balance sheet, Carstens said.
“This may require the central bank to hold additional assets such as government securities, loans to commercial banks or international reserves. In turn, the acquisition of these could interfere with key markets functioning or dry up liquidity.”
“At least in a transitional period, all these changes have the potential to completely up-end the way that monetary policy affects the economy. Such changes are not ones that central banks take lightly,” Carstens said.
The BIS general manager finished his address by pouring cold water on CBDC enthusiasm, arguing that the onus is on supporters of this concept to justify their suggested innovation.
“The debate [about CBDC] is not primarily about convenience and digitisation,” said Carstens.
“Rather, it’s about fundamental changes to both parts of the system that central banks oversee: money and payments. So far, experiments have not shown that new technologies would work any better than existing ones.”
Sign up here for New Money Review’s monthly content updates