EDITOR NOTE: Most of the world is already using digital means to conduct transactions--shopping, investing, banking, and transferring funds from one person to another. Money, as a functional object, has already been “digitized,” to a considerable extent. Further digitization would only bring about “marginal benefits” to customers beyond what we already have. But to governments and central banks, it can mean everything--namely, total control and surveillance of all monetary assets, and the people who use them (read: everyone). Central banks around the world are studying digital currencies as a means to do away with physical money. Monetary innovation, a checkmate on financial freedom and privacy, or both?
Central banks around the world are studying the use of digital currencies.
The central banks of the U.K., Sweden and the U.S. are looking into possible uses of the digital form of their fiat money, which is defined as a currency established as money by government regulation. In the U.S., that is the dollar.
Although there are some advantages, such as faster transfers and bank clearing, central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) would create increased government intervention and surveillance.
To discuss CBDCs and how they would affect global economies, individual liberties, privacy, financial independence and more, I’ve reached out to Juan Manuel Villaverde of Weiss Ratings, an independent ratings agency.
Villaverde is an econometrician and mathematician who’s been tracking and studying cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin BTCUSD, 0.35%, since 2012. He leads the Weiss Ratings team of analysts and computer programmers who created Weiss cryptocurrency ratings.
Q: We hear a lot about CBDCs and how it’s bound to replace fiat money. What is it exactly, and how might it replace physical cash?
A: We need to make a distinction here between fiat money and digital money. Fiat money is issued by the government and it comes in many forms. These forms can be digital — credit and debit cards, bank transfers, etc. — or physical, as is the case with paper bills.
A CBDC is the ultimate form of what I call “digital fiat” — digital money issued by a central bank and, presumably, sent directly to people’s bank accounts. My guess is that it will be initially introduced as a counterpart to physical cash, but ultimately, the idea is to completely do away with physical money.
Why is that? The answer is simple: Digital fiat gives governments compete control over the currency. Tax avoidance would be almost impossible under this regime. More important, governments see it as a way of backstopping bank runs, i.e. withdrawing money from banks into physical form. In short, digital fiat gives the issuer more control over that currency.
Q: What risks do central bank digital currencies pose compared with physical cash? Do they have any advantages over physical money?
A: There are no advantages I can think of other than those already offered by digital payment networks such as PayPal PYPL, 0.80% or Apple AAPL, 0.16% Pay. These companies already offer digital forms of money that are easy to store and spend. Would a central bank-issued digital currency change this in any material way? For the end user, only marginally so.
The only advantage I can think of is that bank transfers wouldn’t take days or weeks to settle. Instead, these transactions would settle nearly in real time. Would cross-border transfers settle as quickly? Probably not, due to stringent regulations. Again, the public benefits only marginally from these.
It may allow central banks to experiment with new types of policies, however, such as the so-called “People QE,” where the central bank issues money directly into people’s accounts.
Beyond that, CBDCs are really a way for governments to increase their financial-surveillance powers, so the move to push this new type of money has more to do with that than any material benefit to citizens.
In a world of purely digital fiat money, when a bank is under risk of going under, there is no possibility for people to withdraw their money from that bank. When there’s a financial crisis, it becomes possible for governments to do “bail-ins” where everyone is forced to take a haircut on their deposits in order to “save” a financial institution.
Central bank digital currencies are just a move to increase government’s grip on money, masquerading as public benefit.
Q: What about cryptocurrencies? How different are they compared with CBDCs?
A: To understand the difference between cryptocurrencies and central bank digital currencies, we need to understand who’s in charge of these systems.
Yes, they are both digital. But they are also radically different.
CBDCs are easy to understand. The government owns this money. It dictates the rules of this system down to every last detail.
Cryptocurrencies use advanced mathematics and cryptography to devise a system in which nobody is in charge, yet the systems run like clockwork anyway. No rulers, only rules.
This is the key breakthrough behind the creation of bitcoin: For the first time in mankind’s history, we are able to create a form of money based purely on the consensus of its participants and without imposing any arbitrary leaders or “governing bodies” to run these systems.
Bitcoin’s genius was never to create a digital form of money. We’ve had that since the invention of the credit card.
Rather, its genius was that for the first time ever, we’re able to devise a purely digital form of money while simultaneously removing all the gatekeepers from the system.
This is why bitcoin’s breakthrough extends far beyond money. Now, we have the technology to create organizations run entirely by the users of those organizations. The rules are enforced not by a ruling committee, but by mathematics instead.
In this sense, the invention of bitcoin has more to do with the invention of democracy than a new form of money. Systems like bitcoin run on the consensus of the majority of its users. This is the key breakthrough.
Q: What about Facebook’s FB, -1.03% Libra? Is it a cryptocurrency?
A: Not really. To answer that question, we must simply look at who’s in charge of Libra. Is the consensus of the majority of users necessary to run Libra? Or is it instead run by a committee of self-appointed gatekeepers?
In the case of Libra, large corporations replace the government as the operators of the monetary system. The two forms of money are almost completely identical. They share the exact same flaws.
Q: How soon do you think governments may introduce CBDCs? Might Covid-19 affect the speed by which they’re introduced?
A: It’s already in the works worldwide. Will Covid-19 accelerate these efforts? Almost certainly. It’s no secret that governments have wanted to move away from physical cash for some time now.
Claims that physical paper can help spread Covid-19 is a convenient narrative that will no doubt be spouted by governments that wish to convince the populace that digital money is the way to go, and that physical cash is a thing of the past.
Originally posted on MarketWatch