Central Bank Digital Currencies – An Idea whose Time has Come?
On February 01, 2021, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman introduced the Budget for FY 2021-22 in the Parliament. Budget announcements are always a highly anticipated event in India; this time the expectations were even higher for the government to provide a credible roadmap for recovery. However, ahead of the Budget, another bill rumored to be proposed during the session was making news. The to-be-proposed Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021 has taken the nascent crypto-industry in India by surprise. The Bill has dual objectives of (i) banning ‘private’ cryptocurrencies in India and (ii) creating a framework for the Reserve Bank of India to issue official digital currency. While further details on the Bill are awaited, now is an opportune time to look at the current status of digital currencies in India and around the world.
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has viewed cryptocurrencies with a jaundiced eye. In April 2018, the RBI issued a circular, “prohibiting banks and entities regulated by it from providing services in relation to virtual currencies.” The circular was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court on grounds of being a “disproportionate” response by the RBI. It further asserted that there was no evidence that any regulated entities had indeed incurred losses or instability on account of virtual currencies.
Understanding Digital Currency
For a preliminary understanding of digital currency, one can look towards its most popular example – BitCoin. It was launched against the backdrop of the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) as a bulwark against excessive printing of currency by central banks. The mystery surrounding the inventor, the legendary Mr. Satoshi Nakamoto, only added to the allure of the new digital currency. Here was a currency that was decentralized and maintained user anonymity while ensuring complete transparency for all transactions. BitCoin is limited to 21 million units, which are mined by solving complex mathematical problems (a.k.a. proof of work) and can then be traded on BitCoin exchanges. Blockchain technology, upon which BitCoin is built, has a certain democratic appeal; blockchain ledgers are immutable and can be changed only when such a change is validated by a given number of participants. Despite these advantages, there has been criticism against BitCoin or any of the non-fiat digital currencies to be used as a reserve currency, especially on account of limitations to being used as a medium of exchange.
Opportunity for a Central Bank Digital Currency
In recent years, and perhaps consequentially, central banks around the world have begun to evaluate the possibility of a sovereign-backed digital currency also known as a central bank digital currency or a CBDC. This begets an obvious question – what indeed is a CBDC? Traditionally, money comprises cash, deposits maintained by commercial banks with the central bank and deposits with commercial banks. A CBDC introduces a new form of digital money which is a liability of the central bank. In theory, even retail participants could hold a CBDC in the future. Secondly, one might wonder, what are the motivations for issuing such a form of money? A report published by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in 2020 broadly categorizes the merits and risks of a CBDC as follows:
a. Payment systems – motivations and challenges
This category includes a multitude of motivations such as ensuring continued access to risk-free money in societies where cash is going out of fashion, improving financial inclusion, enhancing efficiency of cross-border payments, etc. Key risks in this category include ensuring cyber resilience and balancing public privacy needs with anti-money laundering requirements.
b. Monetary policy – motivations and challenges
If CBDCs are designed as interest-bearing instruments, then monetary policy transmission would, in theory, be immediate. This could incentivize commercial banks to accelerate passing on the effects of changes in policy rates. Whether CBDCs should indeed be interest-bearing instruments is a design challenge requiring further study.
c. Financial stability – motivations and challenges
A key motivation for central banks to evaluate issuance of CDBCs is to pre-empt the risk of loss of monetary sovereignty on account of displacement by privately issued digital currencies such as Diem (previously called Libra) by Facebook. However, introducing a CBDC introduces the possibility of a bank run in times of crisis from commercial deposits to central bank money.
Money is an economic, social, and political phenomenon. Introduction of CBDCs requires careful planning, analysis, and balancing risks with efficiency motivations. Design choices abound in terms of technological architecture as well as features embedded in the instrument. In the Indian context, a well-designed pilot project aligned with social and economic realities is paramount. Internationally too, interest in CBDCs has increased, partially on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey conducted by the BIS in 2020 revealed that 86% of central banks (out of a total of 65 respondents) were actively engaged with CBDC research, evaluation, and/or development (see figures below). China famously leads the pack in digital currency development adding a currency dimension to its competition with the United States.
Figure 1 Source: BIS Central bank survey on CBDCs. 1 Share of respondents conducting work on CBDCs.
Adoption of new technology is often scary, and rightly so, especially in cases where it has the power to improve or destroy entire systems. India’s financial system has been revolutionized by fintech, especially in the digital payments space. It is indeed time we re-visited the idea of money in light of the technology now available at our disposal. The to-be-proposed Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021 signals India’s willingness in this regard.