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The future of money is up for grabs

In this blog, Joseph Thompson, Business Economist at the BSA, explores the world of digital currencies.

Whether you like them or not, digital currencies, or crypto, and the technology that drives them are here to stay and are likely to cause huge changes to central banking, commercial banking and the payments landscape.

In a BSA survey conducted by YouGov at the end of last year it found that a quarter of those aged 18-24 years old said that they held cryptocurrencies, with more than 5% saying that their holdings were worth £100,000 or more.

There are three broad categories of digital currency, that are all somewhat different but all utilise blockchain technology.

The blockchain is in essence a decentralised database disseminated between many users. Information on the blockchain can include any recordable information such as transactions, contracts or emails. Once data is recorded on the blockchain it cannot be removed and anyone can view the transactional data. Users known as miners or validators help keep the network running by validating transactions, and receive a reward for doing so.

Three types of digital currency:

1. Decentralised community based tokens such as Bitcoin, Etherium and around 19,000+ other tokens in circulation. If the main purposes of a currency are a medium of exchange and a store of value, then many would argue that these are not in fact currencies at all. In essence these are speculative investments that are not backed by any underlying financial assets and therefore their prices are extremely volatile. These assets are traded between people without the need of a third party such as a bank. Holders of these tokens are responsible for the governance and maintenance of the token and the network it operates on.

2. Stablecoins such as Tether or Circle. Issued by non-banks, stablecoins are designed to be a peg against a central bank issued currency such as US Dollars, hence the name. Whilst they are not used as a means of exchange, their price, in theory, remains stable. These tokens are backed – typically by high quality liquid assets such as the pegged asset itself (USD) or government bonds or other readily tradeable assets. These coins are lightly regulated, and the full granularity of the assets backing them is often lacking. Other types of stablecoins exist that use algorithms to manage the backed assets, and or the number of coins in supply to maintain the pegged value. Stablecoins are currently used by investors as a gateway from fiat[1] currency into the wider crypto marketplace.

3. Central Bank Digital Currencies or CBDCs. This is the only true form of currency, and is a digital version of a central bank issued money. A number of countries have already created a CBDC and the Bank of England is considering introducing one for the United Kingdom. Some see this as the biggest development in central banking since the introduction of central banking.

A UK CBDC would be widely accepted by all participants in economy as one digital pound sterling will be equivalent to one physical pound. CBDCs would be fully backed by the Bank and will be equivalent to Bank reserves currently held by commercial banks with the Bank of England.

Source: Bank of England

The Bank of England have been consulting with stakeholders on the possible creating of a Digital pound, and in 2021 published the discussion paper New forms of Digital Money in 2021. There are wide reaching potential implications for the introduction of a CBDC, such as disintermediation of the banking sector, privacy concerns and implications for monetary policy. Whilst the Bank and UK Government are yet to commit to a CBDC, there is a huge amount of momentum behind it may well be launched within five years or so.

Do we need a digital pound?

Why does the Bank of England believe a digital pound is necessary? The vast majority of payment are already digital. Blockchain technology may bring efficiency improvements but the current payment landscape is developing the whole time. Perhaps the main benefit of developing a CBDC is to protect the pound from a scenario where a privately issued digital currency has the means to displace it as the preferred means of exchange. This may appear unfathomable, however, a firm such as Meta (previously Facebook) with nearly 3 billion global users and around 45 million user in the UK alone (2/3 the UK population) is in prime position to roll out a currency to its users, reaching nearly 40% of people in the world. There would be wide reaching implications across society if this scenario played out.

Mass adoption of a non-bank stablecoin or other digital asset may be some way off, especially given the recent turbulence in the crypto world where the largest stablecoin, Tether, temporarily deviated from its peg to the US dollar and other stablecoins such as Luna have fallen to near-zero value. However, without doubt, money is changing, and we all need to be ready for it.

[1] Fiat money is a government-issued currency that is not backed by a physical commodity, such as gold or silver, but rather by the government that issued it. Most modern paper currencies are fiat currencies.

Posted by Joseph Thompson on 26 May 2022