Oct 17, 2019 - Technology

Central banks could be left behind on digital currencies

Illustration of a hand covering cryptocurrency

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Government leaders and central bankers are spending more time studying digital currencies, but don't look any closer to launching one than they were 6 months or a year ago.

Why it matters: Facebook, by contrast, appears to have a prime-time ready product — its Libra digital currency — and shows every intention of pushing forward, despite the recent abandonment by a quarter of the members of the currency's governing body.

  • The status quo is not an option," Libra co-creator David Marcus said Wednesday at the IMF's fall meeting. "Whether it’s Libra or something else, the world is going to change in a profound way,"

Background: It's been a decade since Bitcoin emerged, threatening to replace traditional money with digital tokens that performed the most important functions of cash but did so outside the control of central banks and other governmental authorities.

  • Ten years later, the adoption of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies has been inhibited by extreme price volatility and lack of transparency.
  • There is a race underway as private companies and sovereign governments push to develop the infrastructure and the money for the coming cashless society.

The big picture: The Fed and central banks around the world are responsible for overseeing and stabilizing the world’s money supply, but most are at risk of being left behind in this new phase.

  • 1.7 billion people have no access to digital payments, cross-border transactions carry an average transaction cost of 7%, and even sending money within a country is cost-prohibitive for people without bank accounts, Libra's Marcus says.
  • "The poorer you are, the more you’re paying for financial services."

What's happening: While a future without cash may seem distant in the U.S. — where more people write checks than use digital payments and there is a rising demand for dollars — the rest of the world is going there.

  • Countries like Kenya and India are already operating digital currency networks, and the People's Bank of China says it will release a digital currency this year.
  • Estimates show Chinese payment platforms Alipay and WeChat Pay handled $37 trillion in mobile payments last year, Fed governor Lael Brainard said Wednesday at a symposium on digital currencies held by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Yet the Fed is being "exceptionally cautious" in its possible development of a U.S. digital currency, Brainard, the Fed's leading financial authority — and a former undersecretary at the Treasury Department — told Axios during Wednesday's event.

  • A digital currency would have "profound implications for monetary policy transmission and potentially for financial stability," she said. "All of those things require a lot of careful consideration."
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