Cryptos Are A Threat To Central Banks
Why it goes beyond Bitcoin.
Why it goes beyond Bitcoin.
Most of us go to the Bahamas for the sun and surf. Central bankers may be visiting for another reason: to check out the country’s new digital currency, the Sand Dollar. The Bahamas is one of three countries to launch a digital currency, along with China and Cambodia. Sand Dollars are now loaded in mobile wallets on smartphones; to buy a beer, simply scan a QR code—more convenient than swiping a credit card or using a grubby dollar bill.
Digital currencies aren’t yet widespread, but a race is on to get them into circulation as battle lines harden between cryptocurrencies and standbys like the dollar.
More than 85% of central banks are now investigating digital versions of their currencies, conducting experiments, or moving to pilot programs, according to PwC. China is leading the charge among major economies, pumping more than $300 million worth of a digital renminbi into its economy so far, ahead of a broader rollout expected next year. The European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, and Federal Reserve are investigating digital currencies. A “Britcoin” may eventually be issued by the Bank of England. Sweden is lining up an e-krona and might be the first cashless nation by 2023.
Money already flows through electronic circuits around the globe, of course. But central bank digital currencies, or CBDCs, would be a new kind of instrument, similar to the digital tokens now circulating in private networks. People and businesses could transact in CBDCs through apps on a digital wallet. Deposits in CBDCs would be a liability of a central bank and may bear interest, similar to deposits held at a commercial bank. CBDCs may also live on decentralized ledgers, and could be programmed, tracked, and transferred globally more easily than in existing systems.
New cryptocurrencies and payment systems are raising pressures on central banks to develop their own digital versions. Bitcoin, while popular, isn’t the main threat. It’s highly unstable—more volatile than the Venezuelan bolivar. Many investors sock it away rather than use it, and the underlying blockchain network is relatively slow.
But the cryptocurrency market overall is gaining critical mass—worth $2.2 trillion in total now, with half of that in Bitcoin. Central bankers are particularly concerned about “stablecoins,” a kind of nongovernmental digital token pegged at a fixed exchange rate to a currency. Stablecoins are gaining traction for both domestic and cross-border transactions, particularly in developing economies. Technology and financial companies aim to integrate stablecoins into their social-media and e-commerce platforms. “Central banks are looking at stablecoins the way that taxi unions look at Uber—as an interloper and threat,” says Ronit Ghose, global head of banks research at Citigroup.
While many stablecoins are now circulating—the largest is Tether, with $51 billion in circulation, versus $2.2 trillion for the dollar—a big one may be arriving soon in Diem, a stablecoin backed by Facebook (ticker: FB). Diem may launch this year in a pilot program, reaching Facebook’s 1.8 billion daily users; it’s also backed by Uber and other companies. The potentially rapid spread of Diem is raising the ante for central bankers. “What really changed the debate is Facebook,” says Tobias Adrian, financial counsellor at the International Monetary Fund. “Diem would combine a stablecoin and payments platform into a vast user base around the world. That’s potentially very powerful.”
The broader force behind CBDCs is that money and payment systems are rapidly fracturing. In the coming years, people might hold Bitcoin as a store of value, while transacting in stablecoins pegged to euros or dollars. “The private sector is throwing down the gauntlet and challenging the central bank’s role,” says economist Ed Yardeni of Yardeni Research.
The dollar won’t disappear, of course—it’s held in vast reserves around the world and used to price everything from computers to steel. But every fiat currency now faces more competition from cryptos or stablecoins. And stablecoins in widespread use could upend the markets since they aren’t backstopped by a government’s assets; a hack or collapse of a stablecoin could send shock waves as people and businesses clamor for their money back, sparking a bank run or financial panic. And since they’re issued by banks or other private entities, they pose credit and collateral risks.
As commerce shifts to these digital coins, along with other cryptocurrencies and peer-to-peer networks, governments risk losing control of their monetary policies—tools that central banks use to keep tabs on inflation and financial stability. “Central banks need to create digital currencies to maintain monetary sovereignty,” says Princeton University economist Markus Brunnermeier. The Fed, for instance, manages the money supply by buying or selling securities that expand or contract the monetary base, but “if people aren’t using your money, you have a big problem,” says Rutgers University economist Michael Bordo.
It isn’t all about playing defense, though. Proponents of CBDCs say there are economic and social benefits, such as lower transaction fees for consumers and businesses, more-effective monetary policies, and the potential to reach people who are now “unbanked.” CBDCs could also help reduce money laundering and other illegal activities now financed with cash or cryptos. And since central banks can’t stop the rise of privately issued digital money, CBDCs could at least level the playing field.
While CBDCs have bounced around academia for years, China’s pilot project, launched last year, was a wake-up call. Analysts say China aims to get its digital renminbi into circulation for cross-border transactions and international commerce; the standard renminbi now accounts for 2.5% of global payments, well below China’s 13% share of global exports, according to Morgan Stanley.
In China, transactions on apps like Alipay and WeChat now exceed the total world volume on Visa (V) and Mastercard (MA) combined. The Chinese apps have also become platforms for savings, loans, and investment products. CBDCs could help regulators keep tabs on money flowing through the apps, and help prevent stablecoins from usurping the government’s currency. “That’s why the People’s Bank of China had to claim its property back—for sovereignty over its monetary system,” says Morgan Stanley chief economist Chetan Ahya.
Momentum for digital currencies is also building for “financial inclusion”—reaching people who lack a bank account or pay hefty fees for basic services like check cashing. About seven million U.S. households, or 5% of the total, are unbanked, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Democrats in Congress recently proposed legislation for a digital-dollar wallet called a FedAccount, partly to reach the financially disadvantaged.
Governments could also target economic policies more efficiently. Stimulus checks could be deposited into e-wallets with digital dollars. That could bypass checking accounts or apps that charge fees. It could be a way to get money into people’s hands faster and see how it’s spent in real time. Digital currencies are also programmable. Stimulus checks in CBDC could vanish from a digital wallet in three months, incentivizing people to spend the money, giving the economy a lift.
Researchers at the Bank of England estimate that if a digital dollar went into widespread circulation, it could permanently lift U.S. output by 3% a year. That may be a stretch, but central banks, including the Fed, are now building systems for banks to settle retail transactions almost instantly, 24/7, at negligible cost. CBDCs could slide into that infrastructure, cutting transaction fees and speeding up commerce. That could reduce economic friction and lead to productivity gains for the economy.
Some economists view CBDCs as a monetary-policy conduit, as well. Deposits of $1 million or more in CBDCs, for instance, might incur a 0.25% fee to a central bank, disincentivizing people and institutions from hoarding savings in a protracted slowdown. “It’s costly for the economy if wealthy people shift money into cash or equivalent securities,” says Dartmouth College economist Andrew Levin. “This would disincentivize that from happening.”
Digital currencies aren’t without controversy, though, and would need to overcome a host of technological issues, privacy concerns, and other hurdles. For one, they could make it easier for governments to spy on private-party transactions. Anonymity would need strong safeguards for a CBDC to reach critical mass in North America or Europe. Chinese officials have said their CBDC will preserve privacy rights, but critics say otherwise. The country’s new CBDC could “strengthen its digital authoritarianism,” according to the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
There are challenges for commercial banks, too. Central banks could compete with commercial banks for deposits, which would erode banks’ interest income on assets and raise their funding costs. Various proposals address those concerns, including compensating banks for services in CBDCs. Deposit rates would have to be competitive so that central banks don’t siphon deposits. But even in a two-tier financial model, commercial banks could lose deposits, pushing them into less stable and higher-cost sources of funding in debt or equity markets.
More disconcerting for banks: They could be cut out of data streams and client relationships. Those loops are critical to selling financial services that can generate more revenue than lending. “CBDCs will pose more competition to the banking sector,” says Ahya. “It’s about the loss of data and fee income from financial services.”
Banks in the U.S., Europe, and Japan don’t face imminent threats, since regulators are going slow. As incumbents in the system, banks still have vast advantages and could use CBDCs as a means of cross-selling other services. Most of the advanced CBDC projects are for wholesale banking, like clearing and settlement, rather than consumer banking. The ECB, for instance, has said it may limit consumer holdings to 3,000 euros, or about $3,600, in a rollout that may not kick off until 2025.
A timeline for a digital dollar hasn’t been revealed by the Fed and may take congressional action. More insights into the Fed’s thinking should be coming this summer: The Boston Fed is expected to release its findings on a prototype system. One compromise, rather than direct issuance, is “synthetic” CBDC—dollar-based stablecoins that are issued by banks or other companies, heavily regulated, and backed by reserves at a central bank.
Whatever they develop, central banks can’t afford to be sidelined as digital tokens blend into social-media, gaming, and e-commerce platforms—competing for a share of our wallets and minds. Imagine a future where we live in augmented reality, shopping, playing videogames, and meeting digital avatars of friends. Will we even think in terms of dollars in these walled gardens? That future isn’t far off, says the economist Brunnermeier. “Once we have these augmented realities, competition among currencies will be more pronounced,” he says. “Central banks have to be part of this game.”
Reprinted by permission of Barron’s. Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: May 2, 2021.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
Even amid two international conflicts and an upcoming U.S. presidential election, some philanthropic leaders are optimistic about the direction of overall giving through 2024.
Penta spoke with heads of several non-profits and leading philanthropists to gauge whether charitable giving will continue its reported slump from 2023 or rebound alongside renewed interest in various political and economic issues.
“Contrary to what some might expect, philanthropy has had resilience in these times,” says Stacy Huston, executive director of Sixdegrees.org, a youth empowerment non-profit based in Virginia founded by actor Kevin Bacon in 2007.
Huston’s view echoes recent data from the biennial Bank of America Study of Philanthropy published last year, which found that while affluent giving is largely down, the value of the average philanthropic gift is up 19%, surpassing pre-pandemic levels.
The notion of what these gifts look like is changing, and is partially responsible for the growth. Philanthropy can be executed through more avenues than ever, whether through celebrity association, tech titans stewarding large endowments, or athletes using their platforms to advocate for and create meaningful change.
“The industry and movement is creating new models, and you want to get it right,” says Scott Curran, CEO of Chicago-based Beyond Advisers. “No one should take their foot off the gas pedal.”
Curran spent a number of years with the Clinton Foundation in its infancy before leaving in 2016 to open his own consultancy, which focuses on philanthropy strategy at the highest levels. Curran and his team work with celebrities, athletes, multi-generational family foundations, and other affluent givers who need guidance in directing their philanthropic efforts. It’s a growing area of interest: Over half of affluent households with a net worth between US$5 million and US$20 million have, or are planning to establish, “some kind of giving vehicle” within the next three years, according to the Bank of America report.
Corporate philanthropy, rather than individual giving, is the cornerstone of Marcus Selig’s work as chief conservation officer at the National Forest Foundation, a Congressionally chartered non-profit based in Montana responsible for protecting millions of acres of public lands.
“Our outlook is business as usual,” he says, advising that giving may slow down, but not enough for the foundation to change course.
Factors such as political polarisation in the U.S. and the wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East are pushing nonprofits to consider their niche, and how they might work with other groups, both on the corporate and philanthropic levels, Selig says.
“It leads to a little more sharing on the ground in what needs to be done,” he adds.
Steve Kaufer , founder of Massachusetts-headquartered e-commerce giving platform Give Freely and founder of TripAdvisor, says that the economy has a much bigger role in election years, as he looks to build and grow something that can act as a “counterbalance.”
“There’s a trend towards democratisation, and acting collectively can lead to greater impact,” he says.
Kaufer’s new platform hopes to leverage the everyday philanthropist through online shopping dollars to benefit major charity partners like UNICEF and charity:water, who earn funds as shoppers choose an organisation to benefit through an online clickthrough process.
“Whether a good year or bad year, e-commerce will continue to keep growing,” he says. “Nobody doubts that.”
Whether a legacy foundation, corporation or individual, the political landscape this year is requiring some to exercise caution as they consider what their own charitable actions might be and how it could be viewed more broadly. For the personal philanthropist, every move is now scrutinised more closely. On the nonprofit side, entities are exercising more due diligence to understand if a specific donor aligns with their mission and that there aren’t any underlying issues that could cause greater pushback.
“You have to be able to walk the walk,” Huston says. “For example, we’ve had to turn down very large donor checks from corporations because there’s a Reddit stream calling them out on their human rights practices.”
She adds that even a routine charity activation could now be aligned with a political party, and that adds complexities to how a higher-profile organisation like Six Degrees can activate, especially as the film Footloose turns 40 in 2024 (which Bacon starred in).
“A lot of organisations and states want to align themselves with this feel good moment, and we should be able to stand side by side with everyone, but we have to be aware,” she says.
Another topic attracting donor interest today is mental health, an area that historically has been underfunded and under-resourced by philanthropy, according to Two Bridge partner Harris Schwartzberg, who has been closely linked to the mental health space for more than a decade.
Today, the issue for mental health nonprofits is less about resources and more about societal divisiveness and polarisation around the topic. There’s an “overwhelming demand” for solutions, but the space is in a “perfect storm” for the broader political issues to make things worse, Schwartzberg says.
In Curran’s opinion, the storms brewing are troublesome, but they are also creating new opportunities for corporate and personal giving. The current state of philanthropy is one of “dynamic, expansive, and blurred lines,” meaning a careful blending of targeted giving combined with an understanding of the broader geopolitical landscape could lead to a successful overall philanthropic strategy.
“There are a lot of headlines that distract, but shouldn’t,” he says. “2024 needs more serious philanthropists than ever.”
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’