Cryptos Are A Threat To Central Banks
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Cryptos Are A Threat To Central Banks

Why it goes beyond Bitcoin.

By Daren Fonda
Mon, May 3, 2021 10:26amGrey Clock 6 min

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.



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How the Middle East Became the Latest ‘Gold Rush’ in Marketing

The Middle East is set to be the fastest-growing marketing region in the world, driven by momentum in countries such as Saudi Arabia

By MEGAN GRAHAM
Tue, Jun 18, 2024 5 min

Saudi Arabia’s fledgling advertising industry and continued growth in the sector in the United Arab Emirates are helping to make the marketing business in the Middle East the fastest-growing in the world.

Ad spending in the Middle East is projected to increase 8.1% to $6.6 billion this year, up from 3.5% last year, according to advertising research firm WARC.

That expansion is building from a much smaller base than in many other ad markets. The Netherlands alone will generate $6 billion in ad spending in 2024, up about 2.3%, WARC said. But it is also enough to outpace every other region in 2024, the firm said.

“It reminds me almost of the gold rush,” said Reda Raad , chief executive of TBWA\Raad Group, an ad agency based in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, that is part of the U.S.-based ad holding company Omnicom Group . “I don’t think we’re going to see this type of growth again in our lifetime.” TBWA\Raad has won eight new clients over the past year, with an increase in head count of 17% to accommodate the new work, Raad said.

Some international brands have long maintained a presence in the region. PepsiCo has considered the area a strategic market for decades, said Karim Elfiqi , senior vice president and chief marketing officer at PepsiCo Africa, Middle East and South Asia. Sponsorship deals with local stars such as Mohamed Salah , a soccer player from Egypt, “are a testimony of how over time, we have been part of the cultural fabric of the region,” Elfiqi said.

Other major brands have formed a more recent focus on the Middle East. The Lego Group opened a Middle East and Africa headquarters in Dubai in 2019, citing the size of the region’s young population. That office has developed work such as a Ramadan-themed campaign that ran in the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, among other locations.

‘Massive growth’

The Middle East’s ad market has lagged behind regions such as North America and Europe partly because of stricter cultural norms and regulations that affected business, as did a more limited media landscape and economic instability, according to Raad.

But marketing growth in the region is now being driven in part by newfound marketing interest in Saudi Arabia, where ad spending this year is expected to reach $2.1 billion, nearly double its level in 2019, according to WARC. Growth is also coming from the U.A.E., whose ad market is expected to reach $1.7 billion in 2024. Smaller contributors include Qatar and Kuwait.

The landscape has changed now because of economic diversification, increased connectivity and a move into the digital world, leading international brands to enter and invest in campaigns tailored to the region, Raad said.

Four years ago, Saudi Arabia made up a small proportion of business at Lightblue, a creative experience and tech agency based in Dubai. These days, 40% of its business comes from the country, says co-founder David Balfour , who opened an office in Riyadh last month as a result.

“The conversation used to be, ‘We’re going to do this in Dubai.’ Now, it’s ‘We’re going to do this in Dubai—and in Saudi.’” Balfour said. “We’re seeing massive growth in that region.”

There have been speed bumps. As government spending reaches huge levels , Saudi Arabia experienced a rare economic contraction in 2023.

But the country’s efforts to expand its economic pursuits beyond oil have led to the creation of new brands, which are seeking the help of marketing agencies to get the word out.

Marketers in the region are seeking help to stay on-trend in areas such as generative artificial intelligence and social media, said Greg Paull , principal of R3, a consulting firm that helps match advertisers with agencies.

“U.A.E. has been a magnet for the region for 20 years as more investment has come in—but with the new leadership in Saudi since 2017 [when Mohammed bin Salman was named crown prince ], this market has gone through remarkable growth,” Paull said.

Saudi Arabia has faced criticism for its human-rights record under the crown prince, the day-to-day ruler of the kingdom, especially over the 2018 killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the more recent jailing of women’s rights activists.

Mohammed has outlasted the international isolation that followed Khashoggi’s killing, however, and continues to pursue an economic diversification plan dubbed Vision 2030. The country last year unveiled plans for a new international airline called Riyadh Air, is investing billions of dollars to build its tourism and videogame industries, and in March hosted a golf tournament in Jeddah under the auspices of LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed league that has both challenged the PGA Tour and struck a deal to unify with it.

Changing tides

Vision 2030 also calls women’s empowerment a top social priority and seeks to increase the country’s employment rate of women.

Nada Hakeem , CEO and co-founder of Saudi creative agency Wetheloft, said the perceptions of hardships for women in the marketing and advertising industry are outdated and inaccurate.

“As a Saudi woman who founded my company in 2012, I’ve always felt supported by the creative community and the industry as a whole,” Hakeem said. “While every society may have its challenges, I can confidently say that these challenges have not hindered our growth.”

A progression of new laws, policies and incentives are making the industry in Saudi Arabia more inclusive and supportive for women, she added.

In certain parts of the Middle East, “absolutely, it’s still challenging, but they are making the right strides, and they have the right quotas and ambitions in place,” said Rebecca Bezzina , CEO for the EMEA region at R/GA, an agency owned by Interpublic Group of Cos.

“They’ve got wealth, they’ve got world-class ambition, world-class budget. They’re not shy of doing things in the right way,” Bezzina added, speaking of the region overall. “But they still have a talent shortage, especially from a creative and design and product point of view. So often what we’ve found our success has been that they’ve come to us and said, ‘Oh, we want a world-class agency to help us launch this new venture or do this new brand.’”

R/GA said it sees 69% more requests for agency work from marketers in the region today than it did five years ago. It recently handled a brand redesign for Banque Saudi Fransi, which wanted to reaffirm its Saudi roots with a modern identity, and created Weyay, the brand for a new digital bank from the National Bank of Kuwait.

The agency hasn’t notably increased its regional workforce, but it has made changes to facilitate working across Europe and the Middle East.

Other Western players are making moves to capture a piece of the growth. Advertising giant WPP has long worked in Saudi Arabia through units such as Ogilvy and GroupM, but in 2021 established a joint venture with a local company to create ICG Saudi Arabia, a communications and media company based in Saudi Arabia. Ad holding company Stagwell opened new offices for its media agency Assembly in Riyadh in 2021 and in Cairo in 2022.

Regional hospitality

Some executives said certain facets of business dealings in the Middle East are different than in other parts of the world.

Bertrand Morin, a group account director for R/GA who is based in London and works often with Middle Eastern clients, said he spends much more time speaking about personal lives and families with those clients than those in the U.K. or U.S. He has been invited to Middle Eastern clients’ homes to join their families for dinner, something that has never happened with clients elsewhere.

But others say it can feel surprisingly familiar.

Balfour, the Lightblue co-founder, said he was struck by the number of ad-agency workers recently having dinner at the Riyadh location of steakhouse chain Beefbar, and the scene’s similarity to far-off locations.

“The staff are from everywhere in the world. The service and the food is unbelievable. There’s a DJ playing,” Balfour said. “Apart from not having alcohol, you could be anywhere in the world.”

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