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Digital dollars and E-euros: The case for national digital currencies

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India is the latest country to announce that it is looking into development of a national digital currency – or what’s known in the industry as a Central Bank Issued Currency (CBDC). In recent weeks and months, we’ve heard news of a growing number of central banks investigating the pros and cons of digitizing their money supply. Japan announced last week that it is considering the advantage of a “digital yen.” The Central Bank of the Bahamas is also examining the issue, as is, ahem, North Korea. Tunisia made fintech headlines last fall when a Russian news agency reported the country had digitized its currency. But Tunisian authorities have since denied the story.

The case for digitizing national currencies includes the idea that, at a minimum, central banks need to keep up with – if not get ahead of – the trend toward the digitization of money. More constructively, central bank-issued digital currencies (CBDC) could provide significant benefits in terms of reducing the costs and risks to the payments system and, according to a 2018 report from the IMF, “could help encourage financial inclusion.”

Issues of safety and anonymity remain paramount, and themes like regional specificity remind us that what works for one geography may not work for another.

However as the report makes clear, there are a wide variety of risks associated with CBDCs – the most immediate of which may be a simple lack of demand. The IMF’s Christine Lagarde made the point a few years ago in her address subtitled “The Case for New Digital Currency,” delivered at the Singapore Fintech Festival. The same “winds of change” that are driving central bankers to consider digitizing the money supply are also stimulating innovation in other forms of payment and value-storage. Any digital currency issued by a central bank still would have to compete with digital payment and value-storage offerings from the private sector.

In some ways, this is the most interesting consideration in the debate over digital currencies. Issues of safety and anonymity remain paramount, and themes like regional specificity remind us that what works for one geography may not work for another. But it is increasingly easier to imagine a world in which digital national currencies exist than it is to imagine a world in which they do not.

For more on the national digital currency movement around the world, check out Stephen O’Neal’s in-depth examination of the topic in Cointelegraph from the summer of 2018. O’Neal divided the world of state-issued currencies into the Adopters, the Rejectors, the Experimenters, and the Researchers. Note that Tunisia, as reported above, is no longer in the Adopters category, however the country’s central bank did note that it is “exploring” digital payment options including CBDC.

Additionally, some of the countries that have rejected national digital currencies have appeared to reconsider in recent years. A report from last fall suggested that private bankers and lenders in Germany, for example, have expressed interest in a form of “digital central bank money.”

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