Nov 17th 2019

The Digital Money Revolution

by Huw van Steenis

 

Huw van Steenis, a former senior adviser to Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, is Chair of Sustainable Finance at UBS and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Monetary and Financial System. 

 

LONDON – How radically will digital currencies change our methods of exchange and the way that we think about money? With innovation in digital payments barreling ahead, these questions are now commanding the attention of the World Economic Forum and other international institutions.

Regardless of how Facebook’s own digital-currency moonshot, Libra, fares, it has already provided a wake-up call for firms and policymakers around the world. “If revolution there is to be, let us rather undertake it than undergo it,” Otto von Bismarck once said. The question for policymakers is not whether to try to shape the digital-money revolution, but how.

Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google). In a way, Libra is actually crashing the party late.

The opportunities offered by digital money are clear. Across Western countries, moving money is overly costly and inefficient, and those who end up paying the most are often the ones who can least afford to do so. As I argued in a report for the Bank of England (BOE) earlier this year, improving these processes could yield significant returns and social benefits.

Moreover, the needs – the potential returns – are even greater in many emerging markets, particularly when it comes to cross-border payments. According to the World Bank, the cost of sending international peer-to-peer remittances averages around 7% of the sum. Efforts to improve the main payment channels are ongoing. TransferWise, for example, claims to have reduced the average cost of cross-border transfers for its clients to 0.74%. But less well-trodden routes remain a challenge, owing to the hurdles posed by anti-money-laundering rules and poor data quality.

Given the concerns that Libra has raised, some central banks have begun to explore the option of issuing their own digital tokens. Others are studying the thorny legal and regulatory challenges posed by digital money, so that they can safeguard monetary and financial stability. For her part, Lael Brainard, a governor on the US Federal Reserve Board, recently suggested that the risks of cryptocurrencies outweigh the benefits. By contrast, the People’s Bank of China is forging ahead – though not toward the decentralized or “permissionless” blockchain model envisioned by crypto enthusiasts. The PBOC wants to use cryptography to issue tokens to mainstream banks, which will then be passed on to customers within the existing two-tiered banking system.

Hence, if the European Central Bank (or others) wanted to be the first central bank to issue digital money, the opportunity is there for the taking. To policymakers considering the options presented by digital money, I would offer five recommendations from my BOE report.

First, monetary authorities should create the infrastructure to enable alternative payment methods to connect to one another. The private sector can flourish when central banks act as a platform for innovation, as BOE Governor Mark Carney has shown by granting non-bank payment firms access to the BOE payments system. But success will depend on how easily new providers can access the central-bank infrastructure, which will require well-designed application programming interfaces through which to receive and share information.

Second, policymakers should usher in the next generation of payments regulation. Rules need to be updated to reflect the increasing complexity and shifting risks of the current system. As the cost of payments falls, the value of data will grow. Yet existing rules pertaining to data sharing, security, and liability are mostly rudimentary. Given the flurry of new entrants, there is a case to be made for tiering regulation – as the Singaporeans have done – and stress-testing payment firms for their financial resilience and cyber-security protections.

Third, governments need to champion better digital identification, which is essential to improving financial inclusion, curbing cyber fraud, and reducing costs. Some countries have already made impressive progress on this front. India, for example, has largely cracked the identification problem with its Aadhaar program, which dramatically simplifies the process through which networks can know their customers. Countries that do not have a tradition of issuing national ID cards have more work to do, but their governments can cooperate with the private sector, or use existing high-quality national data sets such as passport and tax numbers.

Fourth, all countries need to support stronger messaging standards to improve cross-border payments, reduce costs, and prevent fraud. Just as postal codes help mail get to the right place, so too could better tagging of payment senders and recipients.

Fifth, and critically, policymakers need to create a roadmap for the decline of cash. In Sweden, cash payments have fallen by 80% over the past decade, and many other developed markets are just 5-10 years behind. Digital payments bring many benefits, but the Swedish experience shows that without a coordinated plan, the pace of change risks excluding some groups in society. As payment habits shift, each country will need a strategy to improve its payments infrastructure – including broadband and mobile-telephony networks – so that no one is left behind.

Payments innovation is moving at a dizzying pace. Some ideas may fail to get off the ground, while others may need to pivot to become commercially viable. Other issues, like market dominance or cyber-security risks, will undoubtedly become more prominent in policy debates. On balance, however, the economic and social benefits of a frictionless, fraud-free, and trusted global payments system will likely outweigh the risks.

Huw van Steenis, a former senior adviser to Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, is Chair of Sustainable Finance at UBS and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Monetary and Financial System.

© Project Syndicate 1995–2019

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."