Econ 101: Retail Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC)

The history of money is long and fascinating. Even the currency most frequently used in the United States has a rich history. Money makes possible the specialization and trade upon which our great wealth depends. Through its long history of development and evolution, money has serviced two key functions. It provides the standard unit for pricing traded goods and services so that their values can be meaningfully compared (it’s the unit of account) and it is the common asset in which payments are made (it’s the medium of exchange or payment).

Medium of Payment–Money

When you hire the neighborhood boy to mow your lawn, you probably first agree on a price (the number of dollars) This is the unit of account function of money, which is indispensable for the functioning of markets.  You could agree to trade with the neighborhood boy a nice lunch with lemonade in exchange for his mowing your lawn. But paying him $15 in Federal Reserve Notes has the advantage that he can exchange it for your lunch, or he can buy his lunch at Wendy’s or anything else of his choice.

Obviously, markets can’t really function if each item or service is priced in a different money unit (dollars, Euro, rubles, bitcoin, etc.). The Continental Congress of the United States authorized the issuance of a new currency, the US dollar, on July 6, 1785. Following the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, the new Congress established the United States dollar as the official currency of the United States in the Coinage Act of 1792. The Act also established the United States Mint, which produced and circulated coins with a fix amount of gold or silver (later only gold). “History of the United States dollar”  

As the result of the changing relative price of silver for gold, the bimetal gold/silver standard was replaced with the single metal standard of gold. The dollar was redefined in 1900 as “twenty-five and eight-tenths grains of gold nine-tenths fine,… and all forms of money issued or coined by the United States shall be maintained at a parity of value with this standard.” Fast forwarding through WWI and WWII and the creation of the Bretton Woods Institutions and the failure of the US to adhere to the requirements of the gold standard, the US “closed its gold window” and proceeded with varying degrees of success to manage the supply of its currency so as to preserve its purchasing power.

Over this long history many private actors (banks) created dollars. There are in fact thousands of private producers of dollars (Chase dollars, B of A dollars, etc.) Glossing over the details, it was a one currency system–the US dollar–because each bank’s currency could be redeemed for gold at  fix price or, after the creation of our central bank in 1913, for a deposit at a Federal Reserve Bank. This is obvious when you pay with Federal Reserve Notes, which are direct obligations of our central bank. Originally each note was identified by the Federal Reserve Bank that issued it–there were twelve of them–but even that distinction has been eliminated. Few people even noticed the difference. But most of our dollar money supply (M1: Federal Reserve Notes in circulation plus demand deposits at banks) is privately produced by banks and exists in digital form as accounting records with each of our banks.

Means of Payment

Our money–US dollars (or Euros or bitcoin)–is quite distinct from the various ways in which you can pay it–payment technologies. Cash payments–the transfer of Federal Reserve Notes from me to you–are hand delivered. But most payments are made by digitally transferring an amount of dollars from my bank account to yours. Such digital payments have the obvious advantage of enabling you to pay someone across town, across the country or even across the world (if they accept your currency) plus the safety of keeping your money in the bank pending such payments.  It’s not recommended that you send cash in the mail. The key insight is to understand how my dollar balance in my bank gets to your account at your bank and why your bank is willing to accept it. The quick answer is that your bank will not generally accept a claim on my bank but will record my payment because it receives an increase in its deposits at a Federal Reserve Bank of that amount.

In the old days I wrote a check that authorized my bank (after the check was deposited by you at your bank, which sent it to my bank) to debit my balance with the indicated amount and to transfer that amount from its balance at the Fed to your bank’s account at the Fed. SWIFT performs this payment instruction/authorization function for cross border payments (i.e., those involving two central banks). Today I issue this instruction directly to my bank electronically on the internet or my smart phone. The “dollars” are one currency no matter who creates and issues them because whoever receives them can redeem them for balances at the central bank (or in the old days for gold).

Visa, Master Card and American Express credit cards provide payments on my behalf by lending me the money before I actually make the payment from my bank account to the credit provider at the end of the month. The loan to me involved in such payments, increases the cost of this type of payment.

The execution of the interbank portion of my payments have become increasingly efficient over time but can still take several days because the Federal Reserve Banks do not operate in the evening or on weekends. When our central bank launches FedNow next year it will allow the continuous processing of payments between banks 24/7.

The front end of the payment process, i.e., my initiation of a payment to you, for example, has also benefited from software improvements. Unlike bitcoin, Ethereum, or Ripple, which are currencies, Zelle, Venmo, PayPal, etc. are payment technologies rather than money. They are means for paying US dollars (or other currencies) from me to you. Venmo, for example can be thought of as the payment service part of a bank. It can hold money for you and can transfer it to others (who must also have a Venmo account) but Venmo cannot make loans with your money. Thus, people without bank accounts can use Venmo as if it were a bank account.

The Federal Reserve and other central banks are investigating whether they should also provide the service to the public of paying dollars with so called Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). The Federal Reserve defines a CBDC “as a digital liability of the Federal Reserve that is widely available to the general public.” “Money and payments–Fed report”  CBDCs would be a direct claim on the central bank like Federal Reserve notes (cash) but would be held and transferred digitally like your bank deposits. If the Fed goes forward with introducing CBDCs, they would almost certainly be what are called retail CBDCs. Rather than opening accounts at the Fed directly, we would each do so through a bank. We would sign up with and deal with a bank to hold the Fed’s CBDCs. The Fed has no existing capacity to deal directly with each of us in the way that our banks do. The balance of this note will explore how such CBDC would compare with, say, Venmo balances and payments and whether they are worth the trouble.

All digital money is recorded on electronic ledgers, either distributed as with a block chain used by bitcoin, or centrally maintained as with our bank accounts. As block chains are slow and expensive to verify, they would not be used for CBDCs. Just in case you didn’t know, when you walk into your bank and deposit cash, they don’t put it in the value for you. They record the value of the cash you delivered in our account with the bank, and they return the cash to the Fed for a credit to your bank’s Fed account or invest or lend it to someone else (after having converted it into a balance in their Fed account). It is both useful and interesting (to us economists at least) to walk through how my deposit at my bank is transferred to you (your account at your bank).

Taking Venmo as the example of existing digital payment technology, your deposit of dollars to your Venmo account would be digitally transferred from your bank account to your account on Venmo’s ledger. Your bank would transfer the same amount to Venmo’s deposit account with its bank (in the name of PayPal, which owns Venmo) in the usual interbank transfer manner. All (double entry) financial ledgers have a liability side (your deposit with the bank — what the bank owes you) and an asset side (the cash you deposited or the balance in your bank’s fed account for the money you had transferred to it). The ledger shows what the bank owes (liabilities) and the assets it holds with which to pay out what it owes (assets).

All digital money, whether your bank deposit or Venmo or bitcoin, must provide for an on ramp into and off ramp out of the digital system, i.e., for the process of paying cash in to acquire the digital money and of drawing it out as cash. Interestingly, Kenya has had a version of Venmo payments for several decades already. Kenya’s M-Pesa The ownership and use of cell phones (not necessarily smart phones) is very widespread in Kenya, while bank accounts are far more limited. Thus, people paid for phone airtime by the hour by paying cash to street venders selling such service. This became the on ramp for the unbanked to fund their M-Pesa mobile money accounts.

If you have money in your Venmo account (a positive balance), you can issue a payment instruction via your Venmo wallet directly to the friend you are paying. You can also instruct Venmo to take that the money simultaneously from your bank account. You can do all of this on your smart phone while waiting for your drink at a local bar. If your friend doesn’t have a Venmo account, Venmo will instruct her on how to set up one in order to receive your payment. If you give Venmo a day or two to complete the payment, it is free. If you want it delivered immediately (within a few minutes) there is a small fee. When the payment is complete, your balance at Venmo (or your bank) will have been reduced by the amount of the payment and your friend’s balance with Venmo will have been increased by the same amount. She can leave the money there or move it to her bank account (on her cell phone) if she has one. The money will “exist” as an accounting record somewhere. These “dollars” are accepted from wherever they come (from whoever produced them) because they are claims on, or are converted into deposits at, a Federal Reserve Bank.

How would this compare with a payment with central bank digital currency (CBDC)? While the Federal Reserve has not indicated the details of a possible CBDC, it would probably work something like this. I would ask my bank to sell me CBDCs by debiting my checking account by the indicated amount. These would be added to (credited to) my CBDC account at my bank.  My bank would transfer that amount from its general account at its Federal Reserve Bank to a segregated CBDC account at the Fed. My cell phone wallet would record (by accessing my CBDC account at my bank) this amount, and my bank would back it 100% with its CBDC account at the Fed.

Why does this matter? It matters because if my bank fails (goes into bankruptcy), the amount in the bank’s CBDC reserves at the Fed would be excluded from the bankruptcy process. They are exclusively and fully available to back my CBDC holdings. When I pay CBDC to my friend, her bank will receive them without regard for the condition of my bank.

Some of you will recognize this as the equivalent of the so-called Chicago Plan. The Chicago Plan required banks to back all checking account deposits 100% with central bank reserves. Our bank deposits today are largely backed by bank loans and investments plus a small deposit with the central bank. Such CBDC deposits would be totally free of default risk. While all CBDCs would exist on the books of the Federal Reserve, ownership by individuals would be reflected on the books of their respective banks and in their CBDC wallets.

Like the Chicago Plan, CBDCs have the potential to reduce the money multiplier (the ratio of broad money to base money–the Federal Reserve’s monetary liabilities). A shift from demand deposits to CBDC deposits at banks would reduce the funds available to banks for lending by increasing the reserves they must hold at the Fed. This could be easily compensated for by increasing base money (Federal Reserve monetary liabilities). Sudden shifts to the safer CBDCs in reaction to financial shocks, like traditional bank runs, would require central bank intervention. The Fed has also indicated that it would want any digital replacement of its currency notes to provide as much user privacy as possible (like cash) consistent with “affording the transparency necessary to deter criminal activity.”

How would this compare with a Venmo payment. From our perspective (the perspective of the payer and payee) a Venmo or CBDC payment would be executed in the same or very similar way. The difference is that the CBDC balances would be totally risk free (being relatively direct claims on the central bank) while the Venmo balances would be exposed to the risk of the failure of the bank in which Venmo keeps its assets that back our Venmo balances. It is not obvious that this is a big enough difference to make it worth undertaking.

A Libertarian Money

Some people claim that libertarians like cryptocurrencies like bitcoin because they do not rely in any way on government. Perhaps those people meant “anarchists” because libertarians (to be safe perhaps I should just refer to my own views though I know that they are widely shared by other libertarians) accept the critical importance of government in defining and protecting property rights and personal safety. Bitcoin and most other cryptocurrencies do not satisfy the requirements for a good libertarian money because they do not satisfy the requirements for good money. This note explains why this is so and defines what is good libertarian money.

Are Cryptocurrencies the Answer?

Economists note the incredible power of markets and market prices in directing our scarce resources (our labor, capital, and technology) to their best uses. But prices are expressed in terms of money. The presumption, and actual reality, is that within each market prices are expressed in terms of the same money. It would not facilitate our choices if apples were priced at $6 per bushel and oranges at 3 bitcoin per bag. Presently, virtually nothing is priced in bitcoin. In addition, sellers don’t generally accept payment in a currency other than the one in which the good’s price is expressed, thus very few sellers will accept bitcoin in payment. Moreover, you can only accept bitcoin in payment if you have a bitcoin account together with the software required (a bitcoin wallet).

None of these are insurmountable barriers to growth in the use of bitcoins, but they do require strong incentives for putting up with and/or overcoming them. I explained the basics of bitcoins value in the following blog in 2014: “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”   One incentive would be to replace the established currency in a market (a country’s legal tender) that has very unstable value (think Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil at various times in their histories). Another would be the need for anonymity (as is achieved with paper currency) that an illegal drug dealer or a political dissident in a repressive regime might require and find convenient.

Bitcoin’s claim to eliminate the trusted third party (bank accounting systems) required by existing electronic (digital) payments with bank deposits, is particularly attractive to libertarians.  But this claim is a gross exaggeration. To prevent the double spending of the same bitcoin, each transaction must be verified by so called miners (third parties you don’t need to trust) which takes five to ten minutes and very large amounts of electricity to process as miners race to solve increasingly difficult mathematical puzzles. Also, all transactions are very public on block chains, though accounts may be held under pseudonyms and are thus described as pseudo-anonymous.

Though actual bitcoin transactions have been made easier via the development of software wallets, many assign their bitcoins to exchanges (trusted third parties).  “The future of bitcoin exchanges”  The loss of a bitcoin owner’s password to his account is fatal and final. Those bitcoins are lost forever. But more deadly to the use of bitcoin as money (unit of account and medium of payment) is the volatility of its value.  The price of a bitcoin has ranged from just under $30,000 to over $67,500 over the last year. It is currently $39,268. Thus, payments of bitcoin generally involve temporarily purchasing them with dollars or some other stable currency and then exchanging them back to dollars as quickly as possible after receipt. The costs of these exchanges are often overlooked when claiming that bitcoin transfers are cheaper than traditional means of electronic payments. Most buyers and sellers of bitcoin are indulging in a form of gambling.

The Libertarian Alternative

There are monetary regimes, however, that satisfy libertarian preferences for minimal government involvement and manipulation. The Constitution of the United States provides the authority for such a regime in Article I Section 8 “To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;” The classical gold standard was such a system. However, its “rules” were diluted when taken over by central banks. Moreover, the practice of actually buying and storing gold distorted its market price and was costly, flaws that are avoided in the system I propose below.

In the U.S. today, as well as every other country in the world, there are thousands of private companies that create and offer their own currency. Most of them are banks. While that would seem to make libertarians happy, thousands of individual bank producers of money would not constitute an efficient monetary system without rules and mechanisms for linking them into what we think of as one currency–in our case the U.S. dollar.

While the dollars deposited in my bank are my bank’s liability, I am protected from the bank’s failure by deposit insurance. Your bank accepts my deposits in my bank because my bank credits your bank’s account with the Federal Reserve (by debiting its account with the Fed). In short, the deposits at thousands of different banks are accepted by every other bank because they are all ultimately claims on the Fed. This is similar to the gold standard in which the money created by thousands of banks were accepted everywhere because they were redeemable for a well-defined amount of gold.

Libertarians want a currency and monetary system that can’t be manipulated by the government (central bank).  The dollar is now a fiat currency (redeemable for nothing–except a claim on, i.e., deposit with, the Federal Reserve). Thus, its supply is determined by the Fed’s judgement of what is needed for “price stability and maximum sustainable employment.” We libertarians want a currency that we each individually control the supply of. In short, we want a currency with a hard anchor (which was the case for the gold standard) supplied according to currency board  rules (which historically were violated by central banks nominally anchored by gold). Currency board rules require the currency issuer to sell or repurchase its currency at its fixed price in response to public demand. Any number of private producers of dollars redeemable at an officially fixed price for a well-defined anchor (gold, aluminum, a basket of goods, etc.) would result in a money supply determined by the public that was consistent with and appropriate for its fixed price to the anchor and that was fully interchangeable. The central bank would be passive. It would have no monetary policy (beyond the fixed price for the anchor). This seems like libertarian heaven.

I led the IMF teams that established the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which follows currency board rules. I have written a book about that experience:   “One Currency for Bosnia-Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”   or  “Amazon– One Currency for Bosnia” I also participated in Bulgaria’s adoption of currency board rules. The currencies of both countries are anchored to the Euro and their currency experiences have been outstanding. Their money supplies are basically regulated by market arbitrage. If the market exchange rate of the Bulgarian lev to the Euro rises above its official rate, it would be cheaper for the banks that issue lev to buy Euros from the Bulgarian National Bank thus reducing the supply of lev in the market and lowering its market price for Euro. See my blog on Bulgaria’s experience: “Bulgaria and the Chicago Plan

A Libertarian International Reserve Currency

What about cross border payments? In brief, cross border transactors have found it economical to price and settle transactions in a vehicle currency, usually the US dollar. The increasingly frequent deployment of sanctions enforced by restricting the use of the dollar has intensified the search for alternatives. See my more detailed discussion: “The Empire and the Dollar”  The search for alternatives to the dollar risks fragmenting the global market place as proposed by Russia’s Sergey Glazyev.  “A new global financial system”

The International Monetary Fund has already created such an alternative. An internationally established unit (anchor) is much less likely to be abused for national political purposes, but the IMF’s Special Drawing Right (SDR) suffers from some serious defects. However, these can be fixed. “Time for a New Global Currency”   Why the World needs a new Reserve Asset with a Hard Anchor

The SDR can be “fixed” in two stages. The first is to develop the private sector’s uses of the SDR unit of account (invoicing oil and other globally traded commodities in SDRs, borrowing and lending denominated in SDRs, SDR bonds and bills, and digital SDR deposits–eSDRs). See my more detailed discussion:  “Promoting Market SDRs”  As with national currencies, where hundreds of individual producers of the national currency are made interchangeable by being claims on the central bank, the market SDRs of many competitive producers would be interchangeable as the result of being redeemable for the official SDR of the IMF.

The second stage would require a reform of the IMF’s official SDR. Rather than allocating them from time to time to all IMF members, they should be issued according to currency board rules. In addition, the valuation of the official SDR should be changed from its current basket of five currencies to a small basket of homogeneous, globally traded commodities. The IMF’s existing rules for periodically adjusting the SDR’s valuation basket are transparent and appropriate and should continue to be used. In one sense, this would reestablish an improved international gold standard like system. It would be improved by replacing a single commodity anchor with a small portfolio of commodities and its supply would be improved by adopting the market driven rules of a currency board.  “Free Banking in a Digital Age”

Bitcoin Excitement

Interest in bitcoin is growing. Its promotors are generally good guys wanting to provide the world a better payment system. Its users are often bad guys happy to move their ill gotten money pseudo anonymously (though the Feds tracked down and recovered some of the ransomware paid in bitcoin by Colonial Pipeline). 

Ezra Fieser reports in Bloomberg on a fascinating effort in the El Salvadorian village of El Zonte to expand the use of Bitcoin for making payments.  [“World’s biggest bitcoin experiment is a surf town in El Salvador”]  On June 9th, El Salvador approved President Nayib Bukele’s proposal to add Bitcoin to the U.S. dollar as legal tender in the country (El Salvador does not have its own currency).  El Zonte has no bank, thus storing money and making payments of it from a smart phone wallet would be very attractive.

Michael Peterson is the acknowledged father of efforts to establish bitcoin in El Zonte. The requirements for its use are apps for acquiring, storing, and paying bitcoin on smart phones and the proliferation of people and merchants with such apps willing and able to deal in bitcoin. Peterson “used Wallet of Satoshi, one of the many existing smartphone apps created for small transactions using Bitcoin, which is notoriously impractical—expensive and slow—for everyday purchases.  As more stores began asking how they could accept Bitcoin, Peterson decided El Zonte needed its own app. The Bitcoin Beach Wallet, which launched in September, similarly uses technology that allows for small transactions.” [Bloomberg, ibid]

Bitcoin ownership and transactions are recorded on blockchains that are replicated thousands of times around the world and publicly accessible. Blockchain is a slow and expensive approach to record keeping, but avoids the so called “trusted third party” of, say, a bank account ledger. Thus, work arounds have been developed for small payments that can be spent without the slow and cumbersome mining that prevents double spending for digital currencies on distributed ledgers (e.g., blockchain).  Despite the touted attraction of avoiding a “trusted third party”, most bitcoin users hold them with exchanges such as CoinDesk. These exchanges also facilitate finding sellers for those wishing to buy bitcoin and buyers for those wishing to sell them. Bitcoin traders no longer gather in park meetings that brought buyers and sellers together. [“The future of bitcoin exchanges”]

But the value of bitcoin has been highly unstable. On April 15 Bitcoin traded at $64,829.14, rising unevenly from virtually nothing starting in July 2010. On May 23, it traded for $31,248.42 and as I write this it is trading at $34,616.24, not exactly a stable value.

Thus, bitcoin has not been used to fulfill one of the key functions of money, i.e., to set prices. Though a growing (but still relatively small) number of establishments in El Zonte will accept bitcoin, they all price their goods and services in U.S. dollars. Thus, before bitcoin can be used for payment, an exchange rate (bitcoin equivalent of the required dollar amount) must be agreed. 

To succeed and be widely accepted and used as a currency, the value of bitcoin will need to become much more stable. In fact, to be competitive with the dollar or other sovereign currencies, bitcoin will need to become more stable than its competitors. Improving payment technology can be used for the dollar or any other currency, so the issue is the currency itself rather than the technology for paying it.  See the very successful example of M-Pesa in Kenya. That technology is very unlikely to rely on the clunky blockchain. Even Facebook’s Libra (now called Diem) only pretended to use blockchain, stating that it intended to switch to blockchain in the future. [“Bitcoin, cybercurrencies, and blockchain”]

As explained in my first article on bitcoin written over seven years ago [“Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”] the value of bitcoin or any other currency results from the matching of its supply with its demand at a particular value. Achieving that equilibrium requires either an adjustment in its supply or in its value. Widespread use of bitcoin for payments (rather than just speculative investments) will create demand to hold it for future payments. Bitcoin’s supply is totally predictable. It is growing gradually to a maximum of 21 million units by the year 2040. The supply is currently 18.74 million. Thus, its value depends on what happens to its demand for payments.

While the demand for money (dollars or whatever) tends to be relatively stable in relation to income over moderate periods of time, it is subject to seasonal and other temporary short-term fluctuations.  In the search for a rule based monetary policy, Milton Friedman proposed that the money supply should grow at a constant rate (e.g., 3 to 5%) over time to match the increase in the demand for money as income grows.  But short-term (even day to day) fluctuations in money demand would have resulted in very volatile interest rates in order to keep money demand in line with the steadily increasing supply. Central banks around the world have generally targeted interest rates instead to allow short run adjustments in supply to short-run changes in demand. But setting and adjusting the policy interest rate can be tricky as well.

The ideal monetary regime is to fix the value of currency to something (such as gold, or a basket of currency as in the case of the IMF’s SDRs, or a small basket of widely traded commodities) and then allow the public to adjust the supply to match its changing demand for that fixed value. Such a system follows currency board rules. The central bank passively supplies or redeems its currency in response to the public’s demand at the fixed price. Such a system has been adopted by several countries as is described in detail in my book on the creation of the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  [“One Currency for Bosnia-Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”]

Even under the most favorable conditions of widespread use for payments, bitcoin would suffer the weakness of the Friedman rule. With no elasticity to its supply, a holder of bitcoin wanting to sell some would have to offer a price that another holder would be willing to accept and visa versa. Its value would remain volatile (though less so). It is hard to imagine bitcoin ever succeeding as a widely used currency. https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2021/06/10/cryptocoins-are-proliferating-wildly-what-are-they-all-for?frsc=dg%7Ce

Whither Libra?

Every other day, it seems, we witness the launch of a new crypto (digital) currency.  Each combines a medium of exchange (a currency) and a means of payment (a technical process of delivering the currency—of making a payment with it). While many of us have watched the ups and downs of bitcoin and its imitators with amusement, none of us (hopefully) take it seriously as a currency. Bitcoin is a speculative vehicle for gambling.  Processing bitcoin payments is too slow, and its value is too volatile to succeed as a medium of exchange or as a means of payment. Only about 1% of bitcoin transactions are actual payments.  Many new means of payment do not involve a new currency.  Thus, debit and credit cards, checks, wire transfers, PayPal, Popmoney, Zelle, etc., are means of payment of US dollars, or Euros or other sovereign currencies.

Unlike the bitcoins of the world, Libra is a currency and means of payment that is designed to ensure that its tokens will have a stable value.  The legacy members of Facebook, Visa, Uber, and other partners in the Libra Association promise the possibility of rapid adoption. Libra’s value will be fixed to that of a basket of major currencies, its supply will be regulated by market demand at that fixed price (issued via currency board rules), and it will be fully backed by assets of the same value ensuring that holders of Libra can redeem them for the same value at any time.

Suddenly potential regulators are on high alert such as witnessed in the recent Congressional testimony of David Marcus, head of Facebook’s Calibra, to Congress.  By whom and how should Libra be regulated?  Obviously, it will need to comply with Anti Money Laundering (AML/CFT) requirements and whatever else each jurisdiction in which its participants reside (holders of “accounts” with Libra or of its tokens) require of money service providers. Banks take deposits and lend, so Libra would not be a bank. While its tokens might be treated as deposits, it will not lend (its purchases of government debt and other securities with the money paid to buy Libra are investments not loans).  In this short note I will explain why Libra—the coin/token/currency—is not a claim on a mutual fund and thus should not be regulated in the US by the Securities and Exchange Commission.  I will not, however, examine its claim to be a more efficient means of payment.

The nature of Libra’s claim of stability rests on how its value is determined.  Its value is to be fixed to the market value of a basket of currencies yet to be determined. But how does that work exactly?  The world already has an internationally determined and managed unit of account, the Special Drawing Right (SDR) of the International Monetary Fund.  Rather than introduce yet another, competitive unit the case for Libra to fix to the SDR is so overwhelming that I will illustrate the difference between a currency basket as a unit of account and as an investment portfolio with the SDR. The composition of the SDR’s valuation basket is established by international agreement following a well-specified and transparent process.  Fixing the value of a Libra to that of the SDR would remove any risk of its value being manipulated by Facebook or other Libra shareholders. That would strengthen the status of the Libra but also contribute to enhancing the IMF’s SDR as a supplement or substitute for the dollar in international reserves, as called for in the IMF’s Articles of Agreement.

The SDR’s value is determined by a basket of five currencies (the dollar, euro, pound sterling, yen and renminbi).  The IMF computes the dollar value of one SDR (and thus the value in every other currency) daily on the basis of the market exchange rate of each of the five currencies in the valuation basket into dollars.  The dollar values of each currency are added up to determine the dollar value of the basket.  By fixing the value of one Libra to one SDR it sets the price at which Libra can be purchased and the currency value that would be returned if Libra were redeemed.

This might seem similar to, but is in fact very different than, the value of one Libra being determined by the value of the portfolio of investments that back it.  The “Reserve” backing Libra would consist of SDR denominated assets (e.g., SDR bonds) or assets in each of the five basket currencies in the same proportion as in the SDRs valuation basket. Thus, it would bear no exchange rate risk.  However, the investment would have other risks, specifically interest rate and default risks.  To the extent that some of the Reserve’s investments are relatively long term (say ten-year Treasury bonds), changes in market interest rates would change the current market value of these investments. While Reserve investments would presumable be made only in the safest assets and would be limited to relatively short-term instruments, the risk of default or loss in value would not be zero.  So, if one Libra is a claim on its share of the Reserve, its value could differ from the daily dollar value of the SDR valuation basket.

Libra wishes to include the unbanked in its market, thus opening financial and payment services to this broad group now unable to enjoy them. If Libra’s value is fixed to the value of its Reserve, and thus regulated by the SEC (in the US), consumer protection investment regulations would likely exclude the very people Libra is most interested in serving. Thus, Libra should fix its value to that of a unit of account and not to the value of its Reserve.

 

Free Banking in the Digital Age?

By Warren Coats[1]

Introduction

A number of central banks are considering issuing digital currency either in place of the paper currency they now issue or in parallel with it.  The advantages of central bank digital currency (CBDC) over paper currency for the issuer is the much lower cost of supplying and maintaining the currency (printing, storing, transporting, safekeeping and replacing old and damaged notes). For the users, there are the benefits of much greater speed and lower cost of making payments of currency across distances.  The use of paper currency (cash) in economies with proliferating electronic means of payment (Visa, PayPal, Zella, popmoney, etc.) has been and will continue to fall.  In addition, digital currencies can and do extend digital payment services to the unbanked.  This note explores some of the policy issues raised by CBDC, by which I mean digital claims on the currency issued by the official monetary authority, whether directly or indirectly.

Payment with digital currency involves transferring ownership of a claim on the issuer without needing to or providing any information about the payer, in particular without providing information about the payer’s bank account if she has one.  In this respect it mirrors the payment of traditional paper currency.  A primary issue for a central bank when considering issuing a digital currency is whether it should be offered wholesale or retail, i.e., offered only to banks and maybe other financial firms, or offered to the general public.  If a central bank offered CBDC directly to the general public it would transform and greatly expand the role of the central bank and could potentially end the role of commercial banks in the payment system.

Offering CBDC only to banks and other financial firms would offer little that is not already available via central banks’ acceptance of deposits from these entities, which of course are digital.  In fact the distinction between digital currency and traditional deposits is not always clear or important.[2]  Currently Fedwire settles payments between account holders, including government agencies, in domestic and foreign banks licensed in the U.S.  It does not settle USD payments between accounts in non-resident banks and resident banks.  Such payments could occur with CHIPS (Clearing House Interbank Payments System) correspondent banks, but could also potentially be made by the transfer of a central bank digital currency.

If a digital currency is issued to the general public by banks in the two-tier fashion of today’s bank money, in which banks maintain deposits of national money with their central bank to secure the deposits of national money held by banks for the general public, there is an issue of what assets banks should hold or be required to hold against their deposit or currency liabilities to the public.  Digital currency issued to the public by the central bank would have no default risk, whereas digital currency issued by banks or other entities, being a liability of the issuing bank, would have default risks.

It is also possible to permit non-banks to issue digital currency as has been done very successfully in Kenya by a phone company.[3]  Over half of Kenya’s population participates in this so-called mobile phone money service. Public acceptance of a digital currency requires that its claim on central bank money is credible.  Safaricom, the issuer of Kenya’s digital currency, M-Pesa, backs the deposits of participants 100% with Kenyan shilling deposits with banks.  While M-Pesa balances are generally paid from one person or firm to another, they can be withdrawn via an agent at their face value in shilling currency issued by the central bank at any time.

A study issued by the Bank of International Settlements explores issues raised by central bank digital currency (CBDC) more generally.[4]

Background

A review of the free banking era in the U.S. (1837 – 1913) provides a useful framework in which to analyze the options and implications of digital national currencies.  Banks in that period could issue their own U.S. dollar denominated banknotes.  Because banks lend some of the money deposited with them – so-called fractional reserve banking – issuing their own currency when their depositors wished to withdraw cash, was stabilizing as explained below.  The issue of whether CBDC should use block chain (DLT) or centrally administered ledgers will not be considered here as DLT is too expensive and inefficient to take seriously as an option at this time.[5] Project Jasper of the Bank of Canada concluded that: “the versions of distributed ledger currently available may not provide an overall net benefit when compared with existing centralized systems for interbank payments.  Core wholesale payment systems function quite efficiently.”[6]

The report does not exclude the possibility that future versions might overcome existing defects and have net advantages for some applications.

The feature of so called free banking that is relevant here was the ability of commercial banks to issue their own currency (banknotes).  These banknotes did not represent private currencies in the way bitcoin does.  In the case of the United States, all bank issued currency was denominated in US dollars and redeemable for gold (or silver) at its fixed price for the dollar.  Historicallybanknotes were originally created by goldsmiths in post Medieval England – first as warehouse receipts to depositors of cash – and then as a form of lending as an alternative to having the borrower’s account credited.  For an interesting account see the article by Benjamin Geva.[7]

Banks generate most of their income by lending at interest or investing the money deposited with them by the public.  As a result, not all of the money deposited is available to pay out to the depositors should they all want their money back (as cash or by transfer to another bank) at the same time (a so-called bank run).  Only a modest amount of depositors’ money (it is actually the bank’s money once it is deposited) is available in the bank in the form of cash or deposits at the central bank.  These so called reserves must be, and virtually always are, sufficient to satisfy the cyclical (monthly and seasonally) variations in the public’s preferences for cash over deposits.  This system is referred to as fractional reserve banking because the amount of bank “reserves” are less than the amount of their deposit liabilities.  The difference in the amount of deposits and of reserves consists of bank loans and investments in less liquid assets.

In today’s banking systems all banknotes (cash) are issued by a central bank.  Thus when a deposit is withdrawn for cash, the bank’s assets (cash) and deposit liabilities both fall by the same amount.  If a bank does not hold sufficient cash or deposits with the central bank to satisfy these periodic demands, the bank is said to be illiquid.  When banks were able to issue their own currencies (Citibank dollars and Chase dollars) only the mix of bank liabilities changed (from deposits to cash) with no change in their assets.  Their total liabilities and assets remained the same.  This was a very desirable feature of note issuing banks and eliminated the risk of illiquidity from cash withdrawals.  These banks might still suffer illiquidity from deposit transfers/payments to entities with deposits in other banks.

In the free banking era when the public came to doubt the solvency of their bank (loan and investment losses that exceeded a bank’s capital—i.e., when the value of a bank’s assets falls below the value of its deposit and other liabilities) it was pointless to withdraw deposits as the bank’s own banknotes because the bank did not have sufficient assets to redeem them.  Bank runs in such cases would take the form of converting deposit or cash claims on the bank into claims on another, hopefully sounder, bank.  Those who failed to do so before the insolvent bank was closed and liquidated would lose part of their claim, i.e. they would be forced to absorb their share of the bank’s asset shortfall (its negative capital).

Thus a ten dollar bill issued by Citibank and one issued by Chase, being claims on two different banks, could have different values (even if redeemable in theory for the same amount of gold) if the public lost confidence in the solvency of one or the other. Merchants needed to pay attention to whose banknotes they were accepting.

When you pay someone by transferring some of your bank balance to the payee’s bank account (e.g. by writing a check), your bank and the receiving bank must both participate in the same clearinghouse (or have an account with a correspondent bank that participates) enabling their obligations with each other to be settled in central bank money.[8]  This role is now generally performed by each country’s central bank and the deposits that banks keep there are called reserve deposits.  In some countries a minimum amount is required (a reserve requirement) and in others it is fully voluntary but needs to be sufficient for net payments between banks.

While this fractional reserve system worked well most of the time, banks were occasionally hit with unusually large or panic withdrawals that they were not able to satisfy even when they were fully solvent (had positive capital).  A key function of the central banks being established all over the world a century or more ago was to provide temporary liquidity to such illiquid but solvent banks (though it is difficult to evaluate the solvency of a bank in real time—i.e. the soundness of their loans and investments).  Thus central banks were so-called Lenders of Last Resort.

In 1933, in the midst of America’s Great Depression, a group of University of Chicago economists proposed, among other things, that banks be required to hold reserves (cash and deposits with the Federal Reserve) of at least 100% of their demand deposit liabilities (checking accounts).  This is often called “The Chicago Plan.”  If banks’ demand deposit liabilities and their reserve assets are segregated from the rest of their balance sheet it removed any default risk to the public of holding demand deposits at any bank.  Instead of the Chicago Plan, the U.S. Congress enacted deposit insurance to reduce the risk of bank runs.

To review:banknotes issued by banks in the free banking era eliminated the risk of a bank becoming illiquid when its depositors withdrew cash, but imposed on the public the need to judge the solvency of the note-issuing bank before accepting its currency.  The risk of losses on demand deposits remained.  While that risk could have been eliminated with a 100% reserve requirement (The Chicago Plan), it was eliminated for smaller deposits by deposit insurance.

Central banks around the world now have a monopoly on issuing legal tender currency.  This eliminates the default risk of accepting such currency but reintroduces a liquidity risk for banks that promise to convert customer deposits into (central bank issued) cash on demand.  This risk is substantially reduced by central banks’ lender of last resort function.

Structuring Digital Currency

The above considerations can help us evaluate options for central banks wishing to issue digital currencies.  So-called “digital currencies” can take different forms.  “Digital coins” are the closest digital counterpart to paper currency.  Both have unique serial numbers for each unit.  “Tokens” or “claim check centralized digital currency” pass from one owner to another P2P via block chain or central registry and can be redeemed for central bank base money at any time.  “Deposits” function the same as tokens without pretending that they are not deposits.  The distinctions between these are primarily technical and may be of little if any relevance to users.  Thus I will use “digital currency” to refer to any and all of them.

Our two-tiered system for supplying money to the public (central banks issue base money that is their own liability and commercial banks create deposit money fractionally backed by central bank base money) has the very considerable benefit of outsourcing the competitive creation and management of money to many banks.  Banks develop and service their own relationships with their customers from tens of thousands of offices around the country (speaking now of the U.S.).  However, this money creating and payment function performed by banks is also comingled with their lending activity intermediating between savers and borrowers. There are synergies as well as risks from providing both services under one roof.[9]

Should central bank digital currency be provided retail or wholesale?  A central bank could issue its digital currency to anyone who signed up (registered, i.e. opened an account directly with the central bank). As all uses of this digital currency would be between participants in the system, transfer would be simple and instantaneous.  It would be essentially the same as logging into your current bank account and transferring money to another depositor in the same bank.

In addition to the above advantages of speed and simplicity, this central bank retail approach carries the burden of an enormous expansion of central bank staff to interface with the general public in establishing and managing this new digital currency. Equally troublesome is the likelihood, if not certainty of a “digital run” from bank deposits to the central bank’s digital currency.  This would be a permanent shift from banks to the central bank, which would force banks to liquidate a significant share of their assets in order to finance the outflow of their demand deposits into the central bank’s payment system.  The transition would need to be carefully managed. The magnitude of the digital run could be limited by limiting the size of CBDC payments.  This could leave most business payments with the banking system.

There are advantages to a single, monopoly provider of digital currency because payments would take the form of transfers between accounts/participants within the same system (in effect intra-bank).  But there would be the usual disadvantages of monopolies as well (e.g. sluggish technical innovation).[10]  Central banks generally have a monopoly in printing paper currency, but their sale to the public is done by competitive commercial banks.

Central banks could leave the provision of digital cash to banks and other qualifying financial firms.  This would parallel the two-tier system now in place with central bank base money and commercial bank broad money (deposits of the public).  Digital currency would be supplied only by banks, as was the case during the free banking era when individual banks supplied their own currency notes.  Thus there would be many digital dollars (Citibank digital currency, Chase digital currency, etc.).  As with free banking banknotes, each digital currency would be the liability of the issuing bank.  The risk of default for each bank’s digital currency could be eliminated by requiring 100% reserves with the central bank against any digital currency issued and segregating these assets and liabilities from the rest of bank balance sheets. It would also be possible for commercial banks to sell and administer central bank digital currency on behalf of the central bank.  Adoption of a full Chicago Plan (100% reserves for both currency and demand deposits and legal segregation from the rest of the bank’s activities) would fully protect all payment system assets (money) from bank failures. Policies would also be needed with regard to close substitutes for demand deposits such as time and savings deposits.[11] Alternatively the risk could be limited via the equivalent of deposit insurance.

Non Central Bank Digital Currency

Digital currencies issued by commercial banks would eliminate the risk of “digital runs” on bank deposits to the central bank’s digital currency flagged by the BIS in its report cited above.  Non-national digital currencies (or deposits) fixed in value to a foreign currency, to SDRs, or to gold, for example, issued by an entity playing the role of a central bank for that currency (e.g. the BIS) would also minimize the risk of a “digital run” from bank deposits in national currencies.  Such digital currencies could also adopt a traditional two-tier model by which commercial banks issue the digital currency to the retail public. In all cases of multiple, individual bank issued digital currencies, arrangements would be needed (as now) to settle payments from holders of digital currency issue by one bank to holders of digital currency issued by a different bank.  The transfer of deposits from one issuing bank to another on the books of a common institution (the traditional central bank) is the most likely mechanism for settling such payments as is now the case for deposit payments.

In the digital world the distinction between a digital deposit and a digital currency is notional. Both are liabilities of and claims on the bank or other entity that issued them.  Distinctions blur.  In addition, digital currency need not necessarily be issued by a deposit-taking bank. M-Pesa is the digital mobile phone currency version of the Kenyan shilling issued by a trust operated by the Kenyan mobile phone operator Safaricom.[12]  The trust is not licensed as a bank as it does not lend any of the money deposited with it.  One hundred percent of the money deposited with M-Pesa is placed with commercial banks. If these deposits were with the central bank, they would be risk free—an example of the Chicago Plan.

Conclusion

My conclusion from the above considerations is that digital currency should be issued by banks or by entities adhering to the Chicago Plan if and when they prove superior to existing electronic means of payment.  Commercial bank digital currency liabilities should be insured or should adhere to the Chicago Plan segregated from the rest of the bank and thus from any losses the bank’s other activities might suffer.  If bank demand deposits were also 100% reserved, bank digital currency would feature the same stability benefit as was enjoyed in the free banking era by bank note issuing banks without the default risk of that era.  Such digital currency can extend the benefits of digital payments to the non-banked as it has in Kenya and a growing number of other countries.  It is a model also well suited to the issue of global, non-national currencies such as market SDRs or gold backed currency.

[1]Dr. Coats is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where he was Assistant Director of the Monetary and Capital Markets Department.

[2]Michael D. Bordo and Andrew T. Levin, “Central Bank Digital Currency  and the Future of Monetary Policy” Economics Working Paper 17104, Hoover Institution, August 2017. https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/17104-bordo-levin_updated.pdf

[3]Warren Coats, “The Technology of Money”Cayman Financial Review,January 18, 2012.

[4]“Central Bank Digital Currency,” Bank for International Settlements, March, 2018. https://www.bis.org/cpmi/publ/d174.pdf.

[5]Warren Coats, “Bitcoin, Cybercurrencies, and Blockchain” March 12, 2018. https://wcoats.blog/2018/03/12/bitcoin-cybercurrencies-and-blockchain/

[6]Project Jasper: Are Distributed Wholesale Payment Systems Feasible Yet?Bank Of Canada, Financial System Review, June 2017.  https://www.bankofcanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/fsr-june-2017-chapman.pdf

[7]Benjamin Geva, “Banking In The Digital Age – Who is Afraid of Payment Disintermediation?”  EBI Working Paper Series, 2018 No 23, March 23, 2018.  https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3153760

[8]In the “good ol days” representatives of all local banks would meet in a room and exchange the physical checks that their customers had written to each other and settling the net differences between each bank via a common correspondent bank.

[9]Warren Coats, “Changing direction on bank regulation”Cayman Financial Review, April 2015.

[10]For an elaboration see Geva, op.cit.

[11]Warren Coats, “The Money Problem-Rethinking Financial Regulation” by Morgan Ricks, Cayman Financial Review April 26, 2017.

[12]op. cit. Coats, 2012