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Are central banks a relic of the Industrial Revolution?


Are central banks artefacts of the Industrial Revolution, like canal networks or newspapers, or are they indispensable to the operation of the modern economy?




Dave Birch
Dave Birch
To be honest, I tend to the more revolutionary perspective. National currency and central banks were of their time. We didn’t used to have them and we won’t have them in the future. (I’m writing a book about this at the moment.) But in the short term, should these relics of a bygone monetary era embrace digital cash? Here’s why I’m asking, as summarised nicely in the Deutsche Bank Research note on the “Instant Revolution of Payments”.

They say:

"When looking at the potential long-term effects of payment market evolution, a new question arises: which money will we pay with? Today, we mostly pay with commercial bank money… Given the wide range of potential instant payment services, bank deposits as the main form of money could lose importance if non-bank providers gain a dominant position in the retail payments market."

You can see the broad outline of the debate forming. Should central banks issue their own digital money? Should they allow commercial banks to continue to do it? Or should they sit back and let a thousand flowers
bloom as Facebook, Amazon, Verifone and Apple issue digital money? They have to do something. After all, there is a steady decline in the use of physical cash. If the Bank of England does not replace physical cash with its own electronic equivalent then it is in effect supervising the slow motion privatisation of the nation’s currency.

Let’s examine a case for central banks to stay involved. The new Positive Money report on Digital Cash recommends that central banks should issue digital cash for six main reasons: it widens the range of options for monetary policy, it can make the financial system safer, it can encourage innovation in the payment system, it can recapture a portion of seigniorage, it can help to develop alternative finance businesses and it can improve financial inclusion.

(They use the term digital cash to refer to electronic central bank money, whereas I would prefer the term digital currency to distinguish the unit of account from other forms of digital cash.)

At the heart of the Positive Money argument is the idea that digital currency should be the province of specialist payment service providers rather than banks, because banks are primarily lenders and should be focused on that. How would banks compete with specialist providers? Until now banks have had an effective monopoly on payment services. Consequently, banks have had very little competition for the provision of basic payment accounts. In my opinion, it’s a business they might not want to be in at all, frankly, and they could focus on their core banking businesses instead, leaving payments to the specialist providers (that might, of course, include their own subsidiaries operating under Payment Institution licences).

What would the business model of the specialist providers be? Should digital currency be remunerated? Should these specialist providers be paid by the central bank? The Positive Money people feel strongly that it should not, which means that other players in the digital currency supply chain would need to find their own ways of raising revenue. I doubt this would ever come from fees so it would be more to do with the information around payments and flows, but that’s not really what I wanted to talk about here, which is the question of issuing the digital currency.

Why have these specialist providers at all? Why not just get the Bank of England to do it? The report notes digital that digital currency does not mean cryptocurrency or require the distributed ledger, there a plenty of existing technologies that could do the job. As I wrote recently, the Bank of England could provide accounts for all citizens, along with payment cards and Internet access and so on.

"imagine something like M-PESA but run by the Bank of England. Everyone has an account and you can transfer money from one account to another by a mobile phone app (that uses the secure TEE in modern mobile phones) or by logging in with two factor authentication to any one of a number of service providers that use the Bank of England API to access the accounts or by phoning a voice recognition and authentication service."

From Britcoin or Brit-PESA? | Consult Hyperion (1)

However the Bank of England, the Positive Money report says, is likely to see this as something of a burden. Personally I’m not sure about that line of thinking. I’m not sure it would be that much of a burden because if everyone had such an account, that you wouldn’t need payment cards or checks or giro payments or anything else, because all payments would be transferred between these accounts through transactions that would be initiated in most cases by a mobile app or through a call centre. The Positive Money guys prefer the idea of digital cash account providers, which would essentially be something like Electronic Money Institutions (ELMIs) are now but with a 100% reserve in central bank money.

(In the report they also talk about the concept of helicopter drops of digital cash to citizens via these accounts, as an alternative to “traditional” quantitive easing., but that’s a topic for another day.)

Anyway, on to a quick run through the key points.

Why might central banks choose to issue digital currency?

The six main reasons that are presented in the report are:

- Overcoming the zero lower bound on interest rates. Enabling new instruments of monetary policy such as that helicopter money.

- Promoting innovation in payment system. I’ve written a couple of times before, both when looking at the options for central-bank digital cash and also when reflecting on our experiences with population scale schemes such as M-PESA in Kenya, that providing a good API on top of the system and allowing innovators to build new products and services on top is transformational and, to my mind, much more likely to lead to real innovation, making the payment system serve the wider economy more efficiently and more effectively.

- Increasing financial stability by providing a risk-free alternative to bank accounts. Increasing financial stability by reducing the concentration of liquidity risk and credit risk. Non-bank financial institutions, in particular, would benefit from being able to hold funds in central bank money rather than the form of uninsured bank account. The implications of having competing currencies might be uninteresting in usual times, just as the competition between cash and bank money is uninteresting in usual times, but it will be important to understand the implications in times of crisis to make sure that the system would not collapse. This is because the existence of digital cash might well exacerbate bank runs as people, for whatever reasons, retreat from other forms of liquidity to risk-free central bank money. The existence of risk-free digital currency in the UK could plausibly lead to an inflow of funds from foreign banks into sterling digital cash and that could push up exchange rates.

- Recapturing a portion of seigniorage. In the UK, the interest earned on physical currency peaked at £2.4 billion just before the financial crisis. I see this as a kind of stealth tax although although I suppose it might be fairly argued that it’s a pretty reasonable stealth tax as it falls largely on drug dealers and money-launderers. In the current year seigniorage will be in the region of only 500 million or so. Cash in circulation in the UK currently stands at around £67 billion (and it’s increasing about £15 million per month) of the total amount of cash in circulation at any one time around £10 billion is sitting in bank tills and in ATMs (in the UK about £15 billion is withdrawn from cash machines every month). This suggests that the other £42 billion is circulating hand-to-hand outside the banking system (in the Bank of England classifications this money is either being hoarded, stashed or exported). The banks cash flow to £10 billion can be taken as the best estimate for the population’s preference for cash over above immediate spending needs. All things considered I think that the seigniorage argument is not terribly persuasive one way or the other. It is plausible that the Bank of England might roughly double its seigniorage revenue if most people switch most of their spending from bank accounts to digital cash.

- Alternative finance. Separating the creation of money from bank loans might mean a reduction in lending which would have implications for the economy. There are implications for banks in the supply of credit but also implications for the potential for alternative finance to fill the gap.

- Increasing financial inclusion. I don’t want to get into the complexities of the relationship between financial and social inclusion, and the implications for other regulatory frameworks such as KYC and AML, but I see financial inclusion through ready access to low-value digital currency accounts as one of the main reasons for wanting to do it. Remember people who are trapped in a cash economy on the margins are the people who suffer most from its existence.

So What?

Well, I thought the report was very interesting and thought provoking, so I am very happy to say that Ben Dyson from Positive Money will be giving a talk based on the report at this year’s 19th annual Consult Hyperion Tomorrow’s Transactions Forum in London on 20th-21st April 2016 (2). Thanks to the amazing generosity of our sponsors, this year the tickets for the Forum are only £295 + VAT. Not a misprint: I really do mean the negligible sum of only two hundred and ninety five great British pounds Sterling.

As always, the Forum will be limited to 100 places, so book your place now!

(1) http://www.chyp.com/britcoin-or-brit-pesa/
(2) http://www.chyp.com/thought-leaders/tomorrows-transactions-forum/

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