A blog post by Ryan Jacildo
Central bank digital currencies, or CBDCs, are currently one of the topics de jour within circles of monetary authorities and financial market regulators. CBDCs are essentially digital banknotes that can be used by individuals to pay businesses, shops, or each other (i.e., retail CBDC), or between financial institutions to settle financial transactions or trades (i.e., wholesale CBDC) (BIS n.d.).
CBDCs are not necessarily new, but interest has gained considerable traction in recent months. The Bank of Finland’s Avant smart card system, launched in the 1990’s is deemed the world’s first retail CBDC (Grym 2020), although the underlying structure is different from that of the current projects being developed. Fast forward, Sweden’s Riksbank’s e-krona became the first publicly announced work on retail CBDCs in 2017, while the Sand Dollar launched by the Central Bank of the Bahamas in 2020 is generally considered the first live retail CBDC (Auer et al. 2021).
As it stands, the 2021 Bank for International Settlement (BIS) Survey results indicate that 86% of the respondent central banks are actively researching the use of CBDCs, 60% are experimenting with the technology, and 14% are deploying pilot projects (Boar and Wehrli 2021; BiS n.d.). As of December 2022, there are at least 11 countries that have rolled out a functional CBDC, namely the Bahamas, Jamaica, Nigeria, and the 8 countries under the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank according to the live database put together by the Atlantic Council.
Sifting through the information contained in the Atlantic Council’s CBDC Tracker further reveals that retail and wholesale CBDC development is happening side-by-side globally. Motivations indicated largely revolve around the intent to move away from cash and facilitate financial stability and inclusion. The dataset also captures the strong interest in cross-border bridge projects, documenting at least 12 initiatives participated in by different economies in different parts of the world (i.e., not necessarily concentrated in one region), largely under the guidance of the BIS. Among others, these include the Multiple CBDC Bridge Project (mBridge) which involves the central banks of China, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, and Thailand; Project Dunbar, which involves the central banks of Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Africa; and Project Icebreaker, which involves the central banks of Norway, Israel, and Sweden.
All these initiatives naturally raise some questions about the potential changes in the financial sector’s infrastructure and credit flows, which will depend on the architecture and coverage of the CBDC project. Clarity of understanding and economic stakeholder communication as regards their corresponding impact on competition, monetary policy, financial stability, the future of cash, the status of legal tender, and many other issues are, thus, necessary to gain user patronage and facilitate adoption (see: Aleksi (2000)). Understandably, even the role of private commercial banks as intermediaries can change significantly with CBDC systems in place. CBDCs are noted to allow digital payments even without a bank account, as it is facilitated by a central bank–issued digital wallet. (Denecker et al. 2022). Commercial banks are nonetheless seen to play a key role in CBDC rollouts, particularly in terms of client onboarding as well as in the execution and recording of transactions.
Atlantic Council. 2022. Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) Tracker. Webpage. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/cbdctracker/.
Auer, R., J. Frost, L. Gambacorta, C. Monnet, T. Rice, and H. S. Shin. 2021. Central Bank Digital Currencies: Motives, Economic Implications and the Research Frontier. BIS Working Papers No 976. Bank for International Settlements. Basel.
Boar, C. and A. Wehrli. 2021. Ready, Steady, Fo? – Results of the third BIS Survey on Central Bank Digital Currency. BIS Papers No 114. Bank for International Settlements. Basel.
Bank for International Settlements (BIS). n. d. BIS Innovation Hub work on central bank digital currency (CBDC). Webpage. Basel. https://www.bis.org/about/bisih/topics/cbdc.htm.
Denecker, O., A. d’Estienne, P-M Gompertz, and E. Sasia. 2022. Central Bank Digital Currencies: An Active Role for Commercial Banks. McKinsey & Company. New York.
Grym, A. 2020. Lessons learned from the world’s first CBDC. BoF Economic Review. No. 8. Bank of Finland. Helsinki.