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Michael Adams – David Rodeck
Digital currency has the potential to completely change how society thinks about money. The rise of Bitcoin (BTC), Ethereum (ETH) and thousands of other cryptocurrencies that exist only in electronic form has led global central banks to research how national digital currencies might work.
What Is Digital Currency?
Digital currency is any currency that’s available exclusively in electronic form. Electronic versions of currency already dominate most countries’ financial systems. What differentiates digital currency from the electronic currency that’s already in Americans’ bank accounts is that digital currency never takes physical form.
You can go to an ATM right now and easily transform the electronic record of your currency holdings into physical dollars. Digital currency, however, never leaves a computer network, and it is exchanged exclusively via digital means.
There are three main varieties of digital currency: cryptocurrency, stablecoins and central bank digital currency, known as CBDCs.
Blockchain technology, which provides the foundation for cryptocurrency, is the most common form of distributed ledger used by digital currencies. According to CoinMarketCap, there are more than 9,000 cryptocurrencies available.
What Is a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC)?
A central bank digital currency is a digital currency that is issued and overseen by a country’s central bank. Think of it like Bitcoin, but if Bitcoin were managed by the Federal Reserve and had the full backing of the U.S. government.
More than 100 countries are exploring CBDCs at one level or another, according to the IMF. But as of 2022, only a handful of countries and territories have CBDC or have concrete plans to issue them.
Some places CBDC is already available include the Central Bank of The Bahamas (Sand Dollar), the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (DCash), the Central Bank of Nigeria (e-Naira) and the Bank of Jamaica (JamDex), to name just a few.
The Federal Reserve issued a report earlier this year that “a CBDC could fundamentally change the structure of the U.S. financial system.
Currently, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Digital Currency Initiative are jointly conducting research into a CBDC through Project Hamilton. They describe it as a “multiyear research project to explore the CBDC design space and gain a hands-on understanding of a CBDC’s technical challenges and opportunities.”
Despite the joint venture, the Fed has still not indicated that they are in any hurry to launch a CBDC.
“The Fed will probably not launch a CBDC except under the explicit authority of Congress,” says Jonathan Dharmapalan, CEO and founder of eCurrency. “The law has to support the existence of a digital dollar just like the law supports the existence of a physical dollar.”
How Would a CBDC Work?
While the U.S. CBDC may be far off, Jim Cunha, executive vice president and interim chief administrative officer, shared how a CBDC or a digital dollar might work in the U.S.
CBDC would function similarly to actual cash. “If I gave you CBDC, it’s as if I’m handing you physical money, like a $100 bill. You’d have that money in your account and, it’s yours. I couldn’t take it back,” Cunha said.
This is a key difference from other electronic payments, such as ACH transfers or PayPal.
“If I send you money through PayPal, it’s just a promise that money is coming. Your balance may show the funds, but money hasn’t actually moved between banks yet,” according to Cunha.
Because of that, the transactions are not irrevocable, and the other party can reverse them. There are 60 days when an ACH transfer can be potentially unwound. With transfers through CBDC, the funds would be sent close to instantly and the other party couldn’t cancel after.
Another key advantage of CBDC is that it could be deemed legal tender. That means all economic actors must accept it for any legal purposes. You can pay your taxes with it, and anyone lends you money is legally required to accept it for repayment.
This contrasts with other digital currencies, which are not legal tender in the U.S. Only certain vendors accept crypto directly, so people may need to convert their cryptocurrency into U.S. dollars before making most transactions.
When you use crypto as a form of payment, you also create a taxable event, which means you may owe capital gains taxes each time you purchase something with Bitcoin or Ethereum’s Ether token. This is in addition to any sales taxes. With CBDC, you would only owe any applicable sales tax, just like using a physical currency.
How Have Digital Currencies Worked Around the World?
Despite the potential benefits of a U.S. CBDC, it remains a concept for now. Around the world, other countries are a little further along with digital currencies.
According to the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center’s Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) Tracker, 10 countries have fully launched a digital currency, and China is on course to expand from its pilot CBDC in 2023.
China’s digital yuan, one of the largest CBDC programs, launched its pilot project in 2014.
“They are testing a pilot in five cities. They gave out millions in currency through lotteries just to prove it works,” according to Cunha. People who win the lottery receive free CBDC, which they can spend at local shops that accept it.
While it’s not at a national scale yet, once China has the platform ready, it will expand through banks and mobile providers like Alipay.
The central banks of China and the United Arab Emirates are also working on a project to use blockchain and CBDC for regional payments between nations. If these projects are a success, they could give more motivation to other nations to create their own CBDC.
Because of these trends, Lilya Tessler, head of Sidley’s FinTech and Blockchain group, is optimistic about the future use of digital currencies. “We certainly will see mass adoption of digital currencies, but it is difficult to predict how it will look. CBDC may replace the paper version of the U.S. dollar. At the same time, society may focus on mainstream adoption of a decentralized cryptocurrency.”
How Would Digital Currency Affect You?
If the U.S. adopts a digital currency, it would work as an alternative to cash but would also have the built-in advantage of quick money transfer since it’s electronic.
Cunha has a few ideas on what this would look like for consumers. “Our presumption is that it will be free or near free, like cash. Other private sector players may innovate on top of it and possibly additional fees, but that has to be fleshed out more,” he says.
Even though a digital currency would be electronic, it still needs to be as accessible as cash.
“Anyone should be able to use it, not just those with the latest smartphones,” Cunha said, suggesting chip-based cards, point-of-sale systems and web accounts as alternative ways to access the CBDC. He also believes a way to handle transactions offline will need to be developed, so two people can exchange CBDC even if they aren’t on a cell or WiFi network.
There’s a lot to be done and a lot of industry input needed, but it could be well worth the investment.
“While no decision has been made to move past this research, I truly believe CBDC should be fully investigated and holds great potential,” he said. “Just think of the internet and how far it’s come since the early days. With CBDC, the possibilities are endless.”
Benefits of Digital Currency
Disadvantages of Digital Currency
How to Invest in CBDC?
CBDCs are no different than an issuing nation’s existing monetary supply. This means the only way to invest in a CBDC is to hold the currency in your account. In other words, investing in CBDCs is just like holding a nation’s physical cash in your hand today.
However, right now, foreign nationals can’t hold the CBDCs of any other government in their digital wallets. In other words, a U.S. citizen can’t currently access Bahaman “sand dollars.”
You need a verified username and bank account to hold a CBDC from any nation today, you need a verified username and bank account. This means citizens of different countries can’t have a foreign nation’s CBDC distributed to them. Most experts believe, though, that this will change as more CBDCs are implemented worldwide.
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