Central banks, tokens and privacy

Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and therefore to a first approximation the person in charge of money, gave a speech in Singapore on 14th November 2018 in which she asked…

Should central banks issue a new digital form of money? A state-backed token, or perhaps an account held directly at the central bank, available to people and firms for retail payments?

This is a question that, of course, interests me greatly. The IMF Staff Discussion Note (18/08) on which her speech is based sets out these two options clearly:

  1. Token-based CBDC—with payments that involve the transfer of an object (namely, a digital token)—could extend some of the attributes of cash to the digital world. CBDC could provide varying degrees of anonymity and immediate settlement. It could thus curtail the development of private forms of anonymous payment but could increase risks to financial integrity. Design features such as size limits on payments in, and holdings of, CBDC would reduce but not eliminate these concerns.

  2. Account-based CBDC—with payments through the transfer of claims recorded on an account— could increase risks to financial intermediation. It would raise funding costs for deposit-taking institutions and facilitate bank runs during periods of distress. Again, careful design and accompanying policies should reduce, but not eliminate, these risks. 

 Or, as I said a few years ago, should the Bank of England create BritCoin or BritPESA?

I’ve written before about the advantages and disadvantages of moving to digital currencies and don’t want to go over these arguments again here. Ms. Lagarde has also spoken about them before, specifically noting that digital currencies “could be issued one-for-one for dollars, or a stable basket of currencies”. Why her new speech was reported in some outlets as being somewhat supportive of cryptocurrencies is puzzling, especially since in this speech she specifically said she remained unconvinced about the “trust = technology” (“code is law”) view of cryptocurrencies. But the key point of her speech is that the IMF is taking digital currency seriously and treating it as something that might actually happen.

(Note that the IMF position seems different to the position of European Central Bank, where President Mario Draghi recently said that they have “no plan to issue a digital currency because the underlying technology is still fragile and the use of physical cash still high in the euro zone”.)

The reason for this comment on her speech is to re-iterate my view on the BritCoin approach. I think Ms. Lagarde is right to mention a state-backed token as an option. The idea of using token technology to implement cryptoassets of any kind, which I have labelled digital bearer instruments, is feasible and deserves detailed exploration. What we might call “digital fiat”* is simply a particular kind of cryptoasset, as shown in the diagram below, a particular kind that happens to be create digital money based on an institutional binding (where the institution is central bank) to national currency.

Cryptomarket Model

 

Now, nothing in this formulation makes the use of cryptoassets (rather than a central database) inevitable. There are, however, other arguments in favour of using there newer and potentially more radical technologies to implement digital money. One of them is privacy.

(As The Economist noted on this topic, people might well be “uncomfortable with accounts that give governments detailed information about transactions, particularly if they hasten the decline of good old anonymous cash”.)

In her speech, Ms. Lagarde said that…

Central banks might design digital currency so that users’ identities would be authenticated through customer due diligence procedures and transactions recorded. But identities would not be disclosed to third parties or governments unless required by law.

As a fan of practical pseudonymity as a means to raise the bar on both privacy and security, I am very much in favour of exploring this line of thinking. Technology gives us ways to deliver appropriate levels of privacy into this kind of transactional system and to do it securely and efficiently within a democratic framework. In particular, new cryptographic technology gives us the apparently paradoxical ability to keep private data on a public leader, which I think will form the basis on new financial institutions (the “glass bank” that I am fond of using as the key image) that work in new kinds of markets.

* I happened to sit in on the panel discussion on digital fiat at Money2020 China. The discussion was chaired by Carolyn MacMahon from the San Francisco-based Digital Fiat Institute, which I must confess I’d not heard of until today, but intend to visit next time I’m over on the West Coast. In the Q&A I was going to ask about the anonymity issue but go sidetracked with the impact on commercial banks. Next time. 

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