China’s digital currency may set the benchmark, not Libra

As I wrote a while ago, the Chinese were first with the great transition from commodity money to paper money. They had the necessary technologies (you can’t have paper money without paper and you can’t do it at scale without printing) and, more importantly, they had the bureaucracy. In 1260, Kublai Khan became Emporer and determined that it was a burden to commerce and taxation to have all sorts of currencies in use, ranging from copper ‘cash’ to iron bars, to pearls to salt to specie, so he decided to implement a new currency. Then, as now, a new and growing economy needed a new kind of money to support trade and therefore prosperity. The Khan decided to replace copper, iron, commodity and specie cash with a paper currency. A paper currency! Imagine how crazy that must have sounded! Replacing physical, valuable stuff with bits of paper!

 

Just as Marco Polo and other medieval travellers returned along the Silk Road breathless with astonishing tales of paper money, so commentators (e.g., me) began tumbling off of flights from Beijing and Shanghai with equally astonishing tales of a land of mobile payments, where paper money is vanishing and consumers pay for everything with smartphones. China is well on the way to becoming a cashless society, with the end of its thousand year experiment with paper money in sight. Already a significant proportion of the population rely wholly on mobile payments and carry no cash at all, much as I do when heading into London.

The natural step from here is to create digital currency so that settlement is in central bank money and there are no credit risks. Now, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) is run by smart people and as you might imagine they have been looking at this strategy since back in 2014. It now looks as if Facebook’s Libra initiative has stimulated or accelerated their tactics. I read in Central Banking [PBoC sounds alarm over Facebook’s Libra] that PBoC officials had “voiced worries” that [Libra] could have destabilising effects on the financial system and further stated that the bank would step up its own efforts to create an e-currency.

This is no knee-jerk reaction. Way back in 2016, the then-Governor of PBoC, Zhou Xiaochuan, very clearly set out their thinking about digital currency, saying that “it is an irresistible trend that paper money will be replaced by new products and new technologies”. He went on to say that as a legal tender, digital currency should be issued by the central bank (my emphasis) and after noting that he thought it would take a decade or so for digital currency to completely replace cash in cash went to state clearly that “he has plans how to gradually phase out paper money”.

(As I have written before, I don’t think a “cashless society” means a society in which notes and coins are outlawed, but a society in which they are irrelevant. Under this definition the PBoC could easily achieve this goal for China.)

What would be the impact of phasing out paper money? Yao Qian, from the PBOC technology department wrote on this subject back in 2017, noting (as I have done) that a central bank digital currency (CBDC) would have some consequences for commercial banks, so that it might be better to keep those banks as part of the new monetary arrangement. He described what has been called the “two tier” approach, noting that to offset the shock to the current banking system imposed by an independent digital currency system (and to protect the investment made by commercial banks on infrastructure), it is possible to incorporate digital currency wallet attributes into the existing commercial bank account system “so that electronic currency and digital currency are managed under the same account“.

I understand the rationale completely. The Chinese central bank wants the efficiencies that come from having a digital currency but also understands the implications of removing the exorbitant privilege of money creation from the commercial banks. If the commercial banks cannot create money by creating credit, then they can only provide loans from their deposits. Imagine if Bitcoin were the only currency in the world: I’d still need to borrow a few of them to buy a new car, but since Barclays can’t create Bitcoins they can only lend me Bitcoins that they have taken in deposit from other people. Fair enough. But here, as in so many other things, China is a window into the future.

Whether you think CBDC is a good idea or not, you can see that it’s a big step to take and therefore understand the PBoC position. There is a significant potential problem with digital currency created by the central bank. If commercial banks lose deposits and the privilege of creating money, then their functionality and role in the economy is much reduced. We already see this happening because “Alipay, WeChat Wallet, and other Chinese third party payment platforms use financial incentives to encourage users to take money out of their bank accounts and temporarily store it on the platform itself” [China’s Future is Definitely Cashless].

In summary, then, a couple of year ago I wrote that the PBoC were not going to issue cryptocurrencies and they were not going to issue digital currencies either (at least in the foreseeable future). What I said was that what they might do is to allow commercial banks to create digital currency under central bank control. And this indeed what seems to be happening. According to the South China Morning Post, the new Chinese digital currency “would be centrally controlled by the PBoC, with commercial banks having to hold reserves at the central bank for assets valued in the digital yuan“.

How will this work? Well, you could have the central bank provide commercial banks with some sort of cryptographic doodah that would allow them swap electronic money for digital currency under the control of the central bank. Wait a moment, that reminds me of something…

Yep, that’s how Mondex was structured 25 years ago. (If you don’t know what Mondex was, here’s something I wrote about it 20 years on.) There was one big different between Mondex and other electronic money schemes of the time, which was that Mondex would allow offline transfers, chip to chip, without bank (or central bank) intermediation. Would a central bank go for this today? Some form of digital cash that can be passed directly from person to person like Bitcoin rather than some form of electronic money like M-PESA, using hardware rather than proof of work to prevent double spending? Well, it was being tried in Uruguay, but I’m not sure how that pilot is going, although is was not quite the same thing as Mondex because the phones would not be exchanging fungible value but tokens that could ultimately be traced and tracked and monitored, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

 Mondex Paraphanalia

When I wrote about this back in 2018, I said that I thought it was unlikely that the PBoC would allow anonymous peer-to-peer transfers, so I was very surprised to see a Reuters report [6th September 2019] quoting Mu Changchun, deputy director of the PBoC’s payments department, saying about the proposed Chinese digital currency that “its ability to be used without an internet connection would also allow transactions to continue in situations in which communications have broken down, such as an earthquake”.

This would seem to mean that the system will allow offline transactions, which means that value can be transferred from one phone to another via local interfaces such as NFC or Bluetooth. If so, this would be truly radical. I wondered if something was mistranslated in the Reuter’s piece so I went to the source speech (albeit via Google Translate!) and I discovered that this is in fact precisely what he said. Talking about the project, which is called the DC/EP (digital currency and electronic payment) tool, he said that it is functionally “exactly the same as paper money, but it is just a digital form” and went on to confirm that

DC/EP can realize value transfer without an account. In the specific scenario, as long as there is a DC/EP digital wallet on the mobile phone, no network is needed, and as long as the two mobile phones touch each other, the transfer function can be realized… “Even Libra can’t do this,” Mu Changchun said”.

Wow. That’s huge. Libra can’t do it, and never will be able to. To understand why, note that there are basically two ways to transfer value between devices and keep the system secure against double-spending. You can do it in hardware (ie, Mondex or the Bank of Canada’s Mintchip) or you can do it in software. If you do it in software you either need a central databse (eg DigiCash) or a decentralised alternative (eg, blockchain). But if you use either of these, you need to be online. I don’t see how to get the offline functionality without hardware security.

If you do have hardware security and can go offline, then we are back to the question of fungibility again. Here the PBoCs principle is both clear and very surprising.

Mu Changchun said that the public has the need for anonymous payment, but today’s payment tools are closely tied to the traditional bank account system, can not meet the consumer’s anonymous payment needs, and can not completely replace the cash payment. The central bank’s digital currency can solve these problems. It can maintain the attributes and main value characteristics of cash and meet the demands of portability and anonymity.

Wow. They are serious. He goes on to say DC/EP will work the same way as banknotes.

Commercial banks open accounts at the central bank, paying 100% of the total amount, and individuals and businesses open digital wallets through commercial banks or commercial organizations. DC/EP is still replaced by M0 and is legally compensated. For users, just download an app to register, you can use a digital wallet, and recharge cash withdrawals need to dock traditional bank accounts.

I wonder if this will bring interoperability? If DC/EP is really to work as banknotes do then the e-RMB in my bank app and my Alipay app and my WeChat app much be interoperable. I must be able to transfer value from my Alipay app to your WeChat app. If PBoC crack that they will be on the way to one of the world’s most efficient electronic payment infrastructures.

There was a final part to the speech which I did not understand at all, so perhaps a Chinese correspondent more familiar with DC/EP can clarify the meaning. The speech covers “smart” “contract” by which I assume PBoC means apps that use the DC/EP to execute on the handset (since there is no blockchain), but this is my assumption.

Mu Changchun said on several occasions that the central bank’s digital currency can load smart contracts. However, if a smart contract that exceeds its monetary function is loaded, it will be degraded into a value-for-money ticket, reducing its usable level, which will adversely affect the internationalization of the RMB. Therefore, digital currencies will load smart contracts that favor the monetary function, but remain cautious about smart contracts that exceed the monetary function.

I am baffled by this, which I am sure reflects my ignorace of advanced electronic money technologies, but I don’t think that this deflects from my overall observation that if the PBoC goes ahead and launches a person-to-person offline capable CBDC then that will be not only a nail in the coffin of cash but an event as significant and momentous in monetary history as the paper notes of the Khan a millennium ago.

CBDC is a black and white issue

I was reading J.P. Koning’s excellent paper [PDF] on Central Bank Digital Currency (CDBC) for Brazil and came across his reference in passing to Narayana Kocherlakota, former CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, who wrote (in 2016) that economists do not know very much about the topic of anonymity and “calls for the profession to model it more systematically”. I think this is a really critical point, because the decision about where to set the anonymity dial for a cash replacement product is an important one, and not one that should be left to technologists.

This decision is discussed in the context of implementing a digital fiat currency of one form or another. The paper explores three ways to implement a CBDC for Brazil.

  1. MoedaElectronico (Electronic Cash): this is the most cash-like of the three CBDCs. It pays neither positive interest nor docks negative interest and is anonymous. Like cash, it is a bearer token.

  2. ContaBCB (BCBAccounts): this is the most account-based of the three templates. Ac- counts are non-anonymous and pay interest, like a normal bank account.

  3. MoedaHíbrida (Hybridcoins): provides a mix of cash and account-like features, including the ability to pay a varying positive and negative interest rate, while offering users the choice between anonymity or not. 

Now, the first two are well-known and well-understood. I wrote about them again last month (I’ve discussed “BritCoin” and “BritPESA” several times before), in a comment on Christine Lagarde’s speech [15Mb: Central banks, tokens and privacy] and I don’t propose to look at them further here. It’s that last example that interests me.

Let’s go back to that point about anonymity. In the paper J.P. says that the case can also be made for a permanently negative interest rate on anonymous CBDC. Why? Well, since we all understand that criminality and tax evasion impose costs on society, it may be worthwhile to design anonymous payments systems in a way that recoups some of the costs these activities impose.

In other words, construct a cash replacement in which anonymous transactions cost more than non-anonymous transactions. One way to do this, which is referenced by J.P. in his paper, was the “Crime Pays System” or CPS as conceived by the artist Austin Houldsworth. Austin is most well-known for designing the cover of my book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin” of course, but he also ran the Future of Money Design Award for Consult Hyperion’s annual Tomorrow’s Transactions Forum for many years. Oh, and he was awarded a Ph.D by the Royal College of Art (RCA). It was his idea to have me present CPS at the British Computer Society (BCS). We had my alter ego set out the new payment system to an unsuspecting audience who, I have to say, were excellent sports about the whole thing! It turned out to be an entertaining and enlightening experience (you can read more and see the video here).

Cps bcs

In CPS, digital payments would be either “light” or “dark”. The default transaction type would be light and free to the end users. All transaction histories would be uploaded to a public space (we were, of course, thinking about the Bitcoin blockchain here) which would allow anybody anywhere to view the transaction details. The alternative transaction type would be dark. With this option advanced cryptographic techniques would make the payment completely invisible with a small levy in the region of 10% to 20% would be paid per transaction.

The system would therefore offer privacy for your finances at a reasonable price. The revenue generated from the use of this system would be taken by the government to substitute for the loss of taxes in the dark economy.

What a cool idea.

Now, at the time it was just a concept. We didn’t spend much time thinking about how it would actually work (I was basing the pretend implementation for the BCS presentation on Chaumian blinding a la Digicash, hence this gratuitous picture of me influencing David in Vegas.)

David Chaum las vegas 2018

That was then. In the meantime, however, along came ZCash and the mechanism of shielded and unshielded transactions that J.P. has used as the basis for MoedaHíbrida’s two different modes. If the user decides to hold shielded (ie, dark) MoedaHíbrida tokens, then all transactions made with those tokens are completely anonymous and untrackable. The user can decide to unshield his or her MoedaHíbrida tokens so that all transactions can be seen (ie, light).

Offering users the choice of anonymity but making them pay for is a radical solution but I’m with J.P. in thinking that it deserves attention. What I think is very clever about using negative interest rates (which had never occurred to me) is that it allows for anonymous transactions without imposing a transaction friction, thus providing the cash substitute in the marketplace, but it penalises the stashing of anonymous cash. The negative interest rate means that dark tokens will be subject to a negative interest rate of, say -5% per annum, while light tokens will receive a competitive SELIC-linked interest rate.

Whether or not this is the way forward I or not, it is a line of thought that deserves serious examination in the context of CBDC design. If it is considered important to society to provide anonymous means of exchange, then the “tax” on the anonymous store of value seems a reasonable way to distribute the costs and benefits for society as whole.

Trading and hard currencies

Talking about central banks and digital / crypto / virtual (* delete where applicable) currency, I was interested to read (in the Russia Today Business News) of an initiative to create a joint digital currency for BRIC countries and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) that has been proposed by the Central Bank of Russia, according to its First Deputy Governor Olga Skorobogatova. She is reported as saying that “The introduction of a national digital currency seems to us not entirely justified from the point of view of macroeconomics” (presumably because as Russia is still quite cash-intensive the costs might not be justified and the benefits too concentrated). I can see why the alternative suggestion of a cross-border digital currency set up between trading partners would have much wider benefits.

This is not a new idea. As I discussed in my book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin“, some years ago the then-Chancellor John Major proposed a similar concept as an alternative to the euro which at the time was labelled the hard ECU (and ignored). The hard ECU would have circulated alongside existing national currencies. It would be used by businesses and tourists. It would never exist in physical form but still be legal tender (put to one side what that actually means) in all EU member states. Thus, businesses could keep accounts in hard ECUs and trade them cross-border with minimal transaction costs, tourists could have hard ECU payment cards that they could use through the Union and so on. But each state would continue with its own national currency — you would still be able to use Sterling notes and coins and Sterling-denominated cheques and cards — and the cost of replacing them would have been saved.

Thus, businesses could keep accounts in hard ECUs and trade them cross-border with minimal transaction costs, tourists could have hard ECU payment cards that they could use through the Union and so on. But each state would continue with its own national currency — you would still be able to use Sterling notes and coins and Sterling-denominated cards — and the cost of replacing them would have been saved.

(As an aside, it wasn’t John Major’s idea. It had it’s origin a few year before in a 1983 report of the European Parliament on the European Monetary System, the EMS. The proposal was supported at the time across the political and national groups in the parliament.)

The idea of an electronic currency union to facilitate international trade has new resonance. While Bitcoin captures the media attention, there are a great many other possibilities: new community currencies, brand-based plays, commodity baskets and goodness knows what else. All of these make it an exciting time to be in the electronic money business, but they also make it unpredictable, which is why it is fun. As I say in the book, we’re not looking at a world in which some kind of new global currency takes over, but a world in which a great many communities choose the currencies that are most efficient for themselves. At it happens, one of those communities could be the European Community! Noted political theorist Marine le Pen herself has said that she could see the EU setting up another currency “like the ECU”. I’m sympathetic, obviously, because the idea of restoring the Franc while simultaneously creating a new pan-European currency makes economic sense.

If anything, however, Ms. le Pen’s proposal is not really that radical. Why have nation-state control over money at all? Why not allow regions to have their own currencies? Why not use Normandy Money? Why not have pan-national currencies? Or Islamic e-Dinars? I’m on the same page as “The Futurist Magazine” here. In September 2012, as part of a compilation of pieces about life in 2100, they said that it is quite likely that we will still have money in 2100, but it may not be issued solely by nation states. I couldn’t agree more.

Madame First Deputy Governor Skorobogatova is, incidentally, far from alone in wondering about new digital currencies at this level. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), gave a talk on “Central Banking and Fintech” in September last year in which she said that digital currencies (of the kind proposed by Madame Deputy First Governor) could actually become more stable than fiat currencies. She says that they could be issued against “a stable basket of currencies” ( a hard SDR?) but I would extend that suggestion to a token based on a basket of commodities (or, indeed, a mixture of both) or some other “root” with long-term stability.

It’s one thing to have crackpot technologists such as me talking about augmenting and perhaps even replacing national currencies, but when people who are actually in charge of money start speculating about the same, then you do have to suspect that some things are about to change.

China’s eight centuries of experiment with paper money is coming to a close

The Chinese were first with the great transition from commodity money to paper money. They had the necessary technologies (you can’t have paper money without paper and you can’t do it at scale without printing) and, more importantly, they had the bureaucracy. In 1260, the new Emporer Kublai Khan  determined that it was a burden on commerce and drag on taxation to have all sorts of currencies in use, ranging from copper coins to iron bars, to pearls to salt to gold and silver, so he decided to implement a new currency. The Khan decided to replace metal, commodities, precious jewels and specie with a paper currency. A paper currency! Imagine how crazy that must have sounded! Replacing actual stuff with apparently worthless paper! It’ll never work!

Crazy or not, it worked and just as Marco Polo and other medieval travellers returned along the Silk Road breathless with astonishing tales of paper money, so modern commentators (e.g., me) are tumbling off of flights from Shanghai with equally astonishing tales of a land of mobile payments, where paper money is vanishing and consumers pay for everything with smartphones. China is well on the way to becoming a cashless society, with the end of paper money in sight. Something like one-seventh of China’s population relies on mobile payments to get around, carrying no cash, according to a survey conducted by Renmin University of China. The natural step from there is to create digital currency so that settlement is in central bank money and there are no credit risks.

This thinking has been evolving for some time. Back in 2016, the Governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), Zhou Xiaochuan, set out the Bank’s thinking about digital currency, saying that it is an irresistible trend that paper money will be replaced by new products and new technologies. He went on to say that as a legal tender, digital currency should be controlled by the central bank and after noting that he thought it would take a decade or so for digital currency to completely replace cash in China, he went to state clearly that the bank was working out “how to gradually phase out paper money”. Rather than simply let the cashless society happen, which may not led to the optimum implementation for society, they were developing a plan for a cashless society.

As I have written before, I don’t think a “cashless society” means a society in which notes and coins are outlawed, but a society in which they are irrelevant. Under this definition the PBOC could easily achieve this goal for China. But should they do this? Yao Qian, from the PBOC technology department wrote on the subject in 2017, saying that to “offset the shock” to commercial banks that would come from introducing an independent digital currency system (and to protect the investment made by commercial banks on infrastructure), it would be possible to “incorporate digital currency wallet attributes into the existing commercial bank account system” so that electronic currency and digital currency are managed under the same account.

This rationale is clear and, well, rational. The Chinese central bank wants the efficiencies that come from having a digital currency but also understands the implications of removing the exorbitant privilege of money creation from the commercial banks. If the commercial banks cannot create money by creating credit, then they can only provide loans from their deposits. Imagine if Bitcoin were the only currency in the world: I’d still need to borrow a few of them to buy a new car, but since Barclays can’t create Bitcoins they can only lend me Bitcoins that they have taken in deposit from other people. Fair enough. But here, as in so many other things, China is a window into the future, because Alipay, WeChat Wallet and other Chinese third party payment platforms use financial incentives to encourage users to take money out of their bank accounts and store it on their platforms. If commercial banks cannot fund loans from deposits, we are in a new place, economically speaking.

Thus you can see the potential problem with digital currency created by the central bank, even if it is now technologically feasible for them to do so. If commercial banks lose both deposits and the privilege of creating money, then their functionality and role in the economy is much reduced. Whether you think that is a good idea or not, you can see that it’s a big step to take. Hence the PBOC position, reinforced at the beginning of this year by Fan Yifei, Deputy Governor of the People’s Bank of China writing that the PBOC digital currency should adopt a “double-tier delivery system”.

Following this line of thinking, then, the PBOC is saying that it is not going to issue cryptocurrency and that it is not going to issue digital currency either (at least in the foreseeable future). But what they might do is to allow commercial banks to distribute digital currency under central bank control (this what they mean by “double tier”. You could have the central bank provide commercial banks with some sort of tamper-resistant smart chip or cryptographic permission that would create digital commercial bank money under the control of the central bank. (This, by the way, is exactly what was attempted a generation ago with the Mondex electronic cash system.)

(Note that this is entirely removed from the issue of whether to use shared ledger technology to manage the money in circulation. I’m open minded about this. I can certainly see how a system in which POS terminals were nodes in a shared ledger, thus obviating the need for a central system — that could, and does, go down — might be rather attractive but whether the resilience would be worth the expense of moving away from current solutions remains to be established.)

Not also that there is no implication in any of the PBOC’s comments that they will be issuing digital cash. Would any central bank go for this? Some form of digital cash that can be passed directly from person to person like Bitcoin rather than some form of digital money like M-PESA, using hardware rather than proof-of-work to prevent double spending? Well… yes. In fact the Uruguayan central bank has said it will test precisely this approach, having digital cash in the mobile phones pass person-to-person directly between the devices. This is not, I am sure, what the PBOC has in mind. On the contrary, the want to see every transaction, and consistent position adumbrated by last year’s decision to make mobile payment companies route transactions through a central switch.

Shanghai bw  1

I’m fascinated by China’s long experiment with paper money and its imminent conclusion. Whatever you might think about their position on monitoring transactions, the PBOC has been strategic in its thinking.  Their comments on the topic from 2016, 2017 and now 2018 have been consistent. Digital currency is coming and China will take the lead just as it did with paper currency.

The smart money

Writing in the Bank of England’s “Bank Underground” blog, Simon Scorer from the Digital Currencies Division makes a number of very interesting points about the requirement for some form of Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). He remarks on the transition from dumb money to smart money, and the consequent potential for the implementation of digital fiat to become a platform for innovation (something I strongly agree with), saying that:

Other possible areas of innovation relate to the potential programmability of payments; for instance, it might be possible to automate some tax payments (e.g. when buying a coffee, the net amount could be paid directly to the coffee shop, with a 20% VAT payment routed directly to HMRC), or parents may be able to set limits on their children’s spending or restrict them to trusted stores or websites.

From Beyond blockchain: what are the technology requirements for a Central Bank Digital Currency? – Bank Underground

If digital fiat were to be managed via some form of shared ledger, then Simon’s insight here suggests that it is not the shared ledger but the shared ledger applications (what some people still, annoyingly, insist on calling “smart contracts”) that will become the nexus for radical innovation. They bring intelligence to money, and some people think this is more revolutionary than it first appears. One such person is Eric Lonergan. Eric is someone I always take seriously. He’s a hedge fund manager, economist and writer. He wrote a great book about money, called Money, and he is a source of clear thinking on many issues around this central topic of shared interest. Here’s what he had to say about Bitcoin recently.

The most significant innovation in Bitcoin is not blockchain, nor the fact that it is a non-state-backed electronic currency. It is truly ground-breaking because it is the first ‘intelligent’ money. An ‘intelligent money’ is one which self-regulates.

From Intelligent money & valuing Bitcoin – Philosophy of Money

Quite, but this form of intelligence is only one kind and the Bitcoin self-regulation is only one kind of self-regulation. There are some truly surprising possibilities once you add general-purpose programmability. I have bored people to tears repeatedly with my standard four hour lecture about why the incorrectly labelled “smart contracts” will be the source of real innovation in the world of cryptocurrency and, indeed, why one of the first uses of those smart contracts (ICOs and tokens) will be much more important to the world of financial services than, say, Bitcoin. But that kind of self-regulation may not be the only thing that intelligent money does. Eric goes on to say that:

‘Intelligence’ could also embed social goals – for example the currency could self-regulate the activities for which it is used, perhaps even rewarding or punishing activities contingent on their social impact. In extremis, I imagine we will have a currency which is fully intelligent, gathers data and evolves its own rules of distribution and growth. .

As you will deduce from the subtitle of my recent book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin – From money that we understand to money that understand us” I agree. What’s more, as Eric says, “my sense is that it [intelligent money] is inevitable – indeed it could be the basis of an edge for digital currency over existing state-backed money”. That’s a pretty interesting statement from someone who is a thorough student of money. If he is right, and money becomes more closely connected with the social goals of the communities that it serves, then the future of money will look very different from both the Washington Consensus and Star Trek (that is, there won’t be a “galactic credit” or whatever, but very many different kinds of money).