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Is Digital Money (Legally) Really Money?

IMF Blog | Catalina Margulis and Arthur Rossi | Jan 14, 2021

IMF survey on CBDCs - Is Digital Money (Legally) Really Money?

Countries are moving fast toward creating digital currencies. Or, so we hear from various surveys showing an increasing number of central banks making substantial progress towards having an official digital currency.

But, in fact, close to 80 percent of the world’s central banks are either not allowed to issue a digital currency under their existing laws, or the legal framework is not clear.

To help countries make this assessment, we reviewed the central bank laws of 174 IMF members in a new IMF staff paper, and found out that only about 40 are legally allowed to issue digital currencies.

Not just a legal technicality

Any money issuance is a form of debt for the central bank, so it must have a solid basis to avoid legal, financial and reputational risks for the institutions. Ultimately, it is about ensuring that a significant and potentially contentious innovation is in line with a central bank’s mandate. Otherwise, the door is opened to potential political and legal challenges.

See:  The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Central Bank Digital Coins (CBDCs)

Now, readers may be asking themselves: if issuing money is the most basic function for any central bank, why then is a digital form of money so different? The answer requires a detailed analysis of the functions and powers of each central bank, as well as the implications of different designs of digital instruments.

Uncharted waters?

Digital currencies can take different forms. Our analysis focuses on the legal implications of the main concepts being considered by various central banks. For instance, where it would be “account-based” or “token-based.” The first means digitalizing the balances currently held on accounts in a central banks’ books; while the second refers to designing a new digital token not connected to the existing accounts that commercial banks hold with a central bank.

From a legal perspective, the difference is between centuries-old traditions and uncharted waters. The first model is as old as central banking itself, having been developed in the early 17th century by the Exchange Bank of Amsterdam—considered the precursor of modern central banks. Its legal status under public and private law in most countries is well developed and understood. Digital tokens, in contrast, have a very short history and unclear legal status. Some central banks are allowed to issue any type of currency (which could include digital forms), while most (61 percent) are limited to only banknotes and coins.

See:  Lagarde Says Her ‘Hunch’ Is That ECB Will Adopt Digital Currency

Another important design feature is whether the digital currency is to be used only at the “wholesale” level, by financial institutions, or could be accessible to the general public (“retail”). Commercial banks hold accounts with their central bank, being therefore their traditional “clients.” Allowing private citizens’ accounts, as in retail banking, would be a tectonic shift to how central banks are organized and would require significant legal changes. Only 10 central banks in our sample would currently be allowed to do so.

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