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Public and Private Money Can Coexist in the Digital Age

IMF Blog | Tobias Adrian and Tommaso Mancini-Griffoli | Feb 18, 2021

private and public money - Public and Private Money Can Coexist in the Digital Age

We value innovation and diversity—including in money. In the same day, we might pay by swiping a card, waving a phone, or clicking a mouse. Or we might hand over notes and coins, though in many countries increasingly less often.

Today’s world is characterized by a dual monetary system, involving privately-issued money—by banks of all types, telecom companies, or specialized payment providers—built upon a foundation of publicly-issued money—by central banks. While not perfect, this system offers significant advantages, including: innovation and product diversity, mostly provided by the private sector, and stability and efficiency, ensured by the public sector.

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These objectives—innovation and diversity on the one hand, and stability and efficiency on the other—are related. More of one usually means less of the other. A tradeoff exists, and countries—central banks especially—have to navigate it. How much of the private sector to rely upon, versus how much to innovate themselves? Much depends on preferences, available technology, and the efficiency of regulation.

So it is natural, when a new technology emerges, to ask how today’s dual monetary system will evolve. If digitalized cash—called central bank digital currency—does emerge, will it displace privately-issued money, or allow it to flourish? The first is always possible, by way of more stringent regulation. We argue that the second remains possible, by extending the logic of today’s dual monetary system. Importantly, central banks should not face a choice between either offering central bank digital currency, or encouraging the private sector to provide its own digital variant. The two can coincide and complement each other, for example, to the extent central banks make certain design choices and refresh their regulatory frameworks.

Public-private coexistence

It may be puzzling to consider that privately- and publicly-issued monies have coexisted throughout history. Why hasn’t the more innovative, convenient, user-friendly, and adaptable private money taken over entirely?

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The answer lies in a fundamental symbiotic relationship: the option to redeem private money into perfectly safe and liquid public money, be it notes and coins, or central bank reserves held by selected banks.

The private monies that can be redeemed at a fixed face value into central bank currency become a stable store of value. Ten dollars in a bank account can be exchanged into a ten-dollar bill accepted as legal tender to settle debts. The example may seem obvious, but it hides complex underpinnings: sound regulation and supervision, government backstops such as deposit insurance and lender last resort, as well as partial or full backing in central bank reserves.

Moreover, privately-issued money becomes an efficient means of payment to the extent it can be redeemed into central bank currency. Anne’s 10 dollars in Bank A can be transferred to Bob’s Bank B because they are redeemed into central bank currency in between—an asset both banks trust, hold, and can exchange. As a result, this privately-issued money becomes interoperable. And so it spurs competition—since Anne and Bob can hold money in different banks and still pay each other—and thus innovation and diversity of actual forms of money.

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In short, the option of redemption into central bank currency is essential for stability, interoperability, innovation, and diversity of privately-issued money, be it a bank account or other. A system with just private money would be far too risky. And one with just central bank currency could miss out on important innovations. Each form of money builds on the other to deliver today’s dual money system—a balance that has served us well.

Central bank currency in the digital age will face pressures

And tomorrow, as we step squarely into the digital age, what will become of this system? Will the digital currencies issued by central banks be so enticing that they overshadow privately-issued money? Or will they still allow for private sector innovation? Much depends on each central bank’s ability and willingness to consistently and significantly innovate. Keeping pace with technological change, rapidly evolving user needs, and private sector innovation is no easy feat.

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NCFA Jan 2018 resize - Public and Private Money Can Coexist in the Digital Age The National Crowdfunding & Fintech Association (NCFA Canada) is a financial innovation ecosystem that provides education, market intelligence, industry stewardship, networking and funding opportunities and services to thousands of community members and works closely with industry, government, partners and affiliates to create a vibrant and innovative fintech and funding industry in Canada. Decentralized and distributed, NCFA is engaged with global stakeholders and helps incubate projects and investment in fintech, alternative finance, crowdfunding, peer-to-peer finance, payments, digital assets and tokens, blockchain, cryptocurrency, regtech, and insurtech sectors. Join Canada's Fintech & Funding Community today FREE! Or become a contributing member and get perks. For more information, please visit: www.ncfacanada.org

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