2017 has been a wild and fantastic year for cryptocurrencies, especially bitcoin. Everyone was wondering whether they should buy bitcoin. That was back when it was $500 a coin. Now it’s over $11,000 a coin. Funny year 2017. 2017 was when everyone thought they had to get into cryptocurrencies, and you realise that they don’t get it when they decide not to buy bitcoins as they’re $11,000 each; let’s buy Litecoins instead, as they’re just $100 (at start of year $2).
What this mad speculation has done is stoked the formal markets into action. After Jamie Dimon calls it a fraud and Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has called for it to be outlawed. Nearly every banker I talk to things it serves no useful function, and is purely used to avoid governmental authorities and engage in criminal activities.
That overlooks one fundamental: bitcoin is popular in markets where their fiat currencies are unstable, such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Alternatively, where governments try to restrict the outflow of domestic currencies, as in Russia and China, cryptocurrencies provide a desirable alternative. Equally, it is popular in markets that have zero interest growth, such as South Korea and Japan. In these markets, the lack of a decent return on investment drives investors to look for alternative asset classes of which crypto is definitely a decent one, at the moment.
In other words, bitcoin is becoming a mainstream asset class for some markets, including the USA where the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Nasdaq are crating crypto derivatives based on bitcoin. What happens next? Well, I was intrigued by the commentary of Christine Lagarde, the Head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and someone I take quite seriously. She has spoken out several times recently to say that ignoring bitcoin and cryptocurrencies is dangerous. In fact, her latest commentary is that the rise of these alternative currencies could replace the banking system.
Her full speech to the Bank of England at the end of September can be read on the IMF’s website, but here are few key lines:
Virtual currencies such as Bitcoin pose little or no challenge to the existing order of fiat currencies and central banks. Why? Because they are too volatile, too risky, too energy intensive, and because the underlying technologies are not yet scalable. Many are too opaque for regulators; and some have been hacked. But many of these are technological challenges that could be addressed over time.
According to Lagarde, cryptocurrencies could play a future role in updating the IMF’s own internal currency, a reserve asset named the Special Drawing Right (SDR), and she believes it will deliver “massive disruptions”. She’s not the only saying this, but the question then is: what should central bankers do about it?
Bloomberg summed it up well:
U.S.: Privacy Worry
The Federal Reserve’s investigation into cryptocurrencies is in its early days, and it hasn’t been overtly enthusiastic about the idea of a central-bank issued answer to bitcoin. Jerome Powell, a board member and the chairman nominee, said earlier this year that technical issues remain with the technology and “governance and risk management will be critical.” Powell said there are “meaningful” challenges to a central bank cryptocurrency, that privacy issues could be a problem, and private-sector alternatives may do the job.
The volume of cryptocurrencies could at some point “matter” when it comes to monetary policy, Powell said in answering a question at his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday. “They’re just not big enough” today, however, he said.
Euro Area: Tulip-Like
The European Central Bank has repeatedly warned about the dangers of investing in digital currencies. Vice President Vitor Constancio said in September that bitcoin isn’t a currency, but a “tulip” -- alluding to the 17th-century bubble in the Netherlands. Colleague Benoit Coeure has warned bitcoin’s unstable value and links to tax evasion and crime create major risks. President Mario Draghi said this month the impact of digital currencies on the euro-area economy was limited and they posed no threat to central banks’ monopoly on money.
China: Conditions ‘Ripe’
China has made it clear: the central bank has full control over cryptocurrencies. With a research team set up in 2014 to develop digital fiat money, the People’s Bank of China believes “conditions are ripe” for it to embrace the technology. But it has cracked down on private digital issuers, banning exchange trading of bitcoin and others. While there’s no formal start date for introducing digital currencies, authorities say going digital could help improve payment efficiency and allow more accurate control of currencies.
Japan: Study Mode
Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said in an October speech that the BOJ has no imminent plan to issue digital currencies, though it’s important to deepen knowledge about them. “Issuing CBDC (central bank digital currency) to the general public is as if a central bank extends the access to its accounts to anyone,” Kuroda said. “As such, discussion about CBDC revisits fundamental issues of central banking.”
Germany: ‘Speculative Plaything’
In a country where lot of citizens still prefer to pay in cash, the Bundesbank has been particularly wary of the emergence of bitcoin and other virtual currencies. Board member Carl-Ludwig Thiele said in September bitcoin was “more of a speculative plaything than a form of payment.” A shift of deposits into blockchain would disrupt banks’ business models and could upend monetary policy, Thiele said. At the same time, the Bundesbank has been actively studying the application of the technology in payment systems.
U.K.: Potential ‘Revolution’
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has cited cryptocurrencies as part of a potential “revolution” in finance. The central bank started a financial technology accelerator last year, a Silicon Valley practice to incubate young companies. Carney says technology based on blockchain, the distributed accounting database, shows “great promise” in enabling central banks to strengthen their defenses against cyber attack and overhaul the way payments are made between institutions and consumers. He has nevertheless cautioned the BOE is still a long way from from creating a digital version of sterling.
France: ‘Great Caution’
Bank of France Governor Francois Villeroy de Galhau said in June that French officials “advise great caution with respect to bitcoin because there is no public institution behind it to provide confidence. In history all examples of private currencies ended badly. Bitcoin even has a dark side -- there were this data attacks.” He said “those who use Bitcoin today do so at their own risk.”
India: Not Allowed
India’s central bank is opposed to cryptocurrencies given that they can be a channel for money laundering and terrorist financing. Nevertheless, the Reserve Bank of India has a group studying whether digital currencies backed by global central banks can be used as legal tender. Currently, the use of cryptocurrencies is a violation of foreign-exchange rules.
Brazil: Support Innovation
The Banco Central do Brasil sees “no immediate risk for the Brazilian financial system” but remains alert to the developments of the usage of those currencies, it said in a statement this month. The bank pledged “to support financial innovation, including new technologies that make the financial system safer and more efficient.”
The Bank of Canada’s senior deputy governor, Carolyn Wilkins, who is leading research on cryptocurrencies, said in an interview this month that cryptocurrencies aren’t true forms of money. “This is really an asset, or a security, and so it should be treated that way,” Wilkins said. As others, she viewed distributed ledger technology as promising for making the financial system more efficient.
South Korea: Crime Watch
The Bank of Korea’s focus has been protecting consumers and preventing cryptocurrencies from being used as a tool of crime. Deputy Governor Shin Ho-soon said this month that more research and monitoring was needed.
Russia: ‘Pyramid Schemes’
Russia’s central bank has expressed concerns about potential risks from digital currencies, with Governor Elvira Nabiullina saying “we don’t legalize pyramid schemes” and “we are totally opposed to private money, no matter if it is in physical or virtual form.” For the moment, the Bank of Russia prefers to delay a decision on regulating the financial instruments unless President Vladimir Putin pushes for action sooner. The central bank will work with prosecutors to block websites that allow retail investors access to bitcoin exchanges, according to Sergey Shvetsov, a deputy governor.
Australia: Monitoring Closely
The Reserve Bank is closely monitoring the rise of digital currencies and recognizes the technology underpinning bitcoin has the “potential for widespread use in the financial sector and many other parts of the economy,” head of payments policy Tony Richards said last month.
Turkey: Important Element
Digital currencies may contribute to financial stability if designed well, Turkish Central Bank Governor Murat Cetinkaya said in Istanbul earlier this month. Digital currencies pose new risks to central banks, including their control of money supply and price stability, and the transmission of monetary policy, Cetinkaya said. Even so, the Turkish central banker said that digital currencies may be an important element for a cashless economy, and the technologies used can help speed up and make payment systems more efficient.
Netherlands: Most Daring
The Dutch have been among the most daring when it comes to experimenting with digital currencies. Two years ago the central bank created its own cryptocurrency called DNBcoin -- for internal circulation only -- to better understand how it works. Presenting the results last year, Ron Berndsen, who was in charge of the project, said blockchain may be “naturally applicable” in the settlement of complex financial transactions.
Scandinavia: Exploring Options
Like the Dutch, some Nordic authorities have been at the forefront of exploring the idea of digital cash. Sweden’s Riksbank, the world’s oldest central bank, is probing options including a digital register-based e-krona, with balances in central-database accounts or with values stored in an app or on a card. The bank says the introduction of an e-krona poses “no major obstacles” to monetary policy.
In an environment of decreasing use of cash, Norway’s Norges Bank is looking at possibilities such as individual accounts at the central bank or plastic cards or an app to use for payments, it said in a May report. Denmark has backtracked somewhat from initial enthusiasm, with Deputy Governor Per Callesen last month cautioning against central banks offering digital currencies directly to consumers. One argument is that such direct access to central bank liquidity could contribute to runs on commercial banks in times of crisis.
New Zealand: Considering Future
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand, once a pioneer on the global stage with its early introduction of an inflation target, said Wednesday it’s considering its future plans for currency issuance, and how digital units may fit into those strategies. “Work is currently underway to assess the future demand for New Zealand fiat currency and to consider whether it would be feasible for the reserve bank to replace the physical currency that currently circulates with a digital alternative,” the RBNZ said in what it termed an analytical note.
Morocco: Violating Law
Representing one of the more stringent reactions, the country has deemed that all transactions involving virtual currencies as violating exchange regulations and punishable by law. Cryptocurrencies amount to a hidden payment system, not backed by any institution and involving significant risks for their users, authorities said in a statement this month.
Bank for International Settlements: Can’t Ignore
The central bank for central banks has said that policy makers can’t ignore the growth of cryptocurrencies and will likely have to consider whether it makes sense for them to issue their own digital currencies at some point. “Bitcoin has gone from being an obscure curiosity to a household name,” the BIS said in September. One option is a currency available to the public, with only the central bank able to issue units that would be directly convertible to cash and reserves. There might be a greater risk of bank runs, however, and commercial lenders might face a shortage of deposits. Privacy could also be a concern.
Agustin Carstens, the incoming head of the BIS, told Bloomberg that bitcoin deserves close scrutiny. “Anything that grows in price as fast as bitcoin has done it, without having a real clear understanding of what is behind it, should at least raise some eyebrows,” he said.
Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...