The great financial crisis sowed distrust in the global monetary order, spawning bitcoin and myriad copycat cryptocurrencies. But it was not until the middle of 2019 when a Facebook-led consortium threatened to launch Libra, its own stablecoin, that officials really began to fret. The perceived threat to sovereigns’ unrivalled power to control money creation was such that state-backed digital currencies now look inevitable.
Last week, the People’s Bank of China expanded a trial run of a prototype digital renminbi to include its three largest urban clusters — areas that together contain 400m people. The Boston branch of the Federal Reserve on Thursday said it would collaborate with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a task force looking into “the opportunities and limitations of possible technologies of digital forms of central bank money”.
They are not alone. With cash close to extinction in Sweden, the Riksbank’s plans for its own digital money are advanced. The Group of Thirty, a collective of current and former central bank chiefs, and private sector bankers, recently published a report on the topic. The Bank for International Settlements, the so-called central bankers’ bank, has set up an Innovation Hub in major financial centres to look into digital currencies, alongside other technologies.
There is much to cheer. While the Libra project was deeply flawed, it highlighted an important problem: an inability for people and businesses to make cross-border payments quickly and cheaply. Central banks now not only recognise this, but have invested considerable resources in attempts to solve it. It is welcome, too, that officials have woken up to the threat from the private sector. We do not want to return to a world such as that which existed during the panic of 1907, when the lack of a US central bank meant the likes of JPMorgan decided which businesses collapsed and which thrived in times of crisis.