Decentralizing Central Banks: How R3 Envisions the Future of Fiat

Michael del Castillo
Apr 5, 2017 at 13:59 UTC
FEATURE

The future of central banks could be either on an open, permissionless blockchain or a closed, permissioned distributed ledger, according to a paper released today by bank consortium R3.

That is, assuming anything changes at all.

Already, the global institutions that actually issue national currencies have moved vast amounts of the paper money they print to digital, centralized ledgers.

But as more and more central banks around the world reveal details about their interest in blockchain and other distributed ledgers, the very real possibility of central banks decentralizing is being seriously studied by academics.

Most recently, a research paper published today by R3 and revealed exclusively to CoinDesk presents a detailed picture of the benefits and detractions of two of the most popular strategies being considered

In conversation with CoinDesk, report author and chair in economics at the University of California Santa Barbara, Rod Garratt, detailed the impact he believes blockchain and other distributed ledgers could have if implemented by central banks.

"Most central bank money is digital. Reserves are digital," Garratt said, adding:

"What really distinguishes the idea of this sort of central bank digital currency is the idea that, while it may be generated on the central bank balance sheet, it can transact off the central bank’s balance sheet."

Currently, most central banks inject new currency into the economy through a number of monetary policy actions, including buying government bonds that, in turn, supply securities dealers with cash. This then makes its way into the market through a number of mechanisms.

But the issuance of fiat money on a blockchain or other distributed ledger opens up a wide range of new possibilities, according to Garratt, who is also a member of R3’s academic advisory board.

Canada trial

Revealed for the first time in the new paper, titled "CAD-coin versus Fedcoin", are new details about Project Jasper – a secretive project being undertaken by the Bank of Canada, R3, and others.

First announced last year, Project Jasper was designed to be implemented in a series of phases, the first of which concluded at the Payment Panorama conference last year.

As detailed in the paper, Project Jasper’s CAD-coin was designed to have a neutral impact on the Bank of Canada’s monetary policy, by settling all CAD-coin exchanges at the end of each day.

In the phase one simulation, this was accomplished by six private Canadian banks pledging cash collateral – which was pooled into an account held by the Bank of Canada – in exchange for an equal amount of CAD-coin to be exchanged throughout the day.

For the test, CAD-coin was issued on a permissioned version of the ethereum blockchain set up to use the proof-of-work mining built into Geth, but with the platform's token, ether, removed. However, R3 is also developing its own distributed ledger, Corda – also without a cryptocurrency – intended to further streamline a number of financial transactions.

According to the report, banks were identified by a public address in this early CAD-coin implementation, but live transactions would have required much more information, including a complete list mapping the names of banks to public addresses in the distributed ledger.

The report states:

"With CAD-coin, the central bank again acts as the gateway to conversion from central bank money to CAD-coin, but privacy at conversion is not required. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Central banks typically have the authority to monitor payments transactions in their role as overseer of a systemically important financial market infrastructure, so complete privacy is not a reasonable objective."

The case for Fedcoin

Permissioned distributed ledgers, though, are not the only potential solution being seriously discussed as a possible replacement for central bank-issued currencies.

Initially proposed by blogger JP Koning in 2013, the concept now known as Fedcoin, has already been personally embraced by David Andolfatto, vice-president of the US Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis.

Whereas CAD-coin is presented in the R3 report as a permissioned solution with cryptocurrency cashed out at the end of every day, Garrett positions Fedcoin as a permissionless solution that is actually swapped out with traditional currency, resulting in a new form of sovereign currency.

Though it is important to note that the US Federal Reserve has not formally expressed any interest in issuing the cryptocurrency first described by Koning, central banks around the world have begun to explore it and similar concepts.

Last June, the Federal Reserve co-hosted representatives from 90 central banks gathered in Washington DC to discuss the possible network effects of moving global currency to a blockchain or distributed ledger.

Garratt distinguishes CAD-coin from Fedcoin in that CAD-coin is being designed as a temporary tool to expedite the movement of traditional digital cash, whereas Fedcoin as described by Koning would be a substitute for currency already in circulation.

According to the paper:

"Fedcoin is intended as a retail payment solution, while CAD-coin is intended as a wholesale payments solution: it does not trade on a public network, nor is it consumer facing."

Obstacles and risks

Preventing the adoption of central-bank issued cryptocurrency are a number of potential problems, not least of which are large-scale runs on banks, similar to those that triggered the Great Depression.

Joining a growing list of skeptics who warn of the difficulties facing adoption, Garrett enumerated a number of obstacles between central banks and their use of cryptocurrencies.

For example, he positioned the Fedcoin concept as particularly susceptible to runs on the bank, since the process of making a withdrawal would be simplified to a potentially dangerous degree in times of economic uncertainty.

"Unless the central bank put limits on peoples’ ability to convert money into Fedcoin," wrote Garratt, "there could be significant swings in the composition of the monetary base which could have serious implications for liquidity."

Meanwhile, the adoption of a CAD-coin style currency by the Bank of Canada or elsewhere could be inhibited by uncertainty among some banks that others will follow suit – a crucial component of the potential efficiencies that Garratt suggests could be freed up by moving fiat money to a distributed ledger.

Beyond central banks

Already, a number of global central banks have publicly expressed interest in fiat currency issued on a blockchain, while at least one company, eCurrency, has been established for the sole purpose of helping central banks digitize their currencies.

Further, non-central-bank-related solutions are also being developed.

For example, the cryptocurrency Tether is specifically designed to be pegged to the US dollar without the need of a central bank, while Bitshares’ SmartCoins are intended to be pegged to any number of assets, including gold.

Garratt concluded by embracing a 'more the merrier' philosophy:

"If you have multiple countries offering central bank digital money that can be transferred on this ledger, then suddenly you have the possibilities for very efficient clearing and settlement in multiple currencies."

World currencies image via Shutterstock

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