Key takeaways

  • Central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) offer in digital form the unique advantages of central bank money: settlement finality, liquidity and integrity. They are an advanced representation of money for the digital economy.
  • Digital money should be designed with the public interest in mind. Like the latest generation of instant retail payment systems, retail CBDCs could ensure open payment platforms and a competitive level playing field that is conducive to innovation.
  • The ultimate benefits of adopting a new payment technology will depend on the competitive structure of the underlying payment system and data governance arrangements. The same technology that can encourage a virtuous circle of greater access, lower costs and better services might equally induce a vicious circle of data silos, market power and anti-competitive practices. CBDCs and open platforms are the most conducive to a virtuous circle.
  • CBDCs built on digital identification could improve cross-border payments, and limit the risks of currency substitution. Multi-CBDC arrangements could surmount the hurdles of sharing digital IDs across borders, but will require international cooperation.

Introduction

Digital innovation has wrought far-reaching changes in all sectors of the economy. Alongside a broader trend towards greater digitalisation, a wave of innovation in consumer payments has placed money and payment services at the vanguard of this development. An essential by-product of the digital economy is the huge volume of personal data that are collected and processed as an input into business activity. This raises issues of data governance, consumer protection and anti-competitive practices arising from data silos.

This chapter examines how central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) can contribute to an open, safe and competitive monetary system that supports innovation and serves the public interest. CBDCs are a form of digital money, denominated in the national unit of account, which is a direct liability of the central bank.1 CBDCs can be designed for use either among financial intermediaries only (ie wholesale CBDCs), or by the wider economy (ie retail CBDCs).

The chapter sets out the unique features of CBDCs, asking what their issuance would mean for users, financial intermediaries, central banks and the international monetary system. It presents the design choices and the associated implications for data governance and privacy in the digital economy. The chapter also outlines how CBDCs compare with the latest generation of retail fast payment systems (FPS, see glossary).2

To set the stage, the first section discusses the public interest case for digital money. The second section lays out the unique properties of CBDCs as an advanced representation of central bank money, focusing on their role as a means of payment and comparing them with cash and the latest generation of retail FPS. The third section discusses the appropriate division of labour between the central bank and the private sector in payments and financial intermediation, and the associated CBDC design considerations. The fourth section explores the principles behind design choices on digital identification and user privacy. The fifth section discusses the international dimension of CBDCs, including the opportunities for improving cross-border payments and the role of international cooperation.

Money in the digital era

Throughout the long arc of history, money and its institutional foundations have evolved in parallel with the technology available. Many recent payment innovations have built on improvements to underlying infrastructures that have been many years in the making. Central banks around the world have instituted real-time gross settlement (RTGS) systems over the past decades. A growing number of jurisdictions (over 55 at the time of writing)3 have introduced retail FPS, which allow instant settlement of payments between households and businesses around the clock. FPS also support a vibrant ecosystem of private bank and non-bank payment service providers (PSPs, see glossary). Examples of FPS include TIPS in the euro area, the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) in India, PIX in Brazil, CoDi in Mexico and the FedNow proposal in the United States, among many others. These developments show how innovation can thrive on the basis of sound money provided by central banks.

Yet further-reaching changes to the existing monetary system are burgeoning. Demands on retail payments are changing, with fewer cash transactions and a shift towards digital payments, in particular since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic (Graph III 1, left-hand and centre panels). In addition to incremental improvements, many central banks are actively engaged in work on CBDCs as an advanced representation of central bank money for the digital economy. CBDCs may give further impetus to innovations that promote the efficiency, convenience and safety of the payment system. While CBDC projects and pilots have been under way since 2014, efforts have recently shifted into higher gear (Graph III.1, right-hand panel).

The overriding criterion when evaluating a change to something as central as the monetary system should be whether it serves the public interest. Here, the public interest should be taken broadly to encompass not only the economic benefits flowing from a competitive market structure, but also the quality of governance arrangements and basic rights, such as the right to data privacy.

It is in this context that the exploration of CBDCs provides an opportunity to review and reaffirm the public interest case for digital money. The monetary system is a public good that permeates people’s everyday lives and underpins the economy. Technological development in money and payments could bring wide benefits, but the ultimate consequences for the well-being of individuals in society depend on the market structure and governance arrangements that underpin it. The same technology could encourage either a virtuous circle of equal access, greater competition and innovation, or it could foment a vicious circle of entrenched market power and data concentration. The outcome will depend on the rules governing the payment system and whether these will result in open payment platforms and a competitive level playing field.