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Central Banks Warm To Issuing Digital Currencies (#GotBitcoin?)

One in 10 central banks surveyed says it is likely to roll out digital currencies within three years. Central Banks Warm To Issuing Digital Currencies (#GotBitcoin?)

More than one-fifth of the world’s population could have access to digital money issued by central banks to pay for groceries, movie tickets and even homes in the next few years, as these institutions accelerate plans to issue official cryptocurrencies.

 

Central Banks Warm To Issuing Digital Currencies (#GotBitcoin?)

One in 10 central banks surveyed in 2019 said it was likely to offer digital currencies within the next three years, covering about 20% of the world’s population, according to a report from the Bank for International Settlements. The proportion of central banks likely to issue digital money almost doubled when the horizon was stretched to six years, the BIS said.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said in November the U.S. central bank doesn’t currently have plans to launch a digital currency. Doing so would be difficult in the U.S., with Americans remaining more committed to cash than other nations, he said.

The rising popularity of electronic payments, and the boom in private cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, has promoted authorities to pay more attention to digital currencies. The new tools could offer faster settlements of payments and the potential to allow people to bank directly with a central bank. They may even offer monetary-policy benefits, if central banks could set rates on accounts that directly affect households, rather than using financial markets to transmit changes to borrowing costs for consumer and corporate loans.

Major technology companies, meanwhile, are interested in offering digital currencies. But Facebook Inc.’s plans to launch libra have drawn criticism from regulators and have led early partners to reconsider their support.

Central banks face big hurdles in offering dedicated digital currencies and related bank accounts to the general public, the BIS’s general manager, Agustín Carstens, said in December. Still, policy makers in the Caribbean, including the Central Bank of the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, are testing digital money, according to the BIS.

Some 66 central banks, representing 90% of the world’s economic output, took part in the survey in 2019, according to Switzerland-based BIS, which is owned by some of the world’s biggest central banks, including the Fed. A year earlier, only one in 20 monetary authorities were considering rolling out digital money in the short term.

In response to the rapid decline in the use of cash in recent years, Sweden’s Riksbank began working on its e-krona pilot program in 2017. Uruguay’s central bank, which piloted a program between late-2017 and mid-2018 that let individual users hold a maximum of 30,000 e-Pesos ($1,000) in a digital wallet, is considering its next steps.

Central banks in general have been hesitant about creating digital currencies, according to Darrell Duffie, a finance professor at Stanford University. Questions remain on how to monitor transactions to prevent fraud and whether such currencies would be linked to interest rates.

“It’s a responsibility I think central banks don’t want,” Mr. Duffie said.

Updated: 6-5-2020

Fed Paper: Central Bank Digital Currencies Could Replace Commercial Banks – But At A Cost

Central bank digital currencies might one day replace commercial banks. But that comes with risks, according to new research from the Federal Reserve of Philadelphia.

The 32-page research paper – titled “Central Bank Digital Currency: Central Banking for All?” – investigated the implications of an account-based central bank digital currency (CBDC), focusing on its potential competition with the traditional maturity transformation role of commercial banks.

“The introduction of digital currencies may justify a fundamental shift in the architecture of a financial system, a central bank ‘open to all,’” the paper, which was published on June 1, reads.

Questions posed by the research arm of the Fed, which were undertaken in collaboration with the Universities of Pennsylvania and Chicago, examined the ramifications of the introduction of a CBDC and how the opening of central bank facilities might affect financial intermediation.

Specifically, the questions were aimed at exploring the role CBDCs play in “giving consumers the possibility of holding a bank account with the central bank directly,” in essence replacing the role currently performed by commercial banks.

Maturity transformation refers to the practice by financial institutions of borrowing money on shorter timeframes than they lend out. This is often done through deposits from savers by converting that finance into long-term borrowings such as mortgages. It is the role of commercial banks to facilitate the needs of lenders and borrowers.

This process can backfire though, such as if there is a panic or bank run where all savers attempt to withdraw money at once or if the money markets suddenly dry up due to lenders no longer providing short-term loans to one another.

The paper determined the set of allocations achieved with private financial intermediation (commercial banks) could also be achieved with a CBDC, provided competition is allowed with those commercial banks and depositors do not panic. However, the paper also determined an associated cost involved.

“Our equivalence result has a sinister counterpart. If the competition from commercial banks is impaired (for example, through some fiscal subsidization of central bank deposits), the central bank has to be careful in its choices to avoid creating havoc with maturity transformation,” according to the paper.

In other words, if CBDCs did disrupt the role of commercial banks and allowed the borrowing of more money than is lent out, there’s a concern central banks could harm the money markets.

The paper also showed how the “rigidity of the central bank’s contract with investment banks” deterred panic runs and, as such, if depositors started to exclusively deposit with the central bank it could end up becoming a “deposit monopolist,” attracting deposits away from the commercial banking sector.

“This monopoly power eliminates the forces that induce the central bank from delivering the socially optimal amount of maturity transformation,” the Fed paper says.

Updated: 6-8-2020

Central Bank of Saudi Arabia Transfers Funds To Local Banks Over Blockchain

The Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority has transferred funds to local banks using blockchain technology.

The Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA), the country’s central bank, announced that it used blockchain technology to deposit funds to local banks.

An official statement published by SAMA said that the funds were a part of the bank’s initiative to enhance its “capabilities to continue its role in providing credit facilities.” The bank did not specify the exact amount of the fund transfer.

SAMA’s Involvement With Blockchain Technology

The Middle East is seeing widespread adoption of blockchain technology in the finance sector. SAMA has performed enormously in terms of using blockchain for remittances for banks located in Saudi and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2018, SAMA also partnered with the UAE’s central bank to develop a digital currency that can be used for cross-border transactions between the two countries.

Reflecting on their recent transaction and active involvement in the blockchain space, SAMA’s recent announcement stated:

“SAMA is one of the pioneer central banks to experiment [with] blockchain technology for money transfers, this move is one of the key innovative initiatives launched by SAMA in its program to enable and develop Fintech in the Kingdom.”

Blockchain In Finance

Increased involvement of governments and central banks in the blockchain sector is playing an important role in the adoption of the technology in finance.

Today, Cointelegraph reported that a major Turkish bank completed its first international trade finance transaction based on blockchain. Another report cited that almost 40% of fintech firms operating in Hong Kong were utilizing distributed ledger technology.

Updated: 6-8-2020

Chinese Bank Issues Commercial Paper Worth $16.9 Billion on Blockchain

A Chinese commercial bank issued China’s first asset-backed commercial paper worth $16.93 billion on a blockchain.

China Zhe­shang Bank, a national commercial bank, used blockchain technology to issue an asset-backed commercial paper, or ABCP. It was issued as a part of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Fi­nan­cial Mar­ket In­sti­tu­tional In­vestors’s (NAFMII) pilot project for ABCPs.

An asset-backed commercial paper is a short-term investment issued by financial institutions to help companies meet short-term goals.

Dubbed “Lianxin 2020 Lian­jie First Phase As­set-backed Com­mer­cial Pa­per,” the period of the Lianxin ABCP is six months and the span of the next issuance is yet to be specified.

An official of the NAFMII noted that the use of blockchain technology would provide enterprises a “direct channel to markets, help­ing to greatly in­crease the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of busi­ness fi­nanc­ing.”

Helping Small And Micro Enterprises

Small, medium, and micro-enterprises usually face difficulties with bond issuance as they do not have any connection with open markets.

The launch of Lianxin ABCP will ensure that SMEs can seek easy financial support. The ABCP “increases the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of fi­nanc­ing for SMEs that have dif­fi­culty with fi­nanc­ing via di­rect debt is­suance,” an official stated.

It will also integrate supply chain finance with small, medium, and micro-enterprises to support them with their production.

China, Banks, And Blockchain

The central bank of China along with other major banks is spearheading blockchain innovation in traditional finance. On May 13, the People’s Bank of China’s deputy governor Fan Yifei urged that China needed to accelerate its blockchain adoption strategy. Only a day after that, Cointelegraph reported that the PBoC proposed a blockchain-based trade finance platform for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.

Earlier, in April, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China released a white paper proposing the applications of blockchain technology in finance.

Updated: 10-11-2020

Central Banks Detail CBDC Expectations In Massive Joint Document

The report is a major step towards pushing central bank digital currencies forward.

With Central Bank Digital Currencies a point of focus across the globe, a number of countries’ banking authorities have jointly produced a document discussing the currency type at length.

The Bank for International Settlements told Cointelgraph in a statement that a group of seven central banks and the BIS had collaborated on the report, “identifying the foundational principles necessary for any publicly available CBDCs to help central banks meet their public policy objectives.” The BIS is a global institution helping out national central banks.

CBDCs have been a hot topic in 2020, with a number of countries expressing interest in the asset type. China has pushed forward with plans for its CBDC, the digital yuan, although China’s central bank did not contribute to the report. China is in the midst of testing its digital asset, and has completed approximately $162 million USD worth of digital yuan transactions.

The Bank of England, the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan sit among the governing bodies involved in crafting the document, titled: Central bank digital currencies: foundational principles and core features. However the statement from the BIS made it clear that the involved parties had not included opinions in the report regarding the launch of such a currency, nor did they specify any firm plans for producing such an asset.

The Report Clarified:

“This report is not about if or when to issue a CBDC. Central banks will make that decision for their jurisdictions (in consultation with governments and stakeholders). None of the central banks contributing to this report have reached a decision on whether or not to issue a CBDC.”

The report listed a trio of necessary fundamental principles upon which a future CDBC, and its related ecosystem, should be founded, if such an asset arises.

“A central bank should not compromise monetary or financial stability by issuing a CBDC; (ii) a CBDC would need to coexist with and complement existing forms of money; and (iii) a CBDC should promote innovation and efficiency.”

The document clarified that vital components of sound CBDCs include convertibility, convenience, security, speed, scalability, legal soundness and several other categories.

Brazil’s central bank has also expressed interest in a CBDC in recent months, although the report also did not list Brazil’s central bank as a contributor. In contrast, the Bank of Japan does grace the list of reported contributors. Japan boasts a team tasked with studying CBDCs.

Updated: 10-12-2020

Central Banks Haven’t Made A Convincing Case For Digital Currencies

It remains unclear what benefits e-money would bring to offset risks to bank funding and financial stability.

Central bankers should avoid getting too drawn into the bitcoin buzz.

On Friday, seven central banks—including the Federal Reserve—and the Bank for International Settlements published a report outlining common principles for issuing digital currencies to the public. Officials and corporations such as Facebook, inspired by cryptocurrencies, have spent years looking into the potential for technology to revolutionize money creation.

In a survey earlier this year, the BIS concluded that 20% of central banks are likely to launch a digital currency within six years. The risks posed by Covid-19 around the exchange of physical cash could heat up the race. China is furthest along and has launched a pilot program. Sweden’s Riksbank is also conducting its own test.

What remains unclear, though, is why this pitfall-ridden shift is necessary.

The most common justification, including in the latest report, is the decline in cash payments, which started well before Covid-19. The Riksbank’s haste to develop an e-krona has been fueled by Sweden becoming an almost cashless society.

But this doesn’t add up: If the shift to digital payments required digital currencies, why is it already happening via cards and mobile applications?

In papers published this year, Riksbank economists also claimed that, in a crisis, a digital currency might give households peace of mind that they could transfer their money into state-issued assets, and therefore be less afraid of leaving it in their bank.

The opposite seems much more likely: If a digital currency offered the advantages of both cash—anonymity and security—and a current account—the ability to transfer large sums with ease—nobody would choose to hold money in a bank deposit. Even outside of crises, this could leave banks without retail depositors, their most stable source of funding.

Indeed, many early supporters of digital currencies, such as the Bank of England’s Michael Kumhof, are also known for wanting to reduce the role of those forms of “money” not issued by governments. This would include deposits, which are issued by banks and used as money.

Reform proposals have so far been rejected by the public in places like Switzerland, but could be achieved in a roundabout manner if digital money issued by central banks ends up competing with bank deposits.

For banks, the funding gap would likely be filled by central banks and wholesale money markets. Far from increasing financial stability, as reformers claim, this would make banks more vulnerable. Lending to the real economy could be affected.

Friday’s report did highlight these risks, and established as a principle the need to “ensure the coexistence and complementarity of public and private forms of money.” Some central banks have floated proposals to cap e-currency holdings, so that bank deposits remain in use.

Yet there are few tangible benefits to weigh up against these risks. Policy makers have an abstract desire to broaden access to public money, but it is unclear why the “unbanked” would find e-money easier to use than a prepaid debit card.

The only real justification for digital currencies is privacy. But central banks don’t want too much privacy, either, given officials’ desire to increase know-your-customer and anti-money-laundering checks. The report said that “full anonymity is not plausible.”

Improving the payments systems that act as the lifeblood of the global economy is a worthy goal. The hype surrounding bitcoin and Facebook’s Libra, however, might be shifting the focus away from real-world problems that need fixing and onto untested solutions looking for a problem to fix.

Updated: 10-18-2020

In Thailand, A Free-Money Program Is Also A Data Experiment

The government is funneling assistance to the poor via cash cards—a convenient way to monitor spending despite privacy concerns.

Like many countries, Thailand is giving citizens cash transfers to help them ride out the coronavirus pandemic. But the military-backed government that rules the country is getting something potentially valuable in return: a huge volume of data on how millions of Thais spend their money.

Since 2017 Thailand has funneled assistance to its poorest citizens via so-called cash cards that are automatically loaded with a small amount of money each month. The cards are a more sophisticated version of the Electronic Benefit Transfer cards used to distribute food aid in the U.S., but linked to a much broader range of activities.

While the government says the information is needed to formulate better policies, privacy advocates are concerned—not least because the number of Thais who use the cards, about 14 million, is set to climb as more people thrown out of work by the Covid-19 pandemic sign up for assistance.

“Any time you’re talking about the government’s collection and use of personal data, particularly a large volume of it, the risks are always higher,” says David Hoffman, a cybersecurity expert at Duke University who also chairs the National Security Agency’s advisory panel on privacy. “The dystopian possibility,” he says, is “that you get a tremendous view into individual citizens that then could be used for a variety of government law enforcement purposes, particularly around the area of silencing social dissent.”

That’s far from a theoretical problem in Thailand. The country has been rocked in recent months by unprecedented protests against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former general who led a 2014 coup d’etat, as well as against the monarchy, which has traditionally been treated as off-limits for criticism.

Some activists calling for greater freedoms have been arrested, and a sweeping cybersecurity law passed in 2019 gives law enforcement agencies the power to collect information or seize equipment to prevent cybersecurity threats. In August, Human Rights Watch warned that Prayut had “adopted a more hostile stance toward pro-democracy activists.”

The card system could become a powerful tool for the government to build loyalty and curb dissent. More than $5.6 billion has been spent through the program, which links transaction data to information about personal finances, education, and biometrics using an open-source analytics software called KNIME.

A range of services are offered through the card and an associated app, including an allowance for travel on public transit and access to job training and health care.

Officials say that strict privacy measures are in place and that data from the cards is being used only to serve their stated purpose: helping the millions of Thais who are poor enough to qualify for one.

“We now have a large enough database to come up with more targeted policies,” says Lavaron Sangsnit, a Finance Ministry official who oversaw the card system until September. “It’s not a one-size fits all approach anymore. All of our efforts will now have a razor sharp focus.”

No-strings-attached cash transfers have become more popular among development economists in recent years, guided by the principle that recipients are better able to decide what they need than bureaucrats. One of the best known is Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, which provides money to families who ensure their children attend school and get necessary vaccinations.

Other countries, meanwhile, have turned to sophisticated digital systems to deliver existing welfare benefits. In India, a biometric identification platform called Aadhaar has enrolled more than one billion people. While an undoubted technological success, Aadhaar has been dogged by problems with security, including data leaks and thefts.

There have also been allegations by privacy activists that it could be used for improper surveillance, which government authorities have disputed.

Heavily dependent on exports and tourism, Thailand’s economy is expected to contract by as much as 8.5% this year, putting some 8 million jobs at risk. That could drive more people’s annual income below 100,000 baht ($3,200), the threshold for receiving a cash card. To cushion the impact of the pandemic on the poor, the government has increased monthly payments by 500 baht for the final quarter of the year.

Members of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party have not been shy about trying to leverage the program for political advantage. During last year’s general election, some voters said they were told at rallies that they needed to elect government-aligned candidates to keep their card benefits, prompting an opposition lawmaker to file a complaint with the elections regulator. (The agency rejected the allegations.)

Since the cards and associated welfare policies are being implemented “at the discretion of the government,” it’s fair to question “whether this could be used for politics,” says Thon Pitidol, an economics professor at Thailand’s Thammasat University who studied the program’s implementation.

Many poor Thais are just happy to have the extra cash—no matter what it might mean for politics or privacy. Liamtong Namwicha, a farmer who lives in the northeastern Sisaket province, says he’s found the card “useful” since getting one more than two years ago.

Liamtong, who is currently receiving 800 baht a month, has been using it to buy groceries and household necessities from a store in his village, and says he didn’t know data on his habits was being transmitted to policymakers—but that he isn’t worried about it. “I only use the card to buy instant noodles, vegetable oil, and detergent,” he says. “These are necessary things, so I don’t mind if they know.”

Updated: 10-19-2020

Better To Get It Right Than To Be First With CBDC, Says US Fed Chair

The U.S. already has a “safe and active dynamic domestic payment system,” Powell argued.

The United States will not be issuing a digital dollar until the Federal Reserve resolves all questions around a potential central bank digital currency, or CBDC, according to the Fed’s chairman, Jerome Powell.

Powell claimed that he is not worried about other countries having a first-mover advantage when it comes to issuing CBDCs.

Speaking at a Monday panel on cross-border payments hosted by the International Monetary Fund, Powell said:

“We have not made a decision to issue a CBDC, and we think there’s a great deal of work yet to be done. […] In fact, I actually do think that CBDC is one of those issues where it’s more important for the United States to get it right than it is to be first.”

Powell elaborated that “getting it right” means that the U.S. is not only looking at the potential benefits of a CBDC but also the potential risks — particularly given the fact that the U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

The official noted that countries around the globe will have their own motivations for issuing a CBDC. He contended that the main focus for the U.S. would be determining “whether and how a CBDC could improve an already safe and active dynamic domestic payment system.” Powell continued:

“Unlike some jurisdictions, here in the United States we continue to see strong demand for cash. Moreover, we have robust and mature financial and banking sectors, and we have a highly banked population, so that many, although not all, already have access to the electronic payment system.”

The Fed chair emphasized that the bank will not make a decision on issuing the digital dollar until it resolves CBDC-associated risks involving cyber attacks, financial stability, privacy and security. He stated:

“In addition to assessing the benefits, there are also some quite difficult policy and operational questions. […] Just to mention a few, I would mention the need to protect a CBDC from cyber attacks and fraud; the question of how a CBDC would affect monetary policy and financial stability; and also, how could CBDC prevent illicit activity while also preserving user privacy and security.”

Powell’s remarks come amid a number of global jurisdictions actively exploring and piloting CBDCs. Countries such as Russia and Japan are among the latest countries to jump on the CBDC bandwagon, while jurisdictions such as China and Sweden began testing their forthcoming digital currencies in 2020.

Despite the technology’s growing popularity across the globe, citizens in the U.S. are also skeptical about the idea of the digital dollar. According to a recent survey, more than 50% of Americans are opposed to the U.S. Fed issuing such an asset. In late September, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland revealed details of the Fed’s ongoing research into a potential digital dollar.


95% Of Winners In China’s CBDC Lottery Spent Digital Yuan Prizes

Some winners purchased additional digital yuan during the pilot.

The vast majority of China’s $1.5 million digital yuan lottery winners have received and spent their “red envelopes” of digital yuan.

As of Sunday, a total of 47,573 out of 50,000 lottery winners in China have received their prizes, Shenzhen authorities officially announced.

According to the announcement, the winners conducted a total of 62,788 transactions accounting for 8.8 million yuan ($1.3 million). This amount represents about 88% of the total 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) that was to be distributed in the giveaway pilot in Shenzhen.

Some winners have not only spent their “red envelopes” but also topped up their wallets, having purchased an additional 901,000 yuan ($134,000).

Shenzhen launched a pilot program to promote the digital yuan with a public giveaway on Oct. 9. Lottery organizers said they would take back the unused amount of the digital yuan packets if winners did not spend it by Sunday

As previously reported, a total of 2 million people applied to participate in Shenzhen’s digital yuan giveaway program as of Oct. 12.

China’s central bank digital currency — the digital yuan — began testing in April. Pilots were subsequently expanded to nine cities, including Shenzhen and Guangzhou as well as Hong Kong and Macau.

Leaders of Global CBDC Projects Talk Shop In Panel Today

Central bank digital currency interest continues gaining global traction.

As part of DC Fintech Week, a digital conference on the governmental side of the financial technology sector, several international leaders gathered for an Oct. 19 panel called: Central Banks, CBDCs and Cryptoeconomics. 

“I don’t see technological barriers in this area, but I do see technological challenges,” Cecilia Skingsley, First Deputy Governor of Riksbank, the central bank of Sweden, said on the panel.

“The challenge is not so much technology in itself, but it’s more about — we have to choose what sort of policy objectives do we want to focus on, what is the problem we want to solve,” she explained. “Depending on what that is, and the purposes we want to serve, then you choose the technology after that.”

The panel saw discussion between four separate authorities on various aspects of CBDCs, including the global race toward toward such a currency, as well barriers. In addition to Skingsley, the panel hosted BIS executive committee member Benoit Coeure, Bank of England deputy governor Jon Cunliffe, and former U.S. CFTC chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo.

As far as the Bank of England is concerned, Cunliffe explained cash as a cumbersome part of the economy. “Physical cash is no longer convenient,” he said. “It’s becoming increasingly inconvenient for people to use in their everyday lives, and the COIVD crisis has accelerated that,” he added. “On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly less acceptable to merchants for some of the same reasons, even merchants that are able to take physical cash.”

Giancarlo specifically pointed out the competitive atmosphere around launching a CBDC, noting that winning the race is not the most important point — sentiment U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell also recently expressed.

“If there’s a winner, I don’t think the winner is necessarily who’s first and the loser is necessarily who’s last,” Giancarlo said during the panel. “What matters is, which central bank successfully incorporates its societal values in a successful development of CBDC,” he explained. “On the other hand, one can’t be too late to the game here,” he added.

Mentioning a report from the BIS from January 2020, Coeure reminded the audience that a large number of the world’s central banks consider CBDCs a worthwhile research effort. China has notably charged forward with its CBDC development in 2020.

Updated: 10-20-2020

The Bahamas Launches World’s First CBDC, The ‘Sand Dollar’

This makes The Bahamas one of the first countries in the world to officially launch a CBDC beyond a pilot program.

The Central Bank of the Bahamas has announced the country’s “Sand Dollar” — a state-backed virtual currency — is now available nationwide.

According to an Oct. 20 Facebook post from Project Sand Dollar, the central bank digital currency (CBDC) became available to all 393,000 residents of The Bahamas from roughly 10:00 PM UTC. This makes The Bahamas the first country in the world to officially roll out a CBDC.

China is currently testing a pilot program for its digital yuan with a $1.5 million giveaway, and Cambodia’s “Bakong” digital currency is expected to become operational in the coming months following its pilot launch in July 2019.

Sand Dollar transfers are made by mobile phone, with roughly 90% of the Bahamian population using mobile phones as of 2017.

According to the Sand Dollar website, residents of The Bahamas can use the digital currency at any merchant “with a Central Bank approved e-Wallet on their mobile device” and transaction fees are “negligible.” The central bank selected transaction provider NZIA as its technology solutions provider for the rollout of the digital currency.

The central bank of the Bahamas has been preparing for the launch of the CBDC for a few years. In 2019, it started a pilot program using 48,000 digital Sand Dollars on the islands of Exuma and Abaco, which have a combined population of fewer than 25,000 people. Each Sand Dollar is pegged to the Bahamian dollar, which is in turn pegged to the U.S. dollar.

The Sand Dollar is intended to drive greater financial inclusion within the archipelago nation of more than 700 islands, about 30 of which are inhabited. Cointelegraph reported in September that Chaozhen Chen, the assistant manager of eSolutions at the Central Bank of The Bahamas, said the CBDC would help provide “access to digital payment infrastructure or banking infrastructure” for underbanked and unbanked residents.

Updated: 10-21-2020

Brazil’s Central Bank Just Revolutionized Instant Payments

Its new digital app turns free money transfers into a public good.

Earlier this year, my kitchen sink sprang a leak. With Brazil bracing for coronavirus, how to find a repairman willing to risk Rio de Janeiro’s pathogen-friendly public transit for a one-off job in a stranger’s home? Lucky for me, Antonio was game.

A freelance plumber, Antonio is part of Latin America’s vast shadow economy, where today’s gig is tonight’s meal. Unfortunately, most Brazilian handymen prefer cash, just the sort of high-touch tender I had foresworn in times of Covid-19.

We settled on a bank transfer, and a few pecks at my phone app and a hefty transfer fee later, I’d whisked the money from my account to his. Or so I thought. Two days, four phone calls and several worried text messages from Antonio later, the funds finally landed.

Fortunately, those anxious days may be numbered. Next month, the Central Bank of Brazil will debut a new instant payments tool. Called PIX, it promises hassle-free transactions within seconds for anyone with a mobile phone and a bank account.

And it comes free of charge. The bank has already logged more than 39 million requests by prospective PIX clients, both corporate and individual, eager to lock in access “keys” to the service.

Brazilian banking was long due for a shakeup. Latin America’s signature economy boasts some of the world’s biggest and most lucrative banks, where dexterous moneymen finessed hyperinflation and the shell game of serial government stabilization plans through market acumen and innovation.

Yet these sophisticated brand banks still deliver many of their headline services on last century’s clock — Monday to Friday from 10-to-4, and 10-to-2 during the pandemic — and often at bruising lending rates and fees.

No wonder some 45 million Brazilians have no bank account, and 71% still prefer to do business in cash.

“Brazilian banking has long been dominated by a few big players who enjoy a practically captive clientele,” said Paulo Bilyk, chief executive of Rio Bravo Investimentos, a Sao Paulo asset management firm.

Reinforcing this sweetheart market is the cozy system that deposits the paychecks of 11.4 million relatively well-paid public employees in banks they did not even choose. “The new system facilitates exchanges by making it simpler, faster and cheaper to pay bills. That’s a win for the economy and for social inclusion,” Bilyk said.

Sensing the opportunity, regulators began preparing early last decade to disrupt the financial monopoly by greenlighting virtual banks, which peddle checking and savings accounts, credit and debit cards exclusively online and at considerable discounts. Investment in Brazilian fintech has since soared, from $52 million in 2015 to $1.6 billion last year.

Brazil is now home to the world’s largest digital-only bank, Nubank, with 20 million clients nationally and operations in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico.

Brazil is actually a relative latecomer to instant digital payments. Kenya launched its M-Pesa system (42 million subscribers) via mobile phone in 2007; India’s four-year-old Unified Payments Interface clocked 1.62 billion transactions in June; China’s two biggest digital wallet competitors, Alipay and WeChat Pay, have more than 2.2 billion active users.

Yet those are competitive businesses, each of which takes a cut per transaction. PIX, by contrast, is a public good, launched by the Central Bank and free of charge. The initiative was an attempt to lay the ground rules — and perhaps get a jump on the competition — in the relatively cloistered Brazilian economy for an aggressive frontier business dominated by international giants.

Tellingly, the Central Bank in June withdrew authorization for WhatsApp Payments, the Facebook-owned phone-based payment tool, a week after its Brazilian rollout.

A rare oasis of institutional continuity in the Brazilian policy desert, the Central Bank has already helped promote a more inclusive financial market by eschewing the monetary populism that has kept inflation high and lending dear.

Brazil’s interest rates hit record lows this year. The surging digital culture — 150 million internet users and 205 million mobile phones in a country of 212 million people — has only sharpened the public appetite for innovation.

“Brazilian society is much closer to China than to the U.S. or Europe,” said Claudio Lucena, technical director for the National Data Protection Institute. “We have millions of low-income people with limited access to market information, but who have mobile phones. For them, reducing the cost of banking could be a major incentive.”

Legacy banks, understandably, are less enthusiastic. They stand to forfeit a bundle in fees for moving money. The bank transfers nest egg has grown 31% since 2017, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which says banks could forfeit as much as 8% of their annual winnings in traditional transfers to PIX users.

The Sao Paulo market research company Eleven Financial Research projects a much smaller hit of around 1% of their yearly fee income. “Traditional banks might have wished that PIX had never come along,” said Bilyk.

Indeed, they had no choice. The Central Bank has ordered all financial institutions with more than 500,000 clients to offer account holders the option to sign up for the no-charge pay app. Lenders have joined the October scramble to lock up PIX accounts.

Brazil’s enterprising bandits have been right behind them, hoping to lure unwitting early adopters to divulge their identities and banking information on fake websites. “The rollout for PIX will probably be gradual,” said Eleven Financial’s head of equity research Carlos Daltozo. “Security and fraud are key concerns.”

Instant payments won’t revolutionize Brazilian productivity, stanch fiscal incontinence or fix the regressive and enterprise-choking tax system.

“We basically know what we have to do put the economy right,” Bloomberg Economics analyst Adriana Dupita told me. “But by making it easier and more affordable to pay bills and transfer money, you invite more people into the system and make financial transactions more accessible.”

At a time when Brazilian politics has devolved into a contest over how to spend more, a tool allowing individuals to spend better is already a blessing.

Updated: 10-21-2020

Brazil’s Central Bank Just Revolutionized Instant Payments

Its new digital app turns free money transfers into a public good.

Earlier this year, my kitchen sink sprang a leak. With Brazil bracing for coronavirus, how to find a repairman willing to risk Rio de Janeiro’s pathogen-friendly public transit for a one-off job in a stranger’s home? Lucky for me, Antonio was game.

A freelance plumber, Antonio is part of Latin America’s vast shadow economy, where today’s gig is tonight’s meal. Unfortunately, most Brazilian handymen prefer cash, just the sort of high-touch tender I had foresworn in times of Covid-19.

We settled on a bank transfer, and a few pecks at my phone app and a hefty transfer fee later, I’d whisked the money from my account to his. Or so I thought. Two days, four phone calls and several worried text messages from Antonio later, the funds finally landed.

Fortunately, those anxious days may be numbered. Next month, the Central Bank of Brazil will debut a new instant payments tool. Called PIX, it promises hassle-free transactions within seconds for anyone with a mobile phone and a bank account. And it comes free of charge.

The bank has already logged more than 39 million requests by prospective PIX clients, both corporate and individual, eager to lock in access “keys” to the service.

Brazilian banking was long due for a shakeup. Latin America’s signature economy boasts some of the world’s biggest and most lucrative banks, where dexterous moneymen finessed hyperinflation and the shell game of serial government stabilization plans through market acumen and innovation.

Yet these sophisticated brand banks still deliver many of their headline services on last century’s clock — Monday to Friday from 10-to-4, and 10-to-2 during the pandemic — and often at bruising lending rates and fees.

No wonder some 45 million Brazilians have no bank account, and 71% still prefer to do business in cash.

“Brazilian banking has long been dominated by a few big players who enjoy a practically captive clientele,” said Paulo Bilyk, chief executive of Rio Bravo Investimentos, a Sao Paulo asset management firm.

Reinforcing this sweetheart market is the cozy system that deposits the paychecks of 11.4 million relatively well-paid public employees in banks they did not even choose. “The new system facilitates exchanges by making it simpler, faster and cheaper to pay bills. That’s a win for the economy and for social inclusion,” Bilyk said.

Sensing the opportunity, regulators began preparing early last decade to disrupt the financial monopoly by greenlighting virtual banks, which peddle checking and savings accounts, credit and debit cards exclusively online and at considerable discounts. Investment in Brazilian fintech has since soared, from $52 million in 2015 to $1.6 billion last year.

Brazil is now home to the world’s largest digital-only bank, Nubank, with 20 million clients nationally and operations in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico.

Brazil is actually a relative latecomer to instant digital payments. Kenya launched its M-Pesa system (42 million subscribers) via mobile phone in 2007; India’s four-year-old Unified Payments Interface clocked 1.62 billion transactions in June; China’s two biggest digital wallet competitors, Alipay and WeChat Pay, have more than 2.2 billion active users.

Yet those are competitive businesses, each of which takes a cut per transaction. PIX, by contrast, is a public good, launched by the Central Bank and free of charge.

The initiative was an attempt to lay the ground rules — and perhaps get a jump on the competition — in the relatively cloistered Brazilian economy for an aggressive frontier business dominated by international giants. Tellingly, the Central Bank in June withdrew authorization for WhatsApp Payments, the Facebook-owned phone-based payment tool, a week after its Brazilian rollout.

A rare oasis of institutional continuity in the Brazilian policy desert, the Central Bank has already helped promote a more inclusive financial market by eschewing the monetary populism that has kept inflation high and lending dear.

Brazil’s interest rates hit record lows this year. The surging digital culture — 150 million internet users and 205 million mobile phones in a country of 212 million people — has only sharpened the public appetite for innovation.

“Brazilian society is much closer to China than to the U.S. or Europe,” said Claudio Lucena, technical director for the National Data Protection Institute. “We have millions of low-income people with limited access to market information, but who have mobile phones. For them, reducing the cost of banking could be a major incentive.”

Legacy banks, understandably, are less enthusiastic. They stand to forfeit a bundle in fees for moving money. The bank transfers nest egg has grown 31% since 2017, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which says banks could forfeit as much as 8% of their annual winnings in traditional transfers to PIX users.

The Sao Paulo market research company Eleven Financial Research projects a much smaller hit of around 1% of their yearly fee income. “Traditional banks might have wished that PIX had never come along,” said Bilyk.

Indeed, they had no choice. The Central Bank has ordered all financial institutions with more than 500,000 clients to offer account holders the option to sign up for the no-charge pay app. Lenders have joined the October scramble to lock up PIX accounts.

Brazil’s enterprising bandits have been right behind them, hoping to lure unwitting early adopters to divulge their identities and banking information on fake websites. “The rollout for PIX will probably be gradual,” said Eleven Financial’s head of equity research Carlos Daltozo. “Security and fraud are key concerns.”

Instant payments won’t revolutionize Brazilian productivity, stanch fiscal incontinence or fix the regressive and enterprise-choking tax system. “We basically know what we have to do put the economy right,” Bloomberg Economics analyst Adriana Dupita told me. “But by making it easier and more affordable to pay bills and transfer money, you invite more people into the system and make financial transactions more accessible.”

At a time when Brazilian politics has devolved into a contest over how to spend more, a tool allowing individuals to spend better is already a blessing.

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