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Busting six myths about China’s e-RMB (part 1)

There’s a lot we assume about the PBoC’s digital yuan – and we’re often wrong.

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While politicians and central bankers in the U.S. and Europe wrangle over Facebook’s proposed Libra coin, one government is moving to seize the initiative: China.

The People’s Bank of China has been studying central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) for several years and probably has the greatest technical understanding of any public institution. Introduction of a digital yuan could come any day now.

There are a lot of unknowns and misconceptions about this, however. Here are the first three out of six myths about the digital yuan that tend to crop up in media, conferences (shout out to NexChange), and cocktail conversation (DigFin drinks at nerdy bars).

China will be the first to issue a central bank digital currency.

Nope. The first digital currency has already come and gone: for six months, from November 2017 to April 2018, the Central Bank of Uruguay deployed a live e-Peso, using mobile phones to enable payments and transfers. Hats off to Mario Bergara, the CBU’s governor, for making history.

The pilot program saw the CBU issue 20 million pesos’ worth of digital notes to 10,000 users of local telecoms operator Antel.

The central bank wanted to see whether digital money would be easier to trace for tax purposes, if it would encourage the unbanked to enter the formal financial system, if it would help CBU save money on minting banknotes, and prove safer to use.

The authorities also wanted to see if digital cash might compete against banks’ high-fee credit cards, with a view to nudging those rates down.

CBU also enabled, but didn’t activate, its e-peso to bear interest – something that physical cash can’t do. Enabling currency to charge interest is a way central banks can encourage its adoption; similarly, they could charge users to hold digital cash, if they wanted to take it out of circulation.

The experiment suggested digital cash works well among the already-banked and digitally connected. There was some evidence it began to seep its way into the more remote parts of the country. Uruguyans very quickly found ways to arbitrage transactions across platforms for the best deals.

The short period of circulation meant other questions were not answered, such as its impact on tax evasion or how people would respond to interest-bearing cash.

CBDCs are based on blockchain.

No! Libra is based on blockchain, and of course a central bank could use similar technology. But Uruguay didn’t use blockchain, and China won’t either.

The PBoC will mint these tokens and assign them an identity on its own servers. Conditions such as whether coins bear interest can be baked into the coins themselves, with no need for smart contracts.

It will disseminate these among select wholesale banks, but to the extent that banks pass these on to individuals or businesses, they can do so via banks’ phone apps (Uruguay issued e-pesos directly to Antel).

In fact, banks in China have developed the technology to allow people to exchange digital tokens using near-field communications tech – which is to say, phones in proximity can transfer money without even needing the mobile network to be operating.

There are scenarios, however, in which distributed-ledger technology could come into the picture, but centralized. In particular, the PBoC could opt to issue “synthetic CBDCs”…for that discussion, see Myth 5.

This is some seriously cool stuff that DigFin covered at the beginning of the year, which you can check out here.

China’s capital controls will make a digital yuan a domestic event.

Setting aside the exciting talk about using digital renminbi for payments in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a digital yuan could have a big impact on monetary policy in countries with extensive ties to China.

Central banks the world over enjoy seigniorage when they print money – that’s like the fee they charge users for the privilege of accepting freshly minted cash. And when your citizens go abroad and spend, or foreign banks accumulate your currency, the issuer still keeps the benefits of that seigniorage. The Federal Reserve gets indirectly paid by all the non-Americans holding or spending greenbacks.

The renminbi does not do this today for China, because it’s not used for trade settlement. When Chinese tourists go abroad, they turn their renminbi into local currency, and (essentially) pay the local central bank for the pleasure.

A digital yuan could help internationalize the use of crossborder renminbi for payments, by allowing Chinese citizens to pay for local goods with Chinese money – assuming local merchants accept it (and that the local central bank allows them to).

Today, Chinese tourists may pay for things overseas with WeChat Pay or AliPay, but the final settlement is in the local currency. But the nature of CBDCs is that, if a Chinese tourist uses her Xiaomi phone to pay for dinner in Bangkok using digital RMB, the final settlement takes place in renminbi: the transaction ends up being more like if a Thai restaurant sold a dinner to someone in Shanghai.

For countries like Thailand that receive vast numbers of Chinese tourists, the prospect of tens of millions of people de-facto paying for everything in their own currency is a threat to the Thai monetary base: baht won’t circulate as much.

Moreover, customs will no longer be able to control the amounts of cash that enter the country. It’s risky and difficult for people to smuggle loads of cash through airports, but easy to move digital currency (as Bitcoiners know). Now consider the spending binges that Chinese visitors could go on, using their own cash, in Bangkok or Paris.

The French government might be prepared to ban digital renminbi from circulating in France. But would the Thai government be prepared to make the same call?

Just as Libra has emerging-market central banks running scared (because in a local financial crisis, their people would flee to Libra, potentially bankrupting the domestic monetary system), the idea of big economies – China, the European Union, India – issuing CBDCs and insisting these be allowed to circulate with their citizens and businesses means that smaller countries could see their monetary sovereignty at risk. This isn’t new: in Latin America it’s called dollarization.

We’ll be back later with three more myths!

DigFin direct!

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Busting six myths about China’s e-RMB (part 1)