February 20, 2023
Among the many things that consumers will have to consider in the coming years, but is rarely thought of, is the nature of our money. Let’s face it, since the first coins were minted in Lydia more than 2,500 years ago, little about currency has changed. Paper currency was first introduced during the Song Dynasty in the eleventh century and then the concept slowly made its way to Western Europe by the end of the Middle Ages; yet things haven’t changed much in the last 700 years. Yes, credit cards, debit cards, payment apps, and online payment systems now dominate, making ours the first “cashless society,” yet we may be on the precipice of a major economic evolution from a cashless economy to a truly digital economy. If this change happens, it will have major implications for investors, companies, and consumers, and how different brands position themselves during this transition, particularly how it relates to their customers, will position them for success.
If you follow macroeconomics or consumer and financial trends, then you’ve probably heard about calls for digital currencies. Advocates of digital currencies come from governments, especially central banks, but also some private companies that believe digital currencies will be beneficial for their bottom line. Most people, though, aren’t aware of the potential transition to digital currencies, or even what they are. The biggest barrier to understanding digital currencies usually involves them being confused with electronic currencies. Simply put, today all national currencies are electronic currencies because transactions can be done electronically as well as with physical cash. In theory, digital currencies will also be transacted electronically, but the key difference is that they can only be done electronically. There will be no paper money in digital currencies. Digital currencies have some similarities with crypto currencies, and will utilize many of the same technologies, so it may help to view them through the crypto lens. It’s important to point out that the major difference is that most crypto currencies are decentralized and written with open source codes, while digital currencies will be controlled solely through the central banks that issue them. So now that we know what digital currencies are, let’s look at how they came to be and what impact they could have on future consumer trends.
From Crypto to Central Banks
There’s no doubt that digital currencies are the product of the Computer Age, but the route they took from fringe ideas to a reality has been somewhat circuitous. Computer scientist David Chaum is often thought of as the father of digital money for his efforts to create new, digital technologies. Chaum invented the “blind signature” technology in 1982, which would later play a role in the semi-anonymous nature of crypto currencies. Chaum then used his digital money ideas to start DigiCash, an electronic money corporation that used private and public key cryptography, which are crucial to bitcoin and most other crypto currencies today.
Although DigiCash went bankrupt in 1998, it inspired people around the world to devise their own digital cash products. In 2009, the mysterious Satoshi Nakomoto introduced the world to bitcoin, a decentralized, open source digital currency whose transactions and amounts are recorded semi-anonymously on a public ledger known as a blockchain. Many were immediately skeptical of bitcoin – and remain so – especially government actors, but the reality is that the premier cryptocurrency has revolutionized money in the 21st century. Although politicians and central bank officials have bemoaned the lack of control they have over bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, it hasn’t stopped them from using its technology to set-up their own digital currencies.
Once central banks began envisioning digital currencies – often referred to as central bank digital currency (CBDC) – it became clear that the idea is a long way from reality. Theoretically, a CBDC is a liability of the central bank that issues it and is denominated in the sovereign currency (US dollar, euro, yen, etc.), as is the case with physical banknotes and coins, but all transactions will be recorded and ostensibly tracked by the central bank that issues the “coins.” Although CBDCs will utilize some of the ideas behind cryptocurrency, because they will be controlled by a central bank they will likely not use a distributed ledger or a blockchain.
It should be pointed out that much of the information we have about CBDCs are purely theoretically, as few countries have implemented them and those that have are in the early, experimental stages. With that said, China initiated a CBDC pilot program in 2021 that may give American businesses and consumers a taste of what’s to come.
In 2021, 261 million users took part in the Chinese CBDC trial who made more than $13.8 billion in transactions. The Chinese government has publicly stated that the pilot has been a success and revealed plans to expand it, which may mark the beginning of a trend, but it’s important to note that China’s early CBDC success has not been the case in every country. Ecuador’s central bank scrapped its CBDC plans, and central banks’ plans to develop even pilot programs have been moving at a glacial pace.
The Pros and Cons of a Digital Dollar for Consumers and Businesses
As American politicians, economists, businesses, and bankers debate the merits of a digital dollar, it’s important to objectively exam some of its possible drawbacks and benefits for consumers and businesses. Small businesses will see immediate benefits from a digital dollar, as deposits from point of sale transactions will be instant, or nearly instant, as opposed to the one to three day lag that is standard today.
The digital dollar’s quicker deposits and transaction times will be just one feature of what is believed to be a generally more convenient form of currency. Because transactions will be done through “digital wallets,” consumers won’t have to worry about carrying cash or the right credit card. Digital wallets will be stored on phones, so transactions will be as easy as scanning a QR code.
The cons of a potential digital dollar include security, surveillance, and more costs. Computer experts have pointed out that because by nature CBDCs will be centralized, they are subject to “single point failures,” unlike decentralized crypto currencies. The centralized nature of the digital dollar has also worried privacy advocates, libertarians, and those generally fearful of government overreach, as they argue that the digital dollar could be used as surveillance tool because all transactions could be tracked. Additionally, experts believe that the technology required to make a digital dollar run smoothly will translate to higher costs, which will be passed off to the consumer in the form of higher fees. So, there are plenty of reasons for consumers and businesses to be excited, or not, about a digital dollar, but the important question remains: should we start preparing our digital wallets?
The Reality of the Digital Dollar
Whether or not the digital dollar becomes a reality will depend on many factors including government/political will and consumers’ and businesses’ acceptance of any scheme. The infrastructure and knowledge is there and government and non-government actors have begun experimental steps. In February 2022, the Boston Fed and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) revealed the results from two tests they conducted of a high-performance transaction processor that was able to handle 1.7 million transactions of a fictional CBDC per second. In November 2022, the New York Fed did its own digital currency experiment that used distributed ledger technology, although it’s still too early to know the results.
In addition to the technological knowledge, there does appear to be some political will to institute the digital dollar. President Biden and the Democrats have shown some support for the digital dollar, with Biden signing the executive order, “Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets,” which instructs government agencies to produce reports on a digital dollar. But an executive order is a long way from a law and with Congress routinely switching control between parties it doesn’t appear the digital dollar will become a reality anytime soon.
Although the US central bank probably won’t adopt the digital dollar in the near future, consumers and businesses can still benefit from its adoption in other countries. As China moves forward with its CBDC, more countries will follow, which may open investment opportunities and make international travel easier and cheaper. Some experts also believe that as CBDCs expand slowly but surely, and the more they are talked about, it will lead to greater investment in cryptocurrencies. American consumers may not see any immediate benefits from CBDCs, but those who think ahead and outside the box could benefit.