The momentum for central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) is picking up, as central banks across the globe race to explore the possibilities of faster and cheaper cross-border payments.
Over 80% of central banks are considering launching a CBDC, or have already done so according to the new Global CBDC Index, released today by PwC, that details which countries have CBDCs and how they’ve been implemented.
What is a CDBC?
A CBDC is a digital currency issued directly by a central bank. Speaking to Tech Monitor last November, Fernando Fernández Méndez de Andes, economist and professor at IE Business School, said: “A CBDC is a complement to notes and coins, to cash. It is legal money issued by the central bank, a liability of the central bank, fully redeemed in cash and legal notes and coins with no exchange risk, nor any additional cost.” CBDCs therefore differ from cryptocurrencies as their value typically remains much more stable.
Nigeria’s eNaira project, often cited as the gold standard for CBDCs, tops PwC’s index, followed by projects in the Bahamas and China. The index’s analysis is based on tracking the different stages of development of CBDC projects, the sentiment of CBDCs through public speeches, and interest proxies through the use of Google Trends, for example.
Which countries have CBDCs?
Economies large and small around the world are experimenting with CBDCs, with varying degrees of sophistication and success.
United States of America
Plans for a CBDC in the US appear to be going ahead at full speed. Last month, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to explore issuing a CBDC, deeming it a matter of urgency and in the country’s national interest.
The executive order cited the lower cost of funds transfers, fostering financial inclusion, and reinforcing “American leadership in the global financial system and at the technological frontier" as reasons for this urgency.
Financial regulators are expected to submit a comprehensive research assessment on the implications of an American CBDC in September this year, according to the PwC report.
Enthusiasm for a retail CBDC is more muted on this side of the Atlantic. Earlier this year in January, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee described such digital currencies as a “solution in search of a problem” and found “no convincing case” for a UK CBDC.
One of the concerns in the report mentioned how CBDCs could potentially make bank runs in a financial crisis more “frequent and severe” with “unprecedented speed and scale”. The report warned of a “digital run” on banks in the event of a financial crisis.
But the House of Lords committee took a slightly more positive perspective on a wholesale CBDC, describing it as “less disruptive” than a retail CBDC with lesser political and economic risk due to increased efficiencies in securities trading and settlement.
The UK government is however looking at other digital payment systems in detail, revealing on Monday it will regulate "stablecoins", while the Royal Mint is set to issue its first non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
The European Commission is planning a bill to introduce a "Digital Euro" as soon as 2023. In a speech last month, Fabio Panetta from the European Central Bank (ECB) emphasised that the Digital Euro project will allow users to benefit from high standards of privacy, while providing access to “central bank money in an increasingly digitalised economy”.
While the final decision on whether a Digital Euro is needed lies with the ECB, Germany and France appear to be especially keen, urging the ECB to accelerate the process amid fears the Eurozone could get left behind, according to the PwC report.
China's central bank started putting in place policies for a Digital Yuan, or e-CNY, as early as 2014. It is currently conducting large-scale public trials in selected cities and the e-CNY was one of only three payment methods accepted during the Winter Olympics earlier this year.
Users of the service were able to use hardware wallets that resembled payment cards or download the digital wallet application from app stores to store their digital Yuan.
According to the PwC report, payments worth two million yuan have occurred daily during the trial.
Ukraine is ranked first in Europe for its efforts in rolling out CBDCs. The war-torn nation's first CBDC pilot was launched in September 2018, and involved tests for distributed ledgers and a study on the impact of CBDCs on the macroeconomic stability of the country.
In July last year, the Ukrainian government signed the ‘On Payment Services’ bill which allowed the National Bank to issue a CBDC, called e-hryvnia.
Sweden is seeking to establish a retail CBDC to replace a digital payment app developed by six of its banks. Last year, Riksbank completed the second phase of the e-krona project and a conclusion report is expected to be released soon. Swedes are already embracing a cashless society, with less than 10% of all payments in Sweden currently made in cash.
The country is currently ranked 2nd in Europe on PwC's Index.
Republic of Korea
A CBDC pilot has been running since August last year and is expected to end in June 2022. This first phase involved testing the manufacturing, issuing and distribution in a simulated environment and “worked as normal”, according to the PwC report.
The Bank of Korea reportedly has plans to continue similar sandbox experiments in partnership with other financial institutions in the country.
The first African country to launch a CBDC, Nigeria's eNaira is issued as legal tender by the Central Bank of Nigeria. One of the driving forces behind the eNaira is the millions of ‘unbanked’ Nigerians without access to regulated financial services. This trend might slowly be reversing, as more than half of Nigerian adults are now using formal financial services.
Nigeria has more than 200 million citizens, meaning the eNaira is currently the largest active CBDC project in the world. As of December 2021, more than 600,000 eNaira ‘Speed Wallets’ have been created and 35,000 transactions have been completed, according to the PwC report.
The Bahamas was the first country in the world to have launched a CBDC, called Sand Dollar. Citizens can use a digital wallet either through a physical payment card or mobile application, and data collected in daily transactions can be used for micro-loan applications.
There is currently no publicly available data on the use of CBDCs in the country.
The country’s central bank announced plans to develop a CBDC in May 2020. Last month, the Minister of Finance revealed the roll-out of Jam-Dex - short for Jamaica Digital Exchange - and how 100,000 citizens would receive a $16 deposit to encourage awareness and adoption across the country.
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Home page image of the Nigerian Naira, the digital version of which tops the PwC index. Photo by Maksym Kapliuk/iStock