IMF Survey Indicates Digital Currencies Backed by Central Banks Could Be Real

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Technology-driven advances in providing financial services, widely known as “fintech,” are making it easier for ordinary people to gain access to new and more efficient financial products. Like all technological advances, however, the benefits are distributed unequally and consumers worry about both their digital assets and the information about them that may circulate along with those assets.

On Thursday, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a policy paper on fintech that reviews the technology and considers fintech’s implications for the IMF and the World Bank. The paper is based on a survey of central banks, finance ministries and other government agencies in 96 countries that responded (out of 189 that were asked).

Top-of-mind among respondents were security and data protection risks. Nearly four of five (79%) in high-income jurisdictions said that fintech’s cyber risks were a problem for the financial services sector. However, only a third of all respondents have examined the “technological interdependencies between networks, systems, or processes within the financial sector or looked at concentration risks among big technology providers that could threaten financial infrastructure.” The most famous cyberattacks of all time have affected millions of people.

The IMF cites the positive impact on including consumers in emerging economies brought on by the development of mobile payments. Nonfinancial services firms are challenging traditional financial institutions by offering services like AliPay and ApplePay. The IMF expects large technology firms (like Apple and Facebook) “to play an increasingly greater role in the provision of financial services” although it is not clear how this new competition will affect traditional financial services firms. Both ApplePay and Facebook’s proposed Libra digital currency are backed in one way or another by a traditional payment (e.g., a credit card) or by a fiat currency.

The effect on monetary systems and financial stability from central bank-issued digital currencies is another concern. The IMF notes that no clear case has yet been made for a central bank-backed digital currency but that about 20% of respondents are “actively examining” the possibility of doing so: “The main reasons cited in favor of issuing digital currencies are lowering costs, increasing efficiency of monetary policy implementation, countering competition from cryptocurrencies, ensuring contestability of the payment market, and offering a risk-free payment instrument to the public.” One central bank-backed digital currency that is moving to a new stage of development is the Utility Settlement Coin.

The report also provides regional perspectives on fintech developments. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is the global leader in “mobile money innovation, adoption, and usage.” Between 2014 and 2017, the share of adults in these countries with a mobile money account nearly doubled to 21%. Mobile money transactions in sub-Saharan Africa represent nearly 10% of total gross domestic product, compared with just 7% in Asia and less than 2% in other regions.

The Asia/Pacific region “is ahead of other regions in nearly every aspect of fintech.” What’s missing is homogeneity in technology adoption. In Europe, the fintech market is “growing rapidly but is unevenly distributed,” with non-European Union countries trailing their EU peers in technology adoption.

In the Middle East and Central Asia, the fintech industry is now “growing rapidly” after a slow start. In Latin American and Caribbean countries, the story is much the same.

The United States accounts for the vast majority of fintech patents registered and about half of the $85 billion in venture capital financing for fintech startups. Most of the rest is divided roughly evenly between Asia and Europe. Nearly all the Western Hemisphere’s venture financing for fintech startups (97%) is passed out in the United States.

The IMF also recently took a closer look at the U.S. economy, voicing in particular concerns about trade and debt.


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