And tomorrow, as we step squarely into the digital age, what will become of this system? Will the digital currencies issued by central banks be so enticing that they overshadow privately-issued money? Or will they still allow for private sector innovation? Much depends on each central bank’s ability and willingness to consistently and significantly innovate. Keeping pace with technological change, rapidly evolving user needs, and private sector innovation is no easy feat.
Central bank digital currencies are akin to both a smart-phone and its operating system. At a basic level, they are a settlement technology allowing money to be stored and transferred, much like bits sent between a phone’s processor, memory, and camera. At another level, they are a form of money, with specific functionality and appearance, much like an operating system.
Central banks would thus have to become more like Apple or Microsoft in order to keep central bank digital currencies on the frontier of technology and in the wallets of users as the predominant and preferred form of digital money.
Innovation in the digital age is orders of magnitude more complex and rapid than updating security features on paper notes. For instance, central bank digital currencies may initially be managed from a central database, though might migrate to distributed ledgers (synchronized registries held and updated automatically across a network) as technology matures, and one ledger may quickly yield to another following major advancements. Phones and operating systems too benefit from major new releases at least yearly.
In addition, user needs and expectations are likely to evolve much more quickly and unpredictably in the digital age. Information and assets may migrate to distributed ledgers, and require money on the same network to be monetized. Money may be transferred in entirely new ways, including automatically by chips imbedded in everyday products. These needs may require new features of money and thus frequent architectural redesigns, and diversity. Today’s, or even tomorrow’s, money is unlikely to meet the needs of the day after.
Pressures will come from the supply-side too. The private sector will continue innovating. New eMoney and stablecoin schemes will emerge. As demand for these products grows, regulators will strive to contain risks. And the question will inevitably arise: how will these forms of money interact with the digital currencies issued by central banks? Will they exist separately, or will some be integrated into a dual monetary system where the private and central bank offerings build on each other?