Facebook's scheme to create its own money in the form of the libra digital coin has set off a globalrace to beat the social media colossus at its own game, and Canada maybe an importantplayer.
Since the initialmild reaction from U.S. Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell the day after thelibraproject was announcedin June, the world's governments and central banks have realized what somesuggested at the time, that with its global reach and technological savvy, Facebook was blazing a path to dominate money.
Canada has been one of theleaders in researching how to create and managea digital coin backed by a national central bank. But the arrival of thelibra idea, with its persuasive scheme to launch what was essentially a credible new global currency, kicked off a flurry of fresh activity that could transform the way we think of money.
Not only are the world's governments gathering at bodies such as the International Monetary Fund, theBank for International Settlements and the G7 group of large industrial economies toworkon the idea, but there are signs that individual governments, notably China, are racing to be the first to create a functional, tradable government-backed digital coin.
And while the final results are difficult to predict, it is not clear that ordinary citizens, who have grown used to money in its current form,will be happy with the outcome.
"It's interesting how exciting these developments can be," enthused Bank of Canada senior deputy governor Carolyn Wilkins at last week's monetary policy news conference.
Introduced by her boss, bank governor Stephen Poloz, as "one of the world's foremost experts" on the subject,Wilkins has attended global conferences, armed with several years of groundbreaking Canadian research.
As Wilkins explained, what central banks hope to create is not a digital coin like bitcoin and its many imitators. With thatcurrency rising and falling as inexperienced investors triedto make a killing, critics, including me, pointed out years ago that the volatility of such cryptocurrenciesmade pricing goods in bitcoin impractical.
Far more interesting and functional, according to people like Wilkins, is a kind of digital money called a "stablecoin," which is how the libra is conceived. Rather than shooting up in value and plunging like bitcoins, a stablecoin is managed to maintain a relatively constant value.
"There's a whole class of crypto assets called stablecoins," said Wilkins last week. "What's exciting about it is the fact that these kinds of innovations can address what I think are important issues in global payment systems, particularly the cost of cross-border payments."
Wilkins suggested a stablecoin could be used, for example, for people from the Philippines trying to send money home from elsewhere in the world. And in developing countrieswithout a stable banking system it mightbe used domestically as a reliable unit of exchange.
That innovation is exactly what the libraproject has proposed, offering a service to millions of the world's "unbanked" so that they too can buy and sell and save up the value of their labour in a place they know won't be wiped out by inflation or governmentmismanagement.
But the more the world's central banks and the governments they represent thoughtabout the libra, theless they liked it.
To oversimplify, the two main objections to having a private company with such monetary clout were the wrenchingof monetary power out of the hands of central banksand the worry that eventually, without the backstop of a government, a private sector currency would collapse, creating global chaos.
"We know that innovations never come without risk," said Wilkins.
There are benefits to such a stablecoin system, but there are dangers: "The costs that we all know that are related to money laundering and terrorist financing, but also, with respect to safeguarding the value of that stablecoin properly, as well as potentially getting in the way of monetary sovereignty of different countries," she said.
By current thinking, that sovereignty is important. With people using something like libra, the currencies ofsmaller countries such as those in the Caribbean, or notoriously unstable currencies such as those of Rwanda or Argentina would be completely upstaged, aspeople use libra as a better alternative.
"I think Facebook hadn't thought through carefully how important control of currencies is for governments and central banks," said longtime U.S. central banker Simon Potterin an online video interviewby the Financial Times.
Globally, digitization of nationalcurrencies is already underway. Sweden is well on the road to phasing out conventional cash. Canadians have been world leaders in paying with alternatives like chip cards.China, with its powerful centrally controlled state, is ideally placed to push through a digital stablecoin that will also help it keep track of themoney flows of everyone who uses it.
Watch the International Institute of Finance discuss the future of money:
As reported by CBC Radio's The Current, access to information requests by the tech news site The Logicshow that the Bank of Canada has looked into the possibility of following Sweden and gradually eliminating those polymer bills, but such a plan would require a decision of the federal government to proceed.
Unlike China, a Canadian government might be unwilling to take such a radical step when such obvious moves asreplacing low-denomination bills by coins and eliminating the penny attracted such popular wrath.
But the difficulty for governments is that commercial stablecoins such as libra arenot the only competition. If one country creates a functioning state-backed digital stablecoin, it may be difficult to stop thecitizens of other countriesfrom using it.
For Wilkins, no doubt, working out a solution is part of what makes it all so exciting.
But whatever the final outcome, it does seem that our concept of money is changing. Just last month, Bank of Canada deputy governor Timothy Lane participated in a discussion at the International Institute of Finance titledThe Future of Money. The fact is, as cash disappears, digital stablecoins may become an essential alternative for certain purposes.
Lane pointed out that as merchants, banks andconsumers increasingly stop using bank notes for transactions, we may reach a tipping pointwhere those notes effectivelydisappear from circulation so that even people who want to use bills don't have the option.
"In the immortal words of Joni Mitchell," quipped Lane, "'You don't know what you've got till it's gone.'"
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