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From hygiene to aid, COVID-19 strengthens case for central bank digital money

The coronavirus outbreak has given a new urgency to central banks' quest to develop their own digital currencies, which experts say could help governments distribute stimulus money directly to businesses and individuals in a future crisis — potentially circumventing commercial banks altogether.

Central bank digital currencies, or CBDCs, which could be ready for use in as little as three years, could also help with hygiene concerns by limiting the use of contaminated cash. And while they may not be ready in time to help the financial system during the current pandemic, CBDCs could mean central banks and governments are better prepared for the next crisis, whatever form that may take, according to industry insiders.

Pandemic as catalyst

CBDCs are a digital equivalent of cash and form part of the overall money supply. They are different from regular digital payments, which are effectively "representations" of money, and from cryptocurrencies, which are privately developed forms of storing value.

Momentum for the development of CBDCs had already been building in Europe pre-pandemic. Sveriges Riksbank, the Swedish central bank, had been working on the e-Krona for some time and the project is now at the road-testing phase.

And announcements about CBDC consultations and experiments have been coming thick and fast in the past two months. The Bank of England put out a paper and a call for comments on CBDCs in March, saying they had the potential to help the bank in areas such as addressing the consequences of a decline in cash usage to mitigating the risks posed by new forms of private money creation. Banque de France put out a call for an experiment into the use of CBDCs at the end of March, while De Nederlandsche Bank NV said in April that it wants to launch its own digital currency.

Deutsche Bank Macro Strategist Marion Laboure, cited by Reuters, said such currencies could be ready in as little as three years.

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"We are of the opinion that the current pandemic can significantly speed up existing plans by central banks to implement CBDCs," Adam Bujnowski, head of consulting at Zeb Consulting, a Poland-based firm that advises on financial services, told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

For example, the coronavirus outbreak has sped up a shift towards digital payments thanks to fears among the general public about contagion from bank notes and coins, he said.

The more the public becomes habituated to digital payments, the more we can expect a "diminished role" for cash transactions, even in a post-lockdown world, Bujnowski said, adding that this is will be especially true if there are lingering concerns about hygiene.

Experts believe that the coronavirus could accelerate digital payment adoption even in societies that have traditionally been heavily cash dependent, such as Italy.

In a future where cash takes a back seat, CBDCs would be a chance for central banks to issue a monetary instrument that acts in the same way as cash and is still "under their full control," Bujnowski said.

Bypassing commercial banks

Under one possible iteration of CBDCs, members of the general public would be able to have an account directly with their country's central bank in the form of a digital wallet. This could be used instead of, or in addition to, a regular bank account. This means that, in theory, CBDCs could allow a central bank to disburse government financial support directly to the public in the event of a crisis — even sidestepping commercial banks, experts say.

"If retail CBDCs were part of daily life, then the central bank could issue relief directly into the wallets of consumers, rather than having to go through third-party apps to transfer money across payment rails," Lex Sokolin, chief marketing officer and global fintech head at Consensys, a blockchain technology firm, said in an email.

CBDCs take time to develop and it will be too late for them to be of much use during the current pandemic. But next time a crisis hits at either a global or national level, they could revolutionize the response, Patrick Campos, chief strategy officer of Securrency, a fintech and regtech company focused on blockchain, said in an interview.

In the U.K., the government has come under fire for being slow to distribute aid to struggling companies under its Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, or CBILS. This relies on a network of commercial banks to direct the government-backed funding to the businesses that need it. In the U.S., the Small Business Administration loans program, which is similar to CBILS, has also run into delays and technical issues.

"Central bank digital currencies could help governments to do a better job next time round," Campos said in an interview.

Not only could CBDCs help to distribute government stimulus money, they could also give policymakers some insights into where that money ends up, according to Emin Gün Sirer, associate professor of computer science at Cornell University and founder of Ava Labs, a blockchain network.

"Central bankers love CBDCs because of the transparency they offer," he told S&P Global Market Intelligence. "Digital currencies make it possible to track the velocity of money, and are thus a great way to distribute financial aid during the crisis. Econometrics on how the aid trickles through the economy and how it spurs downstream activity are difficult to track with traditional fiat but fairly easy with cryptocurrencies."