Central bank digital currencies could progress thanks to COVID-19

There is virtually no good that has come out of the coronavirus pandemic, but perhaps there is a silver lining. One of the suggestions presented to help curb the spread of the virus is to limit, as much as possible, the use of physical money in lieu of alternatives, such as credit and debit cards, although these, too, have been seen as transmitters of the virus.

As a result, this could also lead to an increase in how digital currencies are viewed, and the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) asserts that there may now be a lot more interest given to the alternative, especially by central banks. In a report (in pdf) the organization released last Friday, it sees a future that has central banks taking more seriously the idea of launching their own digital currencies as a result of the coronavirus.

The BIS points out that, per most scientific research, contagion through bank notes is relatively low, and adds that the coronavirus “survives best on non-porous materials, such as plastic or stainless steel, means that debit or credit card terminals or PIN pads could transmit the virus, too.” However, it explains, “A realistic assessment of the risks of transmission through cash is particularly important because there could be distributional consequences of any move away from cash. If cash is not generally accepted as a means of payment, this could open a ‘payments divide’ between those with access to digital payments and those without. This in turn could have an especially severe impact on unbanked and older consumers.” 

The BIS doesn’t outright state that central bank digital currencies (CDBC) will definitely become the future of payments; however, a number of countries were already working on their digital alternatives well in advance of the current global pandemic. Still, it believes a continued push toward CBDC inclusion could be coming, and explains, “In the context of the current crisis, CBDC would in particular have to be designed allowing for access options for the unbanked and (contact-free) technical interfaces suitable for the whole population. The pandemic may hence put calls for CBDCs into sharper focus, highlighting the value of having access to diverse means of payments, and the need for any means of payments to be resilient against a broad range of threats.”

Options for the unbanked and contactless interfaces are two of the many advantages to digital currencies. With either access to the Internet or, in some cases, text messaging services, consumers would easily be able to make purchases with digital currencies, providing greater financial support to both the banked and unbanked around the world.  

Maybe just as a coincidence, or perhaps in response to the need for change, South Korea is ready to explore the possibility of launching a CBDC. According a notice by the Bank of Korea, the central bank is introducing a pilot program designed to test digital currencies, and the country hopes to have the pilot completed by the end of 2021. However, the bank points out that issuing digital currency may not necessarily follow, since cash is still prevalent in the Korean society, but adds that it wants to be prepared for changes in the financial industry. 

The pilot began in March, starting with a design and requirements phase that will run until this July. Next, a technology review will be conducted from April to August, followed by a business process analysis and consulting period that will run through the end of the year. For all of next year, the system construction and testing will take place, finally wrapping up at the end of 2021.

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