Too embarrassed to ask: what is a central bank digital currency?

Governments around the world are considering creating their own digital currencies. But what are they and how do they compare to cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin?

Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ethereum have divided investor opinion. Some people think that they represent the future of money and a huge technological advance. Others think that the whole thing is a scam, a bubble, or just hopelessly idealistic. 

But one thing is clear: governments are increasingly keen on the possibilities that might arise from issuing fully-digital currencies themselves. Hence the growing interest in central bank digital currencies, or CBDCs for short. 

A CBDC is simply a government-backed digital currency. A digital pound – or “Britcoin”, as it’s been nicknamed – would be similar to the paper pound, in that the central bank would control its issuance. 

This is perhaps the most important difference between CBDCs and cryptocurrencies. Cryptocurrencies are decentralised. The whole point of bitcoin is that it represents a form of money that cannot be created at will by a government or a central bank. Instead it derives its value from a network of freely-participating individuals. 

There are some benefits to CBDCs. In theory they should cut down on transaction costs. And in developing markets in particular, they should make it easier for everyone to get a bank account. 

However, there are also some serious disadvantages. Bitcoin is anonymous, but transactions made using CBDCs would be easily tracked by the authorities. This gives rise to privacy concerns.

CBDCs might also replace cash altogether. That would make it easier for central banks to impose policies – such as negative interest rates – that effectively operate as a tax on savers. So the next time the economy is deemed to require monetary stimulus, the central bank could effectively force people to go out and spend their money.  

This might sound like something from a dystopian science-fiction novel, but most governments around the world are now working on CBDCs. The Bahamas already has the “sand dollar” which was launched last year. Among major economies, trials of a digital yuan are well advanced in China. And in the UK, the Bank of England and the Treasury are now looking into the idea of “Britcoin”. 

So even if cryptocurrencies aren’t the future of money, there’s a good chance that they’ve helped to bring forward the end of cash.

To find out more about the monetary system and central banks in general, subscribe to MoneyWeek magazine.

Recommended

Just how powerful is artificial intelligence becoming?
Tech stocks

Just how powerful is artificial intelligence becoming?

An uncannily human response from an artificial intelligence program sparked a minor panic last month. But just how powerful are machines getting – and…
2 Jul 2022
Persimmon yields 12.3%, but can you trust the company to deliver?
Share tips

Persimmon yields 12.3%, but can you trust the company to deliver?

With a dividend yield of 12.3%, Persimmon looks like a highly attractive prospect for income investors. But that sort of yield can also indicate compa…
1 Jul 2022
The MoneyWeek Podcast: nuggets of positivity in an extended bear market
Investment strategy

The MoneyWeek Podcast: nuggets of positivity in an extended bear market

Merryn and John talk about he need for higher wages and lower house prices, and why the fact that this is the least dramatic bear market they’ve ever …
1 Jul 2022
Here are the best savings accounts on the market now
Savings

Here are the best savings accounts on the market now

With inflation at more than 9%, your savings are not going to keep pace with the rising cost of living. But you can at least slow the rate at which yo…
1 Jul 2022

Most Popular

UK house prices are definitely cooling off – but are they heading for a fall?
House prices

UK house prices are definitely cooling off – but are they heading for a fall?

UK house prices hit a fresh high in June, but as interest rates start to rise, the market is cooling John Stepek assesses just how much of an effect h…
30 Jun 2022
The ten highest dividend yields in the FTSE 100
Income investing

The ten highest dividend yields in the FTSE 100

Rupert Hargreaves looks at the FTSE 100’s top yielding stocks for income investors to consider.
22 Jun 2022
The ten highest dividend yields on Aim
Income investing

The ten highest dividend yields on Aim

Rupert Hargreaves picks the highest-paying dividend stocks on Aim, London’s junior market for small and medium-sized growth companies.
29 Jun 2022