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Impact of India's Proposed Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC)

Numerous signals have been emanating from the government and the RBI in the past several months to indicate the imminent launch of India’s Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). This includes the announcement last month that the Cryptocurrency and Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021 will be tabled for discussion in the ongoing session of the Indian parliament.

What is a CBDC?

In simple terms, it is the digital version of legal tender issued by a sovereign central bank. In terms of value, it is the same as the country’s fiat currency and is exchangeable with physical currency on demand. Thus, India’s CBDC will be denominated in Rupees. Like physical currency notes/coins, CBDC can be used by individuals and businesses as a store of value and to make payments for purchasing goods/services.

 

Why does India need a CBDC?

There are many reasons why countries will need their own CBDC systems. In India, interbank transactions and settlements already take place through the reserves individual banks maintain with the RBI, so there may not be much impact in this arena. However, in the retail segment, a bulk of the transactions still rely on physical cash and increasingly, on digital payment solutions. It is important to recognize that payment solutions such as those from Google, Amazon, Apple, or Paytm and Phonepe are all privately-owned and controlled; as such, their growing popularity does pose a risk to the country’s financial system.

For example, it is estimated that 94% of mobile payment transactions in China are processed on transactions owned by Alibaba or Tencent. As the companies behind these apps start to build “ecosystems”, more and more goods and services can be paid for through these apps. Such integration and breadth of usage can easily create a virtual stranglehold that has the potential to place at risk the entire financial system of a country; there could even be regional or global ripples. The launch of a CBDC is thus not just a digital payment system, but also a mechanism towards mitigation of major risks that are associated with an increasingly digital world.

Currently, all payment solutions in India, whether developed and deployed by fintech players, Big Tech or banks, run on the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) infrastructure built and managed by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), which is jointly promoted by the RBI and the Indian Banks’ Association (IBA). That India’s payments backbone has never been in private hands reduces the level of risk to our financial system. Also, it must also be acknowledged that the NPCI has done a fabulous job so far. The month of October 2021 alone saw more than 4.2 billion transactions being processed through NPCI infrastructure. But it is important to keep in mind that the payment apps owned and managed by fintech and Big Tech companies are not under the direct regulatory supervision of the RBI because they are not licensed banks. A CBDC-based ecosystem will make the regulation of such apps and platforms easier and more effective- thus enabling a higher degree of consumer protection. 

There are other reasons too why an Indian CBDC will become a necessity sooner rather than later. Countries like China are already at an advanced stage of launching their versions of CBDC. Given global cross-border trade and investment flows and repatriation of funds by Indian diaspora overseas and tourist travel, it is only a matter of time before Chinese or other CBDC enter the Indian financial system. And as more countries launch their own CBDC, it is imperative that we have our own, so that we can negotiate from a position of experience (and strength) when it comes to agreeing on multilateral CBDC protocols.

A well-designed CBDC system reduces the threat of counterfeit currency- something that our adversaries have used over many decades to weaken our economy. Arguably, CBDC can also play an important role in the nation’s fight against corruption and black money- although much will depend on how it evolves and the operational rules and regulatory framework governing it.

 

CBDC: The Road Ahead

At this time, it is unclear when and how the government will choose to launch India’s CBDC. But it is fair to say that an entirely new digital currency ecosystem will be needed. It is likely that the RBI itself will cause to design, develop and run the CBDC infrastructure. There are also speculations that they would be regulated as financial assets by the Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI). Big Tech, fintech and banks will need to link their apps to this new infrastructure as well- assuming that over time, individuals will retain the option to pay via physical currency-backed UPI platforms or their CBDC cousins.

Since no regulator can compete with those it is tasked with regulating, the RBI may have to let financial intermediaries continue to take responsibility for the distribution of digital currency via e-wallets or other pre-paid digital instruments and similar solutions. This also means that fintech players, BigTech and retail banks will need to evolve their platforms and come up with innovative offerings to ride this new wave of opportunity. The road ahead will have its own challenges at both the policy and operational levels. The success of CBDC will also depend on how quickly internet access expands across the country and how resistant to hacking and breaches the underlying systems are.

Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for an interesting ride at the end of which, digital currency could be the crowned king. 

 

Image Credits:  Photo by Alesia Kozik from Pexels

At this time, it is unclear when and how the RBI will choose to launch India’s CBDC. But it is fair to say that an entirely new digital currency ecosystem will be needed. It is likely that the RBI itself will cause to design, develop and run the CBDC infrastructure

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India's Own Crypto Asset Regulations Soon: Plugging an Important Gap

Till last year, most people (at least in India) had probably only heard of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum; now, many other names such as Dogecoin, Solana, Polkadot, XRP, Tether, Binance etc. are being spoken of commonly in media. The global cryptocurrency market cap is estimated at over US$2.5 Trillion.

India too is witnessing a surge in investment in cryptotokens – especially by millennials. There is a correspondingly increase in the number of advertisements for cryptocurrencies on national television as well as on various web sites; mainstream media reports extensively on the daily price movement of cryptocurrencies. One estimate puts the number of crypto investors in India at between 15-20 million, and the total holdings to be in excess of US$5.3Billion. 

This surge in unregulated cryptoassets is a matter of rising concern globally. Recently, PM Modi urged democracies around the world to work together to ensure that cryptocurrencies do not “end up in the wrong hands, as this can “spoil our youth”. His exhortation came just days after RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das spoke of “serious concerns” around cryptocurrencies.

The RBI’s 2018 blanket ban on cryptocurrencies was lifted by the Supreme Court in 2020. However, the time has now come for the government and regulators to act quickly, and there are indications that regulations are just around the corner. At the time of writing, the government has already announced its intention to table The Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021 in parliament in the winter session.

It is expected that through this legislation, the Indian government will seek to ban private cryptoassets. This means that those trade in such cryptoassets may be liable for penalties and/or other punishment. It is also expected that there will be tighter regulations around advertising such products and platforms where cryptoassets can be bought and sold. Another regulatory salvo could be around taxing cryptogains at a higher rate (although such notifications may have to wait for the next budget due to be announced in another three months). The bill is also expected to deny the status of “currency” to cryptoassets because the prevailing ones are issued by private enterprises, and not backed by any sovereign.

The government has also acknowledged the potential of sovereign digital currencies (or CBDC- Central Bank Digital Currency, as they are officially called) in the days ahead. Countries such as China and the USA, are at various stages of launching their own digital currencies, and experts predict that such CBDC will be the “future of money”. In this context, the proposed bill is expected to create a “facilitative framework” to pave the way for the RBI to launch India’s sovereign digital currency in the days ahead by. In fact, the RBI is already working on India’s CBDC, and some media reports suggest that such a launch may happen in the next couple of months (which may also explain the timing of tabling the The Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021, at this time). CBDCs too require crypto and blockchain technologies that are similar to those that underpin cryptoassets, so the bill is also expected to promote these technologies for specific purposes. Indeed, not doing so would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Given their wide global reach, cryptoassets arguably will have a role to play in the world’s financial system. However, countries such as India must ensure proper regulation because by their very nature, cryptoassets can easily be misused for various activities that can destabilize the nation. They will allow for free inward/outward remittances that will make it harder to trace; being encrypted, the origins of such wealth too will become easier to hide. All this will make cryptoassets even more convenient ideal for nefarious activities such as money laundering, terror-funding, drugs-financing etc. In the absence of appropriate regulations, the rising supply of cryptocurrencies can hobble the RBI’s ability to perform its basic role. Its ability to manage the Rupee’s value against global currencies too will weaken, as will its ability to use domestic interest rates as a means to balance the economy’s twin needs of inflation management and providing growth impetus. This is a scary scenario, but not one that could unfold in the short-term. Even so, India needs to be prepared.

PS: The Indian government’s announcement to regulate cryptoassets has already triggered a significant (8-10%) correction in the prices of various cryptoassets. It’s therefore a good idea for resident Indians holding cryptoassets to sell them. They can decide on their future course of action once there is clarity on the specific regulatory impact of the proposed bill.

 

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Photo by Worldspectrum from Pexels

Given their wide global reach, cryptoassets arguably will have a role to play in the world’s financial system. However, countries such as India must ensure proper regulation because by their very nature, cryptoassets can easily be misused for various activities that can destabilize the nation.

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