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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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Strong Tailwinds for India’s Technology Sector Entrepreneurs and Startups

Venture Capital (VC) investments in Indian startups in the period January – July 2021 were reported at around US$17.2 Billion. Although this figure is lower than the quantum of investments made in China in the same period, it is a healthy 55% more than the US$11.1 Billion VCs invested in India in the year 2020. Here’s an even more interesting data point: in July 2021, VCs invested around US$8 Billion in India, in comparison, their investments in China were approximately US$5 Billion. This was the first time since 2013 that India attracted more VC investments than China.

One swallow does not make a summer, but there are many reasons to believe that significantly higher levels of risk capital will become available to Indian entrepreneurs- and especially to those in the tech space. While most of these have to do with India’s intrinsic strengths, there are also some external forces at work. Here is what I believe will fuel India’s tech entrepreneurs over the course of the next five years or so.

  • Steep increase in the number of Indian unicorns:

The first 9 months of 2021 alone have seen 28 new unicorns (a term that denotes startups with valuations of US$1Billion or more) emerge in India. This number stood at 38 at the end of 2020.

  • Fintech innovation:

India has seen several innovative fintech come up in the last ten years, many of which are already unicorns or on their way there. As the global banking and financial services industry look for disruptive solutions and new ways of building ecosystems, many of these “Made in India” innovations will become globally relevant and hence attractive investment opportunities.

  • The rise and rise of Edtech:

As a result of the pandemic and the emergence of interactive technologies, the learning and education space has undergone a massive transformation in the last two years. Not just in the early school years but also coaching for various entrance exams. Byju’s for example, is valued at almost US$16.5 Billion, and has already acquired 9 other Edtech companies in recent months. Like fintech, the Edtech opportunity too has the potential to tap global business opportunities.

  • Rising interest amongst western VC funds:

Existing investors are looking to expand their Indian portfolio, with some big-name investors like Tiger Global making 25 investments in India between January and August 2021 (in 2020, they invested in 18 startups). New VC firms that have not previously invested in India too are also entering the market. Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) fund, for example, recently closed a US$260 Million investment in crypto player CoinSwitch Kuber (valuing it US$1.9 Billion). Reports suggest a 60% increase in participation by US investors in Indian fintech startups over the last three years. The Unacademy group, another major Edtech player in India, recently raised US$440 million (investors included non-US funds as well)- valuing the startup at almost US$3.5 Billion.

  • Many global giants already have an Indian presence:

It was recently reported that one in 12 global unicorns have their technology centers based in India (source: August report of the IVCA). As Indian ventures and their innovations gain global visibility, I believe many more global organizations will set up shop in India (As elaborated in my earlier blog – Global Captive Centers in India: Can add Value If Set Up Differently).

  • Strong talent base:

India has a large, trained pool of tech and managerial talent that can be attracted to startups both by higher compensation made possible by Venture Capital backing and the thrill of creating something new. Such talent can form the crucial leadership and middle layers as these startups scale and grow rapidly.

  • Entrepreneurship on the ascent:

Increasingly, young graduates are turning entrepreneurs– and choosing this avenue instead of the safety of “safe” jobs with established companies. And of course, there are senior leaders from various companies who are also getting bitten by the startup bug and leaving to start/mentor various early-stage ventures.

 

Conclusion

 

Of course, there’s also the elephant (more accurately, the dragon) in the room. The Chinese Communist Party leadership has, in the past year or so, made a number of major policy changes with the apparent intention of targeting China’s home-grown Big businesses (tech and others). The Chinese government’s seeming unwillingness to come to the rescue of defaulting real estate majors is another event that has muddied waters for investors. Western investors have significant exposure to many of these companies whose wings have clearly been clipped. Strains in diplomatic and economic ties between China and the west are expected to trigger a slowdown in fresh investments, if not cause an exit from Chinese businesses.

Capital chases the best risk-adjusted returns and so will always gravitate to where investors expect the best outcomes. India, with its relative political stability, acknowledged track record of democracy, continuing commitment to reforms, and growing stature as a global innovation hub makes it an attractive alternative.

Image Credits:

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Capital chases the best risk-adjusted returns and so will always gravitate to where investors expect the best outcomes. India, with its relative political stability, acknowledged track record of democracy, continuing commitment to reforms and growing stature as a global innovation hub makes it an attractive alternative.

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