What is CBDC | Need of Central Bank Digital Currency in India

What is CBDC?

CBDC – Central Bank Digital Currency is the legal tender issued by a central bank in a digital form. It is the same as a fiat currency and is exchangeable one-to-one with the fiat currency. Only its form is different.

CBDC is a digital or virtual currency but it is not comparable to the private virtual currencies that have mushroomed over the last decade. Private virtual currencies sit at substantial odds to the historical concept of money. They are not commodities or claims on commodities as they have no intrinsic value.

What is CBDC | Need of Central Bank Digital Currency in India
Central Bank Digital Currency

To sum up, CBDC is the same as currency issued by a central bank but takes a different form than paper (or polymer). It is sovereign currency in an electronic form and it would appear as liability (currency in circulation) on a central bank’s balance sheet. The underlying technology, form and use of a CBDC can be moulded for specific requirements. CBDCs should be exchangeable at par with cash.

What is the need of CBDC?

While interest in CBDCs is near universal now, very few countries have reached even the pilot stage of launching their CBDCs. A 2021 BIS survey of central banks found that 86% were actively researching the potential for CBDCs, 60% were experimenting with the technology and 14% were deploying pilot projects. Why this sudden interest? The adoption of CBDC has been justified for the following reasons:-

  • Central banks, faced with dwindling usage of paper currency, seek to popularize a more acceptable electronic form of currency (like Sweden);
  • Jurisdictions with significant physical cash usage seeking to make issuance more efficient (like Denmark, Germany, or Japan or even the US);
  • Central banks seek to meet the public’s need for digital currencies, manifested in the increasing use of private virtual currencies, and thereby avoid the more damaging consequences of such private currencies.

In addition, CBDCs have some clear advantages over other digital payments systems – payments using CBDCs are final and thus reduce settlement risk in the financial system. Imagine a UPI system where CBDC is transacted instead of bank balances, as if cash is handed over – the need for interbank settlement disappears. CBDCs would also potentially enable a more real-time and cost-effective globalization of payment systems. It is conceivable for an Indian importer to pay its American exporter on a real time basis in digital Dollars, without the need of an intermediary. This transaction would be final, as if cash dollars are handed over, and would not even require that the US Federal Reserve system is open for settlement. Time zone difference would no longer matter in currency settlements – there would be no ‘Herstatt’ risk.

Do we need CBDC in India?

The advantages of issuing a CBDC discussed briefly in the previous paragraph might be enough to justify India issuing a CBDC, although to realize benefits of global settlements, it is important that both the countries in a currency transaction have CBDCs in place. Let us, however, look at it from India’s own point of view.

India is leading the world in terms of digital payments innovations. Its payment systems are available 24X7, available to both retail and wholesale customers, they are largely real-time, the cost of transaction is perhaps the lowest in the world, users have an impressive menu of options for doing transactions and digital payments have grown at an impressive CAGR of 55% (over the last five years). It would be difficult to find another payment system like UPI that allows a transaction of one Rupee.

The case for CBDC for emerging economies is thus clear – CBDCs are desirable not just for the benefits they create in payments systems, but also might be necessary to protect the general public in an environment of volatile private VCs.

RBI’s approach on CBDC

Central Banks across the globe are engaged in exploring CBDCs and a few countries have also introduced proofs of concept / pilots on CBDC. The High Level Inter-Ministerial Committee (November 2017) constituted by Ministry of Finance, Government of India (GoI) to examine the policy and legal framework for regulation of virtual / crypto currencies had recommended the introduction of CBDCs as a digital form of fiat money in India. Like other central banks, RBI has also been exploring the pros and cons of introduction of CBDCs since quite some time.

Generally, countries have implemented specific purpose CBDCs in the wholesale and retail segments. Going forward, after studying the impact of these models, launch of general purpose CBDCs shall be evaluated. RBI is currently working towards a phased implementation strategy and examining use cases which could be implemented with little or no disruption. Some key issues under examination are – (i) the scope of CBDCs – whether they should be used in retail payments or also in wholesale payments; (ii) the underlying technology – whether it should be a distributed ledger or a centralized ledger, for instance, and whether the choice of technology should vary according to use cases; (iii) the validation mechanism – whether token based or account based, (iv) distribution architecture – whether direct issuance by the RBI or through banks; (v) degree of anonymity etc. However, conducting pilots in wholesale and retail segments may be a possibility in near future.

Conclusion

Introduction of CBDC has the potential to provide significant benefits, such as reduced dependency on cash, higher seigniorage due to lower transaction costs, reduced settlement risk. Introduction of CBDC would possibly lead to a more robust, efficient, trusted, regulated and legal tender-based payments option. There are associated risks, no doubt, but they need to be carefully evaluated against the potential benefits. It would be RBI’s endeavour, as we move forward in the direction of India’s CBDC, to take the necessary steps which would reiterate the leadership position of India in payment systems.CBDCs is likely to be in the arsenal of every central bank going forward. Setting this up will require careful calibration and a nuanced approach in implementation. Drawing board considerations and stakeholder consultations are important. Technological challenges have their importance as well. As is said, every idea will have to wait for its time. Perhaps the time for CBDCs is nigh.