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Bank of England bullish and bearish about innovations in digital currencies

The Bank of England's Quarterly Bulletin explores topics on monetary and financial stability and includes regular commentary on market developments and UK monetary policy operations. These two articles were recently highlighted in the Q3 2014 edition that was published at 00.05hrs on 16 September 2014.
 
Innovations in payment technologies and the emergence of digital currencies 
By Robleh Ali of the Bank’s Financial Market Infrastructure Directorate, John Barrdear of the Bank’s Monetary Assessment and Strategy Division, and Roger Clews and James Southgate of the Bank’s Markets Directorate.
 
"This article considers recent innovations in payments technology, focusing on the emergence of privately developed, internet-based digital currencies such as Bitcoin. Digital currency schemes combine both new payment systems and new currencies. Users can trade digital
currencies with each other in exchange for traditional currency or goods and services without the need for any third party (like a bank). And their creation is not controlled by any central bank. Bitcoin — currently the largest digital currency — was set up in 2009 and several thousand businesses worldwide currently accept bitcoins in payment for anything from pizza to webhosting. Most digital currencies, including Bitcoin, incorporate predetermined supply paths leading to fixed eventual supplies. 
 
This article argues, however, that the key innovation of digital currencies is the ‘distributed ledger’ which allows a payment system to operate in an entirely decentralised way, without intermediaries such as banks. This innovation draws on advances from a range of disciplines including cryptography (secure communication), game theory (strategic decision-making) and peer-to-peer networking (networks of connections formed without central co-ordination).
 
When payment systems were first computerised, the underlying processes were not significantly changed. Distributed ledger technology represents a fundamental change in how payment systems could work. And in principle, this decentralised approach is not limited to
payments. For instance, the majority of financial assets such as shares or bonds already exist only as digital records, stored on centralised databases."
 
This short video discusses some of the key topics from this article.
 

 
The economics of digital currencies  By Robleh Ali, John Barrdear, Roger Clews and James Southgate
 
"From the perspective of economic theory, whether a digital currency may be considered to be money depends on the extent to which it acts as a store of value, a medium of exchange and a unit of account. How far an asset serves these roles can differ, both from person to person and over time. And meeting these economic definitions does not necessarily imply that an asset will be regarded as money for legal or regulatory purposes. At present, digital currencies are used by relatively few people. For these people, data suggest that digital currencies are primarily viewed as stores of value — albeit with significant volatility in their valuations (see summary chart) — and are not typically used as media of exchange. At present, there is little evidence of digital currencies being used as units of account.
 
This article argues that the incentives embedded in the current design of digital currencies pose impediments to their widespread usage. A key attraction of such schemes at present is their low transaction fees. But these fees may need to rise as usage grows and may eventually be higher than those charged by incumbent payment systems.
 
Most digital currencies incorporate a pre-determined path towards a fixed eventual supply. In addition to making it extremely unlikely that a digital currency, as currently designed, will achieve widespread usage in the long run, a fixed money supply may also harm the macroeconomy: it could contribute to deflation in the prices of goods and services, and in wages. And importantly, the inability of the money supply to vary in response to demand would likely cause greater volatility in prices and real activity. It is important to note, however, that a fixed eventual supply is not an inherent requirement of digital currency schemes.
 
Digital currencies do not currently pose a material risk to monetary or financial stability in the United Kingdom, given the small size of such schemes. This could conceivably change, but only if they were to grow significantly. The Bank continues to monitor digital currencies and the risks they pose to its mission."
 
This short video discusses some of the key topics from this article.
 

 
 
 
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