Countries are moving fast toward creating digital currencies. Or, so we hear from various surveys showing an increasing number of central banks making substantial progress towards having an official digital currency.
But, in fact, close to 80 percent of the world’s central banks are either not allowed to issue a digital currency under their existing laws, or the legal framework is not clear. To help countries make this assessment, we reviewed the central bank laws of 174 IMF members in a new IMF staff paper, and found out that only about 40 are legally allowed to issue digital currencies.
Not Just a Legal TechnicalityAny money issuance is a form of debt for the central bank, so it must have a solid basis to avoid legal, financial and reputational risks for the institutions. Ultimately, it is about ensuring that a significant and potentially contentious innovation is in line with a central bank’s mandate. Otherwise, the door is opened to potential political and legal challenges.
Now, readers may be asking themselves: if issuing money is the most basic function for any central bank, why then is a digital form of money so different? The answer requires a detailed analysis of the functions and powers of each central bank, as well as the implications of different designs of digital instruments.
Building a Case for Digital CurrenciesTo legally qualify as currency, a means of payment must be considered as such by the country’s laws and be denominated in its official monetary unit. A currency typically enjoys legal tender status, meaning debtors can pay their obligations by transferring it to creditors.
Therefore, legal tender status is usually only given to means of payment that can be easily received and used by the majority of the population. That is why banknotes and coins are the most common form of currency.To use digital currencies, digital infrastructure-laptops, smartphones, connectivity-must first be in place. But governments cannot impose on their citizens to have it, so granting legal tender status to a central bank digital instrument might be challenging. Without the legal tender designation, achieving full currency status could be equally challenging. Still, many means of payments widely used in advanced economies are neither legal tender nor currency (e.g., commercial book money).