Central banks have shown remarkable openness to creating state-backed digital currencies over the past year or so. Dozens of them have begun to explore the technology, which shares some DNA with blockchain currencies like Bitcoin, and broadly promises to accelerate and simplify the settlement of transactions. The Bank for International Settlements has laid out tentative standards, and even U.S. Fed chair Jay Powell has talked about the roadmap for a U.S. CBDC.
“The main driver of the current interest in CBDCs is the need for national sovereignty around those technologies,” says Ken Timsit. He cites the twin threats of Facebook’s now-struggling Libra project and China’s major moves towards a CBDC as the primary motivators. “Central banks are realizing that if they don’t stay on top of these technologies, they could let other organizations, commercial or sovereign, have complete dominance.”
Timsit leads CBDC development at Consensys, the blockchain software startup founded by Ethereum cofounder Joe Lubin. Consensys has been on a CBDC hot streak: Last month the company announced it was working with Forge, the digital assets platform of giant French bank Societe Generale, to explore CBDC technology for France’s central bank. Consensys is also working on CBDC pilots or exploratory projects with the central bank of Thailand, Hong Kong’s monetary authority, and the central banks of Australia, Singapore, and South Africa.
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Timsit says that the SocGen project, one of several competing to pitch ideas to the Banc de France, is focused on domestic rather than international applications.
One particular target is a shortcoming of the current banking and securities system known as “delivery vs. payment,” or DVP. Using current banking technology and practices, Timsit says, buying and selling securities is a surprisingly lengthy process, mired in a tangle of escrow and confirmations as trading desks and corporate treasuries reconcile deposits and trades. The industry standard window for this settlement process is two days. That’s an eternity in modern markets, and the capital involved in transactions is often locked for the duration, adding costs and reducing agility.
“Most of the delays that happen today are due to the fact that there is no single source of truth,” says Timsit. Blockchain-like CBDCs would create a ‘shared ledger’ of trustworthy and near-instant transaction and balance data, theoretically eliminating the agonizing process of back-office paper-shuffling. “Having access to a CBDC allows you to unlock liquidity in a day, instead of several days.”
The impact could be particularly significant, Timsit says, for smaller organizations looking to raise money. Bond issuance, for instance, is both complex and slow enough that it doesn’t make sense below a certain amount. CBDCs could also transform the so-called ‘repo market,’ where securities are lent for very short-term cash – a process where speed and accuracy are crucial.
Consensys’ strategy for its CBDC projects, Timsit says, is simple. “We are leveraging pieces of technology that are available off the shelf from Consensys,” he says, in hopes that those products will become part of the long-term structure of the systems. His work is also a necessity because, despite the buzz and openness, actual expertise in building CBDCs remains scarce within central banks.
“Unless we get involved in how to deploy the technology,” Timsit says, “not many people will know what to do with it.”
David Z. Morris