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In a recent research report by Bank of America, analysts concluded that “CBDCs (central bank digital currencies) appear inevitable.” According to their research, CBDCs have “the potential to revolutionize global financial systems and maybe the most significant technological advancement in the history of money.”
While the contents of this report have been making waves in traditional media circles, those of us that have been researching and working with CBDCs over the past few years have been saying similar things for quite some time now. In this article, I will tackle some of the more prominent misconceptions about CBDCs, especially the ones concerning anonymity and the technology’s potential use as a means of totalitarian control.
Anonymity is not part of the agenda
Some of the most full-throated criticism of CBDC technology tends to come from the cryptocurrency community, where many consider the rollout of state-backed digital currencies to be an existential threat to anonymity. But if you think bitcoin and stablecoins are about privacy, they’re not. Somewhere around 90% of addresses and transfers, if not more, have long since been traced and identified, and even in DeFi, cybercrime gets investigated, and the culprits get caught fairly quickly.
Those who are active in the cryptocurrency industry and those who are knowledgeable about it know this. What is much more likely to be behind this vein of criticism of CBDCs is the perception of the technology not as an existential threat to privacy but as an existential threat to existing cryptocurrencies. However, this too is unfounded.
From working with regulators and countries in the process of launching CBDCs, it has to be said that privacy simply is not on the agenda in most cases. The central issues that are being dealt with currently revolve around what the legal framework should be, how the linkage to banks should work, how to move from stablecoin currencies to CBDCs, how to integrate the technology into international trade, how to incorporate CBDCs into “superapps” and so on.
Using CBDCs on the state level
When we move beyond the idea that CBDCs are a power grab by institutions looking to eliminate financial privacy, the actual value of the technology comes into view. There are two levels on which CBDCs offer vast improvements to the current status quo, that of the state and that of the individual.
On the state level, it is important to understand that every foreign trade transaction now goes through the dollar. For example, take Pakistan and the Arab Emirates. When these countries trade, there is constant pressure on the national currencies because they must constantly sell their currencies and buy dollars. However, the dirham is quite trusted in Pakistan. So, direct payments in dirhams and rupees could be possible, but currently, there is no infrastructure to support this kind of transaction. This is where CBDCs come into play.
Regardless of how it’s done, cross-border transfers must be straightened out. This could be achieved via currency baskets, AMM pools or mutual correspondent banks. One way or another, this will make economic processes easier and cheaper for almost all countries because cross-border rates and long chains of intermediaries will disappear.
CBDCs for the individual
The main task facing CBDC development right now is building a basis for cross-border payments, which individuals do worldwide. The need for this to happen can be seen in how cross-border payments currently work in the Philippines and the Emirates.
There are generally two ways of sending money from the UAE. The first is the old-fashioned “hawala” system. Here, the sender goes to their local community leader, gives him dollars, and then the leader’s counterpart in the recipient’s country gives the recipient the same amount in pesos.
The second method involves transferring money through services like Western Union. Depending on cross-border rates, the round-trip commission is between 6% and 12%. You inevitably have to have a double conversion. As a result, the cost of the transfer is extremely high.
This is the process we are trying to build: the sender comes with digital dirhams either to a transfer point or a special machine. He needs to convert the dirhams into pesos. Both currencies are digitally deposited as stablecoins in an AMM pool, where the exchange rate changes very little. Conversely, the pesos are received through a transfer operator, which charges only 0.1% for the exchange of digital currencies. Thus, the total fees do not exceed 3% of the transfer amount.
This is one way you can use CBDCs. And it is convenient and cheap for those who do not have cards or bank accounts, which in Southeast Asia alone amounts to several hundred million people. The fees these people have to pay to add up to a significant burden on a demographic that should be better served by governmental and financial institutions. And this is just a small picture of how revolutionary this technology can be. As development continues, the bigger picture will come into focus, but it is important now to recognize the potential CBDCs have to improve the lives of billions of people worldwide and focus on bringing that potential to fruition.