Central Bank Digital Currencies (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:33 pm on 2 February 2023.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Economic Affairs Committee 12:33, 2 February 2023

My Lords, I am delighted to open this debate on central bank digital currencies, and in so doing I declare my interest as an adviser to, and shareholder in, Banco Santander. The words “central bank digital currencies”, or the acronym CBDC, can be met with either a blank look or a reply of, “Oh yeah, crypto and all that”. There is undeniably and understandably a lot of confusion about what a CBDC is and is not. So before I go any further, for those watching or listening who may need some clarity on this point, what we are talking about here is the creation of a digital pound or bank note that the Bank of England would issue. It is not a new currency, nor a cryptocurrency, which is privately issued and not banked by a central party.

For those who may remember it, whereas Harold Wilson talked of the “pound in your pocket”, a central bank digital currency would mean we might have digital pounds in our digital wallets, which does not quite have the same ring to it, but there we are. A number of central banks are looking at introducing a CBDC, and the Bank of England is among them. So a year ago, the Economic Affairs Committee published a report which, at its core, asked a simple question: is a central bank digital currency a solution in search of a problem?

A year on, I think that that question still needs answering. The fact that this is so shows the wisdom of the then-chairman of the committee, my noble friend Lord Forsyth, in instigating this inquiry. I thank him for and congratulate him on his chairmanship of our committee. In so doing, I also pay tribute to the Bank of England for the thorough work that it—in particular Sir Jon Cunliffe and his team—is doing on a central bank digital currency, and the transparent way in which it is doing so. I thoroughly recommend that anyone who is interested looks at their website, for as their work progresses it highlights the issues that the creation of a CBDC raises and that our report highlighted.

Let me turn to that main exam question that our report poses: what problem is a central bank digital currency attempting to solve?

“I start by saying—it can come across the wrong way—that we have to be very clear about what problem we are trying to solve before we get carried away with the technology and the idea. I am not convinced about some of the problems that we might be trying to solve.”

Those are not my words; they are the words of the Governor of the Bank of England himself, Mr Andrew Bailey, just a few weeks ago. He is quite right; I would actually go further. There is still no clear, simple answer to this fundamental question, nor in my mind a clear answer to the follow-up question: if there is a problem that needs solving, could it not be solved in other ways?

The Bank of England website states that it is

“considering a central bank digital currency (CBDC) because the way people are choosing to pay for things is changing.”

The argument is that a digital pound would effectively be a new payment system. Our report found that a CBDC could indeed spur competition and innovation in payments, possibly lowering costs for merchants. But we heard few significant advantages for UK consumers if there were a digital pound in their digital wallets, and the Governor himself told us that issuing a CBDC was

“a disproportionate response to that issue” of competitiveness in the payments system.

Then there is the argument that we need a CBDC to address the decline in cash, and that we need a digital pound as an anchor of confidence. But it is not obvious that the properties of CBDCs would satisfy any residual demand for cash, which is often valued for its physical properties and the privacy that it can provide. Our committee also noted that the Bank itself has said that it would continue to issue cash. Next, and linked, is the argument that a CBDC would increase financial inclusion. Possibly, but it is not clear that a digital pound will break down the barriers currently preventing or deterring people from accessing the financial system. It is likely that there are more straightforward and targeted ways to support access to financial services than launching a CBDC.

The next argument is that CBDCs are needed to avoid the risks that new forms of private money creation, such as stablecoins, pose to financial stability. We heard that greater regulatory control over stablecoins might be sufficient to manage such risks, although there are technical and jurisdictional issues to overcome. That begs the question whether such regulation undermines the need for a digital pound or, to flip this point on its head, whether if there were to be a sterling stablecoin—that is, a stablecoin backed by sterling—that would undermine the need for a digital pound.

Finally, there is an argument that a CBDC is needed to make cross-border payments cheaper and easier. Well, CBDC payments could, in theory, bypass some of the existing frictions in the internal payments systems, with lower costs. Nevertheless, the CBDC system would still have to comply with oversight frameworks, national laws, and international technical standards, which are a long way from being agreed. Furthermore, cross-border payments are already improving as a result of innovation and competition in the fintech sector.

My first question to my noble friend the Minister is: can she summarise in a couple of sentences what problem a CBDC would solve, and why that problem cannot be solved in other ways? Given her ability and expertise, I assume that she will be able to knock that ball straight out of the park and we will get a very clear answer, so I will proceed on the basis that it is clear that we need a CBDC.

The next issue, which our report went into, is how we avoid a CBDC undermining financial stability. If a CBDC is introduced, it is inevitable that some people will transfer money out of their bank accounts and into their CBDC wallets—their digital wallets. It is unclear how much such so-called disintermediation might take place; that will ultimately depend on how the CBDC is designed. But the impact could infect the entire economy, as higher levels of disintermediation would lead to more expensive credit and tighter lending criteria. Without safeguards, CBDCs could exacerbate financial instability during periods of economic stress, as people would likely seek to replace bank deposits with CBDCs.

There are two main options for reducing the negative effects of this disintermediation. The first is to limit the amount of CBDCs that can be held or spent by an individual. The second is to disincentivise use by paying uncompetitive rates on a CBDC above a certain level of holdings. Either of these options, or a combination of both, would be likely to reduce the attractiveness of a CBDC to users, depending on their stringency. This could therefore undermine other possible objectives, such as the ones that I have mentioned: financial inclusion or crowding out privately issued stablecoins.

So, the next question for my noble friend is: what studies has the Treasury or the Bank done on this crucial issue of disintermediation over the last year? In answering that, as we unpeel this onion, I fear we get to other big issues. The first is monetary policy. I assume that the Government do not envisage CBDC wallets to be interest-bearing, and that the CBDC would not be used to implement monetary policy, but, to ask a simple question, can my noble friend rule that out?

Then there is the issue of privacy. In this entire debate, privacy is the dog that has yelped but not yet barked. We heard that any CBDC system could not support anonymous transactions in the same way that cash can be spent anonymously. For that to happen, payments data on CBDC users will exist. The question of who performs the necessary checks on when and where that data is held is a major privacy issue. The Governor of the Bank of England said that a digital ID would be needed but that it was yet to be determined what form that ID would take. So the next question for the Minister is: how has thinking on know your customer rules progressed? How can a CBDC ensure strong privacy safeguards while also meeting financial compliance rules? Which organisations will be able to access sensitive CBDC payments data, and for what purpose will that data be used? Crucially—this is the main question—what kind of digital ID would be needed?

A retail CBDC raises many other issues which our report touches on; for example, its impact on national security and sanctions. There is also the key question of priorities: whether the Treasury and the Bank should focus more on a wholesale CBDC, which would arguably be less disruptive than a retail CBDC and have fewer economic and political risks.

However, I will end by focusing on two less technical points. Our report touched on the first one, but it needs further scrutiny: how much will the creation of a CBDC cost? Secondly, who will foot the bill? Can the Minister give us some indication on that? Thirdly and finally, there is the important issue of the role of Parliament. Given the importance of the creation of a CBDC and the issues that I have raised, can my noble friend confirm without equivocation that if the decision is taken to proceed with creating a CBDC, Parliament will be given the opportunity to scrutinise, debate and vote on primary legislation to do so, and that Parliament—not the Treasury or the Bank of England—will have the final decision on whether we press ahead and create a digital pound?

I apologise for giving my noble friend so many questions to answer. To do so is not to question the need to explore the potential that a CBDC might offer—I repeat that the Bank of England is right to do so—but before we proceed, we need clear answers to these core questions, especially the first: what is the problem that only a CBDC can solve? I beg to move.