Cash Will Soon Be Obsolete. Will America Be Ready?

When was the last time you made a payment with dollar bills?

Some people still prefer to use cash, perhaps because they like the tactile nature of physical currency or because it provides confidentiality in transactions. But digital payments, made with the swipe of a card or a few taps on a cellphone, are fast becoming the norm. To keep their money relevant, many central banks are experimenting with digital versions of their currencies. These currencies are virtual, like Bitcoin; but unlike Bitcoin, which is a private enterprise, they are issued by the state and function much like traditional currencies. The idea is for central banks to introduce these digital currencies in limited circulation—to exist alongside cash as just another monetary option—and then to broaden their circulation over time, as they gain in popularity and cash fades away. ChinaJapan, and Sweden have begun trials of central bank digital currency. The Bank of England and the European Central Bank are preparing their own trials. The Bahamas has already rolled out the world’s first official digital currency. The end of cash is on the horizon, and it will have far-reaching effects on the economy, finance and society more broadly.

The U.S. Federal Reserve, by contrast, has largely stayed on the sidelines. This could be a lost opportunity. The United States should develop a digital dollar, not because of what other countries are doing, but because the benefits of a digital currency far outweigh the costs. One benefit is security. Cash is vulnerable to loss and theft, a problem for both individuals and businesses, whereas digital currencies are relatively secure. Electronic hacking does pose a risk, but one that can be managed with new technologies. (As it happens, offshoots of Bitcoin’s technology could prove helpful in increasing security.)

Digital currencies also benefit the poor and the “unbanked.” It is hard to get a credit card if you don’t have much money, and banks charge fees for low-balance accounts that can make them prohibitively expensive. But a digital dollar would give everyone, including the poor, access to a digital payment system and a portal for basic banking services. Each individual or household could have a fee-free, noninterest-bearing account with the Federal Reserve, linked to a cellphone app for making payments. (About 97 percent of American adults have a cellphone or a smartphone.) To see how this might help, consider the payments that the U.S. government made to households as part of the coronavirus stimulus packages. Millions of low-income households without bank accounts or direct deposit information on file with the Internal Revenue Service experienced complications or delays in getting those payments. Checks and debit cards mailed to many of them were delayed or lost, and scammers found ways to intercept payments. Central-bank accounts could have reduced fraud and made administering stimulus payments easier, faster and more secure.

A central-bank digital currency can also be a useful policy tool. Typically, if the Federal Reserve wants to stimulate consumption and investment, it can cut interest rates and make cheap credit available. But if the economy is cratering and the Fed has already cut the short-term interest rate it controls to near zero, its options are limited. If cash were replaced with a digital dollar, however, the Fed could impose a negative interest rate by gradually shrinking the electronic balances in everyone’s digital currency accounts, creating an incentive for consumers to spend and for companies to invest. A digital dollar would also hinder illegal activities that rely on anonymous cash transactions, such as drug dealing, money laundering and terrorism financing. It would bring “off the books” economic activity out of the shadows and into the formal economy, increasing tax revenues. Small businesses would benefit from lower transaction costs, since people would use credit cards less often, and they would avoid the hassles of handling cash.

To be sure, there are potential risks to central-bank digital currencies, and any responsible plan should prepare for them. For example, a digital dollar would pose a danger to the banking system. What if households were to move their money out of regular bank accounts and into central-bank accounts, perceiving them as safer, even if they pay no interest? The central bank could find itself in the undesirable position of having to allocate credit, deciding which sectors and businesses deserve loans. But this risk can be managed. Commercial banks could vet customers and maintain the central-bank digital currency accounts along with their own interest-bearing deposit accounts. The digital currency accounts might not directly help banks earn profits, but they would attract customers who could then be offered savings or loan products. (To help protect commercial banks, limits can also be placed on the amount of money stored in central-bank accounts, as the Bahamas has done.) A central-bank digital currency could be designed for use across different payment platforms, promoting private sector competition and encouraging innovations that make electronic payments cheaper, quicker and more secure.

Another concern is the loss of privacy that central-bank digital currencies entail. Even with protections in place to ensure confidentiality, no central bank would forgo the ability to audit and trace transactions. A digital dollar could threaten what remains of anonymity and privacy in commercial transactions—a reminder that adopting a digital dollar is not just an economic but also a social decision. The end of cash is on the horizon, and it will have far-reaching effects on the economy, finance and society more broadly. With proper preparation and open discussion, we should embrace the advent of a digital dollar.

The Brutal Truth About Bitcoin

Bitcoin, the original cryptocurrency, has been on a wild ride since its creation in 2009. Earlier this year, the price of one Bitcoin surged to over $60,000, an eightfold increase in 12 months. Then it fell to half that value in just a few weeks. Values of other cryptocurrencies such as Dogecoin have risen and fallen even more sharply, often based just on Elon Musk’s tweets. Even after the recent fall in their prices, the total market value of all cryptocurrencies now exceeds $1.5 trillion, a staggering amount for virtual objects that are nothing more than computer code. Are cryptocurrencies the wave of the future and should you be using and investing in them? And do the massive swings in their prices—nearly $1 trillion was wiped off their total value in May—portend trouble for the financial system?

Bitcoin was created (by a person or group that remains unidentified to this day) as a way to conduct transactions without the intervention of a trusted third party, such as a central bank or financial institution. Its emergence amid the global financial crisis, which shook trust in banks and even governments, was perfectly timed. Bitcoin enabled transactions using only digital identities, granting users some degree of anonymity. This made Bitcoin the preferred currency for illicit activities, including recent ransomware attacks. It powered the shadowy darknet of illegal online commerce much like PayPal helped the rise of eBay by making payments easier.

While Bitcoin’s roller-coaster prices garner attention, of far more consequence is the revolution in money and finance it has set off that will ultimately affect every one of us, for better and worse. As it grew in popularity, Bitcoin became cumbersome, slow, and expensive to use. It takes about 10 minutes to validate most transactions using the cryptocurrency and the transaction fee has been at a median of about $20 this year. Bitcoin’s unstable value has also made it an unviable medium of exchange. It is as though your $10 bill could buy you a beer on one day and a bottle of fine wine on another.

Moreover, it has become clear that Bitcoin does not offer true anonymity. The government’s success in tracking and retrieving part of the Bitcoin ransom paid to the hacking collective DarkSide in the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack has heightened doubts about the security and nontraceability of Bitcoin transactions. While Bitcoin has failed in its stated objectives, it has become a speculative investment. This is puzzling. It has no intrinsic value and is not backed by anything.

Bitcoin devotees will tell you that, like gold, its value comes from its scarcity—Bitcoin’s computer algorithm mandates a fixed cap of 21 million digital coins (nearly 19 million have been created so far). But scarcity by itself can hardly be a source of value. Bitcoin investors seem to be relying on the greater fool theory—all you need to profit from an investment is to find someone willing to buy the asset at an even higher price.

Despite their high valuations on paper, a collapse of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is unlikely to rattle the financial system. Banks have mostly stayed on the sidelines. As with any speculative bubble, naive investors who come to the party late are at greatest risk of losses. The government should certainly caution retail investors that, much like in the GameStop saga, they act at their own peril. Securities that enable speculation on Bitcoin prices are already regulated, but there is not much more the government can or ought to do.

Bitcoin is not innocuous. Transactions are processed by “miners” using massive amounts of computing power in return for rewards in the form of Bitcoin. By some estimates, the Bitcoin network consumes as much energy as entire countries like Argentina and Norway, not to mention the mountains of electronic waste from specialized machines used for such mining operations that burn out rapidly.

Whatever Bitcoin’s eventual fate, its blockchain technology is truly ingenious and groundbreaking. Bitcoin has shown how programs running on networks of computers can be harnessed to securely conduct payments, within and between countries, without relying on avaricious financial institutions that charge high fees. For migrant workers sending remittances back to their home countries, for instance, such fees are a major burden. Technologies that make payments cheaper, quicker and easier to track would benefit consumers and businesses, facilitating both domestic and international commerce.

The technology is not without risks. Facebook plans to issue its own cryptocurrency called Diem intended to make digital payments easier. Unlike Bitcoin, Diem would be fully backed by reserves of U.S. dollars or other major currencies, ensuring stable value. But, as with its other ostensibly high-minded initiatives, Facebook can hardly be trusted to put the public’s welfare above its own. The prospect of multinational corporations one day issuing their own unbacked cryptocurrencies worldwide is deeply disquieting. Such currencies won’t threaten the U.S. dollar, but could wipe out the currencies of smaller and less developed countries.

Variants of Bitcoin’s technology are also making many financial products and services available to the masses at low cost, directly connecting savers and borrowers. These developments and the possibilities created by the new technologies have spurred central banks to consider issuing digital versions of their own currencies. ChinaJapan, and Sweden are already conducting trials of their digital currencies.

Ironically, rather than truly democratizing finance, some of these innovations may exacerbate inequality. Unequal financial literacy and digital access might result in sophisticated investors garnering the benefits while the less well off, dazzled by new technologies, take on risks they do not fully comprehend. Computer algorithms could worsen entrenched racial and other biases in credit scoring and financial decisions, rather than reducing them. The ubiquity of digital payments could also destroy any remaining vestiges of privacy in our day-to-day lives. While Bitcoin’s roller-coaster prices garner attention, of far more consequence is the revolution in money and finance it has set off that will ultimately affect every one of us, for better and worse.

Five Myths About Cryptocurrency

Bitcoin, the original cryptocurrency, was launched in 2009. Today, there are thousands of cryptocurrencies with a total value of about $2 trillion. The surge in their prices earlier this year minted tens of thousands of cryptocurrency millionaires—at least on paper. Cryptocurrencies might turn out to be a massive speculative bubble that ends up hurting many naive investors. Indeed, many cryptocurrency fortunes have already evaporated with the recent plunge in prices. But whatever their ultimate fate, the ingenious technological innovations underpinning them will transform the nature of money and finance.

Myth No. 1

A cryptocurrency is real money that can be used for payments.

Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and Ethereum were designed as a way to make payments without relying on traditional modes such as currency notes, debit cards, credit cards or checks. The bitcoin white paper, which set off the cryptocurrency revolution, envisions an electronic payment system that allows “any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party,” cutting governments and banks out of the financial loop. The website Pymnts claims, “Blockchain IS the future of the payments industry,” a reference to the computational technology that undergirds cryptocurrencies.

In fact, it has become very expensive and slow to conduct transactions using cryptocurrencies. It takes about 10 minutes for a bitcoin transaction to be validated, and the average fee for just one transaction was recently about $20. Ethereum, the second-largest cryptocurrency, processes transactions slightly faster but also has high fees.

Moreover, wild swings in the values of most cryptocurrencies make them unreliable as a means of payment. In late April, the price of a Dogecoin was 20 cents. It tripled in the next two weeks and then fell to half that peak value ten days later. It is as though a $10 bill could buy you just a cup of coffee one day and a lavish meal at a fancy restaurant just a few weeks later. Even on a calmer, more typical day, the value of a major cryptocurrency such as Ethereum might fluctuate by 10 percent or more, making it too unstable to be practical. Recently, Elon Musk announced that Tesla would no longer accept bitcoin as a form of payment, reversing a policy it had implemented earlier in the year. The value of a single coin almost immediately plummeted. A Chinese crackdown on cryptocurrencies then briefly took another one-third off the price in just one day.

Myth No. 2

Cryptocurrencies are a good investment.

Investment funds in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have proliferated. Even major banks such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are getting into the game. And you would certainly have made a fantastic return if you had bought any of the major cryptocurrencies last year. A typical article in the Motley Fool debates not whether cryptocurrencies are a good investment but “which one is right for you.” The website Business Mole claims: “Even with adjustments made, Bitcoin and Ethereum are very profitable. It’s simple.”

But beware. Part of the allure seems to be that, like gold, the supply of most cryptocurrencies is tightly controlled (by the computer programs that manage them). For instance, about 18.5 million bitcoin have been created so far, and there will eventually be a maximum of 21 million bitcoin. This is a cap set by the computer program that manages the supply of the currency.

Scarcity by itself is not, however, enough to create value—there has to be demand. Since cryptocurrencies cannot easily be used to make most payments and have no other intrinsic uses, the only reason they have value is because many people seem to think they are good investments. If that changed, their value could quickly drop to nothing.

Myth No. 3

Bitcoin is fading. Meme coins are the future.

Bitcoin is now seen as the granddaddy of cryptocurrencies, and investors (or speculators, more precisely) are piling into other cryptocurrencies such as Dogecoin. In 2019, Investopedia claimed that bitcoin was “losing its power as the driving force of the cryptocurrency world.” “Bitcoin And Ethereum Are Being Left In The Dust ByDogecoin,” reads a recent Forbes headline.

Dogecoin and other such cryptocurrencies, which are simply built around memes (Dogecoin, with its ShibaInu dog mascot, references the “doge” meme), don’t even make a pretense of being usable in financial transactions. And there is no clear constraint on the supply of these coins, so their prices surge or crash on random events such as tweets from Musk. The valuations of meme currencies seem to be based entirely on the “greater fool” theory—all you need to do to profit from your investment is to find an even greater fool willing to pay a higher price than you paid for the digital coins.Bitcoin’s technology does seem outdated compared with some of the newer cryptocurrencies that enable greater anonymity for users, faster transaction processing and more sophisticated technical features that facilitate automatic processing of complex financial transactions. For all its flaws, however, bitcoin remains dominant: It accounts for nearly half of the total value of all cryptocurrencies.

Myth No. 4

Cryptocurrencies will displace the dollar.

Morgan Stanley’s chief global strategist, Ruchir Sharma, has argued that bitcoin could end the dollar’s reign—or at least that the “digital currency poses a significant threat to [the] greenback’s supremacy.” A Financial Times headline proposes, even more ominously, that “Bitcoin’s rise reflects America’s decline.”Cryptocurrencies are not backed by anything other than the faith of the people who own them. The dollar, by contrast, is backed by the U.S. government. Investors still trust the dollar, even in hard times. As one illustration, domestic and foreign investors continue to eagerly snap up trillions of dollars in U.S. Treasury securities even at low interest rates.

New cryptocurrencies called stablecoins aim to have stable values and therefore make it easier to conduct digital payments. Facebook plans to issue its own cryptocurrency, called Diem, that will be backed one for one with U.S. dollars, giving it a stable value. But the value of stablecoins comes precisely from their backing by government-issued currencies. So while dollars might become less important in making payments, the primacy of the U.S. dollar as a store of value will not be challenged.

Myth No. 5

Cryptocurrencies are just a fad and will fade away.

Warren Buffett has compared cryptocurrencies to the 17th-century Dutch tulip craze, while Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey cautioned, “Buy them only if you’re prepared to lose all your money.” Economist NourielRoubini called bitcoin “the mother or father of all scams” and even criticized its underlying technology.

Cryptocurrencies may or may not persevere as speculative investment vehicles, but they are triggering transformative changes to money and finance. As the technology matures, stablecoins will hasten the ascendance of digital payments, ushering out paper currency. The prospect of competition from such private currencies has prodded central banks around the world to design digital versions of their currencies. The Bahamas has already rolled out a central bank digital currency, while countries like China, Japan and Sweden are conducting experiments with their own official digital money. The dollar bills in your wallet—if you still have any—could soon become relics.

Even transactions such as buying a car or a house could soon be managed through computer programs run on cryptocurrency platforms. Digital tokens representing money and other assets could ease electronic transactions that involve transfers of assets and payments, often without trusted third parties such as real estate settlement attorneys. Governments will still be needed to enforce contractual obligations and property rights, but software could someday take the place of other intermediaries, including bankers, accountants and lawyers.