Central banks 'cannot afford to ignore cryptocurrency boom'

HONG KONG • When cryptocurrency Exio Coin starts a round of fund raising next Thursday, its founders say the unit will come with a unique distinction: the first to be endorsed by a sovereign nation.

The identity of the government backer won't be revealed until October, and Bloomberg News has no way of verifying the claim of support. According to co-founder Sunny Johnson though, the supporter is one of "the world's richest countries" on a per capita basis.

The claim of official approval highlights how the boom in cryptocurrencies and their underlying technology is becoming too big for central banks, long the guardian of official money, to ignore. From speculative betting to trading solar power, digital money is proliferating.

Until recently, officials at major central banks were happy to watch as pioneers in the field progressed by trial and error, safe in the knowledge that it was dwarfed by roughly US$5 trillion (S$6.8 trillion) circulating daily in conventional currency markets. But now as officials turn an eye towards the increasingly pervasive technology, the risk is that they're reacting too late to both the pitfalls and the opportunities presented by digital coinage.

"Central banks cannot afford to treat cyber currencies as toys to play with in a sand box," said Mr Andrew Sheng, chief adviser to the China Banking Regulatory Commission. "It is time to realise that they are the real barbarians at the gate."

Bitcoin - the largest and best known digital currency - and its peers pose a threat to the established money system by effectively circumventing it.

Money as we know it depends on the authority of the state for credibility, with central banks typically managing its price and/or quantity.

Cryptocurrencies skirt all that and instead rely on their supposedly unhackable technology to guarantee value.

If they don't get a handle on bitcoin and their ilk, and more people adopt them, central banks could see an erosion of their control over the money supply. The solution may be in the old adage - if you can't beat them, join them.

The People's Bank of China has done trial runs of its prototype cryptocurrency, taking it a step closer to being the first major central bank to issue digital money. The Bank of Japan and European Central Bank have launched a joint research project studying the possible use of distributed ledger - the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies - for market infrastructure.

The Dutch central bank has created its own cryptocurrency - for internal circulation only - to better understand how it works. And former chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke, who has said digital currencies show "long-term promise", will be the keynote speaker at a blockchain and banking conference in October hosted by Ripple, the start-up behind the fourth-largest digital currency. Russia, too, has shown interest in ethereum, the second-largest digital currency, with the central bank deploying a blockchain pilot programme.

In the US, both banks and regulators are studying distributed ledger technology and Fed officials have touched on the topic in the past 12 months, but voiced reservations about digital currencies.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2017, with the headline 'Central banks 'cannot afford to ignore cryptocurrency boom''. Print Edition | Subscribe