How Paypal robs the Bank of England

Digital currencies might start creating a sticky situation for central banks.

Have you ever wondered how the rise of digital currencies will impact on the monetary base, and the effects that will have on seigniorage revenue to governments worldwide? No? Well, this pair of articles by the Financial Times' Izabella Kaminska, "Why central banks should take charge of their digital currencies" and "Turning mobile money into M0" is interesting nonetheless.

Kaminska examines the typical problem central banks have with digital currencies, which is that they tend to mess around with the way banks expect the money supply of the nation to work. The immediate downside of that is that it impacts on seigniorage, the revenue accrued to a government by its right to mint coinage.

In other words, when you use PayPal rather than posting a £50 note, you need never hold that currency, and the government never receives the revenue for having printed it.

She writes:

Consequently, what you end up with is something very different to cash of the realm. In many ways, it’s worse than zero-yielding money due to the natural decay associated with transactional, creation and redemption costs. The other point is that Safaricom [the vendor of a hugely popular Kenyan mobile currency] is actually behaving much like a quasi-autonomous state within a state that’s issuing its own private money system, the value of which is constantly pegged to the official currency of the land.

How can nations fight back? (Assuming, of course, they ought to fight back — but that revenue is likely to be mighty tempting.) One possibility is by working with digital currency vendors to create payment mechanisms which don't require holding a parallel currency to work. And make no mistake, even though PayPal denominates its accounts in pounds and dollars, it's a parallel currency in all but name.

Jean-François Groff, one of the pioneers of the Web at CERN, is working on that option. Mobino, his company, is a mobile payment system which works on real-time debiting, not on keeping a float of a second currency on tap:

Mobino’s system aims to cut out as many intermediaries from the debit process as possible by getting you, the customer, to strike up a single direct debit agreement with itself. The company then charges the customer for transactions conducted with partner vendors, whilst the customer deals only with Mobino rather than a multitude of online or retail vendors.

And if that scheme was done by Mobino — or a similar system — working with a central bank, then the costs of running it could be funded from the seigniorage revenue it returns to the government. Rather than the cost of "printing" money being the actual ink and paper, it would become the price of maintaining servers and bandwidth.

In an ideal state-controlled money world, you could imagine the system mutating into one where the central bank itself ended up billing you directly for the use of their digital cash. So, rather than withdrawing physical cash to conduct your payments, you’d be transacting state-issued digital cash, now credited or debited from your account as quickly as a bank credits or debits cash to you at the ATM wall.

But, while Kaminska mentions it in passing, it would be interesting to see the analysis applied to Bitcoin. Lord knows the currency has its flaws, but it's the only one of the successful(ish) mobile payment systems which actually embraces the fact that it is a parallel currency — and a freely floating one, at that. The Bitcoin ecosystem has a specific method for distributing the seigniorage it generates, but also gradually reduces that rate; by 2140, the system will likely be in de-facto deflation.

By moving the transaction entirely into a parallel currency, the system is also more efficient than even Mobino could ever hope to be — provided you don't plan on converting Bitcoins into real-world money. If you do, things get trickier; the exchanges have had a number of high-profile failures, and are probably the weakest point in a network which manages to combine cryptographic perfection with an incredible amount of possibilities for human error.

It may be the case that central banks have to start examining what their role would be in a world of digital currencies; but if they do, it may be better for them to skip the sticking-plaster world of PayPal and Mobino and move straight to something designed for an all-digital world from the start.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.