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25 June 2020

BIS: Central banks and payments in the digital era

Payment systems today build upon a two-tier structure provided by the central bank together with commercial banks. The central bank plays a pivotal role by ensuring trust in money, a core public good for the economy at large, while the private sector leads on innovation in serving the public.

Key takeaways

  • Central banks play a pivotal role in maintaining the safety and integrity of the payment system. They provide the solid foundation by acting as guardians of the stability of money and payments. The pandemic and resulting strain on economic activity around the world have confirmed the importance of central banks in payments.
  • Digital innovation is radically reshaping the provision of payment services. Central banks are embracing this innovation. They promote interoperability, support competition and innovation, and operate public infrastructures - all essential for easily accessible, low-cost and high-quality payment services.
  • Central banks, as critical as ever in the digital era, can themselves innovate. In particular, central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) can foster competition among private sector intermediaries, set high standards for safety and risk management, and serve as a basis for sound innovation in payments.

A vital function of the financial sector is to provide efficient ways for households and businesses to make and receive payments. A sound and well functioning payment system facilitates economic activity and supports long-run economic growth.1

Payment systems today build upon a two-tier structure provided by the central bank together with commercial banks. The central bank plays a pivotal role by ensuring trust in money, a core public good for the economy at large, while the private sector leads on innovation in serving the public. The central bank supplies the ultimate safe medium to settle both wholesale and retail transactions, while commercial banks supply the bulk of retail payment instruments.

Over the past few decades, payment systems have undergone a radical transformation. New payment methods and interfaces have taken shape, and many more innovations are under way.2 While these developments raise new challenges, the core role of the central bank in payment systems remains. The private sector can provide the innovation, ingenuity and creativity to serve customers better, but history illustrates that private sector services thrive on a solid central bank foundation. Whether promoting interoperability, setting standards or levelling the competitive playing field, there are strong arguments for the public sector to play a role. In fact, today the central banks' role is as important as ever, if not more so.

Central banks are actively pursuing a range of policies to tackle existing shortcomings. The objective is to ensure that households and businesses have access to safe and efficient payment options. Central banks can choose to stand at the cutting edge of innovation themselves, not least in their direct provision of services to the public at large. One option at the frontier of policy opportunities is the issuance of CBDCs, which could amount to a sea change. CBDCs could offer a new, safe, trusted and widely accessible digital means of payment. But the impact could go much further, as they could foster competition among private sector intermediaries, set high standards for safety, and act as a catalyst for continued innovation in payments, finance and commerce at large.

This chapter discusses the foundations of money and payment systems, payment trends and policies. It concludes with a short discussion of the future of payments.

Money and payment systems: the foundation

While we use money every day, its theoretical definition can be elusive.3 Still, we all recognise it when we see it. Money has taken different forms through the ages, but one of its defining features has been serving as a medium of exchange, accepted as payment for goods and services (Box III.A).4 In addition, money serves as a store of value and a unit of account. This chapter focuses primarily on the medium of exchange function, also called means of payment, and on the supporting system.5

A payment system is a set of instruments, procedures and rules for the transfer of funds among participants.6 Payment systems are generally classified as either retail or wholesale. A retail payment system handles a large volume of relatively low-value payments, in such forms as credit transfers, direct debits, cheques, card payments and e-money transactions. A wholesale payment system executes transactions between financial institutions. These payments are typically large-value and need to settle on a particular day and sometimes by a particular time.

As money has evolved through the centuries, so have the means of payment. The pace of change is especially rapid today. Indeed, payments continue to be the financial service most affected by shifts in demand, technology and new entrants.7 Despite improvements, households and businesses demand safer and ever faster payments. They increasingly expect payments to be mobile-first, fully digital and near instant, whether online or at the point of sale. Moreover, the current pandemic could accelerate the shift to digital payments.

At the same time, some new entrants have tried to capitalise on the existing shortcomings. Three such attempts stand out: the rise (and fall) of Bitcoin and its cryptocurrency cousins;8 Facebook's proposal to develop Libra - a private global stablecoin arrangement;9 and the foray of big tech and fintech firms into financial services.10 Some of these have failed to gain much traction; others are perceived as a threat to jurisdictions' monetary sovereignty; while many have yet to address a host of regulatory and competition issues. Nevertheless, all have propelled payment issues to the top of the policy agenda.

The foundation of a safe and efficient payment system is trust in money.11 In a fiat money system, where money is not backed by a physical asset, such as gold, trust ultimately depends on the general acceptance of pieces of paper that cannot be redeemed in anything but themselves. General acceptance is what ultimately makes them valuable, alongside confidence that payments made with them can irrevocably extinguish obligations ("finality"). In countries around the world, central banks have become the designated institution to pursue this public interest.12

In pursuit of this objective, the central bank issues two types of liabilities. One is physical cash (banknotes and coins) for use by the general public, the most common form of money over the centuries and across countries. Physical cash is accepted (ie exchanged for goods and services) by virtue of a combination of its legal tender status (which makes payments with physical cash final) and central banks upholding their commitment to safeguard its value. The other type of liability - commercial banks' deposits with the central bank (ie reserves) - is for use in wholesale transactions. Like cash, central bank money is safe and, with legal support, underpins payment finality. Payments are further supported by central bank credit - essential to oil the payments machine. What makes both forms of money special is not just that they have no (or very low) credit risk but also that they represent, by construction, the most liquid asset in the system.

History indicates that the most effective and efficient payment system is a two-tier one. In it, banks compete with each other at the interface with ultimate users while the central bank provides the foundation. Commercial banks offer accounts to households and businesses which, in turn, have accounts with the central bank to settle payments among themselves.13 In a two-tier system, maintaining confidence in commercial bank money is essential. To do so, several institutional mechanisms have been put in place, with the central bank playing pivotal roles. Ultimately, commercial bank money derives its value from the promise of being convertible into central bank money at par and on demand. In order to buttress that promise, the central bank also acts as the ultimate source of liquidity (ie as lender of last resort). Prudential regulation and supervision - often performed by the central bank - limit the risk of banks' failure while deposit insurance schemes can help prevent runs and ensure that holders of transaction deposits are reimbursed should a failure occur.

Payment systems are complex markets with multiple participant types. They involve not only banks but also non-bank payment service providers (PSPs) offering payment services to end users. Generally, banks and other PSPs offer consumer-facing or retail services at the "front end". This can include providing so-called "digital wallets" and mobile interfaces that give users access to their bank account or store credit card details. Some banks and other PSPs play key roles in clearing, settlement and processing at the "back end" (Box III.B).

This complexity has some similarity to a town market that brings together different types of buyers and sellers. It may appear complex, but it can be an efficient form of exchange once strong institutional backing is in place. Central banks help organise the payments marketplace by playing the three key roles of operator, catalyst and overseer (Box III.A).14 They can provide the critical institutional infrastructure, set and oversee implementation of standards, and encourage the provision of a high-quality range of services, thereby promoting innovation and competition.

Central banks can also improve the services they supply directly to ultimate users by staying at the technological frontier. To that end, a number of central banks are considering issuance of CBDCs. CBDCs can serve both as a complementary means of payment that addresses specific use cases and as a catalyst for continued innovation in payments, finance and commerce.

Supporting the payments marketplace also requires preserving its safety and integrity. Just as a sound and smooth functioning payment system underpins economic growth, so can disruptions to a payment system cause major economic damage. Economic activity can grind to a halt if payments do not function. And compromised integrity can lead to a loss of confidence. Localised distress can spread across domestic and international financial markets, extending the damage.

To maintain the safety and integrity of payment systems, the central bank must mitigate various threats. A first threat is systemic risk, which can arise in an interconnected payment system when the inability of a system participant to perform as expected causes other participants to be unable to meet their obligations when due; this can propagate credit or liquidity risks throughout the system. Central banks have expended considerable effort in recent decades to mitigate such risks.15 A second threat is fraud; wholesale payments, given that they are large-value and complex, are a primary target. A third and related threat is counterfeiting, which applies to cash, and possibly also to CBDCs. A fourth threat is illicit financing and money laundering - the process of disguising the illegal origin of criminal proceeds. In this general context, cyber threats have grown in importance. More than ever, there is a broad range of entry points through which to compromise a payment system. The international community has been actively engaged in mitigating these and other threats, including through work conducted in international organisations and standard-setting bodies....

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© BIS - Bank for International Settlements

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