3 May 2023 | The lobby of the largest international corporations has networked central banks working on digital central bank currencies and published a “toolkit” to guide the decision making process. Central banksare actually using this guidebook. This might help to explain why the interests of citizens count for so little in this matter, while those of financial corporations are promoted without restraint.
The Central Bank of Kazakhstan published a report in July 2022 that developed the criteria for deciding on the design of the planned digital tenge. The tenge is the national currency of Kazakhstan. At the heart of the report is the conceptual groundwork of two guides from the International Monetary Fund and the World Economic Forum, the lobby of the 1,000 largest international corporations. The World Economic Forum’s guide is the one which is quoted more extensively.
Reading this report from Kazakhstan – not exactly a mass medium – was the first time I read about this role of the World Economic Forum in the development of central bank digital currencies (CBDC). This is despite the fact that I follow quite closely what is going on at the World Economic Forum and the central banks. They don’t seem to want to tell us about it.
If one assumes, as I do, that the interests of the largest international corporations do not always coincide with those of the populations, one is inclined to consider it problematic when central banks let a corporate lobby explain to them how they should do their work. The fact that this lobby has managed to be recognised as an “international organisation” through the skilful use of the abundant money and influence of these corporations does not change that assessment.
So let’s look – with some suspicion – at the World Economic Forum’s January 2020 Central Bank Digital Currency Policy-Maker Toolkit.
Corporations set the agenda
Already in the first sentences it is noticeable that the corporate lobby does not lack self-confidence:
“While many central bank researchers and policy‑makers have developed an interest in CBDC over the past few years, most are not yet subject‑matter experts. (…) Researchers and policy‑makers stand to benefit from a concise framework that can help inform their exploration.”
The World Economic Forum wants to help, and of course it wants to do so in an altruistic and neutral way. After all, it is an international organisation whose motto is to improve the state of the world:
“The World Economic Forum’s Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) Policy‑Maker Toolkit seeks to address the need for a concise CBDC decision guide that provides comprehensive and risk‑aware information to policy‑makers. This document serves as a possible framework to ensure that any CBDC deployment fully considers the costs as well as the potential benefits.”
We will measure the work against this claim that all costs (disadvantages) – and not only those for the corporations – are taken into account.
It is also striking that central banks seem to accept the guidance by the corporate lobby quite happily, not only the central bank of Kazakhstan. According to the World Economic Forum, to develop this guide, it brought together central bankers from more than 45 countries and complemented their input by extensive discussions with other experts (from the private financial sector). A web page dated 18 September 2019 explains in more detail the (questionable) basis of this networking the central bankers:
“The World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network has built a global community of central banks, international organizations and leading blockchain experts to identify and leverage innovations that could help usher in a new age for the global banking system. (…) We are now helping central banks build, pilot and scale innovative policy frameworks for guiding the implementation of the blockchain, with a focus on central bank digital currencies (CBDCs). (…) The independence and neutrality of the Forum offers a unique atmosphere of trust, where these central banks can come together to collaborate.”
However, this neutrality is immediately called into question when the World Economic Forum shortly afterwards invites companies from the relevant sectors to join this network, with the enticement:
“By partnering with us, your company will have the opportunity to shape the future of our global financial and monetary systems by working with the very organizations that govern them.”
This sounds a lot like good old lobbying, but with drastically improved chances of success, because lobbyists in this network work together at eye level with public decision-makers. They are no longer called lobbyists but partners.
A biased list of advantages and disadvantages
The Forum’s toolbkit provides a tabulation of the possible advantages and disadvantages of digital central bank currencies and alternative instruments to achieve the various goals that are associated with CBDCs. Since I may be considered biased, I will contrast the World Economic Forum’s view not with my own, but with that of US Federal Reserve Board member Michelle Bowman from her speech on the topic of a digital dollars delivered on 18 April.
As a first possible advantage, the Forum mentions faster and cheaper cross-border payments by bypassing correspondent banking systems.
What the authors of the forum do not mention, but Michelle Bowman does,is the fact that international transfers are so slow and expensive mostly because regulators require extensive checks on the identity of the parties involved and the safety of the transactions and have a tendency to impose very heavy findes, if they find fault. These impediments do not go away just because payments are made using digital dollars or other digital currencies.
The authors admit that digital currencies hardly bring any advantages in terms of speed and costs for national payments and settlements if there is already an efficient payment system in the country. Where there are still snags, the problems can usually be solved much more easily than by the introduction of digital central bank money.
The fact that the large financial groups do not like the competition from cash and shy away from the expense of supplying th epublic with cash becomes clear where the guide praises the reduction of costs and frictions associated with cash that would come about by the introduction of a CBDC. Note that this amounts to admitting that CBDC would compete with cash, rather than simply complementing it.
In the same vain, the toolkit praises the improved data flow to the central bank and the improved traceability of payments relative to cash payments – each without a counterpart on the downside.
This makes sense from the point of view of large financial groups, because the disadvantages of the disappearance of cash are borne by smaller companies and private individuals, while the benefits accrue to the corporations. Bowman, in contrast, can think of a few disadvantages that are associated with those advantages. These include, first of all, the fact that people value the privacy that is only possible with cash and that they do not want all the data about their financial lives to be pooled at the central bank.
Then there is the argument of financial inclusion, which means integrating people who do not have ore use a bank account into the (registered) payment system. Often the term is nothing but a euphemism for cash elimination, because cash is considered inferior and disreputable in these circles, because cash-transactions are not reliably registered and supervised.
Bowman counters that ,in the USA, more than 95% of households have a bank account and three quarters of the rest do not want one. Often the reason is mistrust of the banking system. This should be similiar in Europe.
Strangely, the possible programmability of digital central bank money is only mentioned in the toolkit’s tabulation in connection with securities transactions. Thus, Bowman’s counter-argument has no place, either: namely, that centrally programmable money would be hostile to freedom by giving the government – or somebody else – the possibility to control the behaviour of citizens down to the last detail.
Democracy is overrated
At the World Economic Forum, respect for democratic practices, such as discussing societally important issues publicly and then deciding on them in parliaments, is not too pronounced, to put it kindly. This is noticeable in the CBDC-toolkit. Although digital central bank money is a hot topic for large parts of the public – mainly because of the disadvantages, which the WEF prefers not to mention – the the issues are treated like technocratic efficiency trade-offs. The toolkit says that central bankers should assess THEIR priorities and THEIR institutional constraints and comes back to this at the end when it comes to the final decision and implementation. At this point, it invites the central bankers to aks, how much autonomy the central bank has in the design, development and introduction of the dititital central bank money, and suggests that some form of involving parliament could be a good idea.
Bowman, in contrast, clarifies:
“Of course, discussions of the purpose, design, and potential risks of a U.S. CBDC, and technical research about key design elements, continue here in the United States. While the Federal Reserve plays an important role in these ongoing discussions and technical research, the Fed would not implement a U.S. CBDC without the approval of Congress.”
ECB wants to replace cash, not supplement it
A top representative of the European Central Bank (ECB) made it indirectly clear only a few days ago that its plans for a digital euro are following the anti-cash doctrine of the financial sector. Executive Board member Fabio Panetta told the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee:
“If introduced, the digital euro would be a public good, and Europeans would expect to be able to access and use it easily, anywhere in the euro area. So, it would be more beneficial and convenient for all users if merchants that accept digital payments were obliged to accept the digital euro as legal tender. A requirement for merchants to accept digital euro could, in fact, also be seen as an opportunity. For example, it would make European payments more resilient and would enhance competition. This, in turn, would help to make payments cheaper, with clear benefits for everyone in the euro area”
This sounds reasonable, until you realise that you have not yet heard such a reasonable demand from the ECB regarding cash. With regard to cash, the ECB’s position is that acceptance by traders is excludable by their terms and conditions, i.e. voluntary. In my proceedings before the European Court of Justice on the right to pay the broadcasting licence fee in cash, the ECB even endorsed the bold thesis of the EU Commission and the EU Advocate General that not even the state and its authorities have to accept legal tender if they find it impractical. Because then it is allegedly not in the public interest. The fact that processing cash payments would be cheaper if cash were used more does not interest the ECB, it only cares about the digital euro.
An ECB, which can’t bring itself to demand compulsory acceptance of cash in order to save its long-term usability, but is already demanding this for the digital euro before it even exists, seriously wants us to believe that it doesn’t want to displace euro cash with the digital euro. Dream on.
As one would expect, the World Economic Forum’s guide for central bankers is far from being as neutral and impartial as it claims to be. The interests of citizens and small businesses are ignored It is a scandal, that central bankers are negotiating such an important issue in dark backrooms with representatives of the private financial sector and allow themselves to be harnessed for the interests of a corporate lobby. Unfortunately it is rather typical for central bankers, who are far removed from democratic accountability and thus easy prey for a privat sector, which can offer ample rewards, One thing has been made unmistakably clear by all surveys, including the one taken by he European Central Bank: this project is not being pushed forward so stubbornly in this way as a substitute to cash because the citizens want it, but in spite of the fact that citizens clearly do not want it.
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