Britcoin battleground: why the Bank of England’s digital pound proposal requires radical action to thrive
By Alessandro Hatami, managing director of Pacemakers and Leon Gauhman, co-founder and chief strategy officer of digital product consultancy Elsewhen.
News that HM Treasury and the Bank of England are “looking at the case” for a digital pound – with a UK-backed CBDC “more likely than not” – passed without much fanfare.
It’s a shame because the BofE’s decision to fire the starting gun on a central bank digital currency (CBDC) is an important landmark that could restore London’s increasingly challenged status as a global financial hub.
Timing is key. Currently, the UK is slightly ahead of the US Federal Reserve in its plans for a digital currency, but the EU and China are still further advanced.
To gain momentum from the consultation on what a new “Britcoin” could look like, the Bank of England must act fast to lay the groundwork for a new, more regulated and potentially game-changing digital pound ecosystem. Here are four action points to make the most of this watershed moment:
1. Shout about the benefits: As we’ve seen with other programmes around the world, the road to a viable digital pound features various major obstacles. Add to this a group of vocal skeptics who struggle to see the point of the concept – especially when most transactions are already digital – the Bank of England and the Treasury may have an uphill struggle to sell Britcoin to an indifferent public. Because of this, it’s vital to start weighing these challenges against the benefits Britcoin could bring.
Unlike most other cryptocurrencies, a Bank of England-backed CBDC is well-positioned to tackle many complex financial, economic and societal issues. The benefits include enabling faster, cheaper payments, encouraging greater innovation and interoperability and improving financial inclusion and cross border transactions. The Bank of England’s role is to maintain a meaningful conversation around this vision to build advocacy and educate doubters in the press, the public and more.
2. Go fast or go home: Part of the reason the consultation news didn’t spark huge excitement is its glacial time scale. Even if everything went to plan, the UK’s digital pound won’t hit the markets until the late 2020s at the earliest. By that time, Elon Musk could have put an astronaut on Mars.
This timeframe is particularly frustrating given the fast pace of fintech and monetary innovation. The painfully slow blueprint laid out in the BoE’s CBDC strategy stands in sharp contrast with the transformation of the crypto sector since the fall of FTX and other crypto platforms last year.
We suggest speeding up proposals, cutting red tape, and hiring world-class talent; in short, doing whatever is called for to place Britcoin in easy reach. This will also help define the concept in people’s minds; with a tight timeline, it’ll be harder to dismiss the digital pound as some far-off “maybe” project.
3. Prioritize the pilot: There’s no point in the Bank of England leading a lengthy consultation process on a product that won’t be used. However, as with all digital transformation initiatives, it’s vital to launch a pilot project as soon as possible – and to be as transparent as possible about the process. For Britcoin to hit the ground running, the bank must find practical ways to explore and address consumer concerns such as safety, consumer privacy, civil liberties and any unintended consequences
CBDC pioneers such as China, the Bahamas and Nigeria have struggled with take-up in digital currency pilots – but that shouldn’t be seen as a failure. Instead, it’s an even more convincing argument for getting a minimal viable product to market as early as possible.
What’s more, the success of Britcoin, as well as the products and capabilities it supports, are dependent on a mass-scale willingness of consumers and businesses to use the new currency. A robust pilot will help win advocates and evangelists ahead of launch.
4. Join the dots between CBDC and crypto: With the UK currency edging ahead of the US in terms of a detailed CBDC consultation, it’s not impossible to imagine a point where Britcoin could challenge the dollar to become a world-leading digital global reserve currency. This is an attractive proposition in its own right, but there’s a bigger prize – regulating the crypto ecosystem.
A stable well-designed Britcoin could become the core of a truly effective payments framework to replace the current outdated global payments infrastructure. This could position the UK as a key contributor in redesigning the way financial services operate worldwide, once again putting the country at the center of the global financial evolution. Building a viable and effective Britcoin will also be a crucial first step in delivering the UK government’s recently announced plans to regulate and harness crypto’s power.
What happens next depends on the leadership shown by the Bank of England and the Chancellor. The rapid footwork involved in rescuing Silicon Valley Bank depositors shows that the UK government and regulators can act quickly and decisively when required. Some of that leadership should now be channeled into Britcoin so it stands a chance of moving beyond the consultation to eventually transform how people and businesses across the globe make and receive payments.
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