Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) is a digital form of currency notes issued by a central bank. While most central banks across the globe are exploring the issuance of CBDC, the key motivations for its issuance are specific to each country’s unique requirements.
This Concept Note explains the objectives, choices, benefits and risks of issuing a CBDC in India, referred to as e₹ (digital Rupee). The e₹ will provide an additional option to the currently available forms of money. It is substantially not different from banknotes, but being digital it is likely to be easier, faster and cheaper. It also has all the transactional benefits of other forms of digital money.
The purpose behind the issue of this Concept Note is to create awareness about CBDCs in general and the planned features of the digital Rupee, in particular. The Note also seeks to explain Reserve Bank’s approach towards introduction of the digital Rupee. Reserve Bank’s approach is governed by two basic considerations to create a digital Rupee that is as close as possible to a paper currency and to manage the process of introducing digital Rupee in a seamless manner.
The Concept Note also discusses key considerations such as technology and design choices, possible uses of digital rupee, issuance mechanisms etc. It examines the implications of introduction of CBDC on the banking system, monetary policy, financial stability, and analyses privacy issues.
The Reserve Bank will soon commence limited pilot launches of e₹ for specific use cases. It is expected that this note would facilitate a deeper appreciation and understanding of digital Rupee and help members of public prepare for its use.
CBDC, being a sovereign currency, holds unique advantages of central bank money viz. trust, safety, liquidity, settlement finality and integrity. The key motivations for exploring the issuance of CBDC in India among others include reduction in operational costs involved in physical cash management, fostering financial inclusion, bringing resilience, efficiency, and innovation in payments system, adding efficiency to the settlement system, boosting innovation in cross-border payments space and providing public with uses that any private virtual currencies can provide, without the associated risks. The use of offline feature in CBDC would also be beneficial in remote locations and offer availability and resilience benefits when electrical power or mobile network is not available.
Private virtual currencies sit at substantial odds to the historical concept of money. They are not commodities or claims on commodities as they have no intrinsic value. The rapid mushrooming of private cryptocurrencies in the last few years has attempted to challenge the fundamental notion of money as we know it. Claiming the benefits of de-centralisation, cryptocurrencies are being hailed as innovation that would usher in de-centralised finance and disrupt the traditional financial system. However, the inherent design of cryptocurrencies is more geared to bypass the established and regulated intermediation and control arrangements that play a crucial role of ensuring integrity and stability of monetary and financial eco-system.
As the custodian of monetary policy framework and with the mandate to ensure financial stability in the country, the Reserve Bank of India has been consistent in highlighting various risks related to the cryptocurrencies. These digital assets undermine India’s financial and macroeconomic stability because of their negative consequences for the financial sector. Further, a wider proliferation of cryptocurrencies has the potential to diminish monetary authorities’ potential to determine and regulate monetary policy and the monetary system of the country which could pose serious challenge to the stability of the financial system of the country.
In this context, it is the responsibility of central bank to provide its citizens with a risk-free central bank digital money which will provide the users the same experience of dealing in currency in digital form, without any risks associated with private cryptocurrencies. Therefore, CBDCs will provide the public with benefits of virtual currencies while ensuring consumer protection by avoiding the damaging social and economic consequences of private virtual currencies.
As CBDCs are electronic form of sovereign currency, it should imbibe all the possible features of physical currency. The design of CBDC is dependent on the functions it is expected to perform, and the design determines its implications for payment systems, monetary policy as well as the structure and stability of the financial system. One of the main considerations is that the design features of CBDCs should be least disruptive.
The key design choices to be considered for issuing CBDCs include (i) Type of CBDC to be issued (Wholesale CBDC and/or Retail CBDC), (ii) Models for issuance and management of CBDCs (Direct, Indirect or Hybrid model), (iii) Form of CBDC (Token-based or Account-based), (iv) Instrument Design (Remunerated or Non-remunerated) and (v) Degree of Anonymity.
Type of CBDC to be issued
CBDC can be classified into two broad types viz. general purpose or retail (CBDC-R) and wholesale (CBDC-W). Retail CBDC would be potentially available for use by all viz. private sector, non-financial consumers and businesses while wholesale CBDC is designed for restricted access to select financial institutions. While Wholesale CBDC is intended for the settlement of interbank transfers and related wholesale transactions, Retail CBDC is an electronic version of cash primarily meant for retail transactions.
It is believed that Retail CBDC can provide access to safe money for payment and settlement as it is a direct liability of the Central Bank. Wholesale CBDC has the potential to transform the settlement systems for financial transactions and make them more efficient and secure. Going by the potential offered by each of them, there may be merit in introducing both CBDC-W and CBDC-R.
Model for issuance and management of CBDC
There are two models for issuance and management of CBDCs viz. Direct model (Single Tier model) and Indirect model (Two-Tier model). A Direct model would be the one where the central bank is responsible for managing all aspects of the CBDC system viz. issuance, account-keeping and transaction verification.
In an Indirect model, central bank and other intermediaries (banks and any other service providers), each play their respective role. In this model central bank issues CBDC to consumers indirectly through intermediaries and any claim by consumers is managed by the intermediary as the central bank only handles wholesale payments to intermediaries.
The Indirect model is akin to the current physical currency management system wherein banks manage activities like distribution of notes to public, account-keeping, adherence of requirement related to know-your-customer (KYC) and anti-money laundering and countering the terrorism of financing (AML/CFT) checks, transaction verification etc.
Forms of CBDC
CBDC can be structured as ‘token-based’ or ‘account-based’. A token-based CBDC is a bearer-instrument like banknotes, meaning whosoever holds the tokens at a given point in time would be presumed to own them. In contrast, an account-based system would require maintenance of record of balances and transactions of all holders of the CBDC and indicate the ownership of the monetary balances. Also, in a token-based CBDC, the person receiving a token will verify that his ownership of the token is genuine, whereas in an account-based CBDC, an intermediary verifies the identity of an account holder. Considering the features offered by both the forms of CBDCs, a token-based CBDC is viewed as a preferred mode for CBDC-R as it would be closer to physical cash, while account-based CBDC may be considered for CBDC-W.
CBDCs being digital in nature, technological consideration will always remain at its core. The infrastructure of CBDCs can be on a conventional centrally controlled database or on Distributed Ledger Technology. The two technologies differ in terms of efficiency and degree of protection from single point of failure. The technology considerations underlying the deployment of CBDC needs to be forward looking and must have strong cybersecurity, technical stability, resilience and sound technical governance standards. While crystallising the design choices in the initial stages, the technological considerations may be kept flexible and open-ended in order to incorporate the changing needs based on the evolution of the technological aspects of CBDCs.
The payment of (positive) interest would likely enhance the attractiveness of CBDCs that also serves as a store of value. But, designing a CBDC that moves away from cash-like attributes to a “deposit-like” CBDC may have a potential for disintermediation in the financial system resulting from loss of deposits by banks, impeding their credit creation capacity in the economy. Also considering that physical cash does not carry any interest, it would be more logical to offer non-interest bearing CBDCs.
Degree of Anonymity
For CBDC to play the role as a medium of exchange, it needs to incorporate all the features that physical currency represents including anonymity, universality, and finality. Ensuring anonymity for a digital currency particularly represents a challenge, as all digital transactions would leave some trail. Clearly, the degree of anonymity would be a key design decision for any CBDC. In this regard, reasonable anonymity for small value transactions akin to anonymity associated with physical cash may be a desirable option for CBDC-R.
While the intent of CBDC and the expected benefits are well understood, it is important that the issuance of CBDC needs to follow a calibrated and nuanced approach with adequate safeguards to address potential difficulties and risks in order to build a system which is inclusive, competitive and responsive to innovation and technological changes. CBDC, across the world, is mostly in conceptual, developmental, or at pilot stages. Therefore, in the absence of a precedence, extensive stakeholder consultation along with iterative technology design may be the requirement, to develop a solution that meets the requirements of all stakeholders.