The United States’ position at the centre of global financial system is at risk because of the country’s ageing money infrastructure, according to a former government insider.
“We must future-proof the dollar today for the digital tomorrow,” Christopher Giancarlo said in a virtual hearing conducted on June 11 by the United States Congress’s Financial Services Committee.
Giancarlo was previously chairman of the US Commodities and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which regulates the country’s commodities and derivatives markets. He now works as a senior counsel at law firm Wilkie, Farr & Gallagher.
The dollar has acted at the major global reserve currency since the end of the second world war. Last summer the former head of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, pointed out that the role of the dollar in global financial transactions substantially outweighs the United States’ share in global trade.
According to Carney, who criticised the imbalance, the dollar is used as the unit of account in invoices worth five times more than the US’s share in world goods imports, and three times the country’s share in world exports.
“Nothing reveals the limits of our account-based financial system more starkly than the Covid-19 pandemic”
In his remarks to the congressional committee, Giancarlo argued that the recent coronavirus outbreak had highlighted the inadequacies of the US’s financial plumbing.
The US has one of the world’s most complex payments infrastructures, partly reflecting the historical separation of powers between federal and state authorities when it comes to questions of money.
This complexity has meant payments in the US are often still paper-based, slow and costly, while in many European and Asian markets they are frequently digital, cheap and instant.
“Nothing reveals the limits of our account-based financial system more starkly than the current Covid-19 pandemic,” Giancarlo said.
“Tens of millions of Americans are waiting a month or more to receive payments by paper cheque,” Giancarlo went on.
The former CFTC head drew parallels with the state of the country’s system for the transport of people and goods.
“Unless we act, this coming wave of innovation will put enormous strain on our aged financial systems”
“Much of America’s physical infrastructure—its bridges, tunnels or airports—has been allowed to age, deteriorate and become obsolete,” said Giancarlo.
“The same is true of some of our financial infrastructure. Methods of payment and settlement, shareholder and proxy voting and investor access and disclosure are showing their age and limitations.”
Giancarlo also said the US needs to keep up with the ongoing technological shift towards a decentralised financial and accounting system.
This shift away from centralised money infrastructures began with the invention of bitcoin in 2009.
“We are certainly entering a new era, when things of value like money, agricultural and mineral commodities, stock certificates and land records, cultural assets like art and music, votes and even personal identities will be stored, managed and moved around in a secure way from person to person without central validators,” he said.
“It will be done by collective cryptography in a decentralised network of computational algorithms,” said Giancarlo.
The former CFTC head warned of the potential for an increasing gap between old and new money technology.
“Unless we act, this coming wave of innovation will put enormous strain on our aged financial systems,” Giancarlo said.
Giancarlo is a co-founder of the Digital Dollar Project, in which CFTC officials, Accenture and other former government officials and industry experts have joined to advocate for a new US central bank digital currency (CBDC).
“We must prepare to modernise the dollar”
According to Giancarlo, digitising the dollar is now critically important if the US wishes to retain its global lead in finance.
“A CBDC would be a digital bearer instrument, with the same legal status as the dollars in one’s purse, but on a mobile device,” he said in his remarks to the Financial Services Committee.
“It would operate alongside existing forms of money, distributed through the existing two-tier banking system, open to new entrants and potentially recorded by distributed ledger technology.”
While a digital dollar would have immediate benefits in a crisis like the current pandemic, said Giancarlo, its applications would be much broader.
“This type of CBDC would increase financial inclusion by broadening access to services through digital wallets and smartphones,” he said.
“It would enable the sending of Covid relief immediately to the electronic wallets of underbanked populations.”
But the introduction of a digital dollar is about more than having the right tools for a crisis, Giancarlo went on. Instead, he said, it’s about the US retaining the ability to provide the global unit of account.
“Today, most of the world’s tradeable commodities and contracts are priced in US dollars,” Giancarlo said.
“Tomorrow, they will be digitised, tokenised and coupled with algorithmically driven smart contracts,” he said.
“We must prepare to modernise the dollar from a simple analogue instrument into a digitised unit of account, one that measures, supports and transacts with those same digital commodities and contracts.”
The US’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, has so far only said it is studying the idea of a CBDC.
Meanwhile, China appears to be taking an early lead in the central bank digital currency race.
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