The European Central Bank will start experimenting with a digital version of the euro while holding a public consultation in a major step toward introducing the technology.
“Our role is to secure trust in money,” President Christine Lagarde said as the ECB published a study into the benefits and drawbacks of a digital currency. “This means making sure the euro is fit for the digital age. We should be prepared to issue a digital euro, should the need arise.”
The consultation will start Oct. 12, and the experiment will be held in parallel. The ECB said it will decide toward mid-2021 whether to launch a digital euro project, which would start with an “investigation phase.”
Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, while regularly criticized by central bankers as little more than speculative assets, have nevertheless spurred a close look at how payment technologies are developing.
A central-bank digital currency would allow euro-area residents to place deposits with the ECB directly. That’s typically only an option for commercial lenders, governments and other central banks.
That has implications for monetary policy and financial stability. The ECB report urged a look at “whether a digital euro should be accessible by households and firms directly or indirectly through intermediaries, whether it would be remunerated, and whether digital euro holdings of individual users should be limited.”
A digital euro “is becoming an obligation which, indeed, central banks — in this case the ECB — need to carry out,” ECB Vice President Luis de Guindos said in an online discussion on Friday.
In a sign that the ECB is serious about laying the groundwork for a digital euro, it applied last week to trademark the term “digital euro,” according to the website of the European Union Intellectual Property Office. An ECB spokesman confirmed the filing.
Central banks across the world have experimented with digital versions of their currencies, and ECB officials have recently stressed the need to stay on top of the technological trends. The People’s Bank of China is likely to be the first major institution of its kind to issue a digital version of its currency after advanced commercial tests.
Other central banks like the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England are discussing possibilities around digital currencies but have few plans to act so far.
The ECB report said that cyber incidents, natural disasters and pandemics underline the urgency of improving the resilience of the overall payment system.
In a pandemic, “social distancing might modify consumers’ payment habits. Consumers may even perceive cash to be a vector of infection” and could become less willing to use cash, it said.
Increasing global protectionism may pose another risk. Many payment service providers in Europe are of foreign origin, and an “increase in protectionist policies” could lead to payment disruption, Lagarde said in a recent speech. She said her institution must ensure citizens “cannot be excluded from the payments ecosystem due to the unilateral actions of others.”
In a nod to movements claiming there is a push to abolish notes and coins, the ECB statement said a digital euro would “would complement cash, not replace it.”
Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, whose homeland of Germany is especially devoted to cash payments, made the same point in September.
“Many people value cash very highly, and for legitimate reasons,” he said. “It provides privacy, and its use does not necessarily depend on technical infrastructure.”