The rise of bitcoin could leave central banks struggling to implement monetary policy and unable to act as lenders of last resort, the Bank of Canada's senior deputy governor has warned.
In a wide-ranging speech on the bank's new innovation-led research agenda, Carolyn Wilkins outlined efforts to come up with new monetary policy tools in an era where interest rates are near zero.
Innovation may be difficult, though, if cryptocurrencies gain real traction and usurp national currencies, because "this would create a new dynamic in the global monetary order, one in which central banks would struggle to implement monetary policy," warns Wilkins.
In addition, "central banks couldn’t act as lenders of last resort as they do for their own currencies. This means that households and businesses could suffer important losses if such an e-money were to crash."
Even if the move away from cash to electronic money sees national currencies retain their supremacy, there are major questions for central banks.
"Consider a cashless society where everyone uses e-money, which is monetary value stored electronically and not linked to a bank account. If this money were denominated in Canadian dollars, who should issue it? Who should earn the seigniorage? The central bank, as it does today, or the private sector? What would the financial system look like in each case?"
While Wilkins and other central bank staffers struggle with the implications of cryptocurrencies, experts at HSBC have identified one way in which the blockchain technology behind bitcoin could be a useful monetary policy tool.
In a note seen by Business Insider, HSBC floats the idea of central banks using the distributed ledger to make "helicopter drops" of money to citizens as a way of stimulating the economy.
Says the note: "If we move towards an economy where all transactions become recorded in real-time on a Blockchain type of technology, it will not be too dissimilar to the current eco-systems that many ecommerce giants have around the globe. Online e-commerce stores are able to give out loans to merchants without collateral, because they know all the flows already from the merchants’ point of view: from how much people are spending to the conversion rate of pages viewed to purchases.
"In the same way, a modernised monetary transmission system, based on real-time big data analysis through Blockchain, could allow the government to balance the economy more efficiently and systematically."
Meanwhile, a collection of major financial services players - including the LSE, LCH Clearnet, CME Group, Euroclear and UBS - are also looking to the blockchain. According to Financial News, the partners have set up a group to examine how the technology can be used for trading, clearing and settling securities.