If the long-predicted cashless society ever materialises it will be unlikely to cause material system-wide problems, according to a Bank of Canada paper, which nevertheless warns that options such as central bank digital currencies might be needed to tackle operational reliability and contestability issues.
The use of bank notes in Canada, as in many countries, has been in decline for some time, and as electronic alternatives gain in popularity the idea that consumers and businesses could effectively abandon cash is gaining traction.
While noting that cash demand as a share of GDP has been stable for decades, the Bank of Canada is sanguine about any future cashless society, noting that there is already near-universal access to electronic services and banking in the country and concluding that a "cashless society would not generally cause material system-wide problems".
However, the paper does warn that an increased dependence on retail payment networks might raise concerns about their maintenance and operational reliability. For example, in June more than five million transactions across Europe failed during an unprecedented 10 hour outage at Visa.
To guard against this, the BoC offers three possible policy responses: regulate the critical payment networks to support reliability and mitigate anti-competitive outcomes; retain the obligation to make cash available; and issue a central bank digital currency to compete with the private payment networks.
This last option is something that the BoC has been investigating, publishing research last December that suggested that a central bank digital currency has the potential to become a cheaper and easier to use alternative to cash and cards.
Another issue that a cashless society raises is the need to provide a safe store of value in an extreme financial crisis. Again, the paper suggests three options: simply reintroducing cash in a crisis; relying on government securities as a safe store of value; or using a central bank digital currency.
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