This brief discusses money in its general definition and describes new types of money arising in the modern era of digitalization, such as electronic money, cryptocurrencies, Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDC), etc. It provides an overview of some of the legislative approaches trying to deal with new types of money and outlines the benefits and shortcomings arising from allowing for financial operations with digital currency. It also stresses the necessity of a new integrated approach in national and international regulation of cryptocurrencies.
Cryptocurrencies have existed for more than 10 years. During this period the interest towards this type of digital money has seen its ups and downs. However, by now, they have become part of modern financial markets. Today, more and more central banks consider the possibility of introducing national digital cash and try to create easy-to-understand and clear regulation for new payment methods. We can observe the rapid transformation of the traditional monetary system. At the same time, there is no clear understanding of how the new monetary system should look like. An essential step towards this understanding is developing a clearer systematization and definition of money, financial funds, cryptocurrencies, fiat money in the traditional and the modern sense. Explaining these concepts is necessary to facilitate effective regulation, the development and supervision of financial markets. Indeed, during rapid financial markets transformation, well-developed regulation is necessary to avoid excessive financial risks and speed up financial sector development.
The Place of Money in the Modern Financial System
Financial resources play an extremely important role in the economy: Monetary systems are like the blood circulation for the body. While there is a common understanding of what money is in the traditional sense, this concept does not take into account the recent development of the financial sector, the penetration of IT technologies, the entry of new non-financial institutions into the financial sector as well as the creation of new products at the intersection of finance and IT. As argued above, a clear and encompassing definition of money, reflecting these developments, is necessary for regulatory purposes both at the national and international level.
Typically, money is defined through its functions, such as a measure of value, means of circulation, means of payment and savings. For example, the Large Economic Dictionary suggests that “Money is the universal equivalent, a special product, used to form expressions of the value of all other goods. Money functions as a medium of exchange and of payments, as a measurement of value, wealth accumulation and world money” (Borisov, 2003). As can be seen, one of the most important characteristics of money is its universality. Money can be exchanged against different goods and services almost without any limitations. At the same time, Tarasov mentioned that money is “legal payment funds, usually consisting of banknotes and coins that are constantly circulating as a medium of exchange in accordance with government rule” (Tarasov, 2012). There are other definitions of money, but they usually describe traditional money.
Along with traditional fiat money, there are other payment methods and electronic money is the most common of them. According to the Belarusian legislation, electronic money is “units of value stored in electronic form, issued in exchange against cash and monetary funds and accepted as a means of payment […]”
Electronic money cannot be described as traditional cash or money on bank accounts. It is not included in the money supply and can be issued only by commercial banks. At the same time, electronic money can perform the same functions as traditional fiat money. Whether or not electronic money can be considered full-fledged money is essentially a legal issue.
Another very important question is dedicated to cryptocurrencies. Cryptocurrencies are usually issued based on blockchain technology (distributed ledger) and can be created (“mined”) by anybody. Hence, electronic money is representative of traditional money, but cryptocurrencies are not.
Taking into account the penetration of information technologies into finance as well as the appearance of electronic money and cryptocurrencies, we can define money as the universal equivalent (measure) of value constituting a legal means of circulation, payment and savings on certain territories within a particular jurisdiction, with a legal status guaranteed by the government (Luzgina, 2018). In this definition, the emphasis is placed on the legitimacy of money because in some countries, operations with digital currencies can be legally interpreted as operations with securities, equity etc., rather than money in the legal sense.
Belarus was one of the first countries that legalized operations with crypto assets. But this does not mean that cryptocurrencies have become the equivalent of national or foreign currencies. According to the Belarusian legislation, people can mine cryptocurrencies, exchange them against Belarusian rubles, foreign currencies, buy, sell and exchange against other tokens (Decree #8, 2018). There is no official permission to use crypto money as a measure of value, means of circulation or payment method. In other words, people cannot use bitcoins for purchasing goods and services. At the same time, cryptocurrencies can be used as traditional financial assets.
It is necessary to emphasize here that the digitalization of the financial sector is an ongoing process. It is very hard to be the leader in the sphere. Despite Belarus being an early mover in the legalization of crypto assets and notwithstanding the existence of a strong IT sector and attractive crypto assets regulation, Belarus is only the 59th among 65 countries in the Fintech Index 2020. Based on the experience of other countries, sustained progress in this area can be achieved by government support, the existence of a well-developed ecosystem and access to financing (Global FinTech Index 2020).
Belarus is not the only country in the world that has limitations on cryptocurrencies’ circulation as fiat money; restrictions differ depending on the jurisdiction. Many central banks consider cryptocurrencies as disruptive technologies with high risks. Regulatory bodies usually cannot control operations with crypto money. That is why cryptocurrencies can be attractive for payments in the grey economy. Moreover, exchange rate fluctuations of cryptocurrencies are very unpredictable. Owners of cryptocurrencies can become very rich as well as very poor within a short period of time.
Central banks can implement limitations to avoid or decrease risks. For example, operations with cryptocurrencies are prohibited in Bangladesh and strongly restricted in India. There are central banks (including the central banks of Malaysia and Austria) that take a neutral position with regards to crypto operations but inform the society about possible risks, including risks of high fluctuations (Luzgina, 2018). At the same time, Japan permits the circulation of cryptocurrencies as a means of payment within its current regulation. That is, the Japanese authorities legalized these digital assets and, supposedly, can keep risks under control.
It is important to understand that these, and other, differences in the approach to crypto assets regulation create barriers for international payments and investment transactions. At the same time, a unification of regulation would contribute to transparency and mitigate the risk of cybercrimes.
Central Bank Digital Currencies: Main Aspects
There is an intense political and academic debate about the future of crypto markets. At the same time, more and more countries begin to think about the introduction of Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). Countries like Ukraine, China, Sweden, Canada, Thailand and some others have announced their plans of issuing CBDC. CBDC can be compared with digital cash; it can reduce operational costs and make all money transactions more transparent. But there are some uncertainties: The technology is new and may cause confusion and even disapproval among the population who prefers to use only cash.
One of the most interesting examples of the introduction of CBDC is the case of Uruguay. In 2017-2018, this country realized a pilot project of CBDC (the e-peso). A limited amount of digital currency was issued and only 10,000 citizens joined the project. There was a limited list of stores and businesses that were allowed to work with digital currency and all transactions on the base of mobile phones were done only between registered users. This project has demonstrated several advantages of e-peso circulation. First, the system could work without Internet and provided anonymity but at the same time controllability of all operations. Second, security was the main concern: The person could get access to his/her digital resources even if he/she forgot the password of the digital wallet or lost the mobile phone, but non-authorized access was effectively avoided. Finally, the last but not the least advantage of the system was the exclusion of double charge or falsification during payment transactions. The project lasted half a year and finished successfully. However, transition to the digital currency did not follow.
As of now, many countries only consider or are going to realize pilot studies in this area. The only country that is going to implement CBDC in the foreseeable future is China. The cautious position of many central banks is understandable because CBDC is an analogue of digital cash. The population distrusts such forms of money. Another challenge is that senior citizens often prefer cash for payments and other financial transactions.
Tokens vs. Cryptocurrencies
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies present only one kind of digital tokens. According to the Belarussian legislation, a token is an entry in the register of transaction blocks (blockchain), or another distributed information system certified that the owner of a digital sign (token) has rights to civil law objects and (or) presents cryptocurrency. All cryptocurrencies are tokens but not all tokens can be defined as cryptocurrencies. Tokens are issued for multiple purposes. Governments in many countries try to identify all types of operations with tokens for the creation of clear regulation. For example, the Central Bank of Lithuania highlights the differences between issuing tokens in the framework of ICO (Initial Coin Offering) and STO (Security Token Offering). According to the Lithuanian regulation, ICO usually provides for presenting discount programs or using tokens as payment instruments. At the same time, STO includes the issuance of tokens that have features of bonds or other traditional financial instruments and is subject to regulation. In other countries, central banks do not highlight STO and operations regulation with tokens depends on the characteristics and specifics of each project.
Many countries have developed unique principles and rules of tokens regulation. But there are no unified approaches at the international level which makes it difficult for conscientious market participants to work with financial crypto assets over different jurisdictions. Moreover, there are uncertainties and risks that have to be investigated more in detail. Authorities in many countries are afraid of cybercrimes and increasing money laundering operations.
At the same time, many advantages are apparent. For example, in Belarus, crypto platforms get more popular, because they offer attractive financial instruments for the population and companies. On such platforms, companies can attract necessary resources and citizens invest in financial tools with regulated risks.
Figure 1 – Structure of digital, electronic money, tokens and financial means (Luzgina, 2018)
Comment: Fiat electronic money is an electronic analogue of fiat currency. In this case, if we put 100 euros in an electronic wallet, we should see 100 electronic euros after the transaction. At the same time, non-fiat electronic money differs from fiat currency. For example, we can exchange Belarusian ruble against electronic money – V-coin, which is issued by Belgazprombank in cooperation with the mobile operator – A1.
The above discussion results in a number of policy-relevant implications:
- The legal definition of money, financial funds and electronic money should be updated taking into account innovative forms of financial instruments development and the appearance of new financial market participants.
- Old rules and regulatory approaches hinder market development and unregulated space can create additional risks and uncertainties.
- The transition from cash to CBDC is possible but has limitations.
- A unified regulation for cryptocurrencies and other tokens should be developed at the international level for decreasing risks and further developing financial markets.
Financial market transformation is happening very rapidly. The penetration of information technologies in the financial sector created a huge number of new innovative products and simplified financial operations. All these changes have affected the payment system. The creation of electronic and digital currencies makes it necessary to reconsider the future of the traditional monetary system. But even the current regulation has to become more flexible and take into account the rapid growth of new types of financial market participants and products. The development of financial technologies creates additional risks, such as money laundering, money theft or uncontrolled financial operations which go beyond the borders drawn by national jurisdictions very often. Many central banks treat payments with cryptocurrencies and ICO with caution. At the same time, the process cannot be stopped because alternative methods of financial transactions are often more attractive compared with traditional financial services. But the low level of financial and digital literacy among the population combined with outdated legislation can slow down innovative processes in the financial sphere and augment the risks.
- “Money: meaning and functions of money – discussed!” (2007). Economics Discussion. Accessed September 12, 2017.
- Tarasov V.I. (2012), “Money, credit, banks”, Minsk: BSU. p. 375.
- “On Digital Economy Development”. Decree No.8 dated December 21, 2017.
- Luzgina A. “Money and monetary funds as economic categories and their relationship with cryptocurrencies”, Bank Bulleting Journal, October 2018. pp.26-35.
- “Japan to provide G20 with the solution for Crypto Regulation”, News Bitcoin.com. Accessed February 28, 2020.
- Central Banks worldwide testing their digital currencies“, News Bitcoin.com. Accessed February 20, 2020.
- Banco Central del Uruguay, 2018. “Uruguayan e-Peso on the context on financial inclusion“, Accessed January 15, 2020.
- “Bank of Lithuania Issues Guidelines for Regulating STO”, (2019). Crowdfund Insider, Accessed February 10, 2020.
- Borisov A.B, (2003). Large Economic Dictionary. Knizhni Mir. p. 895.
- “The Global FinTech Index 2020”, (2019). Accessed March 10, 2020.
- Ting Peng “Turning a crisis into an opportunity, China gets one step closer to CBDC”. Accessed March 25, 2020.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
The European Commission recently proposed a revision to its existing regulatory framework for telecommunications, the details of which have been amply discussed and are currently being negotiated. A pivotal theme of the revision is a stronger emphasis on stimulating investments into broadband networks capable of delivering high-speed (100+ Mbps) internet services. This brief highlights and briefly discusses some key changes in that regard.
High-speed broadband networks are the backbone of the fast-growing digital economy. Promoting citizens’ access to such networks has been one of the European Commission’s stated policy priorities at least since 2010, when it launched its “Digital Agenda for Europe” (EC, 2014). Its policy mix of choice involves measures and funds facilitating deployment of so-called next-generation access networks on the one hand (commonly taken to mean access networks capable of delivering speeds exceeding 100 Mbps), while on the other hand regulating access to such networks to the extent perceived necessary to deal with potential problems resulting from incumbent network operators’ degree of market power. As regulation may harm incentives to invest in network infrastructure in the first place, a balance between investment promotion and competitive safeguards needs to be struck.
Motivated by what it considers to be a sub-optimally low speed of network upgrading in at least some of the EU’s member states, the Commission has sought to adjust its policy balance in favor of investments by proposing a revision (EC, 2016) of its regulatory framework for electronic communications, called the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC), which defines a standard approach to regulating fixed broadband network operators deemed to possess significant market power. That revision has been commented upon and discussed by the European Parliament and the European Council as well as various private and public stakeholders (Szczepański, 2017). Several amendments have been proposed and further discussion is ongoing to reach a compromise between the European institutions.
Telecommunications networks were until more recently typically owned by vertically integrated, often formerly state-run, national incumbents who even after their privatization and the elimination of most legal barriers to entry were considered to possess significant market power. The EECC’s key remedy to such market power is so-called network unbundling at the wholesale level: considering the retail market for internet service provision potentially competitive, unbundling means granting competing internet service providers regulated access to the incumbent operator’s physical local-area access network, which is commonly regarded as the key bottleneck in internet service provision. Choosing the intrusiveness of the access obligation is up to the national regulatory authority (NRA), ranging from merely demanding that the incumbent publicly post a reference offer, to stricter measures such as non-discrimination, “fair and reasonable” pricing, and ultimately, full-on access price regulation, typically implemented with price caps derived from regulatory costing models. A recommendation from 2013 (EC, 2013) outlines methodological guidelines to national authorities.
The proposed EECC revision makes the abovementioned recommendation binding, which may partly be an attempt to further harmonize regulatory practice between member states, with a view to encouraging cross-border investments by operators and service providers. It also encourages NRAs to, where possible, abandon more rigid price regulation in favor of margin squeeze tests. Margin squeeze occurs when a vertically integrated firm with market power in the wholesale segment of a production chain “squeezes” retail competitors by setting high wholesale and low retail prices, to the extent that even equally efficient, or at least reasonably efficient, retail competitors cannot survive if they are dependent on the dominant firm’s wholesale product. Moreover, and more importantly in terms of boosting deployment, the proposal encourages lighter-touch regulation for operators deploying new network infrastructure (Art. 72), and specifically relaxes regulation for deployment projects open to co-investments between operators (Art. 74). It also extends the market review period, i.e. the frequency at which NRAs are expected to update their market analysis and regulatory policy, from three to five years, giving operators a longer planning horizon, and encourages NRAs to consider any existing commercial wholesale offers in their market analysis, which can be interpreted to mean that anything short of full market foreclosure should be looked upon benevolently (Articles 61 and 65). In line with this latter development, which suggests a focus on wholesale access per se, is Article 77. This article exempts so-called wholesale-only networks – non-integrated networks whose very business model is selling access to interested internet service providers – from strict access price regulation, at least ex-ante. Typically, a presumption of consumer harm absent regulation is sufficient for intervention. Article 77 turns the tables on regulatory authorities by requiring evidence of actual consumer harm.
A counterpoint to these deregulatory elements is Article 59.2, which under certain conditions not only allows but obliges NRAs to impose access obligations on owners of existing physical infrastructure “up to the first concentration point”, in practice affecting mostly in-building wiring and cables, even when these owners have not been identified as dominant in any relevant market. In countries such as Sweden, where in-house wiring is often not owned by any operator but rather by the respective building’s owner(s), implementing such obligations may pose a regulatory challenge.
Finally, Article 22 requires NRAs to chart existing infrastructure as well as deployment plans across the country and enables them to define “digital exclusion areas” where no high-speed broadband infrastructure exists or is planned. In such areas, they may organize calls for interest to deploy networks, also with a view to resolving potential coordination problems between operators resulting from so-called “overbuild risk”: deployment in some lower-density areas may only be profitable if most of the customer base in that area can be captured, leading to a standoff between operators who cannot, do not want to, or are not allowed to communicate and coordinate their deployment strategies. As a result, investment is delayed.
A rather piquant detail here is that the proposed code allows NRAs to take action against operators it suspects of “deliberately” providing “misleading, erroneous or incomplete” information about their deployment plans. Included to prevent gaming, this provision carries the risk of suppressing investors’ appetite for the designated exclusion areas lest they be punished in case they change their mind. A minimum of mutual trust between the national regulator and market participants seems crucial for this mechanism to succeed.
The Commission’s proposed new regulatory framework emphasizes investment in, and take-up of, high-speed (100+ Mbps) broadband networks, explicitly defining such enhanced connectivity as a new regulatory objective on equal footing with the existing ones, most notably the promotion of competition. The present brief points out some key regulatory changes aimed at the fulfilment of these respective objectives. In terms of the revision’s impact on high-speed broadband deployment in the EU’s member states, it is difficult to make a general prediction since Europe is somewhat heterogeneous with respect to high-speed broadband penetration. For example, the 2016 EU overall NGA coverage was 75.9 % of households, but coverage rates of individual countries ranged from 99.95 % and 99.86 % in Malta and Belgium respectively to 47.0 % in France and a mere 44.2 % in Greece (EC, 2017). To the extent that the new code encourages investment relative to the old regime, regions with lower current coverage stand to benefit more. To the extent that the lower pace of deployment in those areas is the result of other factors orthogonal to regulation (one example being demand uncertainty), it will have a limited effect.
- European Commission, 2013. “Commission Recommendation on consistent non-discrimination obligations and costing methodologies to promote competition and enhance the broadband investment environment.”
- European Commission, 2014. “The European Union Explained: Digital agenda for Europe.”
- European Commission, 2016. “Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and the European Council establishing the European Electronic Communications Code (Recast).”
- European Commission, 2017. “Broadband Coverage in Europe (2016): Mapping progress towards the coverage objectives of the Digital Agenda.”
- Szczepański, M., 2017. “The new European electronic communications code”, EU Legislation in Progress briefing, European Parliamentary Research Service.