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Cornell University professor Eswar PrasadYouTube/Screenshot

(The Sociable) — Governments can program Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) with expiry dates and to restrict undesirable purchases, according to a discussion at the World Economic Forum (WEF) “Summer Davos” meeting in China.

On Wednesday, at the WEF’s 14th Annual Meeting of the New Champions, aka “Summer Davos,” in Tianjing, China, Cornell University professor Eswar Prasad said that “we are at the cusp of physical currency essentially disappearing,” and that programmable CBDCs could take us to either a better or much darker place.

“If you think about the benefits of digital money, there are huge potential gains,” said Prasad, adding, “It’s not just about digital forms of digital currency; you can have programmability – units of central bank currency with expiry dates.”

“You could have […] a potentially better – or some people might say a darker world – where the government decides that units of central bank money can be used to purchase some things, but not other things that it deems less desirable like say ammunition, or drugs, or pornography, or something of the sort, and that is very powerful in terms of the use of a CBDC, and I think also extremely dangerous to central banks.” [Emphases added]

The Cornell professor went on to say that “ultimately, if you have different units of central bank money with different characteristics, or if you use central bank money as a conduit for economic policies in a very targeted way, or more broadly for social policies, that could really affect the integrity of central bank money and the integrity and independence of central banks.”

“So, there are wonderful notions of things that can be done with digital money, but again I fear the technology could take us to a better place, but equally has the potential to take us to a pretty dark place.” [Emphasis added]

While Prasad highlighted that programming CBDC for economic or social policies could affect the integrity of central banks, European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde recently explained that programmability would be left to commercial banks.

Speaking at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) Innovation Summit in March, Lagarde told her fellow panelists that a central bank would not be in charge of programming a digital currency.

“For us [central banks], the issuance of a digital currency that would be central bank money would not be programmable – would not be associated with any particular limitation, whether it’s in time, in type of use – that to me would be a voucher. It wouldn’t be a digital currency,” said Lagarde.

“Those who can associate the use of digital currency with programmability would be the intermediaries – would be the commercial banks.”

“And that’s their business. They know how to do that, but if we are to say that a dollar is a dollar, whether it is cash or digital; or a euro is a euro, cash or digital – then for us [central bank] it cannot be programmable.”

“It can be associated with conditionality, which is different, but not programmable,” she added.

Speaking at a high-level roundtable on CBDC in Washington, D.C., in October 2022, International Monetary Fund (IMF) deputy managing director and former People’s Bank of China (PBoC) deputy governor Bo Li said of CBDC programmability:

CBDC can allow government agencies and private sector players to program – to create smart contracts – to allow targeted policy functions. For example, welfare payment; for example, consumption coupons; for example, food stamps.” [Emphasis added]

“By programming CBDC, those money can be precisely targeted for what kind of people can own and what kind of use this money can be utilized,” he added.

So, while Lagarde says that central banks have no interest in programming CBDCs, central banks around the world are indeed exploring programmability, even if the central banks themselves are not the ones doing the actual programming.

For example, the Reserve Bank of India is exploring a programmable CBDC with expiry dates.

And in Nigeria, “The individual and merchant wallets of the eNaira have different caps on daily transaction limits and the amount of eNaira that can be held in them, depending on their customer due diligence tier,” according to the BIS November 2022 report on CBDCs in Africa.

In July 2021, Bank of Russia deputy governor Alexey Zabotkin gave a real world example of what CBDC programmability could look like when he spoke at the annual cybersecurity training exercise Cyber Polygon.

There, Zabotkin explained:

“This [digital ruble] will permit better traceability of payments and money flow, and also explore the possibility of setting conditions on permitted terms of use of a given unit of currency.”

“Just imagine that you are able to give your kids some money in digital rubles and then restrict their use for purchase of junk food, for example.”

“That would be a useful functionality for a customer, and of course you can come up with hundreds of other similar use cases.”

Programmability is a key feature of CBDC, where governments, banks, and their customers could have total control over when, where, and how your money is spent.

Reprinted with permission from The Sociable.