Ashley Alder and Jon Cunliffe | Global standards for stablecoins
Rapid technological change is increasingly spurring private – and often Big Tech-promoted – initiatives throughout the world of finance, particularly in the payments domain. As a result, the global financial system has arrived at a potentially game-changing moment.
Recent developments include so-called stablecoins, which avoid the volatility of their higher-profile crypto cousins, like bitcoin, because their value is supported by a pool of assets. Stablecoins have the potential to support competition in payments, deploying technology and innovation to reduce cost and offer new services. But when used at scale as a means of payment, they can present material risks to the financial system.
Every day, millions of households and businesses, as well as the financial sector, rely on payment systems to transfer funds. These networks are the bedrock of the financial system, supporting virtually every transaction in the economy. If they are disrupted for any reason, or if users lose confidence in them, the impact on financial stability and the real economy can be enormous.
Technological change and innovation are essential to the continued development of monetary and payment systems. The way we pay today is very different from the way we made payments 50 or 100 years ago. Without technological innovation, we would still be using metal coins for all transactions.
But, given the stakes involved, such advances must not lead to lower safety standards and higher risks. New payment initiatives should succeed because they offer better service and potentially greater financial access, not because they are able to operate according to lower or no standards.
In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, which clearly exposed the real-world consequences of unfettered innovation, central banks and securities regulators worked together to establish clear international standards for payment systems. These efforts produced the Principles for Financial Market Infrastructures, which were issued in 2012 by the International Organization of Securities Commissions, IOSCO, and the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures, CPMI, at the Bank for International Settlements.
The principles are designed to ensure that all key elements of financial-market infrastructure, including payment systems, are safe and robust, and that users can have confidence in them. For this reason, the CPMI and IOSCO have just published a consultative report on applying the international payments standards to stablecoins.
The new report is a milestone in three respects. First, it confirms that the current international standards for payment systems apply fully to stablecoin schemes when these are used to provide payment services. The proposed application of the guidelines to stablecoins will provide individual jurisdictions with an internationally agreed baseline to use when developing their regulatory response to new domestic and cross-border payment initiatives.
Second, by explaining how the existing principles relate to stablecoins, the report is a major step forward in applying the “same business, same risks, same rules” approach to a fast-growing and important payment innovation.
Both existing and prospective stablecoin payment schemes possess a number of features that distinguish them from other payment systems. They use different technologies and can have different governance. Moreover, unlike other payment systems, which transfer funds in the form of central bank money or commercial bank deposits, stablecoin schemes not only transfer funds, but also create the money — the stablecoin itself — in which the funds are transferred.
The consultative report provides guidance on how the current international standards should be applied to these novel features of stablecoins. Crucially, it proposes that if a stablecoin scheme is, or is likely to become, systemic, the international standards should apply to all elements of the scheme, including to the stablecoin itself.
The guidance clarifies that stablecoins can be used to settle transactions only if they meet the same high standards we expect of the money already used for settlement today. Specifically, it sets out expectations for stablecoins’ liquidity and creditworthiness and for the rights of coin holders, including the right to exchange the coin on demand for cash at full face value.
Third, the proposed guidance will help current and future stablecoin operators to structure their schemes in a way that will not lower standards or create new risks to financial stability. This will help to ensure that they compete on a level footing with other providers of payment services. In our view, current stablecoins’ internal structures and legal frameworks might make it very challenging for them to comply with the PFMI without reforming themselves.
This new stablecoin report is an important step towards recognising the promise and benefits of digital finance, while safeguarding the public from risks that must not be ignored.
Ultimately, everyone should be able to make fast, low-cost, and transparent payments, whether domestic or cross-border. To get there, innovation and competition should be encouraged, so that users have access to new services and a choice of provider.
But, equally important, payment services that are, or are likely to become, systemic need to be robust and safe, for the sake of users and to ensure the stability of the global financial system.
Ashley Alder is CEO of the Securities and Futures Commission of Hong Kong and chair of the board of the International Organization of Securities Commissions. Jon Cunliffe is chair of the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures at the Bank for International Settlements and Deputy Governor for Financial Stability at the Bank of England.
© Project Syndicate, 2021