In the first week of September, El Salvador, a Central American country with a population of just under 7m and ranked 101st in the world according to GDP, created history. It became the first country to accept the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as legal tender.
Millions of people downloaded the government’s new digital wallet which gave away $30 (£22) in Bitcoin to every citizen. Businesses became obliged to accept Bitcoin as payment.
It now looks likely that Ukraine will follow suit, with President Volodymyr Zelensky aiming to create a ‘dual-currency’ country by the start of 2023. Zelensky is a vocal Bitcoin supporter, and intends to initially introduce Bitcoin alongside the current currency, the hryvnia, with the intention that it will eventually become the dominant means of exchange. “The people of the Ukraine are prepared for it and they expect it,” he said.
Ukraine ranks 56th in the world by GDP: with the greatest respect, neither it nor El Salvador are major economic powers. But it now seems inevitable that other, larger economies will follow their lead and introduce a digital currency. This might be Bitcoin – but it seems increasingly likely that a digital version of their current currency will be used.
China has already tested its digital yuan currency. Earlier this year 181,000 consumers in Suzhou City (near Shanghai) were given the yuan equivalent of £6 to spend at participating outlets in a local shopping festival. Like other consumers who have taken part in Chinese trials, all they had to do was download the Bank of China app.
…At which point those of you with privacy concerns might start to be worried. “Does this mean the Government could track whatever I spend?” Yes – and for Governments that is one of the huge advantages of a digital currency. Imagine if digital transactions became the norm – all fully trackable and traceable. As cash is used less and less often, and is perhaps even actively discouraged, the unknown economy withers and dies. Rishi Sunak can only dream of what that might be worth to him in tax receipts.
So are we on the way to ‘Britcoin?’ Will we see a digital pound? The Chancellor has already asked the Bank of England to look at the case for a central bank-backed digital currency, allowing businesses and consumers to hold accounts directly with the bank (meaning an account would not be with say, Barclays or HSBC, but with the Bank of England).
Such a move seems inevitable in the long run. Back in El Salvador they are “excited and worried” in equal measure by the move to Bitcoin, with many people wondering just how stable savings and/or earnings would be in such a notoriously volatile currency.
Presumably central bank-backed digital currencies like ‘Britcoin’ and the digital yuan would alleviate such worries, but you do wonder how long it would take for another, ‘unofficial’ currency to become established. There will always be people who would rather their transactions weren’t tracked by the authorities.