COLUMN/ THE HOT POTATO
February 6, 2023: Do you know that the money in your bank account or in your e-wallet could someday behave like a time-bomb? That it could literally implode and simply vanish? That your money could be ‘programmed’ to drastically start falling in value if you don’t follow certain orders?
Sounds scary and impossible, right? Well, if you thought keeping hackers away was just about enough to keep your money safe and secure, then that’s likely to change someday – if one is to go by a chilling report published by the World Bank on its website.
Biagio Bossone, a top financial adviser, and Ahmed Faragallah, a senior financial sector specialist, wrote a two-part article in the widely followed blog section of the World Bank’s website in November last year. Titled ‘Expiring Money: Part I and Part II’, the two-part write-up gives us a heads-up of how the money in your possession could actually be ‘programmed’ by the authorities to ‘behave’ in a certain way over which you wouldn’t have any control.
Astounding and even Orwellian as it may sound, the two experts speculated on a future in which the public would no longer have any incentive to save money in their bank accounts or in their digital wallets if the country they’re living in suddenly decides they should spend their money, and not save it.
In the world we live in now, we have complete control over the money we possess, which includes currency notes and coins, the deposits in our bank accounts, and the money we keep in e-wallets. As long as stray hackers don’t get to break in and siphon your money out, your money is in safe hands. Most importantly, you get to decide what you should do with your money.
But Bossone and Faragallah are suggesting, while citing vivid scenarios, that there could soon be a day when your digital money would be labelled ‘expiring money’ or ‘programmable money’.
So, what’s this concept of ‘expiring’ and ‘programmable’ money? The detailed report from the expert duo demystifies the jargon while also saying that this new form of money management could someday become the norm.
In a nutshell, what they are saying is that governments, central banks, and other authorities around the world would be in a position one day to make digital money technically programmed to perform in certain ways. For example, if the authorities in a certain country feel the need to jump-start the economy through increased spending and business activities, then they can ‘program’ an individual’s money in the bank and e-wallet to ‘expire’ or diminish in value or simply get wiped out if that person decides not to spend the money for personal reasons.
Basically, by making it possible for your money to die out in such a scenario, authorities can incentivise spending the money on transactions and disincentivise saving it up – for the sake of boosting the country’s economy.
WHAT IS ‘EXPIRING’ MONEY?
Here’s how the article on the World Bank’s site introduces the concept: “Expiring money, one whose value falls to zero after a specific date, is a potential monetary policy tool. Programmability, a technical feature made possible by digitalisation, can accelerate decisions to spend it, making it a very effective means for stimulating consumption. This could be very useful for central banks and governments distributing aid to people during severe recessions or events like pandemics or calamities, when higher uncertainty makes people spend less.”
Citing some examples of what the new style of money control could be used for, the authors wrote: “Programmability could be applied to digital cash for all kinds of purposes, including to pay a positive interest rate or charge a negative interest rate on cash; to set conditions for the transfer of money to specific types of users or types of goods and services; to automate the transfer of specific values, such as tax payments for each purchase from a merchant, or to ban certain users from access to cash in a way similar to blacklisting.”
Among many other scenarios that Bossone and Faragallah spelt out, they elaborated that ‘programmable’ money would handle IoT (Internet-of-Things) payments, such as smart machines can place orders on their own. Say, for example, the internet-enabled fridge at your home can order milk on its own from a grocer when running low on stock, “or a printer tracking toner usage could buy it via Amazon once it reaches a certain level”.
The concept of programming the money is only the naïve part. What’s actually worrisome for many people around the world who prefer dealing with their own money privately and with their own full freedom is the idea of making that money expirable.
As the report articulates in this disturbing paragraph: “In the case of expiring money, the penalty for holding it would be even more radical: the money would keep its full value for a predetermined interval after issuance, and would decline in value from then onwards. This form of programmable money would set in motion a sequence of spending decisions – since no holder would have reasons to hold it beyond expiration – and would thus raise aggregate demand permanently (all else being equal).”
In their article that’s bound to spark more buzz in the years to come, Bossone and Faragallah labelled ‘expiring money’ as what is increasingly being also called ‘helicopter money’.
Here’s how the two writers explained this concept of helicopter money to their bewildered readers: “Expiring money conflates monetary and fiscal policies into one single instrument — as helicopter money does — making it possible to create purchasing power and transfer it to particular people as and when needed. It would push all people to spend it, including those with higher propensities to save and whose hoarding behaviour weakens the effect of expansionary policies, explaining why some empirical studies found helicopter money stimulus might not be as effective as might be anticipated.
“As expiring money would offset the incentive to hoard, it would be a form of hyperbolic helicopter money, which, once injected into the economy, would support a permanently higher velocity of money. It would likely represent the most powerful tool of monetary policy imaginable.”
FLASHBACK TO 1930s
Interestingly, the idea of programming money had been tried out way back during the 1930s in Austria. At that time, money was abruptly depreciated by the authorities in the Austrian city of Wörgl to tackle a deepening economic depression. As a result of the sudden intervention – or programming, as we can now call it – people were incentivised or rather pushed to get rid of the fast-depreciating money by quickly spending it in buying goods and services.
There are multiple criticisms of the debatable concept of ‘programming’ digital money. One of them is that it would simply take away your personal freedom and your basic rights to decide on what you want to do with your own money. The other major criticism is that while money is essentially treated as a store of value, the permanent feature of ‘expiring’ it – through interventions – would take that essence away from it. Under this new economic system, money would only be seen as essential for carrying out immediate transactions, and no longer as a long-term store of value.
Of course, it’s unlikely as of now on whether money would indeed be made programmable in the days to come, even though various countries are rolling out CBDCs and educating people about switching to national digital currencies instead of traditional currencies (such as money parked in commercial banks) and cryptocurrencies (such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, Tether, etc.).
India, for example, rolled out pilot versions of wholesale and retail CBDCs last year, called e₹-W and e₹-R, respectively. Reliance Retail, which is the country’s biggest retail chain, has volunteered to accept retail payments in digital rupees. But the Indian government hasn’t aired any intentions of turning its CBDCs into programmable or expiring money.
Coming back to the report published by the World Bank, the international financial institution was tactful enough to run a disclaimer along with the exhaustive article, stating that the views expressed were only those of the authors.
However, when such enormously influential financial organisations host write-ups on intriguing ideas and concepts, they sometimes do serve as a sneak peek to what is to come. Sweden, Germany, the Bahamas, the US, Japan, Denmark – these are just a few of several countries that have either rolled out CBDCs or are seriously exploring the idea. Which of these places will someday turn the public’s wealth into programmable money? Only time will tell us.
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