Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The ECB-report on virtual currency schemes: some reflections

The last month, the ECB published a report on virtual currency schemes. I have been reading this with great interest as it signals the involvement of the central banks in a new area: virtual currrencies. The relevance of this report must therefore not be misunderstood. We should remember that in 1994, the EMI-report on pre-paid cards signalled the start of the regulation of prepaid-cards and electronic money products. And in a similar style, this report may become the starting point for regulation of virtual currencies.

In general, central banks are to be commended for monitoring the developments in the area of money, retail payments and near-money products. If you're a central bank, an institution that is responsible for true money, than it it always good to know what other forms of money are in circulation. And as such the report of the ECB demonstrates that the European central banks are alert.

Analytical basis could improve
I must say however that I was also somewhat disappointed. The analytical framework presented in the report is a bit shaky in my view.  It does not rest on the nature of the subject discussed (virtual tokens and currencies), but on how they are 'regulated'. As an approach, I find this little convincing. Furthermore I noted that 'unregulated' is not defined. Does it mean that central banks or supervisors are not involved or that no regulation applies at all?

As an alternative I would point out the possibility of using frameworks suchs as this one (taken from the American Law Review):

It is interesting to note that the empty box in this table can now be filled with: Bitcoin as an example of a system where money can circulate freely without returning to a central mint.

Which electronic tokens are currency of money and which are not?
The ECB distinghuishes between three virtual currency types, in terms of openness of the systems involved.

Type 1 is a closed link system in which the digital tokens are only usable in the system itself. The example the ECB provides is the World of Warcraft Gold. And although the picture suggests that there is no link to the real economy, the ECB notes: However, there seems to be a black market for buying and selling WoW Gold outside the virtual currency scheme. If Blizzard Entertainment discovers any illegal exchange, it can suspend or ban a player’s account. 

Type 2 contains systems where users pre-pay services of a supplier in the form of private issuer tokens such as facebook credits. And type 3 systems are open systems of privately issued tokens/currency that can be bought and sold. It is in this category that bitcoin and Linden dollars are placed.

What is lacking in this model, is the Type of model 1b where there is no formal buying or selling of tokens, but there is a relation to the physical world. It is the world of loyalty points and tokens, which can be earned and redeemed, but never exchanged for money itself. The ECB places these under the category II.

It appears to me that in doing so, the ECB doesn't distinguish sufficiently between loyalty tokens and payment tokens,which each have a different role to play in the business model of their issuer. An alternative table might have been:

User cannot buy tokens at all (loyalty-type)
User earns tokens and can buy additional (hybrid of loyalty/payment)
User buys and sells  tokens
Tokens used in digital issuer-domain only

World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft
Lynden Dollar
Tokens used in digital or physical issuer-domain only
Nintendo Points
-Digital Payment loyalty schemes for single retailers

Tokens used at other entities than the issuer
Frequent Flyer Programmes
Frequent Flyer Programmes
e-money on mobile phone's

The missing element: mobile money
What intrigues me is that the digital money on mobile phones is not a part of the discussion. It is by its definition (an exemption in the e-money directive) an unregulated form of digital money. Yet, the ECB has been so long accustomed to the strange sequence of events that made the European Commission decide that money on antenna's of MNO"s is not electronic money, that they forgot to include it in the analysis.

The reputation argument.....
Finally I noticed that the ECB finds, that if these virtual currency schemes (however defined) grow too much, they might give rise to a reputation issue for the central banks. Here again I think the analysis is a bit too strongly worded. Central banks can simply outline their scope of work and responsibility by stating that they  are not in any way responsible for money that they didn't issue and supervise. By clearly and repeatedly informing the public of this fact, the public can then choose to take a risk with the virtual currencies or stay out of them.

Yet, I wouldn't be surprised if this reputation argument (or a comparable public policy objective: transparancy) becomes the main angle from which future supervision of these schemes will be justified.