The people of Sweden are breaking up with cash. The number of banknotes and coins in circulation has fallen to its lowest level in three decades. Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, estimates that cash transactions made up only 15 percent of all retail transactions last year, down from 40 percent in 2010, thanks in large part to massively popular mobile payment services.
The situation has left Sweden’s central bankers wondering: should the country introduce a purely digital form of government-backed money? And if so, should it use technology similar to that underlying Bitcoin?
Riksbank isn’t the only central bank taking a serious look at blockchain, the technology that makes Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies run. These systems, also called distributed ledgers, rely on networks of computers, rather than a central authority like a bank, to verify and record transactions on a shared, virtually incorruptible database. Government bankers across the world believe this has the potential to replace cash and make other payment systems more efficient.
Central-bank-backed cryptocurrencies would be ironic indeed, given that Bitcoin was created as a way to circumvent the need for banks. Beyond that, the idea raises complicated questions about how such systems should be designed, built, and maintained, as well as how they could affect a country’s—or the entire planet’s—financial stability. That’s why Riksbank is hedging its bets, investigating not only distributed-ledger technology—which it describes as unproven but “progressing incredibly rapidly”—but also traditional, centralized accounting methods for its “e-krona” (pdf) project.
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