There was much excitement when, in April, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced the launch of a new taskforce between the Treasury and the Bank of England to co-ordinate exploratory work on a potential central bank digital currency.
The currency was immediately nicknamed ‘Britcoin‘ although it is unlikely to take that name if or when it is eventually launched.
As part of the work, the Bank was asked to consult widely on the benefits, risks and practicalities of doing so.
That work is ongoing but, in the meantime, the Bank has published a discussion paper aiming to broaden the debate around new forms of digital money.
The issue is of huge importance to the Bank because its two main functions, as an institution, are to maintain both the monetary and financial stability in the UK. The rise of digital money has implications for both.
The Bank has already made clear that it is sceptical about cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, which its governor, Andrew Bailey, has said “has no intrinsic value”.
Yet these currencies must be differentiated from a central bank digital currency.
The concept of a central bank digital currency may be confusing to some but Sir Jon Cunliffe, the Bank’s deputy governor for financial stability, said it was actually quite straightforward.
He told Sky News: “At the Bank of England, we issue banknotes, the notes that everybody holds in their pocket, but we don’t issue any money in digital form.
“So when you pay with a card or with your phone on a digital transaction, you’re actually using your bank account, you’re transferring money from your bank account to somebody else’s.
“A central bank digital currency, a digital pound, would actually be a claim on the Bank of England, issued by us, directly to the public.
“At the moment we only issue digital money to banks, we don’t issue to the general public, so it will be a digital pound – and it will be similar to some of the proposals being developed in the private sector.”
Sir Jon, who is co-chairing the taskforce with the Treasury’s Katharine Braddick, said that, while a central bank digital currency and a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin might use the same technology, there were big differences.
He went on: “[Central bank digital currencies] use the same technology but…they aim to have a stable value. They’re called stable coins and some of the technology companies, the big tech platforms, are just thinking about developing digital coins of that sort.
“A central bank digital currency would be a digital coin, actually a digital note, issued by the Bank of England.”
Sir Jon said such currencies would have to the potential to bring down costs for businesses depending on how they were developed.
He added: “They do offer the potential to bring down cost. At the moment the average cost, I think, for a credit card transaction is about just over half a per cent, but of course if you’re a small tea room in Shoreham-on-Sea, you’re going to be paying more than that in some cases, well over 1% for that transaction.
“So it could be cheaper, it could be more convenient. These new forms of money offer the ability for them to be integrated more with other things through their software. So you can think of smart contracts, in which the money would be programmed to be released only when something happened. You could think, for example, of giving the children pocket money but programming the money so that it couldn’t be used for sweets.
“There’s a whole range of things that money could do – programmable money, as it’s called – which we can’t do with the current technology.
“Now whether there’s a market, whether there’s a demand for that, whether that’s something people want in their lives, I think is another question – but we need to stay at the forefront of thinking.
“We need to stay ahead of these issues because we’ve seen changes can happen really fast in the digital world – people didn’t think smartphones had much or a market when the iPhone was first introduced – and it’s important we keep abreast of those issues.”
He noted that, under one ‘illustrative scenario’ set out in the Bank’s discussion paper, the cost of credit could rise in the event of people withdrawing deposits from the banking sector and migrated to a form of digital money.
This is why the Bank is seeking, in this discussion paper, to establish the conditions under which people might prefer using new forms of digital money to existing forms, such as cash or ‘private money’ like bank deposits. But that is easier said than done.
Sir Jon added: “It’s very difficult to know what the demand for something like this will be. It could be quite small – people might just want to keep a small wallet of digital coins for use on the internet, or whatever, but it could be quite large.
“That’s one of the things we want to try and understand better and [that’s why] we want to get views on how it would operate.
“It’s important to say, given that it’s so difficult to estimate whether something like this would take off, that, if it were introduced, I think one would have to be quite careful at the beginning – you wouldn’t want to be in a position where something became very popular and had impacts that you hadn’t foreseen.”
To that end, the Bank’s discussion paper also considers the potential risks posed to economic stability by new forms of digital money.
The deputy governor went on: “It’s really fundamental that people can trust the money they use every day in the economy, that they don’t have to think about ‘I’m holding one form of money rather than another form of money, is this one more safe than another?’
“So the regulation is going to have to make sure – and the Financial Policy Committee of the Bank of England made this really clear – that if you issue these new forms of money, the users have to have the same level of confidence and security that they have in the money that circulates in this country at the moment, either Bank of England cash or commercial bank money in the form of bank accounts.
“It’s really crucial that people trust the money they use – we’ve seen from history that when confidence in money breaks down, for whatever reason, the social cost is enormous.”
All of which explains that, while most analysts assume the Bank will ultimately launch its own digital currency, it is taking its time to assess what the impact may be.
It is also clearly giving much thought to how it explains to households and businesses why such a move may be necessary.
Christmas rail strikes to go ahead as union rejects offer from operators
The RMT has rejected an offer from train operators aimed at preventing strikes over the Christmas period, the union has announced.
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) said its proposed framework would have supported pay increases of up to 8%, covering 2022 and 2023 pay awards, while delivering much-needed reforms.
But the RMT, led by secretary general Mick Lynch, has turned it down.
The union said: “The RDG is offering 4% in 2022 and 2023 which is conditional on RMT members accepting vast changes to working practices, huge job losses, Driver Only Operated (DOO) trains on all companies and the closure of all ticket offices.”
Mr Lynch added: “We have rejected this offer as it does not meet any of our criteria for securing a settlement on long term job security, a decent pay rise and protecting working conditions.
“The RDG and Department for Transport (DfT), who sets their mandate, both knew this offer would not be acceptable to RMT members.
“If this plan was implemented, it would not only mean the loss of thousands of jobs but the use of unsafe practices such as DOO and would leave our railways chronically understaffed.”
RMT has demanded an urgent meeting with RDG on Monday morning in the hope of trying to resolve the dispute, the union posted on Twitter.
In a statement posted on the RMT website, Mr Lynch said the talks would aim to secure “a negotiated settlement on job security, working conditions and pay.”
It means rail strikes planned during December and early January are still scheduled to go ahead, with commuters facing severe disruption on 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17 December, and 3, 4, 6 and 7 January.
Mr Lynch previously insisted “I’m not the Grinch” as he defended the industrial action.
The RDG said it was proposing a “fair and affordable offer in challenging times, providing a significant uplift in salary for staff” which would deliver “vital and long overdue” changes to working arrangements.
The draft framework agreement gives RMT the chance to call off its planned action and put the offer to its membership, a statement said.
“If approved by the RMT, implementation could be fast-tracked to ensure staff go into Christmas secure in the knowledge they will receive this enhanced pay award early in the New Year, alongside a guarantee of job security until April 2024,” an RDG spokesperson said.
“With revenue stuck at 20% below pre-pandemic levels and many working practices unchanged in decades, taxpayers who have contributed £1,800 per household to keep the railway running in recent years will balk at continuing to pump billions of pounds a year into an industry that desperately needs to move forward with long-overdue reforms and that alienates potential customers with sustained industrial action.”
The company called on the union to “move forward with us” so we can “give our people a pay rise and deliver an improved railway with a sustainable, long-term future for those who work on it.”
Transport Secretary Mark Harper described the situation as “incredibly disappointing and unfair to the public, passengers and rail workforce who want a deal”.
The deal will “help get trains running on time”, he said.
A bleak winter of strikes
Motorists have also been warned to brace for Christmas chaos after road workers revealed they will down tools for 12 days to coincide with rail walkouts.
National Highways workers, who operate and maintain roads in England, will take part in a series of staggered strikes from 16 December to 7 January, the PCS union said.
A growing list of unions are threatening to grind the country to a halt, putting pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
He is attempting a more constructive, less combative approach with the unions as the government treads a careful line between “being tough but also being human – and treating people with respect”, a government source told Sky News.
Some 10,000 paramedics voted to strike in England and Wales, the GMB union announced this week.
They join up to 100,000 nurses set to walk out in the biggest-ever strike by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland on 15 and 20 December.
On Sunday morning, Conservative Party Chairman Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News’ Sophie Ridge on Sunday the army could be deployed to help ease possible strike disruption over Christmas.
Morrisons owner paves way for departure of veteran CEO Potts
The owners of Britain’s fourth-biggest supermarket chain are drawing up plans to identify a new chief executive a year after acquiring it in a £7bn deal.
Sky News has learnt that Morrisons‘ controlling shareholder, the US-based private equity firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice (CD&R), has retained Egon Zehnder International to strengthen the grocer’s executive ranks.
Retail industry sources said this weekend that Egon Zehnder had been approaching potential recruits “with one eye” on finding a successor to David Potts, who has run Morrisons since 2015.
Mr Potts is not expected to leave until at least 2024, and is focused on improving the Bradford-based company’s performance after it was recently displaced as Britain’s third-biggest supermarket chain by the German discounter Aldi.
A number of internal candidates are expected to vie for the opportunity of replacing Mr Potts, according to insiders.
One said that CD&R was “continuously” working on succession planning at Morrisons and its other portfolio companies.
Sir Terry Leahy, the former Tesco chief executive who has a long-standing relationship with CD&R, will play a key role in the succession planning process as Morrisons’ chairman.
Earlier this year, Trevor Strain, Morrisons’ chief operating officer and previously its finance chief, left the company, having long been regarded as Mr Potts’ inevitable successor.
Morrisons delisted from the London Stock Exchange last year, ending a 54-year run as a publicly traded company.
Recent industry data showed that Morrisons had been usurped by Aldi in market share terms – a milestone in a sector which rarely demonstrates change in the membership of its top ranks.
Morrisons struck a deal earlier this year to rescue the convenience chain McColl’s, the market share of which was not included in that data.
CD&R and Morrisons declined to comment.
OPEC oil cartel holds production steady in face of Russia sanctions uncertainty
The Saudi-led OPEC oil cartel and allied producers including Russia have stuck to their output targets, despite uncertainty over the impact of fresh Western sanctions against Moscow.
The decision to maintain the status quo at a meeting of oil ministers on Sunday came ahead of the planned start of two measures aimed at hitting Russia‘s oil earnings following its invasion of Ukraine.
These are a boycott by the EU of most Russian oil, and a price cap of $60 (£49) on every barrel of its crude imposed by the G7 coalition of leading world economies.
OPEC+, which is made up of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and allies including Russia, angered the US and other Western nations in October when it agreed to cut output by two million barrels per day, about 2% of world demand, from November until the end of 2023.
The move, which would lead to increased prices at a time of already soaring energy costs, led Washington to accuse the group of siding with Russia despite Moscow’s assault on Ukraine.
OPEC+ argued it had cut output because of a weaker economic outlook.
Oil prices have declined since October due to slower Chinese and global growth and higher interest rates, prompting market speculation the group could cut output again.
However, the group of oil producers has now decided to keep the policy unchanged.
Its key ministers will next meet at the start of February for a monitoring committee, while a full meeting is scheduled for 3-4 June.
The price cap was agreed on Friday by G7 nations and Australia to deprive Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin of revenue while keeping Russian oil flowing to global markets.
Moscow has said it would not sell its oil under the cap and was considering how to respond.
Many analysts and OPEC ministers have said the price cap is confusing and probably ineffective, as Moscow has been selling most of its oil to countries like China and India, which have refused to condemn the war in Ukraine.
The price cap was not discussed at Sunday’s OPEC+ meeting, according to sources.
Russia’s deputy prime minister Alexander Novak said his country would rather cut production than supply oil under the price cap, and pointed out the limit may affect other producers.
Several OPEC+ members are understood to have expressed frustration at the cap, saying the measure could ultimately be used by the West against any producer.
Washington has said the measure was not aimed at OPEC.
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