Headquarters of the Bank  for International Settlements, in Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Wikipedia
Headquarters of the Bank for International Settlements, in Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Wikipedia

The world’s central bankers, perhaps understandably, are arguing that crypto-currencies will never replace them.

This year’s Economic Report from the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) contains a damning assessment of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. While “crypto-payment systems” show some promise for “small-value cross-border transfers,” the BIS argues that “a range of shortcomings” will prevent crypto-currencies from becoming really significant in the mainstream financial system.

If the epitome of the freewheeling, highly volatile and defiantly radical world of Bitcoin is a Far East Asian crypto exchange run by a 30-something billionaire, then the exact diametric opposite is the Bank for International Settlements (BIS).

Established in 1930 by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, the BIS quickly moved on from its original role, as the coordinator for World War I reparation payments, to become a forum and facilitator for the world’s central banks.

Today its membership, of 60-central bank bodies, together represent approximately 95% of the world’s GDP and the body aims to understand and then guide monetary policies on country-level lending, liquidity and liability via a series of committees that that meet regularly, for private discussions and dinner, at the organisation’s 70-story office in the Swiss city of Basel.

Adam LeBor, in his 2014 book, “Tower of Basel: The Shadowy History of the Secret Bank that Runs the World” described the BIS as “the most important bank in the world” that has “for decades… stood at the center of a global network of money, power and covert global influence.” It is, argues LeBor, “the world’s most exclusive club.”

Its Annual Economic Report is one of the Bank’s few public communications and this year’s version devotes 24 pages to crypto-currencies. “New cryptocurrencies are emerging almost daily,” it says by way of introduction, “and many interested parties are wondering whether central banks should issue their own versions.”

It takes little time to find the answer. Cryptos are volatile, unstable and face challenges around money laundering, the financing of terrorism, hacking attacks and fraud, especially around ICOs that are “often linked to opaque business projects for which minimal and unaudited information is supplied.”

Despite the increased regulatory focus from governments and the G20, and calls for “continuous monitoring by the international standard-setting bodies” and the “global implementation of applicable standards,” the BIS report thinks the “legal and regulatory definitions do not always align with the new realities” and asks if the rise of crypto-currencies and crypto-assets call “for a redrawing of regulatory boundaries.”

Crucially, the BIS report argues that the much-hyped decentralized blockchain networks, that underpins all cryptos, actually act not as strengths but flaws. Being decentralized, the BIS argues, inherently means that cryptos must rely on the inherent honesty of the majority of any system’s users. Creating, trading and verifying these trust-based systems, that in effect are ever-growing networks of thousands and thousands of computers are, in terms of the electricity usage, rapidly becoming “environmental disasters” that eventually “could bring the internet to a halt.”

Crypto-currencies, concludes the BIS, are a “poor substitute for the solid institutional backing of money.”

It is, of course, hard to argue with any of this. Except when trying to understand why crypto-currencies have become popular, especially with the young. Putting the force of speculation aside for a moment – admittedly tricky to do when talking about cryptos – many have written how Bitcoin and the rest have grown in popularity because of a rejection, by younger generations, of the existing financial system.

The first ever Bitcoin appeared with this digital note attached: “Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks”. It is a headline from The Times in London from January 3, 2009 and while it may be a dated proof, showing when the coin was created, it has also been widely seen as a comment on the financial crisis, raging at full blast then, and the instability of international banking.

This is a system overseen, of course, by the Bank of International Settlements.

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