There is a perception that decentralized finance (DeFi) and central banks are worlds apart. However, these two worlds should explore common ground that can unlock the best possible solution for the end-consumer – the transparency and efficiency of the DeFi space paired with safe and reliable liquidity and reduced compliance burden provided by central banks. After all, it should be about working towards one common goal – to provide the safest, most efficient, and reliable user experience in payments.
A lot of existing and prospective initiatives are looking into enabling faster, cheaper, more transparent and more inclusive cross-border payment services, while maintaining their safety and security. Improved cross-border payments translate into widespread benefits such as supporting economic growth, international trade, global development and financial inclusion. Cross-border payments are particularly relevant for emerging and developing economies given the central role of remittances and the large number of unbanked citizens in these countries.
The emergence of distributed ledger technology (DLT) has added new momentum to efforts to improve cross-border payments initiated both by the private and public sector. While the private sector has focused on developing decentralized peer-to-peer (P2P) solutions in the retail domain, the public sector has aimed at enabling direct exchanges between participating financial institutions through centrally operated DLT-based networks in the wholesale domain.
For the private sector, the use of DLT eliminates the need for trusted third parties and intermediaries like commercial banks for processing, clearing and settlement. DLT has spurred the growth of DeFi that recreates traditional functions of financial systems using smart contracts in place of middlemen. DeFi operates via decentralized, permissionless DLT-enabled applications called DApps. Currently, the primary DeFi platform is Ethereum, but in principle these ideas can be implemented on any smart contract platform. The main building blocks of DeFi are fiat currency-pegged stablecoins that can be exchanged seamlessly and most DApps are designed to fully interoperate with each other.
Public sector activity in the cross-border domain has focused on exploring DLT-enabled private permissioned wholesale CBDC networks as an alternative to existing real-time gross settlement (RTGS) systems. The broadcast of transactions in real-time across the network of participants eliminates the need for reconciliation or intermediation, allowing designated financial institutions to transact directly without relying on correspondent banks. The Inthanon-LionRock research project carried out in collaboration between the Hong-Kong Monetary Authority and the Bank of Thailand in 2019 created a Thai Bhat and Hong-Kong Dollar cross-border corridor network prototype, which allowed participating banks in Hong Kong and Thailand to conduct funds transfers and foreign exchange transactions on a P2P basis reducing settlement layers.
At a first glance, these two types of initiatives appear worlds apart. But the potential convergence holds promises for the best of two worlds in cross-border payments – a robust solution leveraging the competitive advantage of both. For example, DeFi relies on liquidity pools to meet its liquidity needs. Liquidity pools are crypto-assets that facilitate trading on decentralized exchanges. The tokens are locked into smart contracts and serve to provide liquidity in decentralized exchanges. Those exchange typically make use of an automatic market maker, which obviates the need for an order book and a counterparty in the traditional sense. For the buyer to compete a transaction, there does not need to be an available seller, only sufficient liquidity in the pool against which the trade is executed.
However, these pools can put the deposited funds at serious risk such as impermanent losses, smart contract exploits or malicious actions by pool administrators. Given their decentralized nature, there is no recourse when funds or data is lost as the counterparty is not easily identifiable. Instead of relying on crypto-assets in the liquidity pool, stablecoin providers could purchase central bank reserves issued “on-chain”. These reserves can be used to back the issuance of their coins in different currencies. Another advantage of linking up with central banks is that it could ease the regulatory and compliance burden of DeFi providers and participants which can be particularly heavy when working across different sectors and jurisdictions. Central banks, on the other hand, would have more regulatory oversight over DeFi providers holding their reserves.
Also, rather than having to venture out in the retail space to operate and manage their own networks, which can be time and resource intensive, central banks could benefit from the continuous enhancements of decentralized public networks. In addition, central banks would not need to run consumer-facing operations, like hosting wallets, handling consumer complaints, maintaining superior user experience and integrating with other functional applications beyond payments, which are traditionally outside their mandates. Plus, central banks would have real-time insights into how DeFi providers are using these on-chain reserves and whether they are achieving desired policy goals.
The oracle middleware of decentralized data systems provides a unique opportunity for central banks (or international regulatory and standard setting bodies) to impose technical and regulatory standards that govern the interaction with external DeFi providers. Oracles are third-party services that enable data and transaction sharing between disparate environments in a secure and authoritative manner. Information shared by oracles is digitally signed and hence is considered non‑repudiable (assurance that the signature cannot be denied by the party who signed it). For example, only parties that have completed required financial integrity checks would be authorized to purchase the central bank liability discussed above. Oracles can transmit real-time exchange rate data for DeFi cross-border payments systems and continuously validate and monitor data usage in the downstream applications. Oracles can also be used to achieve interoperability with private enterprise blockchain networks and existing legacy payment systems.
The marriage of the decentralized P2P solutions and centrally governed and organized networks can catalyze mutual benefits beyond cross-border payments. Linking central platforms with decentralized marketplaces would allow for a better integration of the retail and wholesale domains thereby unlocking a variety of use cases for DeFi providers that could be aligned with a country’s strategic policy objectives such as expanding financial inclusion. At the same time, central banks can rely on the continuous improvement of the public networks underlying DeFi while ensuring access to liquidity and regulatory compliance.