A growing collection of digital innovations is currently underway with the goal of enhancing payments, both domestic and international, and creating an ecosystem of FinTech platforms to provide related financial services. But while the story starts with payments, understood properly it quickly comes to encompass a set of larger questions. The questions range from the structure of financial institutions and the translation of savings into investments on the one hand, to the role of central banks and ultimately international political economy and the distribution of power on the other.
Examples of these FinTech innovations include existing messaging and money transfer systems. Some, like Fedwire and SWIFT, are fully digital while others, like Western Union, are only partly digital. More recent innovations range from internet-based platforms (Paypal, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Square, TransferWise) to telecom-and-bank enabled systems (M-Pesa, Equitel), Blockchain/Crypto-based projects (Ripple), corporate initiatives (Facebook’s Libra), and public-sector solutions (central bank digital currencies).
Being based on different platforms and having different sponsors, these approaches are designed for different markets and applications. Some cater to banks (Fedwire, SWIFT, Ripple), others to retail customers (M-Pesa, Equitel, Square). Some focus on domestic payments (Fedwire, M-Pesa), others on payments between customers in different countries using different currencies (Ripple, TransferWise, Western Union).
Notwithstanding their variety, these digital initiatives raise a common set of analytical and public policy concerns. For instance, which initiatives are economically viable – i.e. which projects will survive? Which ones will significantly enhance the efficiency of payments, and for whom and to whose advantage? At what cost, with what risks, and with what complications? With what implications for innovation policy, competition policy and financial regulation? With what implications for international political economy (given that some countries and governments may be advantaged over others) and the distribution of power (e.g. BigTech and FinTech, or public and private sector?).
All this is occurring against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis. Inevitably, we will want to ask how the crisis is re-shaping the evolution, adoption and regulation of these new technologies.
Analyzing these issues as a group, understanding their joint evolution, and drawing out their public policy implications will require a diverse set of expertise. The discussion must bring together technologists (expert, for example, in Blockchain), computer scientists and encryption specialists (knowledgeable of network security), monetary economists (who know about banking systems, payments and financial regulation), financial market participants who understand the competitive strategies implicit in Fintech offerings, and political economists attuned to the domestic and international political implications. To our knowledge, this is not something that has been done before.
Defining the Issues and Opening the Discussion: An Initial Conference
We envision an initial conference, tentatively for October 12th - 14th 2020, to be comprised of three three-hour sessions, or two four-hour sessions, hosted on Zoom. The objective of this conference would be to define the parameters of discussion and debate, identify specific research domains, and draw some preliminary implications for public policy. This may be the first of a series of conferences, depending on how many productive research ideas are identified and justify further development.
For each thematic topic noted below, we will commission a presenter to prepare a PowerPoint deck and deliver a 20-minute table-setting presentation. A lead discussant will then follow with a 10-minute response, after which we will have 30 minutes of – hopefully lively – spontaneous discussion. We do not have publication plans at this time, but productive presentations that point to a set of issues to be addressed and a research agenda to pursue might be developed subsequently into research papers (that might be published on, inter alia, the website of the Berkeley-Haas Blockchain Initiative).