Lecture by Yves Mersch, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB, Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, London, 8 February 2018
European folklore warns of the will-o’-the-wisp, a malignant creature that dwelt in marshes. It would appear as a light in the distance, which a traveller would mistake for houses. As they reached the place where they thought the light was, it would move further ahead, drawing them deeper into the marsh to their untimely death and a watery grave. In some areas, will-o’-the-wisps were said to mark buried treasure. Investigation of the phenomenon found it was related to dissipating bubbles of marsh gas.
With the draining of marshes to make way for agricultural land, will-o’-the-wisps are rarely sighted nowadays. But there remain plenty of distant flashing lights to distract travellers with promises of riches. As with the previous incarnation, these flashing lights often turn out to be just like bubbles of marsh gas – insubstantial and foul-smelling, but also flammable and sometimes able to burn things around them.
The most recent beguiling wisps are named variously “cryptocurrencies” – to denote the use of cryptographic methods and technology – or “virtual currencies” (VCs) – to denote their lack of legal recognition. There are, at present, more than 1,500 VCs in circulation, with dozens of new schemes being launched monthly, including initial coin offerings (ICOs). Most have failed to attract users, in particular in the major currency areas. The total value outstanding has fluctuated sharply, largely from speculative activity.
The global value of all VCs is currently around a fifth of the value of all euro banknotes in circulation and around 3% of the narrow monetary aggregate M1. Of course, these figures are probably already out of date, such is the volatility of the market. Having a million dollars’ worth of Bitcoin today would have required the simple investment of three million dollars in mid-December. Because holders can hide their identity and location, it is impossible to accurately analyse VC circulation in the euro area. But euro-related activity on exchanges represents a small share of global activity, and is concentrated on a small number of users.
While VCs remained an esoteric interest, it seemed sufficient for authorities to mostly observe and issue warnings here and there. But it is the dose that makes the poison. Now that VCs may grow to be economically significant, we need to reduce the risk of negative impacts on the economy.
In my remarks today, I wish to explain what it takes for something to be considered “money” – and how VCs measure up. I will then set out what I believe are some of the key regulatory questions that need addressing, and actions that need to be taken to mitigate the potential blowback from VCs to the rest of the financial system.