Our global financial system needs an upgrade. No matter where you are around the globe, the system is expensive and inconvenient, sometimes taking days to settle transactions for businesses, and charging exorbitant fees for lower-income populations to access or use their money.
During the pandemic, the growth of the use of digital-payment technologies leapfrogged by three to five years in the span of three to five months, as lockdowns led people and businesses globally to embrace a digital-first environment for commerce.
Now, more than ever before, the financial services industry has an opportunity to reshape its architecture to make payments accessible to more people and to enable transactions that are instantaneous, efficient, low cost and most of all, secure. While we remain in the early days of the transition from cash to more digital forms of money, the time is ripe to modernize and upgrade the underlying technological infrastructure of the financial system.
Mainstream adoption of digital currencies would expand accessibility, particularly for those who are underrepresented and have lower incomes. The need for this access was evident in the rollout of pandemic stimulus payments in the U.S., which were late in reaching and in some cases failed to reach millions of unbanked Americans––many of whom were people of color and those with lesser means. Those individuals that could access these much-needed funds were sadly disproportionately burdened with check-cashing and processing fees and charges. Digital wallets and currencies can help fill this critical gap, and ensure that people can get direct access to the money they need instantaneously.
Cryptocurrencies have historically been used as investment assets, and their adoption as payment mechanisms has been slow. Making digital currencies, including the digitization of fiat currencies, more useful, understood, and ubiquitous will go a long way to driving greater digital payment use and utility. The benefits are legion, particularly for businesses and consumers––presenting an opportunity to engage in cheaper, safer, and more efficient transactions while meeting widespread consumer demand for the expansion of payment options.
This new digital era demands constructive public-private partnership. It will require greater engagement and contributions than either government or the private sector can undertake alone. As card networks, banks, technology companies and others in the financial services industry lean into the positive promise of digital currencies, industry innovation should be pursued hand-in-hand in partnership with governments and in compliance with national and global regulatory frameworks. These partnerships will be critical to ensuring that we create a safe ecosystem leveraging the immutability of blockchain technology to help combat illicit finance.
The pandemic is challenging world leaders to push digital innovation further as millions of people move away from handling cash. As central banks and policymakers around the world explore ways to leverage Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) for their citizens, industry leaders should play a role in helping shape the new digital economy.
As we enter in this next stage of financial services, the urgency of the moment must be met by the obligation of companies to be responsible stewards of citizens’ trust. The pressing need to innovate responsibly and expand access to digital assets must be accompanied by education efforts about their capabilities, pilot projects that test new offerings, and a shared understanding that the safety and security of the consumer is the top priority.
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the already dire financial circumstances of far too many people and communities around the globe. We must act swiftly and with intention to ensure that the next chapter of our collective financial future is centered on the inclusion and security of the people who need it the most. Digital currencies will be key to making this vision a reality.
Dan Schulman is the president and CEO of PayPal.