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Economic Insights

Lord Abbett currency expert Leah Traub shares her thoughts on these financial technologies and their implications for global economies.

In the other segments of our special report on blockchain and cryptocurrencies, we provided a basic view of how these technologies work, and discussed their implications for today’s investors. We also spoke with a Lord Abbett economic expert on how their ascendance might shape the future for good or ill.  Here, we asked Leah Traub, Ph.D., Lord Abbett partner and portfolio manager, to share her views on the potential impact of cryptocurrencies on the established economic order. Edited excerpts from the conversation follow:

What role might cryptocurrencies play in the global economy?
Traub:
The technology behind them is quite powerful, so I think that's what everyone's trying to figure out. I think that what governments are trying to assess is how they can use the underlying blockchain technology, but at that same time prevent such currencies from having an unfavorable or disruptive impact on markets and economies.

On the positive side, the technology could actually make payment systems much more reliable. The unique identifier in cryptocurrency transactions makes them more secure. So, I think that the big story for the next couple of years will be how governments allow some of this technology to be used in the financial system—payments, for example. And there are certain systems where the technology could really make a difference.

But at the same time, governments may try to limit the penetration of the actual currencies into the economic and financial spheres. After all, you’ve seen the recent volatility around Bitcoin, right? If we look at one of the traditional roles of currencies, Bitcoin hasn’t been a very good store of value. Financial actors want to have a rough idea of what a currency will be worth in the future, and with the likes of Bitcoin, you can't really know what it's going to be worth from day to day. Right now, these cryptocurrencies aren’t easy to use to make basic transactions. So, I think there are a lot of impediments for Bitcoin and any of its competitors to actually becoming a currency as we typically think about it.

What about the regulatory picture?
Traub:
Most countries, including those in the developed world, think of Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies generally as more of a commodity than a currency. In the United States, for example, the CFTC [Commodities Futures Trading Commission] is regulating Bitcoin as a commodity. Europe also tends to regulate that way as well. The only major economy that's actually using it as legal tender is Japan. Other than that, obviously, Venezuela is going down that path with the petro.

But the light regulatory touch is disappearing. China used to not have any regulations. Now it has a ton. Same with South Korea, as that nation became more restrictive toward the end of last year. For example, both countries now prohibit participation in initial coin offerings, which is how new cryptocurrency ventures are primarily funded. Japan appears to be the only country going in the opposite direction.

And that’s odd. I don't know why it's different from the positions of other major central banks. When former U.S. Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen was asked about it in a December 2017 press conference, she said cryptocurrencies are "absolutely not a legal form of tender.” Her reasoning is that the Fed has no jurisdiction in this area because it's not a recognized form of payment. Obviously, that can change over time. But while the United States has taken that stance, you have Japan going in the complete opposite direction. Meanwhile, you have some central banks, such as in India, for example, thinking about issuing its own cryptocurrency. Now, again, I don’t think the country means for it to rival its own currency, the rupee. The cryptocurrency likely would be for use in internal payment systems.

What happens to the global currency system as cryptocurrencies increase in popularity?
Traub:
What's interesting is that while Bitcoin gets all the attention, there are so many cryptocurrencies that have been launched. So, let’s say a new one gets launched, and maybe it facilitates transactions more quickly. Or maybe it's more secure, or has some other advantage over the previously issued ones. And then maybe it evolves and gains widespread acceptance. The issue then will be whether this new offering can be thought of as a currency and really start disrupting normal currencies. And the thing is, the defining feature—what many people like about cryptocurrencies—is that it’s not regulated. The whole point is that it's supposed to be open source—it's not supposed to be controlled by any one body.

But I think that could actually hinder its adoption, because with so many competing cryptocurrencies out there, at some point the market would have to settle on one, or maybe two, before the different cryptocurrencies can really start to compete in certain ways with established currencies.

But again, I think that if this new technology disrupts anything, it will happen in payments—like, in the back-office settlement area, which is huge. The global settlement infrastructure is massive. So, if new technologies or alternative currencies can partially supplant what we currently have, make transactions more secure, make the system work a lot better, that's great. But it doesn't necessarily impact someone's day-to-day financial life.

Do you have any thoughts on the current economic and market impact?
Traub: 
If cryptocurrencies begin to displace the traditional currency market, then they actually may start to have a real, measurable economic impact. I don't think there's any necessarily real economic spillover yet, because I don't think there are enough people doing that trade on a daily basis. In addition, the new regulations I mentioned before, as well as the recent volatility, are deterring new participants from entering. But that's something I'm watching carefully.

Any concluding thoughts?
Traub: It's a very fascinating topic. I think it's definitely still in flux, and things are changing all the time. But this is to be continued, right? So we’ll talk again.

Thank you for speaking with us today.

 

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