Digital finance: New opportunities or new risks?

Digital technologies are fundamentally changing the financial market landscape. They are giving users access to innovative products and services, reshaping the relationship between companies and clients, and creating a new competitive environment as well as new regulatory practices. What are the most significant advantages of digital financial instruments? How far-reaching are the new opportunities they are opening up for users? How will the financial industry change in the next decade? Participants in the 5th international research and practice conference on Financial Markets and Financial Systems Transformation in a Digital Economy, organized by the Government’s Financial University, discussed these issues and more. The conference included representatives of the Bank of Russia.

The digital onslaught

Among the important challenges posed by the financial market going digital is the changing role of national currencies, primarily the US dollar. The dollar’s reserve currency status has been weakening for decades, affected, among other things, by inflationary concerns and a growing debt burden.

In September 2023, America’s national debt passed a historic milestone by topping $33 trn, or $100K per one citizen, a trend that further intensified with the rise of digital financial instruments, notes Artem Genkin, Doctor of Economics, Professor, President of the NPO Center for Protection of Bank Clients and Investors.

“According to the StormGain analytics, in 2022 alone, the dollar’s share in global reserves shrank 10 times faster than the last 20 years’ average,” Artem Genkin adds.

As of the end of 2022, the dollar comprised up to 60% of official foreign reserves by the most complimentary estimates, having slumped from 73% in 2001, the expert says. Nine of the largest countries holding US government debt were vigorously selling US treasury securities between July 2022 and June 2023.

“Forecasts regarding the share of the dollar in world reserves 10 years from now vary greatly. According to The Financial Times, it will stand at 51%; Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska estimates that it could fall to half as low, to 25%, provided that no default happens earlier. My forecast is somewhere in the middle,” Artem Genkin says.

Competition from central banks

In the long term, other factors may contribute to the dismantling of the dollar iceberg such as the rise of digital currencies and tokenized assets, especially stablecoins, NFTs and collectible tokens, as well as meta-currencies. As of October 13, 2023, the respective capitalization of those segments was $123.6 bln, $13.5 bln and $9.1 bln.

“We can predict the emergence and outpacing development of stablecoins tied to alternative underlying assets, including dinars, dirhams, yuan and rupees, and even kilowatt-hours of electricity,” Artem Genkin reflects.

The future also looks promising for central bank digital currencies (CBDCs). As of September 2023, three countries have implemented such instruments, and 17 more had pilot projects. Research in this field was underway in 60 countries.

“According to a report by dGen, a non-profit think tank for the responsible, inclusive, and accessible adoption of technology, three to five countries will fully replace their national currencies with CBDCs within the next decade,” Artem Genkin adds.

In particular, the trend may threaten the euro – according to the report, the European currency may be displaced by the digital yuan unless the digital euro is introduced by 2025.

Breaking down barriers

Digital technologies are not just expanding the range of financial instruments for users. Among other things, they can lower the entry threshold to the financial market. The “second tier” of digitalization in the industry, driven by the distributed ledger infrastructure, offers significant opportunities.

Tokenized assets – essentially, digital rights, which are issued, recorded and traded within blockchain-based ecosystems – will certainly come to the forefront here. They offer faster transactions and more flexibility, as well as an unlimited scope of creditors. Compare this with the complex and expensive stock market process of issuing and listing shares. With tokenized assets, the process is much faster, President of the National Finance Association Vasily Zablotsky says.

Most tokenized assets in the Russian market are money claims, but they can also be shares in the capital of non-public joint-stock companies, and even rights under equity securities, explains Sergei Kharinov, Director of Digital Assets at the Moscow Exchange. The digital financial assets market is already valued at RUR 30 bln ($322 mio), and may reach about RUR 5-10 trn ($50-100 bln) in the next five years.

Summa Technologiae

Blockchain-based instruments are not the only assets that are changing the financial market landscape. Biometric systems are becoming just as prominent; they have been widely used in the Russia’s payment infrastructure since 2018, says Gregory Gashnikov, Head of the Fintech Hub at the Bank of Russia.

Quantum-assisted encryption can ensure data security amidst growing digitalization while cloud-based solutions help companies to more actively scale up various user services and boost their performance. Another important vector is open-source program interfaces, or API, that provide for integrating all IT systems surrounding a modern user.

Overall, technology makes financial solutions and services more personalized and reliable while removing intermediaries and consistently expanding the portfolio of innovative proposals. For example, during the first six months of 2023, 80% of services for individual customers in the Russian financial market were available in digital format. It is expected that digital services for businesses will reach the same scope by the end of the year.

Prioritizing reliability

One of the important advantages that innovative technology offers to financial market participants is security. For example, CBDCs, including the digital ruble operated by the Bank of Russia, is a reliable and secure tool.

“The digital ruble will be extremely secure because the Central Bank’s digital system is far better protected than in any other financial institution. Therefore, it will enjoy higher trust,” noted Anatoly Aksakov, Chair of the State Duma Committee on Financial Market.

The digital ruble is currently being tested but starting 2025, individuals and companies will be able to use it freely in their operations. Subsequently, the digital ruble may become available for international circulation.

Digital technologies already help screen bank transactions for fraud by checking them against the Central Bank’s database built using data from Russian banks and containing information about accounts that have ever been used for unlawful operations. This capability helps to prevent loss of funds.

Focus on consumers

Digital transformation has already radically changed the relationship and the nature of service provision in the financial sector, and the speed of interaction between suppliers and consumers, notes Yekaterina Lozgacheva, Deputy Director of the Department of Financial Market Strategic Development at the Bank of Russia. Industries develop new business models; there are also financial innovations that evolve in an unregulated framework.

In these conditions, it is particularly important to maintain a balance between creating new approaches and protecting digital tool users. One important aspect is not leaving a consumer one on one with technical services and robots without access to human staff at financial organizations.

The Bank of Russia continues to focus on creating favorable conditions for developing digital technology in the financial market, including legal and regulatory frameworks.

Expert discussions in the academic community can also be helpful as they allow focusing on the most relevant and essential tasks of digitalization, building communication with experts, and opening up new opportunities for young people, says President of the Financial University under the Russian Government Stanislav Prokofyev.

Green light to technology

Digital technologies have helped the financial sector remain stable in the turbulently changing world of today. Now the financial sector can be more actively involved in digital transformation and technological upgrade of the key industries in the economy.

It is the financial sector that provides two-thirds of investment in the main capital abroad, the share in Russia being below 20%, explains Vladimir Gamza, board member of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Chair of the Council on Financial, Industrial and Investment Policy of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

State support measures can help change the situation. According to the taxonomy of projects on technological sovereignty and structural adaptation of the economy, presented last spring, the projects in the priority 13 industries, from car manufacturing and pharmaceutical production to shipbuilding and electronics manufacturing industry, will receive assistance on special terms, in the form of subsidized interest rate on loans, the guarantee support from VEB.RF and the Bank of Russia’s relaxed regulation on funding tools, which means that banks will be able to grant loans to projects with lower capital load.

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