Australian Reserve Bank’s ‘Project Atom’ CBDC research finds numerous benefits

Following Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s “payments and crypto reform plan,” the RBA has published a report exploring DLT tech and wholesale CBDC issuance.

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) published a report into its two-year research project into wholesale central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) that emphasized the benefits of digitizing and autonomizing manual, paper-based banking processes using distributed ledger technology (DLT).

The report marks the conclusion of the two-year project named “Project Atom” that was conducted in partnership with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), National Australia Bank (NAB), Perpetual, and ConsenSys, along with additional input from King & Wood Mallesons.

Commenting on Project Atom, RBA’s assistant governor (Financial System) Michele Bullock noted that it “demonstrated the potential for a wholesale CBDC and asset tokenization to improve efficiency, risk management and innovation in wholesale financial market transactions.”

A wholesale CBDC refers to a central bank issued digital currency that is designed for the settlement of interbank transfers and transactions between financial institutions, as opposed to a retail CBDC that is intended for public use.

The CBDC research was published on Dec. 8, the same day Treasurer and Deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg unveiled an ambitious “payments and crypto reform plan” for fintech and crypto regulation in Australia. The government has indicated it is in favor of at least six crypto reform proposals recommended by a Senate Committee, and is investigating others.

The project consisted of a proof-of-concept (POC) for the issuance of a “tokenized form of CBDC” that could be utilized in a digitized wholesale syndicated loan market. The testing took place on an Ethereum-based distributed ledger technology (DLT) platform.

The report found that a wholesale CBDC backed by DLT technology could significantly increase efficiency and reduce operational risk by “replacing highly manual and paper-based processes related to the origination and servicing” of data, transactions, loan payments and settlements to name a few.

Some issues that the RBA highlighted however, concerned “transaction privacy, finality, throughput and efficiency” of CBDC and DLT usage particularly related to blockchains that are not designed for wholesale purposes.

The POC experimented with a two-tier model for the issuance and distribution of a CBDC, wherein the RBA issued the digital currency to the commercial banks and then the banks opened up availability to “eligible wholesale market participants that they sponsor onto the platform.”

Related: Reserve Bank warns Aussies over punting on ‘fad driven’ cryptocurrencies

The RBA said that it has explored the concept of CBDCs since 2018 —despite playing down its importance on multiple occasions — but has gradually ramped up its focus on a digital currency since 2020 amid growing interest from governments across the globe, citing China in particular who has already rolled out numerous public trials of the digital yuan.

Bullock outlined that the RBA “will continue its research on CBDCs as part of its strategic focus area on supporting the evolution of payments.”

Speaking with the Australian Financial Review on Dec. 8, Sophie Gilder, the CBA’s head of blockchain and digital assets emphasized the “high-level benefits” of using a CBDC, noting that an interoperable register and payments system could provide greater transparency for payments, data and auditing:

“I think of it as ‘operational alpha’: greater efficiency and greater transparency, which means you don’t have to separately audit and report on activities, and you can have better AML [anti money laundering] procedures because you have a real-time check.”

“That would be beneficial for the economy and make it easier for regulators to do their job, while the programmability would be a giant leap forward and highly beneficial,” she added.

Australian government gives nod to 6 world leading crypto reforms

“What is clear is that if we embrace these developments, Australia has an enormous opportunity to capitalize on the convergence between finance and technology,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said.

The Australian government is seriously consider the rollout of central bank digital currency (CBDC) and has backed numerous forward-looking regulatory crypto-proposals as part of a new “payments and crypto reform plan.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says the reforms “will firmly place Australia among a handful of lead countries in the world.”

The reform plan is said to be the biggest shake-up of the Australian payments system since the 1990s, with part of the crypto-related groundwork set by the innovative proposals put forward by an Australian Senate Committee in September.

According to the Australian Financial Review, the government is in favor of six out of nine reforms proposed by the Senate Committee, including a licensing regime for crypto exchanges, laws to govern decentralized autonomous organizations and a common access regime for new payments platforms.

Two proposals relating to tax and financial compliance have been referred to their respective government bodies for consideration, while the government has knocked back another proposal related to renewable energy Bitcoin mining tax discounts.

Treasurer and deputy leader of the Liberal Party Josh Frydenberg outlined the government’s plans for crypto regulation, taxation and CBDCs in a speech today at the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce (AICC).

“What is clear is that if we embrace these developments, Australia has an enormous opportunity to capitalize on the convergence between finance and technology,” he said.

Concerning CBDCs, an unnamed senior government source told The Australian on Dec. 7 that a retail scale “RBA [Reserve Bank of Australia] backed Bitcoin or cryptocurrency” is currently being considered, and will be a key element of the government’s regulatory reform on digital payments.

During his AICC speech, Frydenberg spoke bullishly on the crypto asset reform:

“For businesses, these reforms will address the ambiguity that can exist about the regulatory and tax treatment of crypto assets and new payment methods. In doing so, it will drive even more consumer interest, facilitate even more new entrants and enable even more innovation to take place.”

“For consumers, these changes will establish a regulatory framework to underpin their growing use of crypto assets and clarify the treatment of new payment methods,” he added.

One Senate committee proposal the government looks set to ignore is the 10% tax discount for Bitcoin (BTC) miners who use renewable energy. Michael Harris the head of corporate development at local exchange Swyftx, told Cointelegraph:

“We think this was a political consideration. The reality is that it’s probably going to be difficult for any government to segregate out an industry like BTC mining from other energy consumers, however laudable the intention.”

However Harris said that overall the “noises coming out of government at the moment are promising” as the government seems to have recognized the need to introduce consumer protection laws without stifling innovation.

“The devil will be in the detail though and we are especially keen to avoid a system that reduces customer choice by stacking the decks in favor of big, traditional financial players.”

Related: Australian women owning crypto has doubled in 2021: Survey

Crypto-friendly senator Andrew Bragg, who drove the recent crypto proposals, told Cointegraph in a statement that Frydenberg’s crypto and fintech reform plan will put “Australia on the tech map”:

“Australia will be a world-leading crypto hub under the Treasurer’s plan. Australian consumers will also benefit from new consumer protection rules.”

“The world is watching Australia which is now setting the global standard for crypto, payments and digital wallet reform,” he added.

Caroline Bowler, the CEO of local crypto exchange BTC markets welcomed the reforms, calling them a “major step forward to upgrade Australia’s one-size-fits-all regulatory framework in real-time.”

“It’s great to see that the gaps in Australian regulation relating to digital financial products and the exchanges who support them are being finally addressed at the highest level of authority, and the Coalition Government is not shying away from the big issues surrounding crypto, payments and de-banking,” she said.