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June 18, 2012

MintChip: Sounds like ice cream, but it's actually money

A common topic of conversation in payments for many years has been the notion of a cashless society. Although it is hard to imagine a truly cashless society, it is easy to envision what Ron Shevlin, an analyst with the Aite Group, recently referred to as a "less-cash society." Established alternatives to cash, such as credit, debit, and prepaid cards, have been steadily replacing cash payments for years. However, there still remain individuals who prefer cash to other payment means for a variety of reasons, including the anonymity cash provides.

As an alternative to cash payments, new digital currencies have been conceived. While these digital currencies allow for anonymity like cash, they have traditionally not been backed by an asset or a central back. At least up until now. In April, the Royal Canadian Mint (The Mint) announced the development of MintChip, a digital currency backed by the Canadian dollar. The Mint is currently accepting MintChip payment applications from software developers.

Prior to the MintChip announcement, The Mint made headlines as the Canadian government announced in March the elimination of the penny. The Mint produced its last penny on May 4 with the goal of removing the penny from circulation by the fall of this year. So within several months, the Canadian Mint quits producing the penny while developing a new digital currency.

I believe that The Mint is sensing a true opportunity with MintChip in light of a threat to its traditional business as the world moves to a less-cash society. Faced with the threat of a loss of production in coins, the Mint is attempting to capitalize on the demand for a digital currency to make micropayments for goods and services in both the online and physical world. And while MintChip might not provide as much anonymity as other digital currencies, such as BitCoin and Liberty Reserve (which we looked at in an October 2011 post), its backing by the Canadian dollar might make it a more viable alternative to cash and coins.

It will be interesting to watch the developments of MintChip over the next several months as The Mint will select the best applications submitted by outside developers. Should MintChip gain traction in Canada, it is feasible that The Mint will port this concept to other countries where it currently manages the production of coins. (Over time, Canada has made coins for almost two dozen countries, including the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Iran, and Venezuela.)

The global opportunity in the digital currency space is enormous: there were six billion mobile subscriptions across the globe at the end of 2011, according to the International Telecommunication Union. If MintChip proves to be successful, would the United States Mint attempt to follow suit? And what, if any, would be the regulatory challenges and implications of a digital currency produced by the United States Mint and backed by the U.S. dollar?

Douglas A. KingBy Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

June 18, 2012 in emerging payments, payments | Permalink

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