November 25, 2022
An Examination of First-Mover Advantage for a CBDC
Ken Isaacson, Jesse Leigh Maniff, and Paul Wong1
This paper explores whether there could be a first-mover advantage for a jurisdiction issuing a central bank digital currency (CBDC) compared to other jurisdictions that subsequently issue their own CBDC. Conventional academic literature provides a framework by which one can assess a CBDC in the domestic payments market, the international payments market, and the technology markets that support payments. However, a CBDC may be more than just a means of payment and thus first-mover advantage is examined for both the asset component of reserve currency and a future financial system built on CBDCs. Overall, the first mover literature does not suggest that there is a compelling first-mover advantage for issuing a CBDC.
Interest in central bank digital currency (CBDC) has accelerated in the past few years, with many central banks weighing benefits and drawbacks of a CBDC.2 For the purpose of this note, a CBDC is defined as a digital payment instrument, denominated in the national unit of account, that is a direct liability of the central bank and different in some way from existing central bank reserves.3 Central banks are in different stages of research, exploration, and development of CBDCs, ranging from theorizing to prototyping to being in production, with some jurisdictions focusing on a general-purpose CBDC that can be widely used by the public and others concentrating on a CBDC for wholesale payments. Some jurisdictions are looking to address present-day challenges whereas others are exploring possible future capabilities.4
Swift progress towards a CBDC for some jurisdictions has been driven in part by the potential for first-mover advantage among CBDCs. The paper reviews conventional academic thinking on first-mover advantage along three broad categories: technology leadership, resourcing (including standards), and customer preferences. The paper then explores the advantages and disadvantages of being the first to issue a CBDC in three distinct but interlinked markets: the domestic payments market, the international payments market, and the technology markets that support domestic and international payments. An initial analysis suggests that sustained first-mover advantages for a CBDC are unlikely given that technology and the payments market are changing rapidly. Finally, the paper examines potential first-mover advantages outside of the payments system markets.
Conventional Academic Theories on First-Mover Advantages
"First-mover advantage" is typically defined as the competitive advantage gained by being the first to introduce a product, service, or technology. Competitive advantage in the private sector is typically measured by profitability or market share, and often by both. A first mover in a particular market seeks to gain a benefit relative to competitors in a number of areas, such as having additional time to define the market, perfecting a product or service, building economies of scale, and erecting barriers to entry (for example, through the acquisition of scare resources or the establishment of product stickiness). An example of a successful first mover is Amazon for cloud services.5
Academic literature, however, shows no clear consensus among researchers on whether there is a net advantage or disadvantage to being a first mover.6 The literature suggests that in addition to some of the potential first-mover advantages described above, there are some potential disadvantages to being a first mover. A first mover, for example, could confer benefit to competitors by revealing information about the first mover's technology or product development or because the first mover initially invests in technology or standards which become obsolete or have unforeseen limitations. Subsequent movers can also learn from the first mover to build products that better meet the needs of customers. An example of a successful subsequent mover is Netscape Navigator in the web browser market. It overtook NCSA Mosaic, which was the first browser to display images in line with text, within two years of its introduction. A few years later, Microsoft Internet Explorer employed a different subsequent mover strategy when it integrated into Microsoft Windows operating systems, overtaking Netscape Navigator to become the dominant browser.7
The advantages and disadvantages of first movers can be broadly categorized in three buckets: technology, resourcing, and customer preferences. Table 1 highlights some of the considerations.
Table 1: Framework for assessing potential advantages and disadvantages for a first mover
First movers may have more time to perfect a technology, allowing for superior products and processes relative to later entrants. As long as technological progress continues for the first mover in a meaningful way, subsequent movers can only catch up if their technological capabilities develop more rapidly than the first mover’s capabilities.
Subsequent movers can wait to see which technology standards come to dominate before entering and may enable subsequent movers to avoid stranded investments. First movers, in contrast, may have these investments because they entered when multiple technology and related standards were still competing with each other.
First movers may have fewer incentives to innovate, allowing subsequent entrants to technologically surpass first movers.
Control of resources (including standards)
First movers may have an opportunity to claim scarce resources, such as patents or standards, needed to deliver a competing product.
Economies of scale
First movers may benefit from lower costs if there are economies of scale in production.
Free rider effects
Subsequent movers may be able to learn from early movers and reduce or avoid up-front investments, putting them at a cost advantage relative to the first mover.
First movers may be committed to a given set of resources, allowing subsequent movers to be able to adapt more quickly to a changing environment.
Customer loyalty (switching costs, brand reputation)
First movers have an opportunity to create high switching costs and brand recognition. If it is costly for a customer to switch to a competitor, the first provider to acquire a customer will have an advantage. Switching costs are particularly high if network effects are present. Also, in some cases, a first mover might be able to establish brand loyalty.
Customer preferences uncertainty
Subsequent movers can wait to see which market trends become dominant, then focus their efforts specifically on satisfying those market needs.
Not all advantages are durable, and it is important to consider the circumstances when first movers are able to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage. One academic theory posits that first-mover advantages are sustainable only where there is gradual evolution of both the technology and product market.8 Where there is rapid technological change, market change, or both, this theory holds that first-mover advantages are limited because of the ongoing need to substantially change the offering to remain competitive against challengers.
Assessment of First-Mover Advantages for a CBDC in Payments Markets
Assessing whether there is a first-mover advantage for CBDC using this framework requires a definition for the market being assessed. While CBDC could be seen through the lens of several "markets," three key markets to consider are the (1) domestic payments market, (2) international payments market, and (3) payments technology support market. These markets are distinct but intertwined. Use of a currency at the domestic level will affect its use at the international level. And payments technology that facilitates the use of CBDC spans both domestic and international payments markets. Standards will affect all markets and are thus discussed first.
Role of standards across all markets
Control of resources, such as standards, often leads to a first-mover advantage, prompting the question: could a central bank obtain a first-mover advantage by establishing the standards for a CBDC? Early development and implementation might allow a central bank to offer a CBDC design that could influence the development of any new open, consensus-based technical standards by various national and international bodies, which other jurisdictions may choose to use to simplify their own CBDC development and design. If interoperability between CBDC systems is a primary goal, a first mover may have certain advantages in avoiding additional development if they utilize existing, widely adopted standards, or if their new specifications are widely adopted by others. However, where interoperability is not a primary objective for subsequent movers, a first mover would likely not have an advantage, given the speed of technology developments and the ability of large economies to dictate their own technology standards. Moreover, subsequent movers may have the advantage of not having to change their standards as new standards are adopted.9
Domestic payments market
The introduction of a CBDC in domestic payments market is unlikely to provide a material first-mover advantage when applying the technology, resourcing, and customer preferences framework above. CBDC is in a unique domestic product category – money that is a direct liability of the central bank of a jurisdiction. This is something that cannot be replicated by any other entity, given that there is only one central bank issuer in a given jurisdiction. A CBDC issued by any other entity would have to be a foreign CBDC. Since payments are local, payments law, infrastructure, practices, and behavior are based on local norms and behaviors. This "localness" may reduce the ability for a foreign CBDC to successfully replace the local one, except in jurisdictions that may prefer foreign currencies to domestic ones for reasons outside of means of payment.
There are numerous examples that point to the "localness" of payment markets. M-Pesa, for example, is a Kenyan mobile money solution that is frequently cited as an example of how a mobile-phone based payment system could operate.10 It is a highly successful product that allows people, including many unbanked, to use their phones to make payments.11 Yet few countries (if any) were able to use/adopt/follow the M-Pesa model to the same degree, even neighboring countries, such as Tanzania, where one might assume conditions are similar.12 Because of subtle local differences, such as the ability to resell phone minutes to rural populations, the success of M-Pesa in Kenya has not easily transferred to other markets.
Another example of jurisdictional segregation in the payments market is the rate of adoption across the globe for chip cards as replacements for magnetic strip cards, despite seemingly similar markets. The French introduced chip cards to combat certain types of fraud in the 1980s, reaching ubiquity among bank cards by the mid-1990s. Other European markets and regions around the world followed.13 By 2014, roughly 30 years after the chip card's introduction, only 0.03 percent of card transactions in the United States used chips, largely because U.S. market participants lacked incentives to invest in the change.14 Africa and the Middle East, in contrast, recorded nearly 76 percent chip card usage that same year. Not until the global card networks made changes to their fraud liability policies in 2015 did chip-card conversion begin in earnest in United States, one of the largest card market in the world.15
International payments market
For a few jurisdictions, the global role of their currency and cross-border payments may be a relevant consideration. Today, a few currencies (such as the U.S. dollar, euro, Chinese renminbi, Japanese yen, British pound) are held in significant quantities by central banks and governments as reserve currencies to meet international debt obligations, provide foreign exchange liquidity to the domestic market, and help achieve currency objectives, among other things.16 These reserve currencies also play an important role in the international payments market. Their ability to serve as a trusted store of value and a widely accepted medium of exchange support their frequent use in international trade.
Applying the technology, resourcing, and customer preference framework to international payments markets, it is unclear whether there are any first-mover advantages. While technology can facilitate increased use of a particular currency, the drivers behind use of a currency for international trade and finance are mainly related to non-technology factors such as the economic size and credibility of the reserve currency issuer. Theoretically, consumer preferences could generate network effects for a specific currency, but such changes occur gradually. Business preferences could take even longer to change given legacy accounting and financial systems, among other factors.
While history is not always a good predictor of the future, it can provide some insights. Currency transitions have historically been slow to materialize, and these transitions were not driven by technology, resourcing, or customer preferences. The transition away from the British pound sterling to the U.S. dollar as the global currency was a gradual one. The pound was the dominant trading and reserve currency in the early 1800s because of Britain's geopolitical influence and role in global trade. The status of the pound came under strain following World War I, eventually forcing Britain to abandon the gold standard, causing a devaluation of its currency and leading to the establishment of a new global monetary regime with a gold-backed U.S. dollar in the center.
The global currency shifted from the British pound to the U.S. dollar over decades. In 1947, the pound accounted for 87 percent of global foreign exchange reserves, with the U.S. dollar below 20 percent. In the 1950s, after more than a century of the British Pound serving as the global currency, the U.S. dollar overtook it, and the British pound fell below 50 percent of global foreign exchange reserves.17 The U.S. dollar peaked to slightly above 70 percent of reserve currency holdings in 2000. Today, the U.S. dollar is at roughly 60 percent of reserve holdings. Along with the euro at roughly 20 percent of reserve holdings, these two currencies are the dominant global currencies.18 This example of gradually moving away from the British pound appears to be driven by sustained factors such as policy considerations and inertia more so than first mover factors such as technology, resourcing, and/or customer preference, which do not appear to be prominent and/or durable drivers of this transition.19
Market for Development of Technology Supporting CBDC
A third market to consider for first-mover advantage is the market for technology used for payments. Could a jurisdiction benefit from being a first mover in supporting technology by issuing a CBDC? That is, are there first-mover advantages for a jurisdiction's private firms that support a first-mover CBDC? While first-mover advantages are often considered from the issuer's perspective, it is possible that private firms in a first-mover jurisdiction will have advantages over private firms elsewhere. Private firms supporting the first mover CBDC may gain knowledge and experience that would make them more competitive to support foreign CBDC markets or prompt innovation in adjacent domestic markets, benefitting the first mover's jurisdiction. Private firms, for example, could gain a competitive advantage from providing technology leadership, from acquiring intellectual property rights, and from building economies of scale and scope in a cross-border context. However, it is not clear if these advantages are sustainable given that both technology and customer preferences in payments are dynamic and payment markets are typically local.
First-Mover Advantage Beyond the Payment System Markets
A CBDC, just like other forms of money, is more than just a medium of exchange and can generate first-mover advantages that extend beyond the operational aspect of being a transfer mechanism. Central banks have built and operated payment systems for centuries, and there was neither a rush to market for a real-time gross settlement (RTGS) system nor for an instant retail payment system. Nor did being first to implement a large-value RTGS system or the first to introduce an instant payment system result in any material shift in the international financial landscape. Yet despite this history, the question of whether there is a first-mover advantage in CBDCs remains.20 In that vein, it may be interesting to examine first-mover advantage in the context of (1) the asset component of reserve currency and (2) a future financial system built on CBDCs.
Reserve Currency as an Asset
In the context of first-mover advantage, it is important to distinguish between a reserve currency held as a safe asset by foreign monetary authorities and a reserve currency used for international payments. As a safe asset, there are features that jurisdictions consider for reserve currencies that extend beyond the payment infrastructure. Academic research suggests that four key elements influence reserve currency status: the economic size and dominance of reserve issuers, including role in international trade; the credibility of reserve issuers, including financial market's depth and liquidity; the transactional demand of reserve holders; and inertia.21 These elements, in addition to trusted legal and regulatory institutions, influence the attractiveness of holding and using a currency internationally. Since transactions are already digital, it seems unlikely that altering the technical features of a jurisdiction's payment system will materially impact key reserve currency-determining elements.22 Without a very large geopolitical event, these elements take time to change and do not appear to be related to first mover activity.23, 24, 25
An Economic Platform Built on CBDCs
The discussion surrounding digital currencies, especially those that are decentralized, often alludes to how digital currencies can change "value transfer" in the same manner that the internet revolutionized "information transfer".26 A CBDC is sometimes envisioned as an economic platform that can underpin the financial markets, support enhanced automation, and serve as a foundation for new economic activity. Whether such a future state is realizable in the near or distant future, many jurisdictions see the value of influencing the rules for such a future state. However, it is unclear whether being a first-mover CBDC will increase a currency zone's influence in creating any such new economic platform, and even if it did, it seems likely this would play out over a long period of time.
The development of the internet, which took many decades, may offer some additional insights into platform creation. Though its origins begin in the 1960s with ARPA, it did not became commercialized until the late 1980s, around the same time as the development of the web. User adoption of the internet also progressed slowly. In 1990, 0.05 percent of the world's population was using the internet.27 By 2000, users increased to 6.7 percent, and in 2017, almost half of the world's population was using the internet.28 Thus both the evolution of the internet and its adoption were not sudden developments, but rather a series of events that happened over decades.
The development of the internet may help inform the prospects for CBDC as an economic platform. Creating a public utility underpinning a new financial system would likely take many years, and it is possible that the eventual technology standards have not been developed yet. Moreover, the introduction of a new economic platform may require an indispensable function or feature (or more colloquially, a "killer app") for adoption, much like the widespread internet use depended on the development of the web. The history of the Internet suggests that the commercialization of CBDC-related products and services using nonproprietary protocols may be essential for growth, probably more so than being first to establish the platform.
Implications for Subsequent Movers
While there may be potential advantages to a first-mover CBDC, these advantages are not particularly compelling or sustainable. The disadvantages of being the first mover may be more prominent, primarily because competitors may be able to take advantage of lessons from and investments by first movers. As previously noted, first-mover advantages are most prominent if the pace of technological and market evolution are gradual; but the pace of technological and market change for new forms of money is rapid.29 Numerous entities are focused on payments, each vying to offer its own unique value proposition, and customer preferences can change quickly, as evidenced by quick uptake of certain technologies. Moreover, customer preferences vary significantly by and within a jurisdiction.
There is also significant technological uncertainty in this space. While there are calls for establishing standards and protocols, the lack of consensus on core technological features and the rapid pace of innovation suggest broad efforts to define CBDC standards may be premature.30 It is also not apparent which new technologies are particularly useful for systems run by central banks. As early adopters test their CBDC solutions, subsequent movers can learn from their design choices and leverage technological developments.
Subsequent movers can also benefit from better understanding consumer preferences in other jurisdictions. While each jurisdiction has its own unique preferences, lessons can still inform a subsequent CBDC issuer for a better calibrated launch. Key questions remain on how the public would accept a CBDC, how implementation and adoption might work, how a CBDC might be used relative to other payment instruments, and how market structure and financial stability might be impacted. A first mover could provide subsequent movers more insights into these very important and challenging questions.
The first mover literature does not suggest that there is a compelling first-mover advantage for issuing a CBDC in the domestic payments market, reserve currency and international payments market, or payments technology market. There is also unlikely to be a first-mover advantage for CBDC as an asset or as the potential foundation of a future financial state. Technology and markets are evolving quickly, which makes sustainable competitive advantage unlikely. Rather than focusing on timing of entry, central banks may benefit more from identifying clear policy objectives, exploring technological designs, and understanding benefits and risks to inform any decision on CBDC issuance.
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1. Ken Isaacson is with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Jesse Leigh Maniff is with the Federal Reserve Board. Paul Wong was formerly with the Federal Reserve Board. The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the authors and should not be interpreted as reflecting the views of the Board of Governors or the Federal Reserve System. The authors would like to thank Brett Berger, Sonja Danburg, Lacy Douglas, David Mills, Cy Watsky, and Sarah Wright of the Federal Reserve Board; Anders Brownworth and Robert Flynn of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston; Angela Lawson of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis; Antoine Martin of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; and Tyler Frederick, Jorge Herrada, and Susan Zubradt for their contributions and assistance towards this note. Return to text
2. For an overview of how the Federal Reserve is approaching CBDC, see Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (2022). Return to text
3. See, for example, Bank of Canada et al. (2020). Return to text
4. See, for example, Cheng, Lawson, and Wong (2021). Return to text
5. Miller (2016). https://techcrunch.com/2016/07/02/andy-jassys-brief-history-of-the-genesis-of-aws/ Return to text
6. See, for example, Lieberman and Montgomery (1988); Lieberman and Montgomery (1998); Kerin, Varadarajan, and Peterson (1992); and Suarez and Landzolla (2005). Return to text
7. See Windrum (2001). Return to text
8. Suarez and Landzolla (2005). Return to text
9. For example, early adopters that built faster payment system using domestic messaging standards instead of international messaging standards have had to transition their messaging standards. See Faster Payments Task Force (2017). Return to text
10. M-Pesa was launched in 2007 by Safaricom, the dominant Kenyan mobile phone network. Safaricom sells phone credits to users and allows them to use the credits for payments. Return to text
11. M-Pesa's success likely can be attributed at least in part to the inaccessibility of traditional payment services in Kenya. Only 19% of Kenyans had access to banking services when M-Pesa was launched in 2007, primarily due to onerous enrollment requirements and high cost to maintain an account. Banking services in Kenya were primarily limited to big or economically viable town centers. However, close to 70 percent of the Kenyan population lives in the rural areas (Ngugi, Pelowski, and Ogembo, 2010). Meanwhile, Kenya's mobile phone penetration had been growing very rapidly in the early 2000s, growing from about 5 percent of the population in 2003 to nearly 24 percent in 2007, the year of the M-Pesa launch (https://www.safaricom.co.ke/images/Downloads/Resources_Downloads/FY2008/FY_8ResultspresentationAnnualResults.pdf). Return to text
12. While certain conditions in Tanzania were similar to those in Kenya, there were some key differences. Tanzania, for example, did not follow the Kenyan model for re-selling phone minutes to the rural population. Also, mobile phone services were more concentrated with the dominant mobile provider in Kenya than they were in Tanzania. See Ngugi, Pelowski, and Ogembo (2010). Return to text
13. The EMV® chip specification, first released in 1996, offered a global specification option which France and others in the European region adopted throughout the 90s and early 2000s. See EMVCo (2014). Return to text
14. Rolfe (2014). Return to text
15. The liability shift moved responsibility for certain types of fraud losses to the entity, issuer or merchant, with Visa first announcing the change in 2011. For additional information, see https://www.emv-connection.com/emv-migration-driven-by-payment-brand-milestones Return to text
16. For official foreign exchange reserves data, see https://data.imf.org/?sk=E6A5F467-C14B-4AA8-9F6D-5A09EC4E62A4. Return to text
17. Schenk (2010). Return to text
18. See the IMF's Currency Composition of Official Foreign Exchange Reserves (COFER), https://data.imf.org/?sk=E6A5F467-C14B-4AA8-9F6D-5A09EC4E62A4. Return to text
19. See for example Eichengreen (2014). Return to text
20. See for example, Cartsens (2021), which stated that "much of this rhetoric is overblown" in response to questions of first-mover advantages. Return to text
21. Iancu et al. (2020). Return to text
22. Quarles (2021). Return to text
23. There is some evidence that international financing plays a role in reserve currency status, and some countries may be tying their CBDC to other economic initiatives that could influence the future of reserve currencies. While interesting and important to study, these additional economic initiatives are outside of the scope of this paper, which is focused on first mover advantage. Return to text
24. Some countries would like to move away from U.S.-based infrastructure for strategic reasons. This is also outside the scope of this paper. Return to text
25. See for example Bertaut, Beschwitz, and Curcuru (2021). Return to text
26. See for example Ita, Nerula, and Ali (2017) Return to text
28. Adoption occurred somewhat earlier in the United States. When Pew Research started collecting data on internet usage in early 2000, 52 percent of adults were using the internet. That number increased to 76 percent by 2010 and 93 percent by 2021. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/ Return to text
29. Suarez and Landzolla (2005). Return to text
30. However, targeted standards development where consensus exists may support bridging existing systems with potential future CBDC systems For example, a CBDC system will likely interact in some way with existing financial systems, which currently use certain standard messaging formats and reference data, such as financial identifiers. Standards development to support bridging systems domestically and internationally with common elements may reduce efforts to define these elements unique to each implementation. Return to text
Isaacson, Ken, Jesse Leigh Maniff, and Paul Wong (2022). "An Examination of First-Mover Advantage for a CBDC," FEDS Notes. Washington: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, November 25, 2022, https://doi.org/10.17016/2380-7172.3230.
Disclaimer: FEDS Notes are articles in which Board staff offer their own views and present analysis on a range of topics in economics and finance. These articles are shorter and less technically oriented than FEDS Working Papers and IFDP papers.