A Clash of Coins
The history of money has always been about politics, power and intrigue. World history has taught us that often wars and revolutions have been fought in the name of liberty when in fact they were really about advancing the price of power amongst the struggling protagonists.
The drama of money continues in another guise now and the vying forces can be generally categorised into four factions:
- cryptocurrencies (including the hundreds of “utility tokens” issued in ICOs);
- corporate coins (virtual coins issued by large multinational companies as loyalty schemes for their respective goods and services);
- banking coins (developed by modern private banking houses for purposes of faster settlement and capital management) and
- virtual fiat currencies (developed by sovereign national governments).
(Collectively referred to as “Virtual Monies”.)
The competition for supremacy both within and amongst each of these four factions are intense. But as history has shown, in the game of monies the side that usually wins is the side that wields the most political influence and power. In other words, politics always trump finance in a direct confrontation. This is one of those rare truths in life and shows why financial players usually prefer to work with (and not against) the national governments they serve, until now at least. For example, the great 19th century banking house Rothschild came to power only because it was able to develop political patronage amongst the grand statesmen of that era. Likewise for the early Florentine Medici family who befriended the Papacy and became the bankers for popes.
Will history repeat itself in the current clash amongst Virtual Monies? Can 21st century cryptocurrencies as well as their innovative sponsors give their proverbial middle figure to central governments and go their independent separate ways? Or will government empires strike back?
This essay argues that:
- the sustainable development of cryptocurrencies especially utility tokens issued by ICOs (products of innovative fintech players) depends on their ability to co-exist with virtual fiat currencies to be issued by some of the world’s major national governments;
- corporate coins are best able to co-exist with virtual fiat currencies; and
- banking coins are conceptually flawed and will be rendered obsolete when virtual fiat currencies (such as the virtual Chinese renminbi to be tested in Shenzhen) are issued.
1) Introduction: Is Independence Futile?
The city-communes of renaissance Italy operated independently of any centralized authority. Thriving cities like Florence, Milan, Naples, Venice and Pisa pioneered trade, banking and commerce which helped bring about massive cultural and social advances. By the 15th century, there were more people living in the great Italian city-communes than all of Western Europe. Through cunning political machinations, intrigue and good old fashion scheming, these city-communes were conducting their trade on a decentralized basis, free from the control of France, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and the Ottoman Empire, all major sovereign states of their time.
Yet by the 16th century, these city-communes fell one by one to the growing powers of the modern nation state. Charles V went on to sack Rome, the Spanish monarchy ruled the southern half of Italy including Florence. Venice was the last hold-out before succumbing to Napoleon’s army of Italy in the early 18th century.
Today we see crypto-assets trying to assert their independence from any centralized control. The whole point of virtual coins like bitcoin is to create a decentralized digital cash system that aims to break the hold of traditional intermediaries in the financial sector. The key to this freedom is blockchain technology which is the foundation of all modern crypto-assets. But, there is nothing to stop central governments from using similar technology to issue their own virtual fiat currencies. The rise of virtual currencies backed by national governments presents a direct existential threat to the following three types of Virtual Monies.
As of the date of writing, there are 867 cryptocurrencies being traded in the world, the top five being Bitcoin, Ethereum, Bitcoin Cash, Ripple and Litecoin. There is currently a debate as to whether cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin can be considered to be a currency. Professor Aswath Damodaran, a professor of finance at the NYU's Stern School of Business, dubbed as the "Dean of Valuation" argues that Bitcoin is a currency (see here). Traditionally a currency has one or several key attributes. Yet recently cryptocurrency has developed a new fourth attribute: a means of speculation.
First, a currency "is a unit of account allowing goods and services to be priced" according to the European Central Bank. Crypto-coins are effective units of account because they are fungible, divisible and countable.
Second, coins like Ethereum and Bitcoin are viewed as units to store value (just like gold is seen by traditional asset managers). This is because gold and virtual currencies like Bitcoin are assets without a corresponding liability: no one owes the holder of gold or bitcoin because his/her assets are not someone else’s liability.
Third, coins like Ethereum and Bitcoin may also be used as a medium of exchange (like the U.S. dollar or Japanese yen). Given the volatility of cryptocurrencies, relatively slow processing times of their blockchain roots and the low level of real-world acceptance (try using Ethereum to pay for your groceries next time), cryptocurrencies are not widely used as an instrument of exchange.
In addition to the above attributes, cryptocurrencies recently have developed a new fourth attribute: a means of speculating especially during the meteoric rise of some crypto-coins. Speculating on cryptocurrencies is extremely risky and should be reserved for sophisticated accredited investors only because the market is highly volatile.
For example, at the beginning of 2017, Bitcoin and Ethereum traded at US$997 and US$8.09 respectively. About 9 months later, Bitcoin and Ethereum jumped to over US$4,512 and US$323. Year-to-date, combined digital assets increased by approximately 400%, greater than properties, equities, and gold combined.
But during Labor Day weekend (September 2nd to 3rd, 2017), the entire cryptocurrency market lost 20% of its value in just 2 days falling to US$142 billion from US$180 billion on Saturday. To put this 20% loss in context, this 20% drop represents years of gains in the U.S. stock market, yet in the cryptocurrencies market were wiped out in a matter of hours last weekend. Bitcoin was down 16.5% and Ethereum was down 23.5%. In spite of the fall, Bitcoin was still at double its price from four months ago. The value of Bitcoin and Ethereum can fall as fast as it can rise. About 5 days after the publication of this essay, Bitcoin and Ethereum fell to US$3,365 and US$235 about a 30% drop for Bitcoin from its high of US$4,930 on September 2, 2017.
2A) ICO utility tokens
Most cryptocurrencies are issued by start-ups in crowdfunding projects in so called ICOs (initial coin or token offerings). Tokens are issued to investors using some sort of blockchain protocol (usually Ethereum) that fixes the rules of exchange. These tokens can only be earned by performing some task within the system and spent within the protocol in exchange for certain goods or services (usually provided by the issuer) in accordance with the rules of exchange.
So what exactly are these utility tokens? They are units of value literally created out thin air. They are based on the expectations that the issuer will build a successful protocol that operates in line with the concept defined in its whitepaper (exchanging tokens for services/goods) and attracts a large user base.
In a separate post, I will analyze the relationship between utility tokens and securities regulation. For now, lets focus on the power play between crypto-assets and national governments.
2b) Politics of Cryptocurrencies
Thus far almost all of the commenters blogging about the rise and investment nature of cryptocurrencies have solely focused on the economics (or “crypto-economics") behind their dynamics. As I have written before, in the absence of direct government policies affecting them, the value of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin usually is not influenced by real world events. This is one of the reasons why traditional assets managers like to buy gold, for its ability to store value unaffected by world developments. Hence the “safe-haven” status of gold and Bitcoin.
However, this situation changes dramatically if the government of a major economy (like China or the US) enacts policies or makes public statements about the legality and/or regulatory requirements of cryptocurrencies.
Just in the past week, we saw China strike back against cryptos in two policy actions. First, news emerged on September 8, 2017 that China is planning to shut down all domestic Bitcoin/renminbi exchanges. This caused bitcoin to drop about 6.6% within a day. Later, as reported on September 14, 2017, regulators in Shanghai, the country's financial center, gave verbal instructions to exchange operators to shut down. The China Central Bank also earlier warned that Bitcoin was traded without regulatory oversight and might be linked to fraud.
Second on September 4, 2017, China banned ICO funding, which it claims has “seriously disrupted the economic and financial order.” A list of 60 exchanges within China will be subject to inspection. All funds raised from ICOs are to be returned to investors. (After the publication of this article, South Korea also banned ICOs.) This development follows a long line of warnings from Canada, Russia, Singapore, Israel, Hong Kong and the US about the possible disruptive effects of ICOs and the need for its regulation (for example under national securities laws) to protect investors.
Sure, investors’ protection is a lofty goal for cracking down on ICOs. But this rationale does not seem applicable to shutting down Bitcoin exchanges since Bitcoin has assumed its status as a storage of value. The Chinese central bank knows that ICO tokens are different creatures from cryptocurrencies (like Bitcoin and Ethereum) since they clearly distinguished between the two in its rule banning ICOs. Are there additional reasons that motivate national governments to press the pause button on cryptos? What is really going on here?
2c) Central banks do not like to share power
The world’s top ten central banks are powerful because they are in a position to control the monetary policies of their respective national economies. They literally hold the life line to their respective home countries. Some of these top central banks belong to democratically closed societies and some to Western-style democracies. Yet they share a common trait: they usually do not like to share power.
Cryptocurrencies undermine the power of national governments in three major ways.
First, cryptocurrencies represent a direct challenge to the authority of central governments (and their respective central banks) because by nature their value, issuance and circulation do not depend on the control of any traditional centralized policy-maker. A cryptocurrency is money with a limited supply (created in a controlled manner) that is not changeable by any government. Therefore, cryptocurrencies undermine the power of central governments to control their respective monetary policies (through which they can assert political influence worldwide). For example the European Central Bank stated that private cryptocurrencies could in theory erode its control over the supply of money.
Second, cryptocurrencies enable citizens living in a country that imposes strict foreign currency controls to effectively bypass such controls by investing in ICOs that may be exchanged in "hard currencies" worldwide. For example, in August 2017 the People’s Bank of China mandated that all third-party mobile payments be cleared through a central platform by next June. This is because “[t]he current direct connection model bypasses the central bank’s clearing system, making it difficult for regulators to track and monitor the capital flow of those payments, leaving loopholes for money laundering and other irregularities.”
Third, cryptocurrencies are hard for national governments to track for purposes of taxation. Because of the ease of anonymity enabled by hash coding technology, users of cryptocurrencies need only reveal a minimal amount of their personal information to get their transactions processed. This has raised concerns about money laundering, the financing of black market activities, and receipt of ransomware payments. But the ease of anonymity also makes it harder for national governments to tax revenue.
In light of the above challenges, it is not surprising to see China banning ICOs and pressing the pause button on Bitcoins. Considering that most miners are based in China, these policy actions may have a long-term chilling effect on ICOs and cryptos globally.
The ICOs ban caused the global cryptocurrencies market to drop by 20% during the first weekend of September 2017 as discussed above. Yet within a few days, the market rebounded (mainly led by rises in the top 5 cryptocurrencies). Although China’s recent ban does not appear to have knocked-out the market for ICOs globally, ICO investors have been put on notice that cryptocurrencies are vulnerable to government intervention whether in the form of an outright ban, increased regulatory scrutiny (or by allowing companies to use blockchain technology to issue stocks and record secondary transactions, which will be the subject of a future post).
As of now, it is still too early to determine the effects of China's recent plans to ban domestic Bitcoin exchanges. About 5 days after the publication of this essay, Bitcoin and Ethereum fell to US$3,365 and US$235 about a 30% drop for Bitcoin from its high of US$4,930 on September 2, 2017. Traders do not know whether this drop is related to China's crackdown on cryptos. Will other central bankers in major economies follow suit to enact similar policies? Or, will Bitcoin continue to set new trading records as global investors see the current price dip as a buying opportunity? China's plans to ban Bitcoin exchanges reflect the inherent tension between private cryptos and public fiat currencies.
3) Corporate Coins
Technology has turned the hamburger into an investment vehicle. A few days ago, Burger King launched what is possibly the world’s first corporate cryptocurrency aptly named the “WhopperCoin” in Russia built on a blockchain platform. So eat a real hamburger, earn a virtual coin. Consumers earn 1 WhopperCoin for every 1.3 ruble they spend by scanning their receipt with their smartphone. You need 1,700 WhopperCoins to get a free Whopper. Consumers can save, share or trade their WhopperCoins.
Corporate coins help market the goods and services of a merchant much like corporate loyalty points program (think air miles) and real world coupons. It differs from traditional marketing programs because corporate coins have more exchange options.
Corporate coins are limited compared to cryptocurrencies because they cannot be used on an interoperable basis. Meaning, a consumer will not be able to use WhopperCoins to buy an iphone from Apple for now. Second, corporate coins usually are not built on a public blockchain (where anonymity is easier to achieve) because the issuing company like Burger King would probably want to know the identity and spending habits of its consumers. Building its corporate coin program on a public blockchain would defeat that purpose. Therefore some sort of private blockchain will be used. The confirming agent(s) would probably be controlled by the issuing company. Third, corporate coins are not immutable like Bitcoin. Meaning, the issuing company can cancel or eliminate any corporate coins it has issued.
Unless corporate coins are able to be exchanged for real world money (some companies are probably thinking about doing this), they will not pose as much political challenge to centralized governments than cryptocurrencies proper. Therefore corporate coins are best able to co-exist in a world when major national governments issue virtual fiat currencies.
4) Banking Coins
A consortium of the worlds largest private banks (hereinafter “Coin Consortium”) are working to develop digital coins (called an “utility settlement coin") that can be used to clear and settle financial transactions more quickly. Specifically, the Coin Consortium want to find a solution to the current risky “delivery versus payment” exchange process by finding a way to make payment for a security faster so it can be transferred to the buyer as close to the moment of payment as possible to reduce the risk of loss due to sudden changes in its price. Each member bank of this consortium will issue their own utility settlement coin which will be backed by collateral that each bank will place with central banks.
There are three major problems with utility settlement coins.
First, the world almost imploded financially the last time when various unscrupulous banks marketed an instrument also backed by collateral. It was called the “collateralized debt obligations or CDOs” (which Warren Buffett dubbed financial weapons of mass destruction). We all know what happened when greed was combined with irresponsible innovation: the world wide 2008 financial crisis.
This is not to say that the same disaster will happen with respect to the collateralized utility settlement coin. But consumers have the right to be suspicious about the monetization of any collateralized instruments without adequate regulatory safeguards. Further questions need to be raised on whether these collaterals would allow banks to reduce their capital requirements which have been imposed by the Bank of International Settlements (aka, Basel capital requirements) to act as cushions against systemic shocks. Will the Coin Consortium be able to get away with less capital by treating these collaterals as capital requirement surrogates? So the first problem is an issue of trust.
Second, the utility settlement coin represents the Coin Consortium’s effort to reinvent the proverbial wheel. Member banks want to find a way to pay for something directly, reducing transaction costs and bypassing intermediaries. This sounds interesting considering that banks usually ARE the intermediaries themselves. Together with the clearinghouses, they form the global financial system which they have dominated in its modern incarnation for the past several hundred years. Any slowness in sending money to each other within this system is intuitively a problem they helped create. This is like a restaurant chef complaining that his/her own dishes taste awful.
Now comes the ironic part. To help solve that problem, the Coin Consortium is using blockchain technology (which enables Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies) that was originally intended to eliminate intermediaries.
Let me quote straight from the enigmatic inventor(s) of Bitcoin “Mr. Satoshi Nakamoto” him/herself: “[a] purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.” This sounds a lot like what the “utility settlement coin” hopes to do, no? Is the “utility settlement coin" nothing more than a Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency in disguise?
The “utility settlement coin” is conceptually flawed and counter-intuitive because it relies on a technology designed to eliminate financial institutions as intermediaries. Its like using water to light a match.
Third, the “utility settlement coin” will be short-lived. By the Coin Consortium’s own admission, the “utility settlement coin” will lose any relevance and rendered absolutely obsolete once virtual fiat currencies are introduced by major world governments.
(As a side note, the digitalization of money will reveal structural oddities existing within the banking system. Banks will face their existential challenge as traditional money struggles to remain relevant in an era of technology intensive financial innovations powered by blockchain. This will be the subject of future posts. Stay tuned.)
5) The World Empires Strike Back: Virtual Fiat Currency
In the face of the rising influence of private cryptocurrencies, world governments can either do nothing or strike back. Most central bankers will probably do nothing either because they lack political will or do not simply have the requisite talent. But China the world’s second largest economy is striking back. China has been developing, testing and deploying a virtual renminbi.
As reported in December 2016, the city government of Shenzhen (China's Silicon Valley), the Alliance of Fintech Digital Currency and China Fintech Research institute (whose founding members include first-tier financial companies like Pingan Group, China’s Merchants Bank，Dacheng Fund) will test the virtual fiat renminbi in Shenzhen before rolling it out to other cities.
According to a senior Shenzhen Financial Office official, “Shenzhen can be seen as the best test ground for central government to implement financial reform and innovation and to explore the national digital currency strategy. Shenzhen is the closest city to Silicon Valley or Israel as a global financial innovation center."
Why would a sovereign nation pull the rug from its physical fiat currency? The answer is rooted in self interest: China sees the many benefits derived from having its renminbi go virtual all of which will help advance its over-arching political goals.
First, a digital fiat currency backed by the Chinese central bank would lower the cost of financial transactions. Second, a digital national currency is more cost efficient to operate and cuts fraud and counterfeiting. Third, it would allow the national government to oversee digital transactions so as to reduce corruption and tax-dodgers. Fourth, it also allows the government to obtain economic data on a real-time basis to better design and implement monetary policy. Lastly, it facilitates cross-border transactions in the renminbi.
These benefits have also been studied by the Bank of England. For example, economists at the Bank of England have concluded that issuing a digital fiat currency “could permanently boost GDP by as much as 3 percent due to reductions in real interest rates, distortionary taxes, and transaction costs, while also increasing economic stability.”
Maybe China plans to ban domestic Bitcoin/renminbi exchanges so as to pave the way for the official introduction of the virtual fiat renminbi? In the future, could private cryptocurrencies be treated like "political dissidents" that undermine the authority of the central government? If so, then there does not seem to be much room for co-existence.
China is not alone. Russia also announced in October 2017 that it will launch the "CryptoRuble" which will be the only cryptocurrency legal to use for Russian citizens. The U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, Sweden and Singapore are all exploring ways to issue their respective digital fiat currency.
Recently the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde warned that cryptocurrencies “can replace national monies, conventional financial intermediation and…puts a question mark on the fractional banking model we know today.” She noted that cryptocurrencies “allow for peer-to-peer transactions without central clearinghouses, without central banks.” (Emphasis in the original.) Although she was discussing about cryptocurrencies in general, her remarks could equally apply to virtual fiat currencies issued by national governments. They are identical to fiat currencies used currently except that they exist in virtual form and they do not necessarily need to be issued via a blockchain or DLS.
The European Union also struck back recently not by announcing any plans to issue a virtual fiat euro, but by stopping one of its member states Estonia from launching its own virtual fiat currency. A few days ago, the European Central Bank's president flatly stated that "[t]he currency of the euro zone is the euro." This case shows that EU member states have also relinquished their rights to unilaterally launch any national virtual fiat currency that competes with the euro. But that does not mean member states cannot try to come up with innovative ways to circumvent that principle. For example, an opposition party in Italy has proposed that the Italian government issued small-denomination, interest-free bonds to pay suppliers as a way to avoid the ban. It seems that the only way for member states to launch some sort of virtual fiat currency would be to lobby the EU authorities to one day issue the virtual fiat euro. But to date the EU has not indicated any plans to do so.
Compared to China, the US been relatively silent with respect to any plans to virtualize its dollar. The US Federal Reserve published a working paper on using distributed ledger technologies in payment solutions and financial trading back in 2016. But to date, the Federal Reserve has no definite plans to test a virtual fiat dollar. For example, San Francisco Federal Reserve's President has claimed that there is no official plan by the Federal Reserve to issue a digital currency anytime soon. Since the US dollar is presently the world’s currency, it is the lingua franca of international commerce and finance. The US has a lot of vested interest to keep its dollar physical. The network of banks, clearinghouses, and other intermediaries that help maintain the hegemonic position of the US dollar is valuable to US national interests. Therefore the US does not have an incentive to change the status quo when its dollar derives benefits (some would say a disproportionate amount) from the current world financial structure.
According to the Bank of England, central banks currently already issue digital fiat currencies to banks and not to everyone. This is because bank reserves are electronic, and they are used as a final means of settlement between banks. Effectively they are the banks’ digital currency. Commercial banks now also issue their own respective digital fiat currency to anyone or entity with a deposit account from a particular bank. According to the Bank of England again, the majority of the money in circulation issued by commercial banks plus the money issued by central banks exist in the form as digital currencies. Excluding transactions in notes, coins and paper checks, all global payments are now made using digital currency. Therefore, it will not be technically difficult to find ways to issue digital fiat currencies on a national level if banks and central banks are already effectively doing so now.
Recently London’s Kingston University economics professor Steve Keen commented on the likelihood of central banks issuing fiat currencies directly to their respective nationals, thereby eliminating one of the persistent problems of fiat currency: debt!
Professor Keen noted that:
“Blockchain technology could be used by trusted party like a central bank to produce digital money which could be then given to everybody in the county. At the moment central banks only interact with the banking system and some nonbank financial institutions. And suddenly, central banks could interact with us directly. That to me would be a means by which we could use digital currencies to cancel the excessive level of credit created money which has been made in private debt bubbles. That’s probably the major innovation; central banks taking on Blockchain technology producing digital currency and giving us all a bank account at the central bank which could be used as a way of bringing about people’s quantitative easing.”
5a) Smart Money Collaborates with Governments
The smart bankers are looking at the bigger picture of the future money game. Some believe that in order to fully realize the potential of blockchain technology, the protocol must use as its medium of exchange a state-backed virtual currency. This makes great intuitive sense, like most great ideas. As one smart banker explained:
"If you had a digital dollar, if you had a digital pound, exactly fungible with the note in your wallet and the dollar in your bank account, then you'd be willing to use that digital currency much more throughout your ongoing daily transactions."
Using a virtual fiat currency along within a blockchain protocol would create greater liquidity for assets and new markets. The smart money always tries to work with those wielding the political clout to create a win-win relationship. Governments like China and Russia see the political benefits of launching a virtual fiat currency and innovative private businesses prepare to capture the ensuing synergy with blockchain technology.
5b) Private Virtual Monies Living on Borrowed Time?
If some of the world’s major economies launch virtual fiat currencies backed by their respective central banks, then what will be the fate of private cryptocurrencies?
First, the launch of virtual fiat currencies will have minimal effect on corporate coins such as the WhopperCoin because these represent marketing schemes designed to maintain customer loyalty. Corporate coins do not challenge central power as much as cryptocurrencies.
Second, virtual fiat currencies will dramatically reduce the number of independent private cryptocurrencies. This is because virtual fiat currencies will be more widely accepted as a medium of exchange, which has been the historic function of all fiat currencies. There is no reason to suppose that virtual fiat currencies would not be widely accepted as much as its physical form. Also, there will be fewer incentives to invest in ICOs to obtain “utility tokens” because the issuance of virtual fiat currencies will create new markets. There will be new investment opportunities that would allow investors to earn virtual fiat currencies, which are not limited to be spent within a narrow micro-economy.
Third, bank coins like, utility settlement coins, will go out the window as soon as a major economy issues its virtual fiat currency.
The famous Venetian explorer Marco Polo brought many innovations to Europe from ancient China, including paper money. China opened Europe’s eyes to the many benefits of paper money currency which derived its worth not from the value of the substance of which it is made, but fiat in the issuing authority. Scholars to this day rank the invention of paper money as a foundation of the modern economy and one of the greatest innovations in all of human history.
Soon, modern China may once again lead the way in creating another great innovation for the future economy: the virtual fiat currency. With that, the rules of finance and business will be re-written, forging new winners and losers. Like the independent Italian city-communes of old being replaced by the modern nation state, decentralized private cryptocurrencies will to a large extent be absorbed by virtual fiat currencies issued by centralized governments. Such is the price of money and the power of politics.
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