The Chinese government has been cracking down on bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. This, along with a few other reasons, has led to cryptocurrencies crashing from their all-time high levels over the last few months.
The question is why is the Chinese government doing this? The simplest answer lies in the fact, and as I have explained on multiple occasions before, up until cryptocurrencies came along, the right to create money out of thin air was only with the governments.
Cryptocurrencies challenge that hegemony, and which has been their basic selling point over the years. The trouble is that the right to create money out of thin air is something any government isn’t going to give up on easily. The history of money tells us that while different forms of money emerge privately, it is the government which usually controls the monetary system.
This is a point that the economist John Maynard Keynes made in A Treatise on Money, in which he said that all modern states have had the right to decide what is money and what is not, and they have had it “for some four thousand years at least”. This is a point most crypto bulls don’t seem to get.
Another reason offered behind the Chinese crypto crackdown is that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are coal intensive. This is something that entrepreneur Elon Musk also said when he tweeted on bitcoin around a month back.
Now what does this mean?
Over the years, it has become more and more difficult to mine bitcoin. These days bitcoin farms with giant racks of mining computers are needed to mine bitcoins.
“People started building special computers optimized to mine bitcoin… Then they started filling giant warehouses full of racks of those mining computers. The computers sucked up so much energy that miners began seeking out places in the world where power was cheap, to lower their costs of mining. Vast mining operations sprung up in Iceland, Mongolia, and, especially, China.”
The point being bitcoin mining ends up using a lot of electricity. And most of this electricity is generated through fossil fuels. 36% of the electricity worldwide is generated through the use of coal and 23% through the use of natural gas. The burning of fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases.
“Greenhouse gases trap heat, causing the average surface temperate of the earth to go up. The more gases there are, the more the temperature rises. And once greenhouse gases are in the atmosphere, they stay there for a very long time; something like one-fifth of the carbon dioxide emitted today will still be there in 10,000 years.”
Bitcoin mining adds to this pollution.
As Dylan Grice writes in the latest edition of the Popular Delusions newsletter: “China is also concerned that bitcoin mining in the country is coal intensive and that is complicating efforts to reduce pollution.”
While this is an extremely valid argument, the trouble is all this has been well known for a while. So, why is it being brought up now? And that’s where things get interesting. It is being brought up now simply because the Chinese governments cannot openly talk about the real reason behind cracking down on bitcoin and other cryptos.
And what’s the real reason?
The success of cryptocurrencies has made governments realise that they need to be in on the game as well. This has led to governments and central banks, including that of China, planning their own digital currencies.
What is a central bank digital currency?
As Mark Carney writes in Value(s)—Building a Better World For All:
“A central bank digital currency would be an electronic form of central bank money that could be used by the public to make digital payments. Currently when we make payments with our debit cards or mobile phones we are using private money originally created by banks. Our only access to the ultimate risk-free asset of the central bank is when we use physical cash.”
The use of physical cash is declining rapidly and central banks feel that they need to get into that space by creating their own digital currency. If they don’t get into that space and people start using other digital currencies, it creates a problem for them, albeit minor one initially, but still a problem.
As mentioned earlier, the governments have the right to create money out of thin air, and sharing that with others is something that they are obviously not comfortable with.
As Grice writes: “From what we can glean from our friends in China, its motivation [behind the crackdown] was partly related to the roll-out of its own digital currency.” China is planning to launch its own central bank digital currency and given that it wants to wean off its citizens from the various cryptocurrencies that they are currently using.
In fact, China is already testing its digital currency. A report on CNBC.com points out that the plan is to hand out 40 million renminbi (or around $6.2 million) to a group of people in a lottery. The money can then be spent with selected merchants.
Also, there is another factor at play. China has one of the highest investments to gross domestic product (GDP) ratios in the world. Data from World Bank points out that in 2019, the ratio for China stood at 43.3%, when the global ratio was at 24.4%.
Hence, a bulk of Chinese savings get channelised into investments and this has over the years helped create massive economic growth. Bitcoin and other cryptos allow the Chinese to tunnel their money out of China, something that the Chinese government isn’t comfortable with. And like the Chinese government most governments won’t be comfortable with this.
As Grice writes: “It [i.e. the Chinese government] wants to ensure that growing familiarity with digital currency among its population doesn’t translate into growing use of digital currencies to evade China’s capital controls.”
These are the lessons that other governments and central banks around the world can easily pick up from the latest Chinese crackdown on cryptos. Hence, in the time to come, the government crackdown on cryptos will only go up.
Atmanirbharta has been the hot political and economic buzzword in India for quite a while now. It means self-reliance in English. Or as the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman put it in her budget speech:
“Atmanirbharta is not a new idea. Ancient India was largely self reliant, and equally, a business epicentre of the world. Atmanirbhar Bharat is an expression of 130 crores Indians who have full confidence in their capabilities and skills.”
In economic terms it essentially refers to import substitution, which India practiced for almost four decades, after independence, where the idea was to make everything in the country rather than import it.
In political terms, the narrative is directed towards China and our import dependence on the Middle Kingdom. In the recent past, our political tensions with our largest neighbour have escalated and we are trying to hurt it economically by producing more at home, and not importing as much from it as we had done in the past. Also, we have banned many Chinese apps.
The question is where are we going with atmanirbharta. Let’s take a look at the following chart, which plots the total amount of goods imported from China during the period April to January, over the years.
Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
The goods imports from China during the current financial year have been the lowest between 2016-17 and 2020-21, at $51.92 billion. Nevertheless, a simple presentation of goods imports doesn’t take into account the fact that India’s goods imports during April 2020 to January 2021 have fallen by 23.1% to $340.9 billion. They stood at $443.22 during April 2019 to January 2020. This fall shows a lack of consumer demand, which has crashed during the course of the year, with the spread of the covid pandemic.
Let’s look at the next chart, which plots what proportion of India’s goods imports came from China, during the period April to January of a financial year, over the years.
Source: Author calculations on data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
During April 2020 to January 2021, the proportion of imports coming from China stood at 15.23%. This is the highest in the period considered. Hence, while economic and political narrative maybe moving towards atmanirbharta, the data clearly shows something else. Our dependence on China for goods imports continues, like it was in the past.
There is one more way we can look at data. While we don’t have the full year’s data for 2020-21, we do have that for the years gone by. Hence, we take a look at proportion of full-year imports coming from China, in the next chart.
Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. *April 2020 to January 2021.
The above chart makes for a very interesting read. In 1991-92, India barely imported anything from China. Just 0.11% came from China. In the nearly three decades that have followed, the imports from China have exploded. This just shows the rise of Chinese productivity year on year, in comparison to that of India. The proportion of imports coming from China peaked at 16.4% in 2017-18, fell for the next two years, and have risen again this year.
As Palit says: “If you look at critical medical supplies, which India has been importing for frontline healthcare workers in the Covid-19 battle, most of these come from China, which is one of the top sources, but, on the other hand, there isn’t a very widely diversified source of countries from which India can actually import these either.”
The larger point here is that China has now become central to many global supply chains and hence, it won’t be easy for India to lower its dependence on China dramatically as far as imports of goods is concerned.
In fact, one area where India has managed to reduce its dependence on China in the last five years, is telecom instruments, as they are categorised in the imports data. Given that the use of landline phones has come down over the years, the category primarily includes mobile handsets.
Take a look at the following chart. It plots the value of the telecom instruments (read mobile handsets) imported from China, over the years.
Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. *April 2020 to January 2021.
As can be seen, the value of the instruments imported from China has come down over the years, though the 2020-21 full year imports are likely to end up being higher than those in 2019-20. In 2017-18, import of telecom instruments formed a little over a fifth of our imports from China. This fell to 8.67% in 2019-20 and has increased to 10.48% in the current financial year.
To make companies manufacture mobile phones in India, the government has been imposing duties/tarrifs on various goods that go into making of a mobile phone. The idea is to make imports from China expensive and in the process, force companies to manufacture phones in India.
In fact, this strategy has been borrowed from China. As Matthew C Klein and Michael Pettis write in Trade Wars and Class Wars: “Import substitution has succeeded thanks in part to Chinese government policies that have systematically encouraged Chinese businesses to substitute foreign production for domestic production, even when this has raised costs for Chinese consumers.” Of course, unlike India, China does not need to impose duties/tariffs to “direct domestic demand towards domestic production”.
As Klein and Pettis point out: “Executives can simply be told to pick Chinese suppliers over foreign ones… The result is that, unlike many other countries, imports have become less and less important to the Chinese economy since the mid 2000s.”
Also, given that Indian productivity is worse than that of the Chinese, manufacturing in India, comes with a cost. While, mobile handset prices barely rose between 2015 and 2019, the same hasn’t been the case in 2020, when they rose by 7%. Clearly, the cost of atmanirbharta on the mobile handsets front is being borne by the Indian consumer. As I keep saying, there is no free lunch, someone has got to bear the cost.
The government has also come up with the production linked incentive (PLI) scheme in order to help manufacturing companies in India. As Sitharaman said in the budget speech:
“Our manufacturing companies need to become an integral part of global supply chains, possess core competence and cutting-edge technology. To achieve all of the above, PLI schemes to create manufacturing global champions for an Atmanirbhar Bharat have been announced for 13 sectors. For this, the government has committed nearly Rs 1.97 lakh crores, over 5 years starting FY 2021-22. This initiative will help bring scale and size in key sectors, create and nurture global champions and provide jobs to our youth.”
There are multiple problems with this approach. The first being that the government is trying to pick winners. This entire approach smells of how things used to happen before the economic reforms of 1991, with the bureaucrats deciding what businesses should be doing.
Also, this comes at a time when prime minister Narendra Modi has been critical of IAS officers. As he said in February: “Just because somebody is an IAS officer, he is running fertiliser and chemical factories to airlines.” The same babu is now expected to run an incentive scheme for big business.
India’s biggest success stories over the last three decades, software, pharma and automobiles, happened despite the government, and not because of it. So, the idea still should be to make things easier for smaller businesses to grow bigger, which is something that happened beautifully in the IT sector. (This is not to say that the government didn’t help. It did. But it largely didn’t meddle).
In fact, while we think of China as a country with big companies that wasn’t always the case. China’s initial growth in the 1980s and up until the mid 1990s was through the growth of millions of Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs). This is a fact that seems to have been forgotten.
Big companies growing bigger can create some jobs, but not the number of jobs that India requires. As data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows, in the last five years India has added 11.77 crore individuals to the working age population.
This means that around 19.76 lakh individuals have crossed the age of 15 on an average every month, over the last five years. Of course, not all of them are looking for jobs but a good chunk are. Even if we assume that around 40% of them are looking for jobs, we end up with around one crore people looking for jobs every year.
Such a huge number of jobs can only be created by small businesses growing bigger and not by big businesses growing bigger, which can only possibly be the icing on the cake.
“SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) account for 60 to 70 per cent of jobs in most OECD countries, with a particularly large share in Italy and Japan, and a relatively smaller share in the United States. Throughout, they also account for a disproportionately large share of new jobs, especially in those countries which have displayed a strong employment record, including the United States and the Netherlands. Some evidence points also to the importance of age, rather than size, in job creation: young firms generate more than their share of employment.”’
In fact, given the obsession the current government has had with scale and formalisation of the economy, small businesses have been hurt through a mind-numbing move like demonetisation and a half-baked goods and services tax.
Further, the globalisation game itself might be changing. While, we might want companies based out of India to become a part of global supply chains, it is worth remembering here that the strategy worked at a certain point of time.
As Krishnan writes:
“China was able to recognize and exploit the opportunities just as global production chains were forming through the opening of the early 1990s… The infrastructure it was able to create through the 1990s enabled ‘a unique and probably unrepeatable combination of low developing country labour costs and good, almost rich country infrastructure.'”
Also, the supply chains that are already in place are not going to shut down and move to India, just because India is now offering incentives. As Apple CEO Tim Cook said in 2017: “The popular conception is that companies come to China because of low labour cost… The reason is because of the skill, and the quantity of skill in one location and the type of skill it is.”
India clearly has a skills problem. A little more than a fifth of Indian graduates are unemployed, and at the same time when companies advertise for personnel, they can’t seem to find enough of them who meet the right criteria. Multiple surveys have found Indian graduates and engineers to be simply unemployable. This is not something that can be set right overnight.
The corporates, not surprisingly, have welcomed the scheme, given that the government is offering “a recurring cash subsidy computed as a fixed percentage of the manufactured sales turnover.” Hence, they clearly have an incentive to do so. In fact, lobbying has already started on this front.
Take the case of the PLI scheme in the electronics and mobile manufacturing, which has been touted as a success, after attracting investments of over Rs 11,000 crore in 2020. As an editorial in The Hindu Business Line points out, the beneficiaries are already asking for a rollover, “citing land acquisition delays, lack of skilled workforce and demand issues post Covid.”
Also, as has been seen in India in the past, once a subsidy is introduced into the government’s budget, it rarely goes away.
Finally, lest I be accused of looking at only negatives (honestly, please go to news.google.com and enter PLI scheme, you will only get positive stories to read), one positive thing could come out of the scheme.
As Palit told Krishnan in the context of China: “When we look at value chains today, let’s say in a post Covid-19 situation, the emphasis on the part of businesses is to make these chains shorter, more resilient, more durable, and locate them closer to demand markets… This is where we often overlook the importance of China. It continues to remain a major source of final demand.” And given this shifting supply chains out of China will be difficult.
This applies to India as well. Given India’s size, it will continue to have a huge source of consumer demand in the years to come. This should encourage companies looking for stable supply chains to have their manufacturing bases in India to cater to its domestic market. And this is where PLI can work its magic.
“From raw materials to critical components, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the reliance of country’s key sectors on a few markets for fulfilling their manufacturing and sourcing requirements. To put things in perspective, India depends on a single market for 70 per cent of its API consumption needs, 85 per cent of smartphone components imports and 75 per cent of television components imports. As global supply chains were swiftly and effectively dismantled as one country after another went into lockdown in 2020, efforts toward bolstering domestic manufacturing gained momentum.”
Nevertheless, there is a corollary to this. As more and more people get vaccinated and the world moves on and goes back to doing things that it always has, this narrative of having manufacturing facilities closer to the demand markets, will keep getting weaker. Hence, India has a couple of years to cash in on it.
Of course, whether India emerges as a country where the products are assembled or major value addition takes place, remains to be seen. Also, prices will go up. Make in India will come at a cost.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the World Economic Outlook update for January 2021, has forecast that the Indian economy will grow by 11.5% in 2021.
If this happens, it will be the fastest that the Indian economy has ever grown. It will also be the first time that the Indian economy will grow in double digits. (Actually, the country did grow by greater than 10% in 2010-11, but that was later revised by the Modi government, once a new set of gross domestic product (GDP) data was published).
The following chart plots the GDP growth over the years. The GDP is the measure of an economic size of a country.
Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
It is interesting that the Indian GDP has grown by more than 9% only twice previously, and both these occasions were before the 1991 economic reforms. The economy grew by 9.15% in 1975-76 (post the first oil shock) and 9.63% in 1988-89. Post 1991, the country grew the fastest in 1999-00 when it had grown by 8.85% (after the American sanctions).
Also, among the selected economies for which IMF published data, India will be the fastest growing economy in the world in 2021. China comes in second at 8.1%.
Source: International Monetary Fund.
India growing by 11.5% in 2021 is indeed a big deal, there is no denying that. But there are a few factors that need to be kept in mind here.
First and foremost is the base effect. Before I go into highlighting the base effect in this context, let’s first understand what it means.
Let’s say the price of a stock in 2019 was Rs 100. In 2020, it falls by 50% to Rs 50. In 2021, it is expected to rise to Rs 75. This means a gain of Rs 25 or 50% per share. If we just look at prices of 2020 and 2021, the stock has done fantastically well and gained 50%.
But what we also need to keep in mind is the stock price in 2019, when it was at Rs 100. It then fell massively by 50% to Rs 50 and rose from there. Hence, the stock price rose from a much lower-base. And this lower base was responsible for a gain of 50%. Further, in 2021, the stock continued to be lower than its 2019 price. This is base effect at play.
One way to look at base effect is to look at the GDP growth/contraction forecast by IMF for 2020.
Source: International Monetary Fund.
As can be seen from the above chart, the IMF expects the Indian GDP to have contracted by 8% in 2020. Hence, in 2020, the Indian economy will be among the worst performing economies in the world. Given this, a 11.5% growth in 2021, will come on a massively contracted GDP in 2020. This is a point that needs to be kept in mind.
Also, all the countries which have done worse than India have a per capita income larger than that of India. In that sense they are economically much more developed than India is and their pain of contraction is much lesser than that of India, given that these countries already have access to the most basic economic necessities in life, which many Indians still don’t.
Let’s go into a little more detail on this point. While the IMF publishes real GDP growth data (which we have been discussing up until now), it doesn’t publish constant price GDP, which adjusts for inflation, in a common currency like the US dollar.
To get around this problem, let’s use the constant price GDP data published by the World Bank. On this we apply, the GDP contraction/growth rates as forecast by the IMF. As per the World Bank, the Indian GDP in 2019 (in constant 2010 $) was $2.94 trillion. In 2020. A contraction of 8% in 2020 would mean a GDP of $2.70 trillion in 2020. A 11.5% rise on this would mean that the Indian GDP is expected to touch $3.01 trillion in 2021, which is around 2.4% better than the GDP in 2019.
Hence, in that sense, the slowing Indian economic growth for the last few years, followed by the covid contraction, has put the Indian economy back by two years. Of course, it can be argued that every country has gone through this. Indeed, that’s true, but that doesn’t make our pain any better.
Also, before saying stuff like India will grow faster than China in 2021, please keep in mind the fact that the Chinese GDP in 2019 was $11.54 trillion (World Bank data), which is much more than that of the India’s GDP.
In 2020, the Chinese economy was expected to grow by 2.3%. This means that the Chinese GDP in 2020 would have grown to $11.81 trillion. In 2021, the Chinese GDP is expected to grow by 8.1% to $12.76 trillion. This means an increase in GDP of $0.95 trillion in just one year. If we compare this increase with the expected Indian GDP of $3.01 trillion in 2021, what it means is that China will end up adding 31.6% of the India’s economy in just one year. Or to put it simply, China will add a third of India’s economy in just one year.
It also means that between 2019 and 2021, the Chinese economy is expected to grow by $1.22 trillion ($12.76 minus $11.54 trillion). During the same period, the Indian economy is expected to grow by $ 0.07 trillion ($3.01 trillion minus $2.94 trillion). Please keep these facts in mind before saying that in 2021 India will grow faster than China.
Between 2019 and 2021, the gap between India and China has grown even bigger and that is a fact that needs to be kept in mind. All numbers and figures need some context, otherwise they are useless and as good as propaganda, which I think will happen quite a lot during the course of the day today.
If you have already read the newspapers and the websites on this issue, you might have seen that almost all of them say that India will grow faster than China in 2021. But almost no one bothers to mention the fact that China grew faster than India both in 2019 and 2020. Or the fact that China is growing on a significantly larger base (the most important point when we are talking percentages).
At the risk of repetition, you won’t see any such analysis appearing in the mainstream media. So, kindly continue supporting my work. Even small amounts make a huge difference.
The actual writing of this piece took around six hours, though I have been thinking on this issue for at least the past nine years since I started writing my Easy Money book. I have been told that the backlash from the bitcoins believers will be huge. All feedback is welcome, as long as you don’t abuse. And if you choose to abuse at least read the piece first. You will be able to abuse better.
Bulbulon ko abhi intezar karne do. (Let the bubbles wait for now). — Gulzar, Vishal Bhardwaj, Usha Uthup and Rekha Bhardwaj in 7 Khoon Maaf.
Let’s start this one with a small story.
Salvador Dalí was a famous painter who lived through much of the twentieth century. He was a pioneering figure in what is known as Surrealism.
Other than being a fantastic painter, Dalí was also a sharp businessman. The story goes that once Dalí had treated some friends at an expensive New York restaurant. When the time to pay for the meal came, Dalí instead of paying in dollars, like anyone else would have, decided to carry out a small experiment.
On the back of the cheque Dalí had signed to pay for the expensive meal, he drew a sketch in his inimitable style. He signed it and handed it to the waiter. The waiter passed it on to the manager.
The manager realised the value of what Dalí had given him and decided to frame the cheque and hang it on the wall, making sure that anyone who came to the restaurant saw it.
Of course, this meant that Dalí’s cheque wasn’t encashed and he didn’t really have to pay in dollars for the expensive meal he had taken his friends out for.
This trick worked for Dalí. He was delighted and he used the same trick at different New York restaurants to pay for meals. The managers of all these different restaurants framed the cheque and hung it on one of the walls in their restaurants, so that everybody who came to the restaurant could see and realise that the famous painter Salvador Dalí had dined at the same place as they were.
Now what was happening here? If I can state this in simple English, Salvador Dalí, had turned his art into money. As Guillén writes:
“The money offered to pay for the meals was never deposited, as the cheques were transformed into artworks and took on a separate life. For Dalí, this maneuver was a stroke of genius. He could print his own money (his drawings had value), and people were willing to accept it as a form of payment.”
The trouble was Dalí went overboard and paid for one too many meals using this trick. In the end, the restaurant managers wised up and Dalí probably had to start paying real dollars for the expensive meals he took his friends out for.
What’s the moral of this story? Anyone can create his or her own money as long as others are willing to accept it, though one thing needs to be kept in mind. As Guillén writes: “As with national currencies, any money can be felled by the laws of supply and demand, as an excessive supply depreciates its worth and reduces people’s willingness to use it.”
What Dalí ended up doing in a very small way, governments have done over and over again, over the centuries. They have gone overboard with printing money and spending it, created high inflation, as too much has chased the same set of goods and services, and in the process destroyed the prevailing form of money. (If you are interested in details, I would suggest that you read my Easy Money trilogy).
Dear Reader, you must be wondering by now why am I recounting this story in a piece which is headlined to be about the bitcoin bubble. Have some patience, everything will become clear very soon. Read on.
Bitcoin is a digital currency that does not use banks or any third party as a medium or at least that is how it is conventionally defined. It is governed by a string of cryptographical codes, which are believed to be military grade and very tough to break.
The price of a bitcoin has rallied big-time over the last few months. It rose from a little over $10,000 per bitcoin in early September to more than $40,000 per bitcoin in early January. As of January 8, 2021, the price of bitcoin touched an all-time high of $40,599.
One of the core selling points of bitcoins as well as its raison d’être is that unlike paper money they cannot be created out of thin air. The number of bitcoins is finite and the code behind it is so written that they cannot go beyond a limit of 21 million tokens.
Interestingly, mining, or the generation of a bitcoin, happens when a computer solves a complex algorithm. Anyone can try to mine bitcoins, but with a finite number being generated at regular intervals and with an increase in the number of people joining the mining race, it has become increasingly difficult to solve the algorithm and generate bitcoins.
As of January 11, 2021, the number of bitcoins in circulation stood at 18.6 million units. The rate at which bitcoins are being created has slowed down over the years and the last fraction of the 21 millionth bitcoin will be created only in 2140.
The larger point here is that unlike the paper money system (or to put it slightly more technically the fiat money system) which can be manipulated by central banks and the governments, the bitcoin system can’t.
Hence, there is an overall limit to the number of bitcoins that can be created. This is the main logic offered in support of buying and owning bitcoins. Unlike central banks or governments or Salvador Dalí (in case you are still wondering why I started with that story), money in the form of bitcoin cannot be created out of thin air and beyond a certain limit.
In fact, this core idea/message at the heart of the bitcoin was built into the first fifty coins, now known as the genesis block, created by Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious inventor behind it. The beauty of bitcoin is that even not knowing who really Nakamoto is, doesn’t impact the way the system he created, works.
The genesis block contained a headline from The Times newspaper published in London dated January 3, 2009. The headline was: “Chancellor on brink of second bail-out for banks”. The headline and the date are permanently embedded into the bitcoin data.
As Nakamoto wrote on a message board in February 2009: “The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work… The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.”
Bitcoin was supposed to be this grand idea meant to save the world from the way the central banks and governments manipulate the paper money system. As William Quinn and John D Turner write in Boom and Bust—A Global History of Financial Bubbles: “To its advocates, bitcoin was the money of the future: it could not be devalued through inflation by a central bank, you could spend it on anything without having to worry about government interference or taxes, and it cut out the middleman, namely commercial banks.”
The question is, in these times of easy money, has bitcoin reached anywhere near its original goal or is it just another way of pure speculation.
Let’s look at this pointwise.
1)Here is a chart of the price of bitcoin in dollars since July 18, 2010 (I couldn’t find the price of bitcoin before this in the public domain, hence, the random date).
It doesn’t take rocket science to understand that if you have been a long-term investor in bitcoin, you would have made shitloads of money by now. But the fundamental question is, is bitcoin money or even the future of money, as it is made out to be, by those who are in love with it, or is it simply another form of speculation.
One of the key characteristics of money is that it is a store of value. The recent rally in bitcoin has led to many bitcoin believers telling us that bitcoin is a store of value. This comes from a very shaky understanding of what the term store of value actually means.
A store of value basically means that something has a stable value over time. As Jacob Goldstein writes in Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing: “If $100 buys your family a week’s worth of groceries today, there is a very good chance it will buy approximately a week’s worth of groceries a year from now. The dollar is a good store of value (it tends to lose about 2 percent of its value every year).”
Let’s look at what has happened to bitcoin over the last few months. It rose from a little over $10,000 per bitcoin in early September 2020 to more than $40,000 per bitcoin in early January 2021.
As of January 8, 2021, the price of bitcoin touched an all-time high of $40,599. As I write this early in the morning on January 14, 2021, the price of a bitcoin is around $37,329. The price has fallen by 8% in a little over five days’ time. So, where is the stability of value? And this isn’t a one-off event. Bitcoin has moved rapidly up and down on many occasions.
But this is a very simple point. Here’s the more complicated point . The price of a bitcoin as of September 5, 2020, was $ 10,092. On January 8, 2021, it reached $40,599, a rise of 302% in a matter of a little over four months.
If bitcoin really was money, using which we could make and receive payments and borrow and lend, the recent rally would have created a havoc in the economy.
What does the rise in the value of any form of money really mean? It means that the price of everything that money can buy is falling. And in this case prices would have fallen big-time. As Goldstein puts it: “This rise in the value of bitcoin would have caused a deflation far worse than the one in the Great Depression.” Deflation is the scenario of falling prices and is deemed to be dangerous because people keep postponing their consumption in the hope of getting a lower price. This hurts businesses and the overall economy.
Now take a look at the following chart which plots the price of a bitcoin in dollars between December 2017 and December 2018.
The price of a bitcoin as on December 16, 2017, was $19,345. A year later on December 15, 2018, it had fallen by 83% to around $3,229. What would this have meant if bitcoin really was money? It would mean that the price of money has fallen and hence, the price of other things has gone up. In this case, it would mean very high inflation, even hyperinflation.
In its current form, bitcoin is no store of value. If it was to be used as money, the world would hyperventilate between deflation and inflation.
2)Another key characteristic of money is that it is a medium of exchange or to put it in simple English, it can be used to buy things (like Dalí bought meals at expensive restaurants).
According to financial services company Fundera 2,352 American businesses, accept bitcoins as a payment. The United States is the mecca of bitcoin believers. As per the US Census Bureau there were around 7.7 million companies in the US with at least one paid employee. This statistic doesn’t inspire much confidence. Barely anyone takes payments in bitcoins even in the United States.
Of course, it takes time for any new form of money to be adopted, but for something that has been around for 12 years, the rate of adoption seems quite poor.
Personally, I don’t know of any business that accepts bitcoin as a payment in India. Maybe, there is some coffee shop in Bengaluru that does. Dear reader, if you know of it, do let me know.
3)The bitcoin believers like to compare it with gold. The reason gold has acted as a hedge against the proclivity of the governments and central banks to create paper money out of thin air, is that it cannot be created out of thin air. While alchemists, which included Isaac Newton as well, have tried this over the centuries, no one has been successful in developing a chemical formula that converts other metals into gold. Bitcoin works because of a similar dynamic, the believers tell us. There is a limit to the number of bitcoins that can be created and as time passes by it becomes more and more difficult to mine bitcoins. That’s how the code behind bitcoin is written.
But the thing is that the code behind bitcoin is freely available. Anyone can take it and tweak it and come up with a new kind of money. Over the years this has happened and many of these new forms of money have ended up as shitcoins.
As Quinn and Turner write:
“In August 2016, one bitcoin was trading at $555; in the next 16 months its price rose by almost 3,400 per cent to a peak of $19,783.3 This was accompanied by a promotion boom, as a mix of cryptocurrency enthusiasts and opportunistic charlatans issued their own virtual currencies in the form of initial coin offerings, or ICOs. These coins had, on the face of it, no intrinsic value – to entitle their holders to future cash flows would have violated laws against issuing unregistered securities – but they nevertheless attracted $6.2 billion of money from investors in 2017 and a further $7.9 billion in 2018.”
A lot of this money never came back to the investors. There is no way to make sure that this won’t happen in the future.
Also, at a broader level, a free market in money is a bad idea. The United States went through this situation sometime in the nineteenth century (Something I discuss in detail in the first volume of Easy Money). It was very easy to get a banking license and banks could print their own money.
As Goldstein writes: “Not all banks were shady. Not even most banks were shady. But the notes printed by the shady banks looked as legit as the notes printed by the honest banks. And there were a lot of notes—at one point, the Chicago Tribune reported that the country had 8,370 different kinds of paper money in circulation.” Imagine the confusion this would have created.
It was also easy for counterfeiters to manufacture their own paper money. In this scenario, a guide called Leonori’s New York Bank Note List, Counterfeit Detector, and Wholesale Prices Current was published once a month. An issue of this guide, dated 18 November 1854, shows that 1,276 such banks were in operation in various states and 825 different kinds of forged notes were in circulation. The financial system was in a total anarchy.
While it is easy to make a case for a non-government decentralised money system, what may lie in store isn’t something we may want in the first place. The sad part is very little thinking has happened on this front. Saying, let the best money win is a very insensitive way to go about it.
4)The bitcoin code which limits their number to 21 million units is written in C++. As Sean Williams writes on Fool.com: “Last I checked, code can always be erased and rewritten. While it’s unlikely that a community consensus would be reached to increase the circulating supply of bitcoin, the possibility of this happening isn’t zero.” Anyway this possibility isn’t going to arise until 2140, when the last fraction of the bitcoin will be mined, and by then you and I, won’t be around. So, it doesn’t really matter.
5)Let’s talk a little more about paper money. Why do others accept it as money? Because they know that the government bank/central bank deems it to be money and hence, still others will accept it as money as well.
As L Randall Wray writes in Modern Money Theory – A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems: “The typical answer provided in textbooks is that you will accept your national currency because you know that others will accept it. In other words, it is accepted because it is accepted. The typical explanation thus relies on an ‘infinite regress’: John accepts it because he thinks Mary will accept it, and she accepts it because she thinks Walmart will take it.”
While this sounds correct there is a slightly more nuanced answer to the question.
There are three main powers that any government has: 1) The right to “legal” violence. 2) The right to tax. 3) The right to create money out of thin air by printing it.
As Wray writes:
“One of the most important powers claimed by sovereign government is the authority to levy and collect taxes (and other payments made to government, including fees and fines). Tax obligations are levied in the national money of account: Dollars in the United States, Canada, and Australia; Yen in Japan; Yuan in China; and Pesos in Mexico. Further, the sovereign government also determines what can be delivered to satisfy the tax obligation. In most developed nations, it is the government’s own currency that is accepted in payment of taxes.”
What does this mean?
As Wray puts it:
“Ultimately, it is because anyone with tax obligations can use currency to eliminate these liabilities that government currency is in demand, and thus can be used in purchases or in payment of private obligations. The government cannot easily force others to use its currency in private payments, or to hoard it in piggybanks, but government can force use of currency to meet the tax obligations that it imposes… It is the tax liability (or other obligatory payments) that stands behind the curtain.”
Hence, the government creates demand for paper/fiat money by accepting taxes in it. This has ensured that the paper money system has kept going despite its weaknesses.
What this also means is that for bitcoin to become popular and move beyond the nerds, it needs a use case as solid as paying taxes in what government deems to be money, is.
It is worth remembering here what Wray writes: “For the past 4,000 years (“at least”, as Keynes put it), our monetary system has been a “state money system”. To simplify, that is one in which the state chooses the money of account, imposes obligations (taxes, tribute, tithes, fines, and fees), denominated in that money unit, and issues a currency accepted in payment of those obligations.”
This is not to say that governments haven’t destroyed money systems in the past. The history of money is littered with examples of kings, queens, rulers, dictators, general secretaries and politicians, representing governments in different eras, having destroyed different money systems at different points of time. But the government has always comeback and controlled the money system the way it has wanted to.
And unless governments and central banks start taking a liking to bitcoin, there is no way its usage is going to spread to a level where it can hope to challenge the prevailing paper money system. It is worth remembering that if governments start taking interest in bitcoin, it in a way beats the entire purpose behind its creation.
Also, every government will want to protect its right to create money out of thin air. Right now bitcoin is too small in the overall scheme of things for governments to be bothered about it and hence, they have largely humoured it (not in India though).
The market capitalisation of bitcoins (number of coins multiplied by the dollar price) as of January 8, peaked at around $759 billion. The global GDP in 2019 was around $88 trillion. So the price of bitcoin even at its peak was lower than 1% of the global GDP.
Hence, the bitcoin story is like that of a rich Indian father basically allowing his son to play around, until he thinks that the son now needs to grow up.
6)There is another point that needs to be made here regarding the paper money system. This is something I realised while writing the third volume of Easy Money and it makes me sceptical of anyone who wants to write off the paper money system in a hurry. (Before you jump on me for being a blanket supporter of the paper money system, I am not, but then that doesn’t mean I don’t see logical arguments when they are offered).
Many years back, in one of my first freelancing assignments, I happened to interview the financial historian Russel Napier. He explained to me the link between paper money and democracy. As he told me on that occasion:
“The history of the paper currency system, or the fiat currency system is really the history of democracy … Within the metal currency, there was very limited ability for elected governments to manipulate that currency. And I know this is why people with savings and people with money like the gold standard. They like it because it reduces the ability of politicians to play around with the quantity of money. But we have to remember that most people don’t have savings. They don’t have capital. And that’s why we got the paper currency in the first place. It was to allow the democracies. Democracy will always turn towards paper currency and unless you see the destruction of democracy in the developed world, and I do not see that, we will stay with paper currencies and not return to metallic currencies or metallic-based currencies.”
Back then bitcoin wasn’t really on the radar. The reason people with savings liked gold back then, is why many of them like bitcoins now.
The twentieth century saw the rise of both paper money and democracy. Pure paper money started coming into being after the First World War. The reason for this is very straightforward. In a democracy whenever there is a crisis, the politicians and the technocrats advising them need to be seen to be doing something.
As an ex-RBI Governor once told me, do nothing cannot be a strategy. And this need to be seen to be doing something, can most easily be fulfilled by manipulating the paper money system that prevails in a democracy. It gives central bankers the option of printing money and driving down interest rates in the hope that people will borrow and spend more and businesses will borrow and expand.
Of course, this has its own problems (as I keep highlighting in my pieces over and over again). But then, the prevailing system does really allow politicians to show that they are trying. Any other system would take this option away from politicians. Hence, the paper money system is not going to be replaced in a hurry. No government is going to let go of this privilege.
7)This is a slightly technical point, but I think it needs to be made. As I have mentioned through this piece, over the years it has become more and more difficult to mine bitcoins. Now bitcoin farms with giant racks of mining computers, are needed to mine bitcoins. The days when bitcoins could be mined using the processing power of a PC are long gone.
The bitcoin farms, as they are known as, need a lot of electricity. Hence, mining operations have moved to countries where electricity is cheap. They have moved to countries like Iceland, Mongolia and primarily, China.
This has created another problem. As Goldstein writes: “By the beginning of 2020, Chinese miners had grown so large that they controlled most of the processing power on the bitcoin network. And the way the code for bitcoin was written gave them control over the system.”
While, bitcoin might be a decentralised democratic system running on code, but it’s people who ultimately control the mining of bitcoins and hence, can direct its future.
So, will the future of bitcoin be driven by China? And if that turns out to be the case, what does this do to its chances of spreading as actual money, used in the selling and buying of things? There are no easy answers to these questions.
8)One of the key points of bitcoins was that it was a non-government decentralised money system which promised freedom from the middlemen. But that hasn’t really happened. As Quinn and Turner write: “[Bitcoin] had promised freedom from middlemen, but trading it without a third party was cumbersome unless the user was expert in cybersecurity.”
If you are using a broker to trade bitcoin it beats the entire idea of freedom from middlemen. Also, the moment you convert your money into fiat money and the money comes into your bank account, the entire idea of remaining unknown and the government not knowing what you are doing goes for a toss. Hence, you may have your reasons to buy bitcoins, but basically you are speculating.
9)You might want to ask why you haven’t heard all this in the mainstream media. The reason for that lies in the fact that the incentives of the media are misaligned these days. Most investment related news is presented as a money-making opportunity. Hence, in this case the bitcoin believers have gotten more space and screen time in the media.
Many of the bitcoin believers are like the original investors in a Ponzi scheme. They have an incentive to talk up bitcoin, get more investors into it, drive up its price and make more money in the process. (In fact, these are precisely the kind of stock market investors that you get to see on TV and read in the media most of the time, but that is another topic for another day).
Also, given the extremely short attention spans that people have these days, the written word doesn’t find much of an audience. As Quinn and Turner put it: “More fundamentally, the move away from the written word to television financial news, docusoaps and social media may corrode the ability of investors to think clearly and understand the complexities of the financial system.”
You cannot understand economic history and the complexities of the financial system by watching TV or watching stuff over the internet or even listening to extremely detailed podcasts (podcasts can just give you a flavour of things and a feeling that you are actually learning a lot). The only way to understand complex issues is to read, read and read more.
In an era of short attention spans, bitcoins are just the right asset to speculate on. Their price goes up or falls even before you can say Virat Kohli. (This is another reason to support my writing).
10)We live in an era of easy money. Central banks have printed trillions of dollars during the course of 2020 to drive down interest rates in the hope of encouraging people to borrow and spend and businesses to borrow and expand. Interest rates are in negative territory in some of the European nations.
In this scenario of very low interest rates, investors are desperate to earn returns. Hence, a lot of money has been invested into stock markets all over the world, driving them to levels not justified by earnings that companies are expected to earn in the years to come.
Some money has also found its way into bitcoins. As The Economist puts it: “The current surge seems to have been spurred by interest from the financial establishment, most of which had long scorned it.” In simple English, hedge funds are buying bitcoins. Given that bitcoins are thinly traded, this has driven up prices by astonishing levels. Hence, like stock markets, bitcoin is also in bubble territory.
And as we have seen over the past few decades, hedge fund money can be quite mercurial. They can drive down prices faster than they drove them up.
To conclude, the fact that the price of bitcoin is so volatile tells us that most people investing in it aren’t really bothered about the long-term story of bitcoin as money, the bitcoin believers try selling all the time. If they did believe in this story they would have bought bitcoin and held on to it. But as the crash of 2018 showed that is clearly not the case.
“Buying a Bitcoin token today can be considered an investment in the fast growth of the network and currency as a store of value, because it is still very small and able to grow many multiples of its size and value very quickly. Should Bitcoin’s share of the global money supply and international settlement transactions become a majority share of the global market, the level of demand for it will become far more predictable and stable, leading to a stabilization in the value of the currency.”
(Ha ha, this is to show that I also read stuff I don’t really agree with).
I am not clairvoyant. This may happen. This may not happen. My reading of economic history tells me it won’t. But then I might turn out to be wrong. What do they say about history not repeating itself but rhyming? But what if it doesn’t rhyme as well?
There are no guarantees when it comes to economics. The trouble is that while you are waiting for all this to happen, the price of a bitcoin is at the level of a very very very very expensive large cap stock and its volatility is that of a small cap penny stock.
So, if you do invest in bitcoin, do understand that you are taking a punt, you are speculating, you are hoping that the price goes up and does not fall. Also, don’t go looking for fundamental reasons for investing in it.
Given that investing in bitcoin is equal to taking a punt, please don’t bet your life on it. As the old cliché goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
PS: This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in digital money. I do. But I also believe that it will be controlled by large corporations and the governments.
Dear Reader, before you start thinking that I have click-baited you one more time, let me assure you that’s not true. Your personal finances in 2021 will actually face a Chinese problem.
But before we go into this, let’s first understand a few aspects about the Chinese saving habit over the years. Let’s look at this pointwise.
1)As is well known, the Chinese physical infrastructure over the years was funded through massive domestic savings being invested in bank deposits. As Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan write in The Great Demographic Reversal: “Interest rates were set well below the rate of growth and the rate of inflation. While the economy grew on average by around 10% over 1990–2010, the inflation-adjusted deposit rate over the same period averaged −3.3% (for a 1.4% average for the nominal deposit rate versus an average annual inflation rate of 4.75%).”
Hence, the rate of interest rate was lower than the prevailing rate of inflation, for a period of two decades. If one were to state this in a simple way, the low interest rates acted effectively as a tax on Chinese households.
2) This tax did not matter much because the savings were channelised into investments. This created economic growth and the average income of a Chinese kept going up, year on year. Hence, while the interest being earned on the accumulated wealth was low, the regular yearly income kept going up.
3)Low interest rates led to an interesting behaviour at the household level. As Goodhart and Pradhan point out, there was “a negative correlation between urban savings and the decline in real deposit rates.” “When banks fail to protect household savings, households tend to save more, not less, in order to achieve a ‘target’, whether that is for education or the purchase of a home.” Basically, given the negative real rate of interest on bank deposits, where inflation was higher than the interest rate, Chinese households saved more money in bank deposits in order to achieve their targeted savings. Options of investing in other avenues were extremely limited.
Now the question is how does all this apply to your personal finance in India in 2021. Allow me to explain pointwise.
1)Interest rates on bank fixed deposits have collapsed. The interest offered on fixed deposits of more than one year, currently stands at around 5.5% on an average. This when the rate of inflation as measured by the consumer price index in November 2020 stood at 6.93%. Hence, the real rate of interest is in negative territory. If after tax the rate of return on fixed deposits is taken into account, the gap gets even bigger.
2)The major reason for this collapse in interest rates has been a collapse in bank lending. Given that banks, on the whole, have barely given out fresh loans since March, they possibly couldn’t keep paying a high rate of interest on deposits. Hence, the crash in interest rates. But what has added to this is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) policy of flooding the financial system with money, in order to drive down interest rates further. The excess money in the financial system, which the banks deposit with the RBI, stood at Rs 6.25 lakh crore as of December 31, 2020.
3) From the indications that the RBI has given, this excess liquidity in the financial system is likely to continue. The idea is to help ease the burden on current loans of corporates. In a year the tax collections have collapsed this also helps the government to borrow at extremely low interest rates. At the same time, the hope is at lower interest rates corporates will borrow and expand. But that is not happening. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows that announcements of new investment projects in terms of value fell by 88.3% during the period October to December 2020. Investment projects completed were down by 74%. So, the corporates aren’t in the mood to borrow and expand.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Many corporates continue to remain over-leveraged. Still others don’t have enough confidence in India’s economic future, irrespective of what they say in the public domain. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
4)What does all this have to do with personal finance? What happened in China is happening in India as well. The bank savings have gone up dramatically during 2020. Between March 27 and December 18, they were up by Rs 9.15 lakh crore. In comparison, the increase during similar periods in 2019 and 2018, had stood at Rs 4.35 lakh crore and Rs 3.90 lakh crore, respectively. Of course, all this increase in saving is not just because of low interest rates. Some of it is because of fewer opportunities to spend money in 2020. Some of it is because of the general uncertainty that prevails. Some of it is because of jobs losses and the fear of job losses. And some of it is because Indians, like the Chinese, are saving more, in order to achieve the savings target for the education of their children or their weddings, or for the purchase of a home.
5)This has repercussions. With people saving more and with banks being unable to lend that money, interest rates have come down. And people saving more in response to the lower interest rates, means extended lower interest rates. This is not good news for savers. It is also not good news for consumption. If people are saving more, they are clearly spending lesser. This is the paradox of thrift or saving. When an individual saves more, it makes sense for him or her at an individual level. When the society as a whole saves much more than it was, it hurts the economy simply because one man’s spending is another man’s income. Over a period of time, this leads to job losses, more paradox of thrift and further job losses.
At the risk of sounding very cliched, there is no free lunch in economics. The RBI’s policy of flooding the financial system with money in order to help the corporates and the government, is basically hurting individual savers, consumption and the overall economy. The savers are paying for this lunch. And unlike the corporates, the savers have no unified voice. The government, obviously, is the government.
While, there is no denying that with lending not happening bank deposit rates had to fall, but the RBI policy of driving them down further, is something that is hurting the economy.
6)So, where does that leave the Indian saver? Some individual savers are betting on the stock market. But the price to earnings ratio of the Nifty 50 index as of January 1, stood at 38.55, an all-time high level. If you have the heart to invest in stocks at such a level, best of luck to you. Some others are betting on bitcoin, which has given a return of more than 75% in dollar terms, in the last one month.
Also, unlike the Chinese, the prospects of an increase in the yearly income of an average Indian, over the next years, at best remain subdued. Hence, the humble Indian fixed depositor, who liked to fill it, shut it and forget about it, so that he could concentrate on many other issues that his or her life keeps throwing up, clearly has a problem in 2021.
To conclude, all of you who write to me asking for a safe way of investing so that you can earn a 10% yearly return, well, sorry to disappoint you, no such way exists. At least not in 2021. Of course, there are always Ponzi schemes to invest in, some fraudulent, and some not so fraudulent.
The choice is yours to make.
PS: Wishing all my readers a very Happy New Year. Hope 2021 is much better than 2020 was for each one of you.