An Open Letter to Bitcoin Bhakts

Vo intizār thā jis kā ye vo sahar to nahīñ
— Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

A couple of days back I wrote a long piece on bitcoin. As expected the backlash was huge, though a couple of people did engage very nicely and in a fact-driven way (You know who you are, so, thanks a tonne for that).

But a bulk of the response from the bitcoin believers was like we know everything about bitcoin and this guy doesn’t know what he is talking about. Of course, they didn’t say this in as polite a way as I am putting it here (or as one believer put it, it was 5,100 words of potty).

In this piece I wanted to list out a random list of points which I have been thinking about over the last couple of days since I published the bitcoin piece. Some of these points have got to do with investing in general and some with bitcoin in particular. Of course, there are points about the bhakts, the bitcoin bhakts, as well.

The conclusion at the end of this piece is the same as the last bitcoin piece, which is that, the life of bitcoin started with an ambition to become a cryptocurrency which wanted to replace the global paper money system. But it has ended up becoming an object of pure speculation and nothing else. (I can already see the bitcoin bhakts going: good you have mentioned this upfront, we don’t need to read beyond this. Our beliefs are safe).

So, here we go.

1) I had been postponing writing the bitcoin piece for a while now. This was probably my way of coping with the backlash I was expecting once the piece was published. But I am glad that I wrote it. What it told me was that bitcoin bhakts like bhakts in general and investing bhakts in particular, are a petulant lot. You don’t agree with them and they are ready to get you.

In a way it’s like god, religion and parents. My god is the best. My religion is the best. My daddy is the strongest. My mother is the sweetest. And my bitcoin is the best. And if you don’t agree with me then you don’t know anything and you are going to get it from me.

2) A very strong unwavering belief hurts when it comes to investing. I have now spent nearly two decades, starting in 2002, writing about business, economics, finance and investing. And I have seen this sort of behaviour before. When I first started writing about a bubble in real estate, sometime in 2013, I got a similar response from real estate investors all over India, like I have from the bitcoin believers, over the past two days.

Real estate prices in 2013 had been rallying for more than a decade and almost no one was ready to believe at that point of time that they could fall or stagnate for a long period of time. Many didn’t even believe there was a bubble.

In fact, many people still don’t, holding on to their investment in the belief that the happy days of pre 2013 will be back. (Now only if these people knew how to calculate the internal rate of return on any investment, which they clearly don’t). Of course, the reason for holding on to real estate can always be an emotional one as well.

So, yes, the bitcoin bhakts aren’t the first believers. There have been believers before them and there will be believers after them. This time is no different.

3) One response that came over and over again was that this guy (that is me) has no idea what central banks have been up to over the years. They have printed so much money, you know. What is he even talking about. 

Well, to set the record straight, anyone who has followed my writing over the years would know the number of times I have written about money printing and central banks and how it is a bad idea. I have also written three books on this issue. I mean I have almost made a career out of it.

But the more important point here is that just because central banks have been printing money doesn’t mean that the paper money system is going to come to an end  quickly and bitcoin will takeover. This is a great example of lazy thinking, and the fact that the human mind is not built to think through complex multi-dimensional issues. This is bounded rationality at work and the bitcoin bhakts have also become a victim to that.

We all need reasons for doing something and more often than not the reasons are very simplistic. Like the case here. Bitcoin will take over the world because central banks have been printing money and now that I have bought bitcoin I need to firmly believe in this. Really

As I explained in my previous bitcoin piece there is a huge status quo which is a powerful force and which benefits from the paper money system in its present form and they aren’t just waiting there to rollover, once the bitcoin bhakts come attacking.

The paper money system that bitcoin bhakts keep talking about has the American dollar at the heart of it. The world trade happens largely in dollars, giving the United States an enormous exorbitant privilege. While every other country in the world needs to earn dollars, the US can simply print it.

And given this, this is a privilege the United States isn’t really going to let go in a hurry. Why do you think US consumption is around a fourth of the global economy, while the country has only 5% of the world’s population? Which US politician in his or her right mind, is not going to worry about this dynamic?

Yesterday, someone on Twitter, shared a news-item which said that an American Senator was in favour of bitcoin as money. I am sure random American Congressmen support random things. Take the case of former Congressman Ron Paul, who supported gold as money for years on end. That does not mean that the American financial system will move to gold as money. So, we are talking change at a systemic level here, not some random guy supporting some random thing, please understand that.

4) I was also told repeatedly that bitcoin is an anonymised peer to peer network and I was making the mistake of looking at it as a centralised system. Well, that is really rich coming from guys who are buying bitcoin from brokers and giving away all their identity details. The moment you are doing that you are buying a speculative asset and not a future form of anonymised money.

5) When I said that barely anyone accepts bitcoin as a payment, two people wrote to me to say that they did. This is precisely the point I was trying to make. They were the exception that proves the rule.

In fact, as the American journalist James Surowiecki wrote in a recent post on bitcoin: “The blockchain analysis company Chainalysis, for instance, found that in the first four months of 2019, just 1.3% of total transactions involved merchants.”  A bulk of bitcoin payments were used to pay for illicit goods and services like drugs and online gambling. (This is not to say that paper money isn’t used for these things. It is. But then the bulk of payments are for regular everyday transactions).

Also, even with these payments, bitcoin payments form an insignificant part of the overall whole. As Surowiecki writes: “On average, there are now around 325,000 Bitcoin transactions — including trades — per day. There are roughly a billion credit card transactions per day.” Over and above this, there are debit card transactions, cash transactions and digital money transactions, to consider. Bitcoin is nowhere in all this.

This is primarily because the bitcoin system is very slow to process transactions. It can process seven transactions a second. Visa, on the other hand, processes 6,000 transactions a second.

I can go on and on why bitcoin is not a medium of exchange, like a good form of money should be, but I will leave it at this.

6) The main reason why very few businesses accept bitcoin as payment is the volatility of its price, Surowiecki points out. Let’s say a business takes payment in bitcoin. Chances are that the next morning the price falls majorly, then the business can end up with a loss on the transactions it made a day before. (Of course, the price can go up as well… but then this is business not gambling).

The volatility of price comes from the fact that most people buying bitcoin are in it, in order to make a quick buck. They see an asset whose price is going up, they buy it. When they see an asset whose price is going down, they sell out. Of course, there are believers as well.

7) This is an interesting one. I learnt yesterday that you identify a bitcoin bhakt, the moment he says HFSP to you. For all the Boomers out there, HFSP stands for Have Fun Stay Poor. Apparently, this is something that bitcoin bhakts say often when people question their core beliefs. It’s an easy, slightly humorous way to get back without necessarily having to think through what the person questioning their core beliefs is basically trying to say. (It’s all potty you know).

Also, it is important to understand, different people are mentally built differently, when it comes to how they look at money. In my scheme of things return of capital is more important than return on capital when it comes to money and investing. Money has never come easily to me and whatever I have I would rather protect it than take a punt with it. If that means staying poor in the eyes of bitcoin bhakts, then so be it.

But then that shouldn’t stop you from buying bitcoin. If you feel it needs to be a part of your investment portfolio and if you feel that you are okay taking the risk, then please go ahead. It is your hard earned money at the end of the day.

8)  The recent interest shown by hedge fund managers basically should tell everyone very clearly that bitcoin as an object of speculation is now entering the mainstream. Of course, this means that the price of the thinly traded bitcoin can go up even further. So, there might be more money to be made. But then do remember that hedge funds are a mercurial lot. They can go out of a trade much faster than they get into it.

Hence, the oldest cliché in investing, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, applies to bitcoin as well. If you want to speculate, please go ahead and do it. But don’t bet your life on it.

9) Many bitcoin bhakts believe in anarchy when it comes to the money system. They seem to be okay with different forms of cryptocurrencies competing with each other, a few dying in the process and the best ones continuing to exist.

It is important to understand here, that there is a difference between money and mobile phones. While mobile phone brands can keep changing, depending on customer preferences and specifications on offer, the same argument applied to money doesn’t really work.

A major reason for the evolution of standardised fiat paper money lies in the fact that there were too many forms of money going around and this caused needless confusion and built huge costs of doing business into the system. A lot of this standardisation happened through the centuries and made lives easy for business and normal mortals. Of course, there are problems with this system.

10) I also understood something all over again. As the American novelist Upton Sinclair once remarked: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” When the price of an investment asset is going up at an extremely fast pace, all people can see is that it’s going up, without realising that it’s going up because it’s going up.

To conclude, the life of bitcoin started with an ambition to become a cryptocurrency which wanted to replace the global paper money system. It has now become a speculative asset at best and nothing more.

As The Economist recently put it, rising prices of bitcoin “may be good news for those holding bitcoin that others are piling in, but speculators’ enthusiasm suggests that cryptocurrencies will fall far short of their founders’ lofty aspirations”.

Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious inventor of bitcoin, whoever he is, wherever he is, must be a rich man today. Nevertheless, he must be a terribly disappointed man as well.  This wasn’t what he was trying to engineer.

The sad thing as always is, in life, things rarely go as planned.

Kyon Dare Zindagi Mein Kya Hoga
Kuch Na Hoga To Tajruba Hoga.
— Javed Akhtar.

Lessons from Coalgate and Naveen Jindal: It is important to save capitalism from capitalists

Fostering Public Leadership - World Economic Forum - India Economic Summit 2010

Vivek Kaul


In an interview to NDTV, Naveen Jindal , chairman of Jindal Steel and Power, and Congress politician said that his company would not be able to pay the fine imposed by the Supreme Court. “We will not be able to pay it..because we have not made a provision for it,” Jindal said.
Jindal also told the television channel that the Supreme Court decision “was a ‘setback’ for companies which have mined coal for the past 20 years to generate power and make steel, and now been told that what they are doing is illegal, while they have been creating wealth for the country.”
In a decision on September 24, 2014, the Supreme Court had cancelled 204 out of the 218 coal blocks allocated by the government since 1993. The coal blocks were allocated for free for captive mining. Companies which were given these blocks could use the coal to produce power, iron and steel, aluminium, cement etc. The Court has also fined companies at the rate of Rs 295 per tonne for all the coal that they have produced till date and will continue producing till March 31, 2015, when they need to hand over their mines to the government.
Jindal was the biggest beneficiary of the captive coal block allotments, having been given nine blocks in all. Given this, things he has said in the NDTV interview need to be looked at closely.
The first thing Jindal talks about are “companies which have mined coal for twenty years.”
No company has been mining coal for twenty years. Provisional coal statistics released by the Coal Controller Organisation, which is a part of the coal ministry, shows that coal was first mined by the captive coal blocks only in 1997-98. Also, during this year a minuscule amount of 0.71 million tonnes of coal was produced by these mines. The production crossed 10 million tonnes of coal only in 2004-2005, when these blocks produced 10.11 million tonnes. Hence, serious production from these coal mines has happened only for 10 years and not 20 years as Jindal points out. This was primarily because between 1993 and 2002 only 15 blocks had been allocated to private companies.
This maybe nitpicking, nonetheless it is an important factual point to make given the sensitivity of the issue. In Jindal Steel and Power’s case the Gare Palma IV coal block has been operational from February 1999. This coal mine produced 6 million tonnes of coal in 2013-2014 and is expected to produce a similar amount in 2014-2015.
Further, just because something has been happening for many years, doesn’t mean it is right, even though it may have been government policy. The coal blocks were allocated based on the recommendations of an inter ministerial screening committee. The committee was set up in July 1992 and the coal secretary was its chairman.
As Vinod Rai writes in 
Not Just an Accountant—The Diary of the Nation’s Conscience Keeper “This committee was to scrutinize applications for captive mining and allocate coal blocks for development, subject to statutes governing coal mining, following which the coal minister would approve the allotment…The screening committee is expected to asses applications based on parameters such as the techno-economic feasibility of the end-use project, status of preparedness to set up the end-use project, past track record in executing projects, financial and technical capabilities of applicant companies and the recommendations of the concerned state governments and ministries.”
The committee was supposed to look at each application based on these criteria and then make a decision of who to allot the coal block to. But that doesn’t seem to have happened. As the Supreme Court judgement dated August 25, 2014, clearly points out “The entire exercise of allocation through Screening Committee route thus appears to suffer from the vice of arbitrariness and not following any objective criteria in determining as to who is to be selected or who is not to be selected.”
The judgement further points out that “there is no evaluation of merit and no 
inter se comparison of the applicants. No chart of evaluation was prepared. The determination of the Screening Committee is apparently subjective as the minutes of the Screening Committee meetings do not show that selection was made after proper assessment. The project preparedness, track record etc., of the applicant company were not objectively kept in view.”
Further, the guidelines that the Screening Committee was supposed to follow did not contain “any objective criterion for determining the merits of the applicants.” “As a matter of fact, no consistent or uniform norms were applied by the Screening Committee to ensure that there was no unfair distribution of coal in the hands of the applicants.” The Supreme Court came to this conclusion after studying the minutes of the Screening Committee meetings.
Interestingly, the Comptroller and Auditor General(CAG) had come to a similar conclusion when it had audited the procedure for allotment of coal locks in mid 2011. As Rai points out “The process that the committee actually followed was not really clear from the records. All that the records showed was that the committee met, deliberated and merely recorded the name of the block allotted to a company, and the state where the end-use plant existed. It is left to the reader to decide if transparency was a victim and, if so, how audit erred in pointing out this lacuna.”
The problem was that even if the Screening Committee wanted to follow objective criteria, at times it was simply not possible. Former coal secretary P C Parakh (who took over as coal secretary in the second week of March 2004) explains this in 
Crusader or Conspirator—Coalgate and Other Truths “By the time I took charge of the ministry, the number of applicants for each block had increased considerably although still in single digits. I found a number of applicants fulfilling the criteria specified for allocation of each block on offer. This made objective selection extremely difficult.”
In fact in the years to come the situation became much worse as more and more companies applied for coal blocks. As Parakh writes “According to CAG’s report, 108 applications were received for Rampia and Dip Side of Rampia Block [names of two coal blocks]. I found it difficult to make an objective selection when the number of applicants was in single digits. How could the Screening Committee take objective decisions when the number of applicants per block had run into three digits?”
Parakh to his credit realized pretty early that the Screening Committee method of allotment wasn’t working. In fact, in his book Parakh goes on to list several reasons on why giving away coal blocks free for captive mining by companies just did not make sense. By giving away coal blocks for free, companies which had no experience in coal mining were getting into a totally unrelated field. The government had no way of monitoring whether the captive mine was being used for captive use. Or was the company, which had got the coal block, selling the coal it was producing in the open market and thus “promoting corruption and black money”. Further, the system of allocation of coal blocks for free was discriminatory. It offered a huge premium to companies which managed to get a free coal block, in comparison to ones that did not.
Hence, Parakh proposed to Manmohan Singh(who had taken over as coal minister) in August 2004 that coal blocks should be allotted through the competitive bidding route. Before he did this Parakh had even called an open discussion of all the stakeholders in June 2004.
The stakeholders included the business lobbies FICCI, CII and Assocham, other ministries whose companies had applied for coal blocks and private companies.
Parakh points out that most invitees were not in favour of competitive bidding of coal blocks. As he puts it “not many participants were enthusiastic about open bidding. Their main argument was that the cost of coal to be mined would go up if coal blocks were auctioned.”
Parakh suggests that assuming that business men bidding for coal blocks (if such a process were to be introduced) would drive up the price of coal to astronomical levels is suggesting that they are stupid. As he writes “Participants at open auctions are hard-headed businessmen with an acute sense of profitability. They do not make irrationally high bids. The price at which coal from CIL[Coal India Ltd] was available would automatically put a cap on the bid amount.”
The industry ultimately resisted open bidding simply because until then they had been getting coal blocks for free. And if something is available for free why pay for it. “To an extent, it was a reflection of corporate India’s aversion to transparency,” writes Parakh.
Nevertheless on August 20, 2004, Manmohan Singh approved allocation of coal blocks through the competitive bidding route. Immediately after this a number of letters written by MPs opposing competitive bidding started coming in. As Parakh writes “This included one from Mr Naveen Jindal who had considerable interest in coal mining.”
This is when Dasari Narayana Rao, the famous Telgu film director, who was the minister of state for coal. entered the scene. As Rai points out in his book “Rao, observed that any change in the procedure for the allocation of coal blocks would invite further delay in allocation.”
As Rao wrote while submitting the file to Manmohan Singh: “It is difficult to agree with the view that Screening Committee cannot ensure transparent decision-making. This alone was not adequate ground for switching over to a new mechanism, particularly when the interests of core infrastructure areas are involved.”
On March 25, 2005, Manmohan Singh “recorded the approval of the cabinet note seeking sanction of the competitive bidding system,” Rai points out. But Rao still did not give up and kept talking about the “cost implications” of the competitive bidding system of allocation of coal blocks. He finally succeeded and on July 25, 2005, it was decided that the coal ministry would continue to allot coal to blocks through the Screening Committee route.
In May 2014 the enforcement directorate slapped money laundering charges against Rao and Jindal. 
As the PTI reported “The agency, according to sources, has framed the charges after it found multi-layered transactions between the firms owned by Jindal to Rao’s firms based in Hyderabad and “illegal money” was routed for alleged favours given for the allocation of coal firms to Jindal.”
Interestingly Jindal told NDTV that “one of the Jindal companies had lent money to an unrelated company, which in turn invested in a company in which the Mr Rao had a controlling stake.”
Given this, the situation is not as simplistic as Jindal tried to project in his NDTV interview. Also, between the Supreme Court and the CAG it has been clearly established that the Screening Committee route to allot coal blocks was not transparent at all and companies which got coal blocks benefited from this lack of transparency. Given this, it led to the Supreme Court cancelling 204 out of the 218 blocks that had been allocated, including coal mines which were already under operation.
Jindal in his interview also told NDTV that his company won’t be able to pay the fine imposed by the Supreme Court because they hadn’t made a provision for it. The Supreme Court has fined the companies already operating coal blocks Rs 295 per tonne for all the coal that they have produced till now and all the coal they will continue to produce till March 31, 2015, when they need to hand over the mines back to the government. This in a way took care of what Parakh termed as discriminatory. As he writes “The [Screening Committee] system of allocation of captive [coal] blocks offers huge advantage to industries that get coal blocks over those who are not able to get coal blocks.”
Edelweiss Securities estimates that Jindal Steel and Power will have to pay a fine of close to Rs 3000 crore. While the company may not have made a provision to pay the fine, it needs to be pointed out that as on March 31, 2014, the company had a balance sheet size of Rs 74,072.1 crore. Its reserves and surplus amounted to Rs 22,519 crore. It had cash and bank balances of Rs 1,015.28 crore. Further, in the last two financial years it has made a total profit of Rs 4820.5 crore.
Also, let’s calculate the financial benefit arising out of the Gare Palma IV coal block which as pointed out earlier has been operational from February 1999. This coal mine produced 6 million tonnes of coal in 2013-2014 and is expected to produce a similar amount in 2014-2015.
A research report brought out by Kotak Institutional Equities suggests that it costs Rs 600-800 per tonne to produce captive coal. In comparison, it costs Rs 3,500 per tonne to import coal. Hence, imported coal is four to five times more expensive than captive coal.
So the cost of producing 12 million tonnes of coal over a two year period at the upper end cost of Rs 800 per tonne would have been Rs 960 crore. Along with a fine of Rs 295 per tonne this amounts to Rs 1314 crore. Consider the other possibility of importing coal at Rs 3500 per tonne. This would have cost the company Rs 4200 crore. The difference between these two numbers comes to Rs 2886 crore. This calculation just takes the last two years into account. Nevertheless the mine has been functioning for close to 15 years now.
The total fine that the company needs to pay amounts to around Rs 3000 crore. Hence, even after it pays the fine the company would have managed to save a lot of money over the years because it got the coal block for free through a process which wasn’t transparent at all.
In fact, Jindal isn’t the only one protesting. The pink papers over the last few days have been full of quotes criticizing the Supreme Court’s decision to cancel the coal block allocations. But when a process has not been transparent for 20 years, it needs to be cancelled. And when this happens, there are bound to be repercussions, which the incumbents won’t like.
As the American author Upton Sinclair once wrote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” The corporates and their lobbies who are coming out against the Supreme Court’s decision are a good example of this.
It needs to be pointed out here that only 40 out of 218 coal blocks are currently operational. Companies, given that they had got blocks for free, seemed to be in no hurry to start production. That wouldn’t have been the case, had they paid for it in the first place.
To conclude, it is worth quoting what Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales write in 
Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists “Since a person may be powerful because of his past accomplishments or inheritance rather than his current abilities, the powerful have a reason to fear markets…Those in power – the incumbents – prefer to stay in power.” Jindal clearly would have liked that.
The article originally appeared on on Sep 28, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)