December 10, 2018
Arun Jaitley is having a crypto kind of year. First he popped up with dramatic effect in this year’s Union Budget Debate, sending the price of Bitcoin spiralling worldwide, and the Finance Minister had barely sat down at this week’s meeting of the Financial Stability and Development Council when the “B” word came up again. Sir Humphrey Appleby (of “Yes Minister” fame) would surely have been proud of the gloriously opaque press release issued after the meeting: “The Council has deliberated on the issues and challenges of crypto assets and currency and was briefed about the deliberations in the high-level committee chaired by the Secretary of Economic Affairs to devise an appropriate legal framework to ban use of private crypto currencies in India”. That rarest of political beasts: a limp statement with a punch.
But what does it actually mean, and what does it mean in particular for the future of e-retailing in India?
The subcontinent’s lawyers are already enjoying a feeding frenzy on crypto currency regulation (more of that in a moment), so this type of woolly language is unlikely to stifle further legal challenges. What, for example, does “use” mean? Will it be acceptable to hold a crypto currency if you don’t actually use it? Will it be like having a gun under the bed with a vague intention of using it to shoot ducks out of season, or more like having a gun in a holdall on your way to rob a bank? Nobody knows.
What we do know for certain though is that India’s financial sector is unlikely to be comfortable with this level ambiguity in such a key policy area where, like their counterparts worldwide, the subcontinent’s banks have for some time been edging closer to accepting (and investing heavily in) a Blockchain based e-retail market, and crypto currencies are an integral part of the Blockchain platform. That’s why Bank of America’s Kash Rangan stated last month that Blockchain technologies will eventually be embedded into every software platform globally; and its why IBM and Microsoft already have Blockchain offerings on the market, and why in India the likes of Apurva Enterprises (a building supplies company lets remind ourselves) is following their lead and investing heavily in its Tradescrypt affiliate.
And its also why the Reserve Bank of India (along with everyone else) has been expecting the subcontinent’s Crypto Currencies Panel (“CCP”) to come up with a workable regulatory regime for the sector by its (self imposed) deadline of July this year. That’s why in February the Reserve Bank restricted future crypto dealings engagements in the firm belief that the CCP would have done something by the beginning of August. In fact it has done nothing and this bewildering inactivity seems to the real behind this week’s consignment of crypto fudge from the Financial Stability and Development Council.
But don’t bet against the fudge melting away as quickly as a Chequers Brexit.
First of all, the simple fact is that Blockchain and Crypto Currencies now have too much potential simply to be ignored which is the reason why IBM and Microsoft have been investing so heavily in the technology, and India alone has more than 6 Million crypto currency users: all of them ready and willing to deal with more or less whatever platforms these behemoths have to offer. The market is simply way bigger than any quick political fix (whatever its flavour), and as Milton Friedman so ineloquently put it: you can’t buck the market.
Secondly, the very public failure of the CCP to come to a conclusion by July rapidly caught the attention of all those voracious lawyers (acting for Indian Crypto Exchanges), and they’ve brought an action before the Supreme Court asking for an order that the Reserve Bank of India should “clarify its position”. The Court ordered last week that the Minister should file an affidavit doing just that by the end of next week. This is most likely the real reason behind the statement issued from New Delhi.
The deliberate vagueness of the statement’ language seems not so much intended to be market resilient as to buy the Government more time to arrive at a final position before going back to Court. Not only that, the more astute observer may already have spotted that the Securities and Exchange Board of India has now dispatched delegates to Japan, Switzerland and the United Kingdom to study and make recommendations on regulatory structures relating to cryptocurrency trading. Why do that if crypto currency trading is never going to happen?
And finally, just take a look at the sheer scale of e-retail markets on the subcontinent: projected to have more than 50 Million trading participants by the end of 2018 and with sales in the two weeks running up to Diwali alone running at over $2.3 Billion. Between them Amazon and Flipkart have spent £54.01 Million on Diwali related promotions, Amazon has invested $79.8 Million this quarter in its digital payment arm and Flipkart invested $65.8 Million in its own payments wing (PhonePe). Amazon has also sold well over 1 Million mobile devices in India in the last six months, not just to the urban middle class but in rural and semi rural areas as well, helping fuel the rise of an entirely new electronic economy on an entirely new scale. As Milton Friedman would probably say, that’s an awful big market to buck.
It might just be unbuckable…
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Whatever the virtues or otherwise of Bitcoin, and everyone has their own views, the role crypto currencies will have to play in the development of future Blockchain technologies is something regulators simply cannot ignore. And that applies particularly to India, where the opportunities offered by its rapidly expanding e-retail markets are likely to be exponentially greater than in most other economies worldwide. Together Blockchain and e-retail combined are a formidable agent for growth.
So I have no doubt that Blockchain technologies will ultimately change the way we all do business: it’s a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. And on that point I agree with Kash Rangan of Bank of America, at some stage these technologies will become embedded in every software platform so India is now in an almost unique position to take a lead in its global regulation. I will be looking with interest to see what happens next…