Against the Skeptics: Why the Crypto Crash Isn’t the End of Blockchainby@simonchandler
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Against the Skeptics: Why the Crypto Crash Isn’t the End of Blockchain

by Simon ChandlerJuly 21st, 2022
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Crypto skeptics argue that the sector's demise is inevitable, basing their claims on the assumption that cryptocurrencies and blockchain do not provide meaningful innovation. However, the increasing embrace of crypto by the financial services industry will be enough to keep crypto going, regardless of whether it ever delivers socially useful technology.
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The cryptocurrency and blockchain skeptics are having a field day. Ever since the TerraUSD collapse in May, they’ve been lining up to write crypto’s eulogy, goaded on by the woes experienced by Celsius, Three Arrows Capital, Voyager Digital, BlockFi and other firms. And with bitcoin and altcoins remaining far below all-time highs, there’s every chance other dominoes will fall in the coming weeks, as overleveraging and risk comes back to bite the market.

It’s hard to deny that the cryptocurrency industry is going through a crisis right now. That said, an argument needs to be made that the crypto critics have gone too far in declaring the end of the industry, and yes, some are talking as if the entire industry is about to die:

Sure, there’s little doubt some platforms and companies are going to disappear in the next few months, but the cryptocurrency and blockchain sector will continue. Why? Well, because its potential for extracting wealth from (retail) investors makes it far too lucrative to ignore.

Yes, in contrast to those who claim crypto will survive mostly because it promises a revolution in technology and money, this article will play Devil’s advocate and take a more cynical view of its survival. Meeting the growing chorus of crypto skeptics halfway, it will -- for the sake of argument -- run with the claim that crypto is all-but useless, but still affirm it’s here to stay precisely because it’s a great vehicle for ripping off the public.

Not only that, but crypto’s capacity for wealth extraction makes it a perfect fit for the mainstream financial system, which in the past few decades has increasingly revolved around using fees, penalties and arcane instruments to siphon money away from its customers.

‘Finance’ Means Transferring Wealth to Already Rich Creditors

It’s worth acknowledging that the crypto skeptics -- of which David Gerard, Amy Castor, Jacob Silverman (and Ben McKenzie), Nicholas Weaver and Stephen Diehl are some of the most prominent -- may be right about many things. This includes their concerns regarding Tether and its unaudited reserves, about how blockchain has yet to find a significant use case outside of crypto, about how Bitcoin consumes a prodigious amount of electricity, and so on.

Yet the skeptics’ principal failing is that they talk about cryptocurrency as if it’s an anomaly, as if it's some kind of freakish alien entity that has descended from another dimension to infect an otherwise sane financial system. On the contrary, it’s merely the latest outgrowth of an economic and financial system that has been becoming more antisocial, lawless and self-serving since at least the ‘70s.

Exhibit A: banks have been generating a greater share of their respective revenues from service fees over the past several years, meaning overdraft fees, ATM fees and maintenance charges. To provide some figures, overdraft fees collected in the United States amounted to $15.47 billion in 2019, while JPMorgan, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, to name only three, respectively collected $1.5 billion, $1.3 billion and $1.1 billion in overdrafts in 2020.

As everyone reading this article remembers, 2020 was the year the outbreak of Covid-19 became a pandemic, marking a period during which some eight million Americans slipped into poverty. And as many people can guess, overdraft fees disproportionately impact the less financially advantaged, with Pew Research Center data from 2016 showing that 18% of account holders pay the vast majority -- 91% -- of all such fees. What’s more, 67% of frequent overdrafters earn less than $50,000 a year, with these overdrafters being overrepresented among the lower income brackets they inhabit.

The point of all this is that mainstream banks are in no way averse to becoming even richer off the backs of making the general public poorer. When you couple the imposition of fees with that of interest (which accounted for $44.5 billion of JPMorgan’s net income last year), a picture emerges of a morally questionable industry, one which is based around monopolizing money in order to make more money.

Indeed, with US credit card debt currently standing at $930 billion, and with inflation and the cost-of-living crisis driving more people into debt, it’s hard to argue that the banks have any compunction about profiting from hardship. That much should be evident from the financial crisis of 2007-8, which stemmed from reckless speculation and profiteering, and which resulted in bailouts for banks and a recession for the rest of us.

This brings us back to crypto. Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that crypto is useful only for making money off retail investors (either via charging the latter fees or by dumping bags onto them). This would still make it a prime vehicle for the banking and finance sector.

In fact, banks have steadily begun introducing various cryptocurrency brokerage and custody services, with a Reuters article from April reporting that Bank of New York Mellon, U.S. Bancorp, State Street, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America are among the major financial institutions that have started “to capitalize on the popularity of cryptocurrencies to offer related services to clients.”

Many of these names have begun enabling their clients to trade cryptocurrency (in exchange for a fee, of course), highlighting their willingness to use cryptocurrency as another source of profit. They do not care whether crypto or blockchain represents a meaningful technology; they simply care whether they can tap into it as yet another source of income. And given their sheer size and lobbying clout, their embrace of crypto may be decisive in pushing it onto the rest of us.

Crypto Is The Tip of the Iceberg

It also can’t be overstated just how comfortable major banks are with financial instruments that have little or no basis in reality, that are there purely for the sake of speculation and creaming fees/interest off of clients.

Just remind yourself of credit default swaps and synthetic CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), which were instrumental in the 2007-8 financial crisis. Basically, these derivatives were bets on other financial instruments, with only the most tenuous link to the real economy.

Taking credit default swaps first, the latter were a kind of ‘insurance’ contract whereby an investor (or more often, a short seller) would pay a regular premium for the right to collect a large payout if some mortgage bond(s) collapsed in value (usually because of mortgage defaults).

Here’s author Michael Lewis describing credit default swaps in The Big Short, explaining how they existed purely as sources of income/profit for investors and banks:

“On its surface, the booming market in sidebets on subprime mortgage bonds seemed to be the financial equivalent of fantasy football: a benign, if silly, facsimile of investing [...] When Mike Burry bought a credit default swap based on a Long Beach Savings subprime-backed bond, he enabled Goldman Sachs to create another bond identical to the original in every respect but one: There were no actual home loans or home buyers. Only the gains and losses from the side bet on the bonds were real.”

Not only were said gains real, but they eventually resulted in the near-collapse of the banking system, imposing hardship on millions. The same goes for synthetic CDOs, which were piles of credit default swaps packaged into one big bond, with the sole purpose of generating more premiums and -- potentially -- a huge payout. On the long end of such CDOs were investors who collect regular payments from the investors on the short end, who in turn were basically betting that a bunch of subprime mortgage bonds would become worthless.

Here’s Michael Lewis again, describing the reaction of investor Steve Eisman to synthetic CDOs. Eisman famously purchased a large quantity of credit default swaps in the runup to the 2007-8 crisis, yet even he reported being dumbfounded by the sheer scale of the financial sector’s lust for meaningless (yet income-generating) schemes:

“Now he got it: The credit default swaps, filtered through the CDOs, were being used to replicate bonds backed by actual home loans. There weren’t enough Americans with shitty credit taking out loans to satisfy investors’ appetite for the end product. Wall Street needed his bets in order to synthesize more of them.”

Admittedly, synthetic CDOs have become pretty scarce since the Great Recession. However, other dubious products have risen in prominence in the years since, with collateralized loan obligations reaching a value of $1 trillion globally in 2021.

Some researchers have warned that such products “could cause the next global financial crisis.” If that weren’t enough, there’s also research which suggests that the finance sector as a whole is a net drain on wider society, extracting more wealth than it provides.

For instance, in a 2016 research paper titled, “Overcharged: The High Costs of High Finance,” Professor Gerald Epstein of the University of Massachusetts and Juan Montecino of Columbia University calculated that “the financial system will impose an excess cost of as much as $22.7 trillion between 1990 and 2023, making finance in its current form a net drag on the American economy.”

Epstein and Montecino based their calculations on an analysis of three things: rents and excess profits; misallocation costs, meaning the opportunity costs of diverting capital and resources away from potentially more constructive (non-financial) endeavors; and crisis costs, in this case the impact of the 2007-8 financial crisis.

Along with the University of Sheffield’s Andrew Baker, they conducted a similar study focused on the UK in 2018, finding that the net cost of the British finance sector to the UK between 1995 and 2015 was £4.5 trillion. “This total figure amounts to roughly 2.5 years of the average GDP across the period.”

Without multiplying examples, it should be fairly clear by now that the global financial sector is less interested in social utility, and more interested in exploiting the public for its own gain. In other words, it wouldn’t really care if cryptocurrencies are worthless technologically, so long as they can be used to generate “rents and excess profits.” This is why they have begun turning to crypto, with French banking giant BNP Paribas being the latest to enter the crypto custody game. It’s also why the aforementioned Steve Eisman had the following to say about the sector, as quoted by Michael Lewis:

“That’s when I decided the system was really, ‘Fuck the poor.’”

This system now includes cryptocurrencies. The embrace of the latter by the banking industry will be enough for crypto to continue its controversial existence, even if it never develops any ‘significant’ use cases. Banks will increasingly offer crypto-related services, because as exchanges such as Binance and Coinbase have found out, the real money in cryptocurrencies is to be had in charging people to trade and hold them. Just witness the fortunes amassed by such luminaries as Changpeng Zhao, Sam Bankman-Fried and Brian Armstrong, all of whom helm exchanges, and all of whom rank among the sector’s richest individuals.

Why Investors Will Continue Turning to Crypto

One obvious counterargument to this analysis is that it ignores the question of why investors will continue trading cryptocurrencies, particularly if we spend another five, ten or twenty years without crypto producing a ‘killer app.’ That is, surely the hype train will run out of steam if crypto spends another decade without impinging on the real world in a tangible way? And just because banks would want to sell crypto to their clients doesn’t mean these clients will actually want to buy it, does it?

Such reasoning is naive. Crypto has done a good job over the past decade or so of coming up with new trends, concepts and/or buzzwords in order to keep the hype cycle revolving, from DeFi and NFTs to Web3 and the metaverse. So why would it run out of ideas in the future, particularly when many of them can hide behind clever marketing and celebrity endorsements?

More importantly, such sub-sectors within crypto are incidental to what the space is really about: speculation, or gambling. If you want to know why retail investors will continue pumping money into crypto, you need only look at the lottery. In the United States, state lotteries sold tickets worth $105 billion in 2021, up from $89.6 billion in 2020. In the UK, the National Lottery generated just over £8 billion in sales in 2021/22, representing its best year ever. And in Germany, lottery sales equalled €7.9 billion in 2021.

There’s the market for crypto, right there. Then you have figures for the gambling industry, which generated a record $44 billion in revenue in the US in 2021. Again, this is a big figure, indicating the huge demand there is among the general public for the rush that comes from opening oneself up to the extremely remote possibility of becoming rich. This is exactly what crypto taps into, and it’s what will keep the sector going for many years to come, regardless of its size or real importance.

The above survey from the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority shows that the most widely cited reason for buying cryptocurrencies is to gamble. Source: FCA

Of course, all of the above is not to say that cryptocurrencies and blockchain are without merit. Rather, it’s to say that crypto can survive even without merit, which seems to be something most skeptics are claiming it can’t. They’re wrong, as is anyone else who claims that the demise of the cryptocurrency sector is somehow ‘inevitable.’ Yes, it has suffered a few bankruptcies in the past few weeks, but nothing short of outright prohibition will stop it from being picked up again (and again) as a tool for vacuuming money from the public. Let’s just hope it develops more use cases than this in the not-too distant future.