Bitcoin’s growth in 2013 has accelerated tremendously, driven largely by economic concerns which bitcoin is uniquely positioned to solve. This has been evidenced so far this year by conditions in Cyprus, Argentina, and has highlighted bitcoin’s potential in less developed nations like Kenya as well.
All of the countries listed above are known for high inflation rates, strict capital controls, or a combination of both – a scenario that is beginning to unfold in India. This analysis will address India’s current economic climate and the factors that would affect the population’s propensity to adopt bitcoin on a large scale.
The value of the Indian Rupee (INR) has fallen precipitously as a result of both international economic conditions and actions taken by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Understanding these factors and their impact on the INR will help assess the utility of bitcoin in India.
Since May, the Rupee has fallen 24% against the dollar, reaching a record low of ₹68/$ on August 29. A primary culprit of this trend is the recent adjustment of language from the Federal Reserve to indicate that tapering of their $85 billion per month of asset purchases may be on the horizon. With a reduction in debt monetization from the Fed, the rate of increase in USD supply would fall – a positive sign for USD strength. Naturally, as the USD strengthens, other currencies like the INR become weaker in comparison.
India’s current account deficit, or the difference in total value between exports and imports, has grown to a record 4.8% of GDP in 2013. This can have two profound effects on the value of the INR. First is the direct impact of sending more money off shore than is flowing back in. Since most international trade is denominated in USD, this means that more USD is leaving India from trade than is returning. As described above, if the availability of USD to INR decreases, the relative value of USD to INR increases.
Not to be underestimated in the recent INR narrative is the effect of commodities prices. The price of oil has risen dramatically over the past few years, from $76 per barrel in August 2010 to $109 per barrel in August 2013. An overwhelming majority of global oil trade is denominated in USD, so the price increase has only exacerbated India’s current account deficit and further reduced USD holdings within India. The problem has become so dramatic that India is considering maintaining oil imports from Iran – one of the few nations that accepts oil trade denominated in INR – despite likely financial sanctions from the U.S.
Gold imports have had a similar effect on the current account balance, albeit for the opposite reason. As the world’s largest gold bullion consumer, Indian citizens didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the fall in gold prices so far this year, with imports to India reaching a record 162 tonnes in May. While there is certainly a wealth preservation aspect to the demand, the cultural importance of gold in India is a contributor to the demand boom as well, with gold serving as a historically important asset, often gifted at weddings and festivals.
With talk of inflation and capital controls familiar to the bitcoin community, one might think Indian citizens would be jumping at the opportunity to adopt the digital currency, yet the hurdles to wide-scale bitcoin proliferation in India may be significant for the foreseeable future. While demand for gold has grown in India, the multiple applications it offers culturally and industrially in addition to acting as an alternative store of wealth may mean that such demand does not translate to bitcoin. The country also faces a number of potential technological and regulatory concerns before bitcoin can achieve broad acceptance.
With the RBI placing restrictions on the amount of capital both individuals and corporations can invest overseas, as well as the amount of gold that can be imported, Indians will continue to seek alternative means of wealth transfer and storage. Bitcoin may serve as an opportunity to send investment offshore without having to clear through an intermediary bank, or an alternative store of money if gold becomes inaccessible. This scenario has already unfolded in Argentina under more drastic applications from the same family of regulations; it’s not unreasonable to believe that if similarly pushed that Indians would seek similar measures.
As we’ve shown in the past, data indicates a correlation between bitcoin adoption and internet penetration in a given country. India, with just 12.6% of its citizens having internet access, has the sixth lowest internet penetration of the 100 largest countries. Despite that fact, the size of the total Indian population – more than 1.2 billion – makes India the third largest internet-using population in the world, with 150 million users, behind only China and the US.
It is possible to buy and sell bitcoin through a number of websites including buysellbitco.in and there does appear to be a healthy LocalBitcoins market.
Not to be overlooked is India’s mobile phone penetration of 71%, or approximately 900 million total users. Any applications for games, sports and casino must be adaptable for IOS and Android to survive.
Bitcoin’s ability to be sent between any two people with internet connections instantly and for almost no cost makes it a potentially powerful tool for the global remittance market. Remittances, or the transfer of funds from an emigrated worker back to his or her home country, play a vital role in developing economies. In fact, India had the highest remittance volume in the world in 2011 with $58 billion, or 3.1% of GDP, according to the World Bank.
With 41% of India’s population remaining unbanked, wire transfers are often not an option. Accordingly, that leaves only money transfer agents like Western Union, which charges $25 for a $2,500 transfer from America to India. End users of remittance services wouldn’t even have to know bitcoin was involved in their transfers, so long as there was ample trading liquidity for transfer institutions involved in a remittance to facilitate a swap to back fiat.
A remaining wildcard in India’s bitcoin story is the future accommodation by the country’s regulators. The Reserve Bank of India has stated that it does not immediately intend to regulate bitcoin, but their historic actions indicate that may change soon enough. The RBI already took significant measures against foreign exchange and gold imports this year in an attempt to slow the Rupee’s slide; if bitcoin is seen as a threat to the stability of the national currency, it would seem probable for similar action to be undertaken.
As has been proven historically, greater hurdles are only a sign that bitcoin is needed. Like any other county, as forward-thinking entrepreneurs and bold investors continue to innovate, bitcoin will be poised to solve problems created by the legacy monetary system.
Last week the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) issued a publiv notice warning users to stay away from digital currencies.
It made it clear that Indian bitcoin exchanges lack the regulatory approval needed to exchange digital currencies for rupees and other national currencies.
The RBI does not even plan to develop a regulatory framework for digital currencies. Therefore, at this moment in time, bitcoin platforms based in India simply cannot get regulatory approval. Additionally, it seems that this situation is not set to change anytime soon.
“Regulation comes only when people are doing certain business and we come to understand that something wrong is happening,” RBI deputy governor KC Chakrabarty told a gathering of Indian entrepreneurs on Saturday.
“First of all, we don’t understand this subject.”
Chakrabarty stressed that the RBI does not regulate nor support digital currencies. He was keen to point out that bitcoin regulation has not been enacted anywhere else in the world, and that people who understand the risks are free to do whatever they like with their money.
“Whether it is … legal or illegal, we don’t know,” he said bluntly. “If it crosses the limit of legality then people may face a problem. So people should be cautious.”
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