Till last year, most people (at least in India) had probably only heard of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum; now, many other names such as Dogecoin, Solana, Polkadot, XRP, Tether, Binance etc. are being spoken of commonly in media. The global cryptocurrency market cap is estimated at over US$2.5 Trillion.
India too is witnessing a surge in investment in cryptotokens – especially by millennials. There is a correspondingly increase in the number of advertisements for cryptocurrencies on national television as well as on various web sites; mainstream media reports extensively on the daily price movement of cryptocurrencies. One estimate puts the number of crypto investors in India at between 15-20 million, and the total holdings to be in excess of US$5.3Billion.
This surge in unregulated cryptoassets is a matter of rising concern globally. Recently, PM Modi urged democracies around the world to work together to ensure that cryptocurrencies do not “end up in the wrong hands, as this can “spoil our youth”. His exhortation came just days after RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das spoke of “serious concerns” around cryptocurrencies.
The RBI’s 2018 blanket ban on cryptocurrencies was lifted by the Supreme Court in 2020. However, the time has now come for the government and regulators to act quickly, and there are indications that regulations are just around the corner. At the time of writing, the government has already announced its intention to table The Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021 in parliament in the winter session.
It is expected that through this legislation, the Indian government will seek to ban private cryptoassets. This means that those trade in such cryptoassets may be liable for penalties and/or other punishment. It is also expected that there will be tighter regulations around advertising such products and platforms where cryptoassets can be bought and sold. Another regulatory salvo could be around taxing cryptogains at a higher rate (although such notifications may have to wait for the next budget due to be announced in another three months). The bill is also expected to deny the status of “currency” to cryptoassets because the prevailing ones are issued by private enterprises, and not backed by any sovereign.
The government has also acknowledged the potential of sovereign digital currencies (or CBDC- Central Bank Digital Currency, as they are officially called) in the days ahead. Countries such as China and the USA, are at various stages of launching their own digital currencies, and experts predict that such CBDC will be the “future of money”. In this context, the proposed bill is expected to create a “facilitative framework” to pave the way for the RBI to launch India’s sovereign digital currency in the days ahead by. In fact, the RBI is already working on India’s CBDC, and some media reports suggest that such a launch may happen in the next couple of months (which may also explain the timing of tabling the The Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021, at this time). CBDCs too require crypto and blockchain technologies that are similar to those that underpin cryptoassets, so the bill is also expected to promote these technologies for specific purposes. Indeed, not doing so would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Given their wide global reach, cryptoassets arguably will have a role to play in the world’s financial system. However, countries such as India must ensure proper regulation because by their very nature, cryptoassets can easily be misused for various activities that can destabilize the nation. They will allow for free inward/outward remittances that will make it harder to trace; being encrypted, the origins of such wealth too will become easier to hide. All this will make cryptoassets even more convenient ideal for nefarious activities such as money laundering, terror-funding, drugs-financing etc. In the absence of appropriate regulations, the rising supply of cryptocurrencies can hobble the RBI’s ability to perform its basic role. Its ability to manage the Rupee’s value against global currencies too will weaken, as will its ability to use domestic interest rates as a means to balance the economy’s twin needs of inflation management and providing growth impetus. This is a scary scenario, but not one that could unfold in the short-term. Even so, India needs to be prepared.
PS: The Indian government’s announcement to regulate cryptoassets has already triggered a significant (8-10%) correction in the prices of various cryptoassets. It’s therefore a good idea for resident Indians holding cryptoassets to sell them. They can decide on their future course of action once there is clarity on the specific regulatory impact of the proposed bill.
Given their wide global reach, cryptoassets arguably will have a role to play in the world’s financial system. However, countries such as India must ensure proper regulation because by their very nature, cryptoassets can easily be misused for various activities that can destabilize the nation.