Category: Web/Tech

What crypto people get wrong

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

If anything, crypto is more likely to hurt the currencies of countries that are doing very poorly, such as Venezuela. Fiat currency won’t just go away, so over the long run crypto could actually boost the value of the dollar by stifling the rise of potential competitors.

A second point, oft neglected in the crypto community, is that crypto prices won’t continue to go up forever at high rates. It doesn’t matter whether money supply deflation is built into a crypto system, or that new and valuable uses will be discovered each year. At some point the market will figure out the value of crypto and incorporate that information into a high level of price for those assets. From then on, expected rates of return will be — dare I say — normal.

Compare the crypto market to the art market, which for a long time didn’t grasp the potential value of an Andy Warhol painting. For years, prices went up a lot. At this point, however, a liquid market remains, and the expected value of an investment in Warhol is not necessarily better or worse than the value of an investment in other well-known works of art.

It is an entirely defensible (albeit contested) view that the market still hasn’t appreciated the full value of crypto. This state of affairs may yet endure for some while, but it will not last for decades.

The irony is that so many of the arguments made by crypto types imply especially low pecuniary rates of return on crypto. To the extent crypto is useful as collateral or for liquidity purposes, people will be more willing to hold crypto at lower pecuniary rates of return, just as they are willing to hold cash, or just as the collateral uses for U.S. Treasury bonds raise their price and lower their expected rates of return.

If we eventually arrive at a world in which equities are expected to rise by say 5% to 7% a year, and Bitcoin by say 1%, then that will be a sign crypto has made it. The more general point is that while crypto has been a highly unusual asset class for its entire history, it won’t act like an unusual asset class forever.

And this:

Satoshi and Vitalik Buterin are not only significant innovators, but also the two most important monetary economists of our time.

Recommended.

Austin Vernon on El Salvadoran bitcoin acceptance, from my email

Sent this to [redacted, a man of substance] yesterday. LN = Lightning Network, Bitcoins layer 2 scaling solution based on channels:

As far as I understand it, everyone using LN in El Salvador has primarily been using Strike. Classic crypto conundrum in that they had to centralize to get it to work. There is a Twitter thread with the CEO where he shows they had to block their software using most non Strike LN nodes because there were so many failed payments.

https://mobile.twitter.com/JackMallers/status/1291403528116883456

https://strike.me/faq/howitworks

Also looks like you submit USD and they have some kind of centralized payment system to manage the transactions to the Bitcoin layer 1 chain.

I imagine this is a big improvement for people in El Salvador and I’ve heard Strike has already been popular, but I don’t see it as what is being touted as.

Additionally to the email above:

There was an out at the end of the law that says you don’t have to accept Bitcoin if you are too poor. But a basic smartphone with the app means you can accept it. There is a small town where a donor gave the town Bitcoin and forced them to use it as currency and even started doing a private UBI in Bitcoin. Some of the stores started taking it. Strike is only available in the US and El Salvador. So in a truth is stranger than fiction, the idea probably got jumpstarted by a surfer that loved both a beach town and bitcoin. Helps that El Salvador uses the dollar. The legislators would just have to drive to the town to see how it works rather than read about it.

https://www.bitcoinbeach.com

To me this is more like a new kind of bank than some decentralized currency takeover, because Strike is relatively centralized. Being like a bank probably implies some of the same advantages and vulnerabilities of a regular bank. The PR is nice! Not having to get cash at a Western Union that might be far (and where you can get robbed) could have more impact than cheaper fees. It will be a few years before the technology exists to do this in a more decentralized way. Interesting nonetheless.

DeFi is the killer app for crypto

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, let me just give you one segment from the end:

And if the question is whether crypto is good for anything, there is now at least one clear answer: Crypto enables DeFi. You don’t have to like every consequence of that reality, but a reality it is.

You could say that crypto is a Trojan horse of a new and quite different financial system. If you have ever dealt with U.S. banks, and suffered through their bureaucracy and mediocre software, you might conclude that they are ripe for  disruption. Banks in other countries may be even more vulnerable.

Obviously, as DeFi grows, questions of government oversight and control will come to the fore. Still, it seems unlikely that DeFi institutions will be regulated out of existence. DeFi can be run on platforms outside of the U.S., and American and European regulators cannot shut it down any more than they can prevent me from placing an online bet on a Mexican soccer game.

Keep in mind that significant swaths of the developing world currently use micro-credit, where borrowing rates of interest are often 50% or 100% on an annualized basis. It is likely that some of those countries will experiment with DeFi as an alternative method of credit allocation, regardless of whether those new institutions satisfy U.S. regulators in every regard.

If you are baffled by a lot of DeFi, well … welcome to the club. The confusing and ever-changing nature of DeFi helps explains why the prices of crypto assets are so volatile. If DeFi lies in part behind the demand for crypto, and you don’t know exactly where DeFi is headed, the future for crypto is also highly uncertain. It is very unusual to have such a highly visible window on what is essentially the value of a bunch of startups.

Recommended, and here are some earlier posts by Alex on DeFi.  And here is a new essay on DeFi.

Some points about corporate tax

Written from the British context:

Should the system be changed to one where companies are taxed on all the profits they make from their sales in the country?

There are a few downsides to this.

First of all it would be very hard for one country to switch to such a system without getting the rest of the world to do it too. If we did it unilaterally it would open up more differences between national tax regimes and so create, rather than reduce tax avoidance loopholes.

It is also far from clear the UK would gain from such a change. We might gain from some of the big US-based multinationals paying more tax here, but we have plenty of multinationals of our own and they would generally end up paying less here. The biggest losers could well be poorer developing countries, especially those reliant on extractive industries such as mining. If they could only tax companies based on their sales to their residents in that country that would bring in a lot less than taxing them on the share of the economic value of the products generated in that country. The UK itself still generates between 8 and 9 percent of Government revenues from corporation tax, which is pretty respectable internationally, despite being a very open economy exposed to competition.

There is also an economic question as to who ultimately bears the burden of taxes ‎on a company – is it the shareholders, the customers, or the workers, and if the workers, is it the highly-paid top management or the people at the bottom? The answer is not certain, but it does seem likely that a shift to sales-based tax would be at the expense of the customers. In other words, by taxing internet-based suppliers more, we could be more heavily taxing ourselves.

But the strongest argument against is fairness. If a product is invented / developed / mined / refined / built and potentially even marketed and sold all round the world entirely from country X, making use of staff educated in country X, who use country X’s health care system and transport network, often with tax breaks from country X to encourage its growth, and maybe even wage subsidies from country X for its employees, who deserves to be able to tax the company’s profits? Is it country X, or every country that has someone in it who buys a product from the company? Of course if a country wants to tax sales it can, and sales taxes such as VAT are a perfectly reasonable and sensible part of a country’s tax mix; though in the EU, this is governed to a considerable extent by EU rules.

There are many further detailed points at the link.  And do note this:

There is a perceived issue with the internet making it easier than ever for companies to ‘sell into’ a country with little or no presence in that country, and therefore offering little or no taxable base for the government of that country to tax the profits of. Sales taxes can be part of the answer to this.

But of course a sales tax does not appear to consumers to be a free lunch, and so it is not as politically popular as a sales-based hike in corporate rates.  And so we arrive at the current mess of a situation: “We want tax equity, but you can’t possibly expect us to do that in a way that is transparent!”

Tax incidence on competing two-sided platforms

That is a paper by Paul Belleflamme and Eric Toulemonde, from a few years ago:

We analyze the effects of various taxes on competing two-sided platforms. First, we consider nondiscriminating taxes. We show that specific taxes are entirely passed to the agents on the side on which they are levied; other agents and platforms are left unaffected. Transaction taxes hurt agents on both sides and benefit platforms. Ad valorem taxes are the only tax instrument that allows the tax authority to capture part of the platforms’ profits. Second, regarding asymmetric taxes, we show that agents on the untaxed side benefit from the tax. At least one platform, possibly the taxed one, benefits from the tax.

This may all turn out to matter more if the new multinational corporate tax regime comes into existence.  Of course you can vary the assumptions further yet, and get additional and differing results, but please keep in mind: the tax you impose is not the incidence you get.

Chris Anderson of TED interviews me

Here is the full podcast series and also other ways to listen.

@pmarca lets loose

Don’t underestimate yourself! The great writers of the past tended to be disassociative cranks. Diogenes Laertius says Heraclitus lived “by himself in the mountains, feeding on grasses and herbs” and died by burying himself in literal dung. Rousseau condemned his own children to the hell of an 18th century orphanage while sanctimoniously passing judgment on the rest of society. Nietzsche went insane protecting a horse from a whipping, and in his last messages to the world demanded the pope be jailed and all anti-Semites shot. You see, you fit right in.

And that is one of the more anodyne parts of the interview.  And yes it has been confirmed to be real.  Here is another one of the boring parts:

I predict that we — the West — are going to WEIRDify the entire world, within the next 50 years, the next two generations. We will do this not by converting non-WEIRD people to WEIRD, but by getting their kids. Their kids, and their kids’ kids, are going to grow up on the Internet at least as much as they grow up in the real world, and the pull of WEIRD culture will overwhelm all existing non-WEIRD cultures. I realize this is a very strong claim, but this process is already underway; at this point I think it’s inevitable. The cost of this will be a collapse of global cultural diversity exactly as you and Rozin predict.

Niccolo Soldo is the interviewer.

The Ford F-150: An Electric Vehicle for Red America

The Ford F-150 truck has been America’s best selling vehicle for forty years! (Bubble test: Do you own one or know someone who does?) The new version, the F-150 Lightning, goes into production in 2022 and it’s electric. Even today there is still the whiff of “liberal America” around electric vehicles but what’s impressive about the Lightning isn’t that it’s electric, it’s that it’s a better truck. The Lightning, for example, can power a home and work appliances from its 11 outlets including a 240 volt outlet! Look at this brilliant ad campaign:

Security and peace of mind are invaluable during severe weather and unpredictable events. That’s why Ford helps ensure you never have to worry about being left in the dark…

Security, peace of mind, don’t be left alone in the dark…all great conservative selling points. Note the truck in the picture is powering the house and the chain saw. The husband and wife, their home and their truck, project independence, success and confidence–a power couple–even with a nod to diversity.

The Lightning is also fast with 0-60mph times in line with those of a Porsche 911 circa 2005, it has more carrying capacity (thanks to the smaller electric motors) than a similar gas vehicle, and it can tow a respectable maximum of 10,000 pounds with all the options.

The Lightning might succeed or it might fail but it won’t fail on politics, this is a vehicle a red-blooded, meat-eating skeptic of global warming could love.

The polity that is Canada

Canada wants to force YouTube, TikTok and other video- and audio-sharing sites to prominently feature more of the country’s artists, a move that digital-law experts and former government officials call one of the most aggressive internet regulations yet from a Western country.

The aim to promote domestic content on the sites is a step in the Canadian government’s multipronged effort to get the world’s biggest digital companies to contribute more financially to the country’s economy. Canada has vowed to levy a digital-services tax starting in 2022, regardless of whether there is a global deal among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development members on such a tax this summer.

The Liberal government also intends to follow Australia in trying to get digital platforms to compensate media outlets for content, and to create a new regulator to police hate speech and other harmful online activity.

Here is more from the WSJ.  I recall being a participant in trade negotiation sessions, way back when, and saying to the Canadian rep.: “What are you going to do when everyone consumes culture through the internet?  Enforce quotas on that too?”

Even back then, of course, I understood that it was the pro-Canadian effort that was being valued in policies such as these, not the results per se.  Perhaps the equilibrium is that the regulators tell the tech companies they have to tweak the algorithm to favor more Canadian content, there isn’t really an enforceable standard, the tech companies do in fact tweak the algorithms somewhat, culture consumption changes only marginally, and everyone goes away “happy enough.”

Omid on central bank digital currencies (from my email)

Really enjoyed your conversation with Mark [Carney] (as usual). I give him a B+ on his views on CBDCs. He gets credit for understanding that if nothing is done, then digitization means a disappearance of public money in the economy except for the banks. This has a lot of consequences, most of which are bad. There is no access for the unbanked, higher fees, lower privacy and more credit risk throughout the system.

Where Mark goes astray is by mentioning this oft proposed two-tier model for CBDCs, which is just a fallacy. Fiat money is a liability, and each unit can either be a liability of a central bank or commercial bank, it can’t be both. So if the Fed issues a digital dollar to the banks, and the banks issue private claims to their customers, we haven’t achieved anything, other than maybe a marginally better RTGS system. A real CBDC means the public can hold direct claims against the central bank, as it does today with cash.

Now, this is the point at which the skeptics say “what about disintermediation of the banks?” To that I say: so what? If lending via depository institutions (as opposed to via the bond market, money markets, etc) is a good, then the market will adjust to provide it. One way to think about the existing two-tier model is that savers are forced to subsidize borrowers. E.g., I want to make payments, so I have to open a checking account, for which the bank pays me no interest. The same model will exist with CBDCs, it’s just that banks will have to pay higher interest to attract deposits, or offer other value-added services.

CBDCs also allow lending via DeFi, which is more price efficient for savers and borrowers, so that will offset any increase in borrowing costs.

Paul Krugman or…LaMelo Ball?

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball will become the first athlete to enter the world of dynamic nonfungible tokens (NFTs) when he releases a set of 500 prior to the announcement of the NBA Rookie of the Year in June, ESPN has learned.

NFTs are unique blockchain-based tokens that give owners specific rights to the asset — photograph, video clip, artwork — they represent. Dynamic NFTs are a recent technological advancement and, unlike conventional NFTs, have the ability to change over time. If Ball is named Rookie of the Year, the 500 NFTs will automatically update to include the award, which is expected to increase the value of the collectible.

“As I learn more about blockchain, I realize this is the most powerful and unique way to engage my fans in a way that’s special to them individually,” Ball tells ESPN. “I see this as the future for fans and athletes connecting together.”

Here is more from ESPN.  In the meantime, “UC Berkeley Will Auction NFTs for 2 Nobel Prize Patents.

Austin Vernon on digital dollars (from my email)

I was curious about if banks had many use cases for stablecoins, so I talked to [redacted] who works at a nationwide bank that focuses on small business lending. The use case he mentioned was that sometimes they need cash very quickly to stay within their requirements but wires are slow and cumbersome. If you could use a crypto network, the settlement time in minutes would be a big advantage.

The mechanics don’t quite work out because they would also want to use a product that does not change valuations compared to dollars. Stabecoins should fit the bill, but to transfer stablecoins from one bank account to another you would have to wire or ACH someone like Coinbase, do the transaction on chain, then withdraw the money from coinbase. So it would not be fast.

It is possible to imagine where every bank has their own stablecoin backed by US dollars they hold 1:1. It’d be like the days of banks issuing their own gold back notes. If Alice Bank needed more USD, they could borrow from Bob Bank. The actual mechanism might be that Bob Bank uses cash reserves to instantly create USDB and sends the USDB to Alice Bank’s wallet. Alice Bank then goes to Uniswap and trades USDB for their own USDA stablecoin. Alice Bank then retires those stablecoins and releases cash from their stablecoin cash reserves into their general fund. Any customer of Alice Bank or Bob Bank could do this same transaction with other bank customers to have cash faster than an ACH.

Can this happen today? Uniswap 3.0 is a leap forward for adding liquidity for automated market making and is especially beneficial for stablecoin transactions. There are practical limits on small transaction sizes and very large transaction sizes. The biggest practical transaction is limited by liquidity in the trading pools. Uniswap 3.0 should make this much larger than previous automated market makers, the actual amount depends on how much liquidity the market makers provide. The smallest size is limited by fees. Uniswap is launching Layer 2 scaling very soon, but the scaling is optimistic roll ups that utilize fraud proofs. If the banks were only transacting in Layer 2 this would not be a problem, but with fraud proofs it can take one week to take funds out of Layer 2 into the main Layer 1 chain. ZK-SNARK based roll ups would fix this, allowing instant settlement, and are progressing rapidly, but aren’t available yet. Blockchain technologies are still somewhat immature for this use case, but that capability is rapidly approaching.

Banks are so regulated they may not want to get involved without regulators giving them a nod. If the government favors a digital dollar, they may not want to give that nod. I think China has made its preference clear. They want a digital yuan and independent crypto networks will be subordinated. Very soon governments and central banks might have a choice between writing 100 pages of regulation that clarify standards for registered banks creating stablecoins and de facto creating a digital dollar system or embarking on a very large project to create their own digital dollar that requires much more work and owning implementation risk.

Will be fun to watch!