The Malta Independent 27 May 2019, Monday

TMBW Editorial: Being blockheads about Blockchain

The Malta Business Weekly Thursday, 18 April 2019, 11:06 Last update: about 2 months ago

It is, perhaps, in our national DNA to copy and imitate all that we see gaining some sort of success in the world around us. Our shops, for instance, would like to make you believe you have just stepped in a Paris or London outlet. Our houses, well some of them, look like they just came in from the pages of glossy magazines.

And now our financial services are being all urged to make the step to Blockchain and bitcoin. Malta will be the Blockchain island, trumpeted government ministers and spokespersons. And so it was and perhaps still is being marketed.

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Everyone is doing it, say the proponents. Companies raise money to build new technology platforms or to fund businesses. To do so they use cryptocurrencies and blockchain, the software that underpins them.

There is a difference between the two: blockchain is a useful software tool that can be used to support not only financial products but also a host of other purposes, like medical or educational records. Cryptocurrencies on the other hand are full of risks and have been called derogatorily as lottery tickets. Even their price belies them.

Among the first virtual currencies to appear on the world's scene, as early as 2014, was the Bitcoin. Its price rose to the $1,000 range by mid-2017 when a lot of hype around the world led many to believe it was an easy way of making money and so people jumped on the bandwagon.

Bitcoin  thus became a pyramid scheme. Around April 2018, its price rose astronomically to $17,500. At that point, people who had bought it at $15,000 were still making a profit. Then its price fell to $3,500. So only those who bought it at its inception made money: the rest lost, some heavily.

There were also many cases of hacking and improper use. The US authorities said that one-third of the world's Bitcoin exchanges were hacked between 2009 and 2015. A British person was accused of a $30 million crypto fraud. And in a case that drew world attention, the 30-year old founder of Canada's largest cryptocurrency exchange suddenly died last December and took with him the password which it seems only he knew and nobody else. As a result, the owners of some $200 million in their 'virtual wallet' have no means of withdrawing their money.

An executive from Visa was quoted as saying that Bitcoins were being used 'by every crook and politician'.

Last June, the Japanese financial regulator cracked down on cryptocurrencies after a $530 million theft of digital money from Coincheck, one of Japan's biggest exchanges.

And the UK's Financial Conduct Authority said recently that investors in cryptomoney tend to have a 'get rick quick' mentality and invest so as to get on the bandwagon and make a killing.

We have said in the past that this is not the way we should go. Of course, nobody gave any notice and the government speakers continued to boast about Blockchain Island. MFSA issued a stark warning in the last quarter of 2017, according to former banker Anthony Curmi, and nothing more, it seems.

There should be more warnings and caveats because, even as we write, companies and 'experts' seem to be sprouting on every corner and to entice the unwary about the illusory advantages of Bitcoins and the like. We must not forget that with banking rates being close to Zero, many people are in a frenzy to invest their money and get good returns. They must be warned before they burn their hands.


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