Crypto could play a vital role in Afghanistan’s future

Most of us have watched the events of August in Afghanistan with dismay. For those of us with an eye on the country’s precarious financial position, the long lines of people queuing outside banks to withdraw limited amounts of money reminds us of just how difficult life is for Afghanis right now, and there is little reason to for optimism about the future. Charles Hoskinson, the CEO of IOHK and Cardano, believes that cryptocurrencies offer a solution to the Afghan people.

In an interview with CNBC on 1st September, Hoskinson said, “ “cryptocurrencies will play a larger role in Afghanistan […] in the war for and against the Taliban forces,” not least because there is a massive need for financial privacy-preserving technologies.

Frozen assets

Let’s not forget that the bulk of Afghanistan’s reserves –around $9 billion – are actually stored in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and access to them has been frozen, a fact the Taliban only recently discovered. The World Bank and IMF have also halted access to significant sums earmarked for the country. Ajmal Ahmady, former acting governor of the Afghan central bank, Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB) reportedly had to explain to Taliban leaders that the country’s assets were not in the country, and that DAB was “reliant on obtaining physical shipments of cash every few weeks,” the Biden administration had cancelled shipments as the Taliban approached Kabul. Meanwhile a Biden administration said, “Any central-bank assets the Afghan government have in the United States will not be made available to the Taliban.”

Taliban funding

So where will the Taliban get money from? To date, the organisation is largely funded by drug money from Afghanistan’s opium poppy crops, but whilst this might have sustained them, it’s not enough money to run a government, which means there will soon be a financial crisis in a country that already depended on foreign aid to support so much of its infrastructure. Furthermore, analysts predict that the economy will collapse, with prices exploding into hyperinflation. 

The rise of crypto adoption

Which brings us back to crypto for the Afghan citizen who wishes to evade the Taliban’s attempts to track personal spending or seize their crypto assets. For example, Western Union has suspended its services in the country until further notice last week — limiting the means available to Afghani citizens seeking to transfer their assets internationally. However, there are already many organizations that have shifted to accept cryptocurrencies in an effort to facilitate funding of basic needs and medical care for the Afghan people arriving as refugees in western countries. This does not answer the needs of those left behind.

Crypto adoption appears to have been rising in Afghanistan over recent years, with the country currently ranking 20th according to Chainalysis’ 2021 Global Crypto Adoption Index. It is notable that other countries with poor financial infrastructures, such as Pakistan, Venezuela, Vietnam and the Philippines also rank high on the index.

Cryptocurrency exchanges  in Afghanistan

There are a number of cryptocurrency exchanges operating in Afghanistan, including Binance. CNBC suggests the current situation is “a perfect test case for the usefulness of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.” One young Afghan crypto trader interviewed by CNBC said he has been keeping a very close eye on his crypto portfolio on Binance, as the local currency touches record lows and nationwide bank closures make it next to impossible to withdraw cash. It doesn’t give him access to cash, in a majority cash economy, but it does give him peace of mind that some of his wealth is safeguarded against economic instability at home. It also offers him and other crypto holders access to the global economy from inside Afghanistan, as well as certain protections against spiralling inflation.

Another young trader in Kabul said he sees crypto as the safest place to park his cash. “If a government isn’t formed quickly, we might see a Venezuela-type situation here.” He isn’t alone in his thinking. Google trends data shows that web searches in Afghanistan for “bitcoin” and “crypto” rose sharply in July just before the coup in Kabul. 

It is difficult to be definitive about how crypto could help Afghanistan, and the current number of crypto owners there is well concealed by the use of VPNs, plus nobody there is talking about it loudly, because most digital currency supporters inside Afghanistan often don’t want others to know they exist. There are also multiple barriers to entry for citizens: complex on-ramping processes, low Internet access and unreliable electricity leading to daily outages. Another factor is that 85% of the country is unbanked. So people wishing to deal in crypto have to get creative, usually through international contacts. One trader said, “It’s very easy in Pakistan,” he said. “Most people have relatives in Dubai, who buy crypto for them using their credit cards.”  This situation requires a great deal of trust, because when the person wants to liquidate their crypto stake, relatives will sell it for them and use the hawala system, an honour-based system of credit common in Asia and the Middle East, to transfer the funds across the border to Afghanistan. 

At the moment the situation is so unstable that crypto traders are unable to operate, and are resigned to HODLing until a government is formed. But many of the enthusiasts are determined to teach fellow Afghans about the benefits of owning crypto, with grassroots adoption coming down to one Afghan teaching another about how cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin work. It may be some time before we see much movement in crypto in the country, but it is going to be something to watch out for and see what happens.

The U.S. government mood on crypto is shifting

Senator Elizabeth Warren, who sits on the Senate’s banking and finance committee, is not known for her love of crypto, and indeed is better known for her push for tighter regulations on cryptocurrencies. So, it was something of a surprise when she made a statement on Wednesday of this week, saying that digital currencies, and in particular those issued by central banks, could assist unbanked, low-income Americans. She pointed out that this group has long been denied access to bank accounts in the mainstream banking system.

So, is this a signal that support for cryptocurrencies is picking up in Washington D.C.?

When Warren spoke to CNBC’s Squawk Box, she said, cryptocurrencies and central bank digital currencies “may be an answer” to the “enormous failure by the big banks to reach consumers.”

She also pointed out that digital currencies have “extremely low transaction costs,” and that this could make them an ideal way to include the 15 million Americans without bank accounts in the financial system. Warren also highlighted a fact that is well known to those working with the financially underserved: they have to pay intermediaries to cash their pay cheques or to pay bills. Access to a digital currency could change all that for these people and give them back full control of their money.

When asked about her objections to crypto, Warren replied that her concerns focused on “bad actors” rather than cryptocurrencies per se, saying that in her view a “wholly unregulated market” has allowed “big guys to take advantage . . . of small investors and taxpayers.”

The sentiments Warren expressed this week are significantly different to her thoughts expressed in a letter to Janet Yellen, the Treasury Secretary, in which she urged Yellen to lead “a coordinated and cohesive regulatory strategy” to help mitigate the “growing risks” cryptocurrencies pose to the financial market.

Before we get too excited about what appears to be a change of direction on Warren’s part, it is probably best to reserve judgement until we see the Fed’s highly anticipated report on central bank digital currencies, which is due to be released in early September. Fed Chair Jerome Powell has already insisted the Fed isn’t rushing into the space, but he has suggested that a digital US currency could make all other cryptocurrencies obsolete. He said, “You wouldn’t need stablecoins, you wouldn’t need cryptocurrencies if you had a digital U.S. currency. I think that’s one of the stronger arguments in its favour.” That’s quite a big claim that smacks just a bit of American exceptionalism.

Meanwhile the Bank of America is reconciled to digital currencies, and sent out a note to its clients this week saying:

“Digital currencies—either issued by central banks or privately issued with safe, liquid backing—seem inevitable.” It added that central banks in particular “have the power and the will to prevent a very bad outcome in terms of collateral damage in the financial system.”

In the end, that is their real concern. Make of it what you will.

European Commission causes crypto shock!

Early yesterday, the European Commission regulators declared that they were “banning anonymous cryptocurrency wallets” as part of a money laundering crackdown. The shockwaves rippled through the markets and probably caused some near heart attacks for a few crypto holders.

Thankfully, it soon became clear that the EU had not been quite clear about the substance of its proposed regulation. It is one of four proposals intended to “to strengthen the EU’s anti-money laundering and countering terrorism financing (AML/CFT) rules,” as its press statement says.

The statement also says:

“At the heart of today’s legislative package is the creation of a new EU Authority which will transform AML/CFT supervision in the EU and enhance cooperation among Financial Intelligence Units (FIUs). The new EU-level Anti-Money Laundering Authority (AMLA) will be the central authority coordinating national authorities to ensure the private sector correctly and consistently applies EU rules. AMLA will also support FIUs to improve their analytical capacity around illicit flows and make financial intelligence a key source for law enforcement agencies.

In particular, AMLA will:

  • establish a single integrated system of AML/CFT supervision across the EU, based on common supervisory methods and convergence of high supervisory standards;
  • directly supervise some of the riskiest financial institutions that operate in a large number of Member States or require immediate action to address imminent risks;
  • monitor and coordinate national supervisors responsible for other financial entities, as well as coordinate supervisors of non-financial entities;
  • support cooperation among national Financial Intelligence Units and facilitate coordination and joint analyses between them, to better detect illicit financial flows of a cross-border nature.”

Unfortunately, Mairead McGuinness, the EU Commissioner for Financial Services, tweeted that the measure “will ban anonymous crypto wallets and make sure that crypto-asset transfers are traceable.” But, as David Z Morris writes, “The statement from McGuinness is straight-up FUD.”

The EU is not proposing a ban on anonymous wallets; instead it is proposing tighter rules on money service providers, such as exchanges or custody services. Morris explains, “In short, the ban would impact the crypto equivalent of Swiss bank accounts, not the use of crypto as cash.”

What Morris also pointed out is important: media outlets reported McGuinness’s tweet without checking the veracity. As a consequence crypto prices slumped, although they have recovered since. However, he does say, and this is important: the EU knows it can’t ban anonymous wallets, so why would a Commissioner tweet misinformation? He suggests, “by obfuscating the difference between custodial wallets and self-custody software, they may hope they can mislead some portion of the public into thinking that custodial accounts are the only kind that exist.”

The upshot of all this is “if you’re willing and able to self-custody, which you should be doing anyway, you can still hold and spend crypto anonymously.

Read this before October 2021 if you’re in crypto!

For those of us who believe in the concept of decentralization that underpins Bitcoin, I believe we are shortly going to receive a shock in the form of new regulations. The wealthiest countries in the world are snapping at the heels of the crypto universe and are looking at ways they can use financial regulations to bring fintechs, exchanges and crypto owners into line.

What do governments want to restrict?

Here’s a list of ‘things’ they are planning to target:

  • Peer-to-peer transactions
  • Stablecoins
  • Private wallets (phone, desktop, cold storage)
  • Privacy (privacy coins, decentralized exchanges, TOR and I2P)
  • Former ICOs & future projects (NFTs, DeFi, smart contracts, second layer solutions and more)

What is their intention?

At it’s most basic, you could say that they want to know EVERYTHING!

They want to:

  • Businesses active in crypto to be licensed and regulated like banks
  • Ensure full transparency for all transactions
  • Have the ability to freeze crypto assets belonging to persons or countries they believe are a ‘risk’
  • Force the disclosure of user information for all transactions
  • Revoke licenses of any that don’t comply with regulations.

They want control of a space that emerged precisely as a reaction to government and bank controls on money, both of which allowed a global financial crash to happen in 2008.

Why do governments suddenly want more regulations?

The answer is fear. Wesley Thysse in his document “Government Planning Worldwide Regulation of Bitcoin”, he points to one event that suddenly made them sit up and take real notice of cryptocurrencies, and that was Facebook’s 2018 announcement that it intended to create and launch a ‘so-called’ stablecoin. As Thysse says, “Until then they didn’t see cryptos as a risk to the global financial system.”

Why did Facebook’s Libra coin, as it was called at the time, send a ripple of unease through wealthy governments? Because Facebook’s billion users would have access to an instant payment system that was faster and more importantly cheaper than anything offered by the existing financial system.

Governments and the central banks huddled together in talks about what to do, and engaged an organization called Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Its goal is “to protect the integrity of the global financial system.” A real Big Brother!

FATF has already passed similar legislation for global governments, and it is the organization behind the rule insisting that all cryptocurrency exchanges that exchange fiat for crypto have the same KYC and anti-money laundering requirements as banks. What they will do now is turn their attention to all the elements of the industry outside this kind of control and as Thysse says, “declare what is, and isn’t acceptable.”

In 2018 FATF set out to control money laundering and terrorist financing, but now it is going much farther, and they are making swift progress. The document anyone in the crypto space should be looking at right now is FATF’s ‘Guidance for a risk-based approach to virtual assets and VASPS’ (GVA). This is due to be implemented in October 2021. Furthermore, it is impossible to move FATF out of its powerful position, because the organization is protected by the Vienna Conference on Diplomatic Intercourse and Immunities, which means they enjoy immunity with regard to their actions and are unburdened by the rules the rest of us must live by.

The so-called public consultation on the GVA was a farce, as they only chose the feedback that suited their agenda. They have delayed the implementation of the GVA until October, but after that expect to see their recommendations being implemented at national level, and in our legal systems. You should also note that the GVA will not apply to central bank-issued digital currencies. So, the agenda is very clear!

It may not be all bad news

As much as those dedicated to crypto may be horrified by all this, let’s take a moment to look at a possible upside: regulations may just pave the way for mass adoption, something the crypto community has long been waiting for. But at what cost? However, I urge you all to read the FATF GVA, because in just a few months it is going to start affecting your life, and most likely it won’t be in the way you would like.