Indians investing in cryptocurrencies may be taking a highly risky bet in the absence of regulations by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the government with respect to these instruments, said experts. Till regulations bring clarity, any type of crypto transactions should be banned in India, they said. “Be it as a medium of exchange, mode of investment/ assets, cryptocurrency dealings should be banned in India and should be made as a criminal offence,” said Madan Sabnavis, chief economist of CARE rating agency.
“Unless we have regulations and an official view on this, Crypto is no different from gambling,” said the veteran economist. The comment assumes significance at a time when investors are increasingly betting on crypto currencies.
Cryptocurrency is decentralised digital money, which works based on blockchain technology. Bitcoin and Ethereum are the poplar crypto currencies but there are thousands of cryptocurrencies in circulation.
Even as the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Government have not formed an opinion on the crypto currencies, there are many Indians who have taken exposure in crypto market. According to data from crypto exchanges, there are approximately 1.5 crore Indians who have invested in cryptocurrencies holding Rs 15,000 crore. There are 350 startups who operate in blockchain and crypto. Crypto exchanges, WazirX, CoinSwitch Kuber and other exchanges, have seen a big rush in demand from users and crypto exchanges are advertising heavily on investments.
Already, the RBI has raised concerns on crypto currencies. On March 25, speaking at the 7th edition of India Economic Conclave, the RBI Governor, Shaktikanta Das had said the central bank has flagged some major concerns to the Government about crypto currencies. "Both RBI and the government are committed to financial stability. We have flagged some major concerns to the government on crypto currencies. The government will come out with a decision sooner than later," Das had said.
The RBI, in 2018, banned all banks from dealing in cryptocurrencies but a Supreme Court order overturned this ban on a plea by Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI). The court said that while the RBI has the power to regulate virtual currencies, in the absence of any legislation, the business of dealing in these currencies ought to be treated as a legitimate trade that is protected by the fundamental right to carry on any occupation, trade or business under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.
While the RBI is clearly not comfortable with the idea of cryptocurrency as a medium of exchange, the government’s stance on this issue is not clear. The government has proposed to present a Bill to regulate cryptocurrencies called The Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official digital currency Bill, 2021. The Bill has provisions to make any dealings in cryptocurrency illegal. But there is no clarity yet on when this Bill will be introduced in Parliament.
Why people buy crypto?
There aren't many attractive investment options in the present economic environment, where real interest rates have turned negative. With interest rate falling sharply, bank deposits have turned unattractive to the investors. Similarly, high volatility and a dull economic environment have made real estate, equity and mutual fund investments unattractive for HNI investors, prompting many of them to look at crypto bets.
Due to a mix of factors such as the COVID-19 crisis, the poor rate of returns on banking investments, cryptocurrency stands to gain in popularity as it is being seen with the potential to become a good investment alternative, like gold or real estate, if certain provisions are met, said Jaya Vaidhyanathan, CEO of BCT Digital.
“This is still far away, but it can happen over a period of time. We are going to see lack of trust from authorities till it is fully evaluated. Although Bitcoin has been seen with caution and distrust by authorities, its underlying technology, Blockchain, has a lot of advantages in today’s digital banking context as well,“ Vaidhyanathan said.
What if cryptocurrency gets banned in India?
Lack of clarity on regulation would mean that crypto investors may be facing high risk if the government decides against cryptocurrencies in India. Those holding crypto assets may face a sudden shocker if India decides to ban the cryptocurrency assets tomorrow, experts said.
“There is no underlying to the crypto currencies, so it is highly risky for anyone to use it as asset. You can’t certainly treat it as a mode of exchange. With high volatility seen in recent days, it is quite clear this is a speculative asset,” said Ashvin Parekh of Ashvin Parekh Advisory services.
“Also, there is a possibility of illegal elements using crypto for money laundering activities,” said Parekh. While big investors like Tesla founder Elon Musk can afford speculating in such assets, common investors may be facing high risk, Parekh added.
With the RBI not clarifying its position, banks have been wary about cryptocurrencies too.
“Central banks advocate the centralization of an economy and its banking system. Bitcoin or most cryptocurrencies, for that matter, are the opposite of that. They are not controlled by a country’s regulators or even governed by them,” said Vaidhyanathan of BCT Digital.
“Under such circumstances, it’s natural for regulators to be suspicious of them, leading to trading bans or tightened regulations. In 2018, a lot of Indians were trading in cryptocurrencies, convinced of its benefits. But soon, this was questioned and outlawed,” Vaidhyanathan said.
A senior banker, who didn’t want to be named, said banks are staying away from crypto transactions since the RBI hasn’t clarified its position officially. “For us, the RBI is the apex authority. Till the time, the RBI doesn’t clarify its position, we will not touch this segment,” said the banker.
In the past, unregulated investments and financial institutions have resulted in major crises. One example is the unregulated Chit funds market which used to thrive in India. In the absence of regulations, there have been many cases of fly-by-night operators, resulting in massive losses to customers.
There have been other examples such as microfinance and gold loans where lack of regulation has led to crisis situations. The root cause of 2010 Andhra Pradesh microfinance was illegal operations of a section of microlenders. The RBI later brought in regulations to govern these companies. Similarly, gold loan lending market was too an unregulated market till in the early part of last decade, bringing in strict norms on loan-to-value ratio and disclosure. Till then, local lenders have been charging usurious rate of interest on such loans.