Could countries that suffer chronic-inflation embrace Cryptocurrency? | Carthago

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  1. Introduction

Inflation is a Silent Killer, But Cryptocurrency Could Provide Reprieve

https://tradingeconomics.com/country-list/inflation-rate?continent=world

Learning Objectives

  • How countries facing chronic inflation and severe currency devaluation are adopting and regulating cryptocurrency to cope with their economic crises.
  • Why Argentina, Lebanon, Turkey, and Venezuela are unique case studies regarding their economic histories and uncertain futures.
  • What the current use cases of cryptocurrencies are in these countries.

Introduction

As cryptocurrency adoption expands worldwide, countries suffering from chronic inflation are beginning to explore some of the potential use cases digital currencies offer. Ordinary citizens have led the way in using cryptocurrencies to cope with rising prices. Many in the Crypto and De-Fi communities would consider this an opportunity to bank those deemed “unbanked,” referring to those without a bank account or those struggling to maintain one. By purchasing a Token (e.g., BTC, ETH, SHIB), USD-backed Stablecoin (e.g., USDT, USDC), or even making a mining rig to mine Bitcoin, a user would be able to leverage cryptocurrency to hedge against inflation.

Globally, Crypto as a whole is still largely unregulated, and anyone with internet access can participate in the new economy. Governments of many developing nations are racing to figure out a strategy to regulate cryptocurrencies and implement them into their economy under a legal framework.

This article considers four countries as a case study: Argentina, Lebanon, Turkey, and Venezuela. Why these four? Once upon a time, these four countries had periods of stability to even periods of high economic growth, some even in recent memory. Today, their inflation levels are among the highest in the world. This article will cover how these countries got there and the various Crypto solutions currently in use within them.

Turkey
Turkey’s inflation rates have soared nearly 61% in the past year to a twenty-year high. The Turkish Lira has lost 47% of its total value in the past year as Prime Minister Erdogan previously blamed the crisis on “Foreign Financial tools.” Erdogan was widely regarded for leveraging an economic rebirth when he entered office in 2002, which steadily led to economic prosperity in the country in the mid-2010s. However, tensions between the U.S/EU and Turkey regarding Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism exacerbated the excessive current account deficit and foreign-currency-denominated debt. This gradually led to mountainous debt and steep losses in the value of the Turkish Lira. A rapid rise in inflation ended the decade of prosperity. Coupled with the political tension between the U.S and Turkey in 2018, the value of the Lira began to topple. Still, many analysts argue that Erdogan’s insistence on lowering interest rates sparked the most recent crisis. There were also reports of central bank reserves summing up to US$128 billion in funds unaccounted for. Erdogan insisted they were not lost but “changed hands.” The question of where these funds went remains unanswered. Despite being the world’s 16th largest economy eight years ago, Turkey’s economic woes have deep roots. That’s why many people in Turkey turn to cryptocurrency to combat their country’s economic downfall.

Unlike many countries that have focused solely on Bitcoin to solve their issues, Turkish people have primarily moved to Stablecoins. In Turkey, Stablecoins are currently trading more than traditional crypto assets such as Bitcoin or Ethereum. Data shows that Tether (USDT) is the biggest trading partner with BiLira (Turkish Lira-backed Stablecoin), with 28.96% of all trades inside Turkey consisting of two paired together. Using Tether to stabilize funds shows that Turkish people have not entirely abandoned their native currency despite its record inflation. The unique ability of a Stablecoin is that it can be used as a gateway in and out of positions to avoid extreme volatility in currencies/coins, making it a valuable asset for those living with price inflation. By pegging Tether to BiLira, the Turkish people can retain their purchasing power and money’s value with the ability to serve as a credible medium of exchange for everyday payments.

Despite a ban on cryptocurrencies last year, the Turkish people have continued to embrace crypto in search of stability. In response to the massive crypto adoption and the weakening price of the Lira, the Government of Turkey softened its previously harsh tone on crypto. It announced in January that regulations are currently underway. Since then, the government has taken steps to study crypto, the metaverse, and “the legal infrastructure of these issues.” While the statement was brief, the change of stance is a sign that Turkey is willing to consider crypto adoption under specific guidelines. Even the Minister of Economy recently met with Turkish Shiba Inu influencer Shiba Inu Türkiye to examine the “meme coin” and its potential use cases. Shiba Inu is another token that has gained popularity among Turkish citizens, likely because of its low fees and strong presence online. Details are still sparse with this recent development, but considering both Stablecoins and now potentially meme coins are being used as a hedge against inflation, it is only a matter of time before Turkey’s adoption of Crypto becomes mainstream.

Argentina
If there is one country that is all too familiar with hyperinflation, Argentina takes the lead. For decades, the country has suffered immensely from a slow, stubborn rise in prices. Starting the twenty-first century as one of the world’s wealthiest nations, Argentina experienced robust success from 1870 to 1930, mainly due to its high imports of natural resources. Until 1970, Argentina’s economy continued its growth, but slower than the rest of the developed world. Years of military leadership created severe economic problems; as the country fell behind, the government started a rapid expansion of its money supply, which led to hyperinflation. In the 1980s, Argentina began suspending foreign debt payments on several occasions. This gradually came with attempts to re-stabilize the economy and print more money to serve the government’s budget spending needs and even changed its currency five times, finally deciding to stay with the Argentinian peso. The 1998–2002 economic crisis shrunk the economy, caused widespread unemployment, and pushed many to live under the poverty line leading to social unrest. While there was a rebound since the crisis, Argentina still hasn’t found its way out of chronic inflation. Today, Argentina deals with an annual 105% inflation rate that can never seem to go away and continues to be the primary debtor of the IMF (International Monetary Fund), with $44 billion outstanding.

Due to economic turbulence in Argentina for the past few decades, many citizens have been active users of crypto and innovators in blockchain technology. Projects such as Decentraland, Rather Labs, Zeppelin, Ripio, Lemon Cash, and Kleros are a few successful projects from Argentina. Due to financial restraints, many Argentinians in crypto go abroad and have co-founded projects such as The SandBox, BitFarms, and RSK.

The Argentinian people have also developed innovative ways to make a decent living and historically kept US dollars under their mattresses to fight inflation. In 2011, the Argentinian government released General Resolution 3210/11, which required citizens to file for a lengthy application process to convert pesos to USD or any foreign currency, making it illegal without government permission. The result of the resolution created a thriving black market for converting pesos to USD, which has kick-started the adoption of Bitcoin.

Outside of trading or being used as a store of value, Bitcoin mining is popular in Argentina. It is relatively cheap, considering Argentina has many areas with abundant energy and low consumer demand. From the village of Sorradino, whose citizens are teaming up to buy a mining rig, to BitFarms announcing the installment of a mega-mining farm that will power 50,000 miners in Cordoba, mining is one of the best methods for Argentinians to participate in the crypto economy.

Since Vitalik Buterin visited Buenos Aires in December, there has been a lot of buzz in the surrounding crypto in Argentina. The Argentinian government has recently altered its view of Cryptocurrency by enacting new laws and initiatives. Earlier this month, Argentina’s most prominent bank, Banco Galicia, added crypto trading to its services. Two other major Argentine banks now allow clients to buy cryptocurrencies, and residents of Buenos Aires can now pay their taxes in Bitcoin. These are significant steps toward mass adoption and have all occurred within the same week of launching a “Regulatory Sandbox” for crypto investors and innovators, a clear sign of the government pushing for regulation and adoption. The National Securities Commission of Argentina is behind this initiative to act as an intermediary between private entities and regulators by guiding start-ups in the crypto space on legal and regulatory issues. Ranking #10 in the world for crypto adoption this past year, it’s understandable why all these significant steps are happening now. However, a week after the announcements, Argentina’s monetary authority suspended all the bank’s crypto service offerings. Last month Argentinian senators struck a deal with the IMF for a bailout to avoid defaulting on their debts. Unfortunately, this deal includes a provision that forces the current Argentinian government to make stricter anti-crypto laws.

Lebanon
Lebanon’s economic woes have many roots that largely stem from geopolitical conflicts in the region and government mismanagement. After the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990), the Lebanese pound suffered a severe devaluation. The country decided to peg the US dollar to its native currency instead of allowing the global financial system to determine its value. The Lebanese banks were required to hold on to US dollars to keep the exchange rate of 1,507 lira for $1 and pay for imported goods, which they heavily rely on. This strategy provided stability to the Lebanese economy post-Civil War and into the new millennium in hopes of regaining its former reputation of being the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” Their rebound success continued until 2011, when the Syrian Civil War spilled over into Lebanon, bringing in over a million refugees that constitute a quarter of Lebanon’s current population. Hezbollah (a U.S-designated terrorist organization) capitalized on this opportunity to expand its influence in the country, where it already enjoyed a self-autonomous status free from any accountability. Institutions in Lebanon became overwhelmed, and foreign investment began to wane. Lebanese banks started to offer 15–20% interest rates for USD deposits to bring in more dollars. However, the banks would repay the initial depositor’s money to the new depositors, effectively running what many call the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme, which led to an estimated $US100 billion missing from the banking system. All these factors contributed to the plummeting of the Lebanese pound, and in 2019, an economic collapse ensued. Following the outbreak of Covid-19, Beirut explosions, protests, two-week closure of banks, rampant corruption, and widespread electrical shortages, Lebanon is now in one of the worst financial crises in centuries.

Hard times call for innovative solutions, and power shortages certainly make this difficult. Despite a recent bailout plan with the IMF, Lebanon’s inflation rate has soared an annual 215% in February of 2022. However, that has not stopped Lebanese citizens from investing in Bitcoin mining and looking towards ways to use crypto to cope with their difficult circumstances. Mining Bitcoin in Lebanon may prove to not be profitable due to poor electricity prices and reliability. Dozens of Beirut residents have moved into rural areas to take advantage of cheaper and more reliable, which led to the electricity supply falling from 20 hours a day to 18. People in Lebanon have gone so far as to get solar panels to generate reliable electricity to keep their mining operations ongoing and even sell their electricity for a certain amount per day. The surging demand for Mining machines has come with a fair share of criticism, with many villages in the Chouf region blaming their blackouts on miners.

Many electricians, air conditioner repair workers, and programmers who were previously unemployed have found a new livelihood in Bitcoin mining. There has also been a rise of OTC dealers in Lebanon who get crypto from abroad (likely from the diaspora or personal connections) and sell it to clients in exchange for cash. Most of them sell USDT or other popular cryptocurrencies while working their day job. A lack of trust in the banking system within Lebanon has prompted citizens to use innovative methods to retain their wealth and move it from one place to another safely.

Since Lebanon’s economy is in shambles, the government’s cryptocurrency regulation is likely not a priority. In 2013, the Central Bank of Lebanon issued a warning about the risks of “virtual money” and was the first, middle eastern country to take a stance against it. Then in 2018, the Lebanese government banned financial institutions and exchanges from trading “e-money” and “electronic currencies.” Yet, Lebanese laws do not prohibit crypto ownership, use, or trade, except as a payment method. The vague definitions and contradicting laws used to describe cryptocurrency put Lebanon in a legal gray zone regarding regulation. There is also not much quantitative data regarding crypto usage in Lebanon other than having the second largest value in cryptocurrency received by the country in the Middle East, where most users use DeFi protocols (which are mainly unregulated). The economic crisis gave birth to a crypto boom in the country, where prior, it was relatively unknown. Now there are practical use cases that can push Lebanon to further adoption.

Venezuela
Once the wealthiest country in Latin America, Venezuela now faces the highest inflation rate globally. During the 1970s, Venezuela had an oil boom and nationalized all its oil production, which hosts some of the largest oil reserves in the world. The government-backed organization called PDVSA (Petroleum of Venezuela) handled everything oil-related. Essentially, it was an extension of the government since they were the sole investors and profiteers of this organization. This organization's corruption was rampant, and misuse and missing funds (estimated at $273 Billion) would haunt them years later. Yet, the crisis was not realized until Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998, who decided to push out many of the executives at PDVSA and replace them with whoever he deemed loyal. Unfortunately, many of those ousted were knowledgeable about the overall oil business while the new executives were not, and corruption continued.

While riding out the high oil prices of the 2000s, Chavez leaned towards left-leaning economic policies, including lower taxes, beneficial social-welfare policies, and increased government spending, which went towards unsustainable handouts.

The government was overspending while relying on a currency dependent on oil exports. Local businesses could not thrive because they did not have access to loans or credit because of government spending. Without any exports other than oil, Venezuela could not compete with the global market in the long run. In 2008, all export industries began to crash, and there was no access to credit or loans for businesses since the government had spent all the money. Naturally, systemic issues began to grow as the government started to buy out all enterprises and then went into debt for their overspending. A decline in oil prices began to cripple the country, so they began overprinting and caused hyper-inflation gradually. Venezuela’s economic turbulence was followed by protests, increased authoritarianism, corrupt elections, high murder rates, high levels of unemployment, and sanctions from foreign powers such as the United States that crippled their economy.

In the last few years, Venezuelans have turned to cryptocurrency since the national currency has plummeted to record lows. Some speculate to the point of no return. That is why the Venezuelan people have been using cryptocurrency to cope with their country’s economic disaster. #7 in Chainanalysis 2021 Global Crypto Adoption Index, and while it ranked higher in 2020, it shows no slowing down. Many emigrants who left for neighboring Colombia used crypto with the Valiu app to send money back to loved ones in Venezuela. Those in Colombia would deposit Colombian pesos onto the platform, then Valiu uses the pesos to buy BTC on a p2p system and is exchanged into Bolivars. However, the Bolivar kept losing value, so Valiu created their coin (USDV), a dollar account backed by Bitcoin, so that the remittance payments wouldn’t become useless. Valiu was used by 3,000 Venezuelan businesses and made about 450,000 transactions with a 100,000 user base. While it proved to be successful in the initial years of Venezuelan migration, the rapid Crypto adoption in Venezuela led to the app shutting down its services last December.

While there are reports of people using cryptocurrencies such as USDT, Shiba Inu, and Bitcoin to purchase commodities and even real estate, it still requires a stable internet connection, unavailable in large swaths of Venezuela. In 2018, the government created the Petromoneda (Petro Dollar) to make up for the plummeting Bolivar and bypass U.S sanctions on the country. It was the first state-backed cryptocurrency attempt, and its intended use was for payments for anything from taxes, gas, or national public utilities. With Russia’s help, the Maduro regime tried to make it a legitimate form of payment but failed. The Petro is a government attempt of a CBDC. Unlike a cryptocurrency, it is not open and public but rather a “financial instrument built upon a closed system that claims to be a private blockchain.” There is little data on Petro’s usage in Venezuela, and it has widely been considered a political stunt by the regime to distract from the ongoing economic woes. More recently, the government launched a “DeFi Protocol” that was unsuccessful. The government has yet to comment on their country’s mass adoption of crypto, and it is obvious why. Holding assets like Bitcoin and Ethereum will undoubtedly be more valuable in the long term than the Bolivar, despite their volatilities.

As the crime rate in Venezuela rises, people also find holding crypto to be a safer alternative to cash. However, Venezuelans face many issues participating in the crypto economy despite the data from Chainanalysis. In March, Venezuelan users of Metamask could not access their wallets because of legal and compliance matters. Metamask joins several crypto platforms that don’t offer services in Venezuela, leaving Venezuelans isolated. U.S sanctions and government censorship have also made it difficult for Venezuelans to make transactions vis-a-vis regulated entities. Financial freedom becomes difficult to obtain when coupled with the Venezuelan government’s censorship.

Conclusion
We are witnessing the beginning stages of crypto adoption worldwide, and the current financial structure of the world will inevitably have to adapt or fall behind. Argentina and Turkey are heading towards regulation, but the IMF stands in their way. The Lebanese government has not adequately addressed it, and Venezuela is threatened by it. People in Argentina, Lebanon, Turkey, and Venezuela have a failed currency and lack faith in their monetary systems. While the four have unique histories, the reasons for their economic collapse are relatively similar: authoritarianism, corruption, mismanagement, overprinting, and social unrest. Argentina has lived with chronic inflation longer and miraculously has been able to live with it. Turkey is relatively new to inflation, and the next few years are critical to its survival. Lebanon and Venezuela do not have any economic stability and have arguably reached their breaking point.

While cryptocurrency has many challenges ahead of it before mass adoption, it has shown that it provides many benefits for different people around the world. By providing citizens of these countries suffering from chronic inflation with a store of value that is borderless, censorship-proof, and without the need for an intermediary, it is understandable why it’s become a popular alternative. Yes, there is volatility, but it is a safer bet than relying on their government-backed currencies, and the use cases seen in these four countries are proof. Other countries that suffer from chronic -inflation should look at the use cases of crypto in Argentina, Lebanon, Turkey, and Venezuela and use it to their advantage. Cryptocurrency is relatively young, and we see news about adoption and regulation every day. Recent setbacks in the crypto space might dissuade new users; however, one project's weak structure does not represent the entire ecosystem of 10,000 active tokens. It is only a matter of time before we know what crypto can achieve for those who need it the most.

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