While addressing the Indian Banks’ Association on Monday, February 14, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) deputy governor T. Rabi Sankar said that cryptocurrencies are akin to Ponzi schemes or even worse, and banning them is the most sensible option for India.
"We have also seen that cryptocurrencies are not amenable to definition as a currency, asset or commodity; they have no underlying cash flows; they have no intrinsic value; that they are akin to Ponzi schemes, and may be even be worse," he said in a speech.
But are cryptocurrencies really Ponzi schemes? Let’s hear from the experts
What Are Ponzi Schemes?
A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investing scam that promises high rates of return with little risk to investors. The term owes its origin to a swindler named Charles Ponzi, who made his name in 1920. However, the first recorded examples of this sort of investment scam can be traced back to the mid-to-late 1800s to Adele Spitzeder in Germany and Sarah Howe in the US.
A Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud in which clients are promised a large profit at little to no risk. Companies that engage in a Ponzi scheme focus all of their energy into attracting new clients to make investments. These are generally multi-level marketing schemes, in which money from new investors is used to pay ‘profits’ to earlier investors. This continues till new investors keep joining.
Multi-level marketing itself is not illegal in India because there is a product being sold. But direct marketing companies cannot promote pyramid or money circulation schemes.
Are Cryptocurrencies Like Ponzi Schemes?
Some experts agree that there are cryptocurrencies that work like Ponzi schemes. “When it comes to crypto products, there are many products with projects that are trying to work like Ponzi schemes. It's spread across the world but is much more popular in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Crypto is used as a way of payment because it's easier and, by using crypto, they can open the entire Ponzi scheme to the whole world instead of being restricted to a specific country or region,” says Sathvik Vishwanath, co-founder and CEO, Unocoin, a crypto exchange.
Cryptocurrencies are, in fact, worse than Ponzi schemes, says Gaurav Mehta, founder of Catax, an online crypto tax and auditing platform. “It is a more complicated asset than a Ponzi scheme, and it is worse since it not only encourages evangelism but also undermines nation states by interfering in the currency system. When the tulip mania passed, people were at least left with tulips to smell; when Bitcoin passes, they (investors) would be left with nothing," he said.
Other don’t agree. A Ponzi scheme promises high returns with minimal risk, whereas crypto trading is quite volatile due to market conditions, regulator challenges, and other factors, which gives investors an opportunity to earn high returns but while they face high risk.
"Clubbing crypto assets with Ponzi schemes is grossly unfair. Multi-level marketing schemes and chit fund schemes that promise steep returns would qualify as Ponzi schemes," says Sharat Chandra, vice-president, research and strategy, EarthID, a global decentralized self-sovereign identity management platform.
As cryptocurrencies fight for legitimacy, bad players make the task more difficult, especially as the commentary around cryptocurrencies has moved beyond payments (legal tender) use cases to aspects such as asset tokenisation, metaverse, gaming and web3.0.