NASDAQ is engaging Bitcoin — about time!

Edward Tj GeretyNasdaq OMX Group Inc. expects to become the first major exchange operator to use the technology behind bitcoin when a project in its private-companies business goes live in the fourth quarter.

The stock market operator is partnering with infrastructure provider Chain to use blockchain to issue and transfer the shares of privately held companies. Blockchain is the ledger that drives the bitcoin digital currency.

The technology will be “of fundamental importance to Wall Street,” Nasdaq Chief Executive Officer Bob Greifeld said during a phone interview. “The benefits to the industry are immense and cannot be ignored.”

Advocates for the software say it will dramatically speed up and simplify how trading of everything from stocks to loans and derivatives is processed. Wall Street professionals endorsed blockchain in a recent Greenwich Associates survey, with 94 percent saying it could be used in finance.

Earlier this year, Nasdaq joined a clutch of companies seeking to adapt blockchain for mainstream finance, saying it would “leverage blockchain technology as part of an enterprise-wide initiative.”

“We also plan to announce further blockchain initiatives in the future,” Greifeld said during a conference call with analysts. “The application of blockchain technology within Nasdaq’s private market aims to modernize, streamline and really secure cumbersome administrative functions,”

Last month, Symbiont, which plans to use blockchain to make it quicker and cheaper to transfer assets between buyers and sellers, raised $1.25 million from financial industry heavyweights including former New York Stock Exchange chief Duncan Niederauer, former Citadel LLC executive Matt Andresen, and two co-founders of high-frequency trading firm Getco LLC, Dan Tierney and Stephen Schuler.

Other firms investigating finance-related uses of blockchain include Digital Asset Holdings LLC, headed by former JPMorgan Chase & Co. banker Blythe Masters, and Blockstack, run by former Google Inc. and Nasdaq employees.

The Ragging Bitcoin ‘Civil War’ Could End It

Edward Tj GeretyBitcoin, the digital currency technology with an ecosystem attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, is struggling through an existential crisis.

And what may to outsiders seem like petty squabbling about a single number actually has major financial implications and could even threaten the very survival of the cryptocurrency.

The argument—which is pitting Chinese constituencies against largely Western developers, the business community against the often ideological early adopters, and programmer against programmer—centers on a simple number in the global bitcoin system. But if the various parties can’t come to an agreement, the whole network could splinter, wrecking its major selling points of security and decentralization.

“There is literally a war going on right now in the bitcoin world,” Marco Streng, CEO of Genesis Mining, stated last month.

What’s the issue?

There are two major questions facing the technology: Who is bitcoin for? And who gets to decide?

Most of the early adopters saw appeal in bitcoin as a decentralized digital currency—(to over-simplify the promise) a sort of virtual gold that could not be touched by governments, banks or corporations. But in seeking to create the perfect system for such a currency, bitcoin’s early creators also created a technology that has wide-ranging applications.

That technology is called the “blockchain” and this is basically what it does: It can record any information in a secure way, and make that information both public and unchangeable—doing this without relying on any central authority. Banks, stock exchanges, payment companies and others have already begun exploring how this can be used in their own businesses.

The issue at hand is about the structure of bitcoin’s blockchain (which is composed of “blocks” of data with each block referring back to the preceding chunk of information—thereby creating a chain). The community is arguing about how big the maximum block size should be: The current max is one megabyte, which only allows for about seven transactions per second—far too few for most businesses currently investing in the technology.

This speed is a “roadblock to bitcoin growth,” Jeff Garzik, one of five bitcoin core developers who have taken over maintenance of the technology, wrote in a recent paper. (Visa, for comparison, says its network can handle more than 24,000 transactions per second.)

“Any responsible business projecting capacity usage into the future sees the system reaching an absolute maximum capacity, with this speed limit in place,” he wrote. “Increasing or removing this limit will encourage businesses to view bitcoin as scalable and capable of supporting millions of new users.”

The block size limit may also negatively impact bitcoin’s original currency use-case: As the number of transaction requests exceed the limit, the user experience degrades: The pools of “miners” who help inscribe data onto the global network will begin charging ever-higher fees for processing, eliminating some of the appeal over other payment methods.

But there are reasons for limiting the size of a block. For one, it provides security for the system by constraining available space, and therefore making it costly to maliciously flood the network with spam.

Miners are generally against increasing the size too much: They would have to do more work on each block, but they’d still reap the same benefit per block (while transaction fees remain negligibly low), said Pete Rizzo, the U.S. editor for cryptocurrency site CoinDesk.

Also, some early adopters who plan to hold bitcoin for extended periods of time as an investment may prefer to keep the block size limit low—unbothered by transaction fees or business prospects, Garzik has explained.

But even if more interests seem to point to increasing the block size, there’s no agreement what size is ideal—balancing present-day security and future promise—or how a change should be made.

Gavin Andresen, one of the most important developers of the technology, proposed increasing the max size to 20 megabytes. (He did not respond to request for comment.)

A powerful constituency of Chinese miners—who also object to increasing the size of the block, saying their nation’s Internet connection to the rest of the world would not allow it—made a counter proposal suggesting an eight-megabyte maximum. Andresen has since backed a version of this plan.

For his part, Garzik proposed a sliding cap with a change to the bitcoin code allowing for periodic block increases (or even decreases) based on global miners’ votes.

The most important parts of the community were variously leaning toward Garzik’s proposal, an 8-megabyte increase, or just a small “can-kicking” measure to wait for technologies that might allow them to bypass the question.

But as a totally decentralized system, bitcoin has no clear way to weigh these disparate opinions and interests—in other words, no way to make a definitive decision.

Why does this matter?

Garzik called the block size debate the first major alteration to bitcoin policy since it began in January 2009. When other changes have been made, the core software has been changed, and the players on the network have quickly updated (anyone who doesn’t follow the current protocol gets booted from the network until they comply).

But with a contentious issue like this, the developers risk splitting the network into those who want to follow one set of rules, and those who want another. If someone were to push out a global update without ensuring near-total consensus, a split could occur.

“That would be the worst of all possible options,” Garzik said.

Bitcoin runs on a blockchain that is more secure and decentralized than any of its competitors because of its large user base and its comparatively lengthy history. If those users were to splinter, then the entire enterprise could be compromised.

So what’s at stake? Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in bitcoin and blockchain-related companies, and the current value of all the bitcoin in existence is currently about $4 billion.

The risks of a network split are low but not negligible, experts have repeatedly stated.

“You’re dealing with consensus among a community of people who aren’t communicating very well—and haven’t for some time,” Rizzo said, explaining that making any change to the code risks breaking a technology that already works pretty well.

“At what point does that risk become untenable? At this point it’s still within the realm of ‘danger Will Robinson’-level risk,” he added.

Bitcoin defined as VAT-Exempt Currency

Bitcoin-in-EuroBitcoin will be used more often for trade and investment if the Court of Justice of the European Union confirms an advocate general opinion categorizing bitcoin as a currency because transactions will be exempt from value-added tax.

In a July 16 reasoned opinion, AG Juliane Kokott said digital currencies, such as bitcoin, should be considered a currency rather than property or other financial instruments, and therefore shouldn’t be subject to VAT in line with the exemption provided for currency transactions under the EU’s VAT Directive (2006/112/EC).

For VAT purposes, bitcoin is more akin to other recognized currencies, Kokott said.

Hedqvist welcomed the AG’s opinion in a July 17 statement as it lends support to the case he is currently arguing before the Swedish Supreme Administrative Court.

The case, Skatteverket v. David Hedqvist (C-264/14), was brought by the Swedish tax authority to determine whether Hedqvist should be charged VAT on transactions involving bitcoins.

The authority had appealed a lower court ruling to the Swedish Supreme Administrative Court, which requested a preliminary ruling from the CJEU.

Presuming the CJEU takes the same position as the AG, the ruling will only apply to bitcoin currency trades. Other forms of taxation levied on virtual currencies, such as capital gains or income tax on gains in the currency’s value, won’t be affected by the ruling.

Categorizing Bitcoin

Ahead of the CJEU’s ruling on the case, Kokott examined whether bitcoin could be deemed to be “securities” according to the VAT directive. Article 135.1.f of the directive provides an exemption on transactions in shares, debentures and similar instruments. She found that bitcoin couldn’t be categorized as such.

Kokott also examined whether bitcoin could be defined as “negotiable instruments” according to article 135.1.d of the directive, which refers to instruments deriving their value from other currencies and not instruments with their own value. Kokott found that the exemption under this provision shouldn’t apply to bitcoin either.

In addition, she examined whether bitcoin could be characterized as “currency” under article 135.1.e of the directive, which refers to transactions concerning currency, bank notes and coins used as legal tender. Gold, silver or other metal coins aren’t included in this definition.

Kokott noted that the definition of legal tender appeared to vary in different translations of the VAT Directive. While the German version appeared to limit the definition to official national currencies, other translations—such as the Finnish and Italian versions—appeared to imply a broader scope.

Using this broader definition, Kokott said that the purpose of bitcoin appeared to be the same as that of a traditional currency and the VAT exemption was applicable under this provision.

EU-Wide Impact

In a July 16 statement, Anders Hultqvist, associate professor of law at Stockholm University, said the AG’s opinion and the CJEU’s expected preliminary ruling will have a significant impact across the EU.

“The AG’s conclusion is that the exchange of bitcoins to Swedish kronor is a service within the scope of the VAT Directive, but also that it is an exempt service according to article 135.1.e,” he said.

“This has been one of the hard questions, since there is no national bank or other institution that issues this as legal tender,” he noted.

However, the AG found it to be unclear as to what can be defined as legal tender. As such, she compared different language versions of the VAT Directive and concluded from a more purposeful view that bitcoin are used as tender and exchange, and therefore should be considered to be exempt on these grounds, Hultqvist said.

“Some member states, with good reason, don’t define legal tender this way, but the AG has a good point,” Hultqvist said. “Bitcoins are used and work mainly in the same manner,” he said.

“The result is that the exchange service is exempt from VAT,” he explained. No VAT needs to be charged for the exchange of bitcoins to Swedish kronor, nor to any other currency when performed within the EU. “Provided the EU court reaches the same conclusion, those countries who have charged VAT on these services must now change their practice,” Hultqvist said.

“The judgment will of course have a great impact in all EU countries, since all of them will have to follow the CJEU judgment,” Hultqvist pointed out. “The Supreme Administrative Court in Sweden will certainly deliver a judgment with reference to the CJEU ruling,” he added.

General Use

While the AG’s opinion only refers to currency trades involving bitcoin, David Hedqvist stated that it would likely prove beneficial to the general use of bitcoin as an investment and a means of payment. “This means that when it is traded it will be treated much the same as any other currency,” he said. “It will not be more expensive for consumers to exchange between bitcoins and other currencies.”

“If you look at how it is used as a payment in stores, online and such, it has been gaining traction now over a number of years, I don’t think this [opinion] changes a lot there,” he said. “But if you look at the bigger picture, now that the rules are clearer, people will be less hesitant to get involved in bitcoin.”

The CJEU concurs with the AG’s opinion in the vast majority of cases.

Hedqvist added that his legal team had also argued for a VAT-exempt status to be granted on the grounds under article 135.1.d of the VAT Directive, which was rejected by the AG. “It was interesting,” he said that the AG went with 135.1.e, which “puts it together with other currencies.”

The AG noted that 135.1.e is different in different translations of the VAT Directive, Hedqvist said. “Because of that it was important to look at the purpose of bitcoins,” he added, welcoming the AG’s decision to look at the purpose of the exemptions as a whole.

“To us at least, it was obvious that bitcoins should be exempt because if you look at how bitcoin is used and what it is, then it fits very well into that [135.1.e] category.”

Global Issues

However, Hedqvist noted that differing tax treatment in jurisdictions where bitcoin is used and traded could still cause problems in the future because the CJEU’s ruling would only affect trading within the EU. “If you look at the global situation, I think this is something that will be still being discussed for many years,” he said. “But it’s good that the situation has become clearer here,” he added, referring to the EU.

Hedqvist said he now expects the Swedish tax authority to “leave bitcoin alone” and accept the CJEU’s decision. “A few months ago, the tax authority published something about bitcoin mining,” he noted.

In that context, “they came to the conclusion that it was exempt from VAT. The authority here seems pretty reasonable, so I think that they will leave it alone now after this, but of course there will be more discussion.”

Old Laws, New Technology

“There are other laws, too, that need to be made clearer with regards to where bitcoins fit in” Hedqvist said. “I guess the problem is that when the laws were written there were no such things as bitcoins. It’s like a clash between old laws and new technology.”

Although he hasn’t seen any figures for bitcoin use in the EU, “if you look at the investments in bitcoin companies internationally, it is steadily increasing,” Hedqvist said. “I think that in 2015 the numbers will be higher than last year.”

Many people “just look at the exchange rate and see that bitcoins are booming one year and crashing the next year and so on,” he said, “but if you look at the interest from investors, there has been a steady increase. I haven’t seen that so much in Sweden, but internationally this is certainly the case.”

Hedqvist agreed that other obstacles existed to the virtual currency’s acceptance, such as concerns about the potential anonymity of transactions.

“I think that some people will fight it,” he said. “To me, it’s kind of similar to when the Internet first came into existence, and anyone could get online. People were pointing out that there were all kinds of terrible stuff out there, kids could find out how to build a bomb, that kind of thing.”

As time went on, people realized that, on the whole, the Internet was a positive thing, he said. “I think it’s kind of the same with bitcoins. There will be a lot of discussion about the potential for criminality but I don’t think that it will be enough to stop it,” Hedqvist said.

“I certainly don’t think Sweden is the type of country that would actually pass new laws prohibiting bitcoins,” Hedqvist added.

Chinese investors rushed to stocks, fearing bubble in real estate, only to see the market crash

Edward Tj GeretyIn a crowded back alley, behind a popular noodle soup lunch joint in Beijing’s Central Business District, stock broker Wang Dao lights his fourth cigarette of the morning. It has been a particularly stressful week for the 28-year-old who works in one of the city’s many brokerages.

“I lost about 20,000 renminbi in the past 10 days,” he says, “but that is nothing compared to the millions some of my firm’s clients have lost.”

Chinese stocks nosedived in the past month, wiping out a third of the market. The Shanghai Composite, an index of all A and B shares traded on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, was on a bull run for the past 12 months, gaining 3,000 points and touching a high of 5,166 points on June 12.

By then, the Chinese government had stepped in to stanch the bloodletting. A 120 billion renminbi ($19.5 billion) fund was set up so that the country’s large brokerage firms could buy stocks. Trading was progressively halted through the week, and by Thursday, July 9, stocks of only about half of the listed companies were in play.

The market has since rebounded (on half the listed stocks, the other half remains suspended) and on Friday, recorded its largest two-day gain since the 2008 financial crisis to close at 3,877 points.

The damage, however, was done.

Stock’s the Way

Coinciding with the start of last year’s stock market escalation, many in the country’s tier I and II cities chose to ignore overheated real estate prices and decided to put their money in stocks. Successive rate cuts by the country’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, which worked against regulators’ efforts to subdue the stock boom, also fuelled excessive liquidity flows into stocks.

Tony Nash, chief economist and managing partner at Complete Intelligence in Singapore, who watches the Indian and Chinese markets closely, says, “Chinese investors have few options to mobilise capital. One is real estate. The other is the stock market. This is partly the reason why we see China go from a bubble in equities to a bubble in real estate, then back to equities.

Bank deposits are gradually being liberalised, but it’s not as legitimate an option as in other places with liberalised deposit environments. In that respect, Indian investors have many more options.”

Angie Liu, who goes by her anglicised name, did something similar. At 30, living at her parents’ home in west Beijing, she thought an apartment was a good investment to make as she was saving on rent. She needed more than she was earning though to cobble together the 3,00,000 renminbi down-payment on a flat in Beijing.

“What better place to multiply my money other than the stock markets, I thought,” said Angie. “I borrowed cash and invested 1,00,000 renminbi last fall. By spring this year it had nearly doubled, but this week I am down 25%. Looks like the apartment will have to wait. I have to repay my creditors first,” she said, looking disconsolate.

China Daily, a government controlled newspaper, quoted a Shanghai stock broker who said a couple of his clients were “urgently selling their homes after losing money, trading in stocks”.

Wang, the Beijing stock broker, said, “Every single person I know who has invested in the stock market has lost money; the only question is how much. The long-term investors would not have lost much, but those who invested in the past year, especially those who used their stocks as collateral and borrowed more are not so lucky.”

Dan Steinbock, director of International Business at the India, China and America Institute, says China’s market fluctuation is an inherent issue with the way the economy is structured. “In China, some 80% of investors are retail investors, not yet institutions.

The net effect is greater volatility, by default. These investors are not necessarily the mom-and-pop investors as Western media likes to portray them. Many represent the new middle class, the upwardly mobile but also risk-taking market segments.

Beijing has a great level of influence and control over its equity markets. Last week, it ordered a six-month ban on stock sales by those owning more than 5% of a company’s shares. Such a step in India would have been seen more as an intrusion, rather than a move to calm turbulent bourses.

Limited Options

The concern that the summer washout may have a long-term effect on the economy remains but not everyone is pessimistic.

Tony Nash says, “Today, we’re starting to see capital flow back into mainland markets from overseas and mainland selling of Hong Kong equities has subsided.

Hopefully, we’ll see a bit of stabilisation. In any case, Indian investors can generally place money overseas as they please, which doesn’t place undue ‘captive market’ pressure on domestic valuations.”

There are more than 90 million investors in China and that number is only bound to increase. However, unless more vehicles of investments are opened up, many see the stock markets as the only place they can put their money to work.

 

 

Is there a Tech Bubble? Some say, “No”

Edward GeretyAndreessen Horowitz, the most innovative and outspoken of Silicon Valley’s big venture capital firms, recently came out with a presentation intended to kill the idea that there’s a new tech bubble under way. The 53-slide presentation, by Morgan Bender, Benedict Evans and Scott Kupor, takes on the idea that too much money is flowing into private technology companies, especially in the highly valued startups called “unicorns.”

First, a little background. Bubbles, by definition, pop, and if tech crashed it would hurt a lot of investors. People making the case for a bubble often focus on unicorn startups (those with a valuation of greater than $1 billion) such as Uber, which is now valued at $40 billion without having gone public. They claim that large private financing by late-stage venture capital, backed up by large asset managers like Fidelity or Tiger Global Management, have replaced initial public offerings as the driver of overvaluation. This is known as the “private IPO.” The pro-bubble case is that these private financing rounds have inflated the value of the unicorns without spilling over into the public markets.

Andreessen Horowitz’s team attacks this idea from a number of directions. First, they show that overall funding for tech startups — both private financing and IPOs — is still nowhere near the dizzying heights it reached in 1999 and 2000, especially when measured as a share of the economy. The same is true of venture capital fundraising. They also present various arguments that long-term earning potential for tech startups is much stronger this time around. (Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, is an investor in Andreessen Horowitz.)

The Andreessen Horowitz presentation makes a very convincing case. We should not be drawing a parallel between the boom in private late-stage funding of unicorn startups and the late-’90s IPO boom. They just don’t look like the same phenomenon.

So there’s probably not a unicorn bubble. How about a tech bubble more generally? The Andreessen Horowitz team points out that the tech sector isn’t taking over the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index the way it did in the late-’90s tech bubble: The share of tech in the index has been flat for about 12 years now. And, as Sam Altman pointed out on Twitter, stock valuations for technology companies don’t look any higher than other stock valuations; the price-to-earnings ratio of the tech component of the S&P is in fact lower than for the index as a whole. So we’re probably not in a tech bubble of any kind.

That said, there was one Andreessen Horowitz slide that’s ominous. It shows that all the unicorns together are valued at slightly less than Facebook. That reminded me of an e-mail debate between financial economists Eugene Fama and Ivo Welch, on the question of whether the ’90s tech bubble was really an episode of market irrationality. In that debate, Fama said the following:

In other words, Fama is saying that the tech bubble of 1999-2000 was caused by rational investor expectations, not by irrational exuberance. (Obviously, that view isn’t universally held.)

Fama’s quote highlights two very important things about bubbles. First, even in the most dramatic cases, it’s not easy to know you’re in one. Second, true bubbles often involve overvaluation throughout the entire market, not just in one segment. Fama is absolutely right about all those IPOs being worth only two Microsofts.

But Microsoft’s price in 1999-2000 was about 70 times its earnings. After the 2000 crash, that plummeted to about 30, briefly recovered, then drifted down again. Even if Fama is right that tech investors in 1999-2000 expected the tech IPO market to produce two new Microsofts, he glosses over the fact that in hindsight, investors were drastically overvaluing Microsoft.

So what’s Facebook’s price-to-earnings ratio right now? Over 80.

The danger isn’t that we’re in a unicorn bubble. The danger isn’t even that we’re in a tech bubble. The danger is that we’re in an Everything Bubble — that valuations across the board are simply too high. The Shiller CAPE ratio, generally regarded as a good measure of the market’s over- or undervaluation, is indeed unusually high — though not nearly as high as in January 2000.

So what happens when China’s housing and stock bubbles finally crash, as both are probably in the process of doing? What happens when the Federal Reserve raises interest rates? It’s possible that not much will happen. Or it’s possible that there will be a big crash that it will take markets a few years to recover from. If it’s the latter, then unicorn startups will see their funding dry up along with everyone else.

In other words, the tech sector doesn’t seem to be creating a bubble like in the late ’90s, but valuations are looking slightly worrying at the overall market level.

Greece on the Edge

Edward Tj Gerety
By heeding their government’s advice and voting “No” in the referendum on Sunday, Greek citizens sent an unambiguous message. Much like the fictional Americans portrayed in the movie “Network” who threw open their windows and shouted out, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” the Greeks are demanding that the rest of Europe acknowledge their distress.

Greece’s Fiscal Odyssey

At this stage, however, only a handful of European leaders seem willing to listen; and even fewer appear willing to deliver the sort of relief that Greece desperately needs. The implications will be felt primarily in Greece, but also in Europe and beyond.

Here are 10 consequences of the vote that could unfold in the next few days:

1. The victory of the “No” camp – with more than 60 percent of the vote, according to preliminary returns – will initially lead to a general selloff in global equities, along with price pressures on the bonds issued by Greece, other peripheral euro zone economies and emerging markets. German and U.S. government bonds will benefit from a flight to quality.

2. Having been caught off guard, European politicians will urgently seek to regain the initiative: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Francois Hollande of France will meet in Paris on Monday to work on a response. In a perfect world, these leaders would move quickly and effectively with the Greek government to get past the conflict and acrimony that preceded the referendum. This is likely to be difficult, given the mistrust, bad blood and damaging accusations that have poisoned the relationship.

3. Even with those challenges, Greek and European politicians don’t have much time to get their act together. The horrid conditions in Greece will get a lot worse before they improve. Without huge emergency assistance from the European Central Bank – a decision that faces long odds – the government will find it hard to get money to the country’s automated teller machines, let alone re-open the banks.

4. As hoarding increases, shortages of goods, including fuel and food, will intensify. Capital and payments controls will be tightened. The economy will take another worrisome step down, worsening unemployment and poverty. And the government will struggle to pay pensioners and the salaries of civil servants.

5. As a result, the government will be under mounting pressure to issue some type of IOUs to maintain a sense of a functioning economy. If it does, the IOUs will take on the role of a parallel currency, quoted domestically at a discount to the single currency.

6. Outside Greece, a lot of thought will be given to limiting adverse spillovers. The ECB will most likely have to roll out new measures to contain regional contagion, including expanding the current program of large-scale purchases of securities. This will weaken the euro’s exchange rate. In addition, together with the International Monetary Fund – to which Greece is already in arrears – officials will be preparing for serial Greek defaults.

7. All parties involved will find themselves slipping into their Plan B mode. This transition will probably be much more traumatic for Greece than for the rest of Europe.

8. With the ultimate goal of countering as quickly as possible the likelihood of further human suffering, pain and uncertainty, Europe has the instruments and institutions to limit contagion and maintain the integrity of the euro zone. But this will require ECB action to be coupled with measures by the European Stability Mechanism and the European Investment Bank aimed at completing a banking union and making progress on fiscal integration.

9. It is quite doubtful, however, that Greece will be able to restore its status as a full member of the euro zone. Indeed, without very skillful crisis management, it is at high risk of becoming a failed state. Rather than just stand by, Europe needs to ensure that Greece’s exit from the 19-member euro zone doesn’t also result in its dissociation from the larger European Union. This could involve special membership in an association agreement, for example,

10. Finally, expect an explosion of blame. This unproductive activity may end up delaying Europe’s urgent need to internalize the lessons from this sad outcome: A series of broken reform promises by several Greek governments was made worse by political stubbornness, poor analysis and inconsistent follow-through by Europe, which is contributing to the loss of Greece as a functioning member of the family.

9 Myths about the Greek Crisis

Edward Tj GeretyThe citizens of Greece face a referendum Sunday that could decide the survival of their elected government and the fate of the country in the Eurozone and Europe. Narrowly, they’re voting on whether to accept or reject the terms dictated by their creditors last week. But what’s really at stake? The answers aren’t what you’d think.

I have had a close view of the process, both from the U.S. and Athens, after working for the past four years with Yanis Varoufakis, now the Greek finance minister. I’ve come to realize that there are many myths in circulation about this crisis; here are nine that Americans should see through.

1. The referendum is about the Euro. As soon as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced the referendum, François Hollande, David Cameron, Matteo Renzi and the German Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told the Greeks that a “no” vote would amount to Greece leaving the Euro. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, went further: He said “no” means leaving the European Union. In fact, the Greek government has stated many times that — yes or no — it is irrevocably committed to the Union and the Euro. And legally, according to the treaties, Greece cannot be expelled from either.

2. The IMF has been flexible. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde claims that her institution has shown “flexibility” in negotiations with the Greeks. In fact, the IMF has conceded almost nothing over four months: not on taxes, pensions, wages, collective bargaining or the amount of Greece’s debt. Greek chief negotiator Euclid Tsakalotos circulated a briefing on the breakdown that gives details, and concludes: “So what does the Greek government think of the proposed flexibility of the Institutions? It would be a great idea.”

3. The creditors have been generous. Angela Merkel has called the terms offered by the creditors “very generous” to Greece. But in fact the creditors have continued to insist on a crushing austerity program, predicated on a target for a budget surplus that Greece cannot possibly meet, and on the continuation of draconian policies that have already cost the Greeks more than one-quarter of their income and plunged the country into depression. Debt restructuring, which is obviously necessary, has also been refused.

4. The European Central Bank has protected Greek financial stability. A central bank is supposed to protect the financial stability of solvent banks. But from early February, the ECB cut off direct financing of Greek banks, instead drip-feeding them expensive liquidity on special “emergency” terms. This promoted a slow run on the banks and paralyzed economic activity. When the negotiations broke down, the ECB capped the assistance, prompting a fast bank run and giving them an excuse to impose capital controls and effectively shut them down.

5. The Greek government is imperiling its American alliance. This is a particular worry of some U.S. conservatives, who see a leftist government in power and assume it is pro-Russian and anti-NATO. It is true that the Greek Left has historic complaints against the U.S., notably for CIA support of the military junta that ruled from 1967 to 1974. But in fact, attitudes on the Greek Left have changed, thanks partly to experience with the Germans. This government is pro-American and firmly a member of NATO.

6. Alexis Tsipras called the IMF a “criminal” organization. That was, charitably, an overheated headline slapped by Bloomberg onto a very moderate parliamentary speech, which correctly pointed out that the IMF’s economic and debt projections for Greece back when austerity was first imposed in 2010 were catastrophically optimistic. In fact, every letter from Tsipras to the creditors has been couched in formal and respectful language.

7. The Greek government is playing games. Because Finance Minister Varoufakis knows the economic field of game theory, lazy pundits have for months opined that he is playing “chicken” or “poker” or some other game. In Heraklion two weeks ago, Varoufakis denied this as he has done many times: “We’re not bluffing. We’re not even meta-bluffing.” Indeed there are no hidden cards. The Greek red lines — the points of principle on which this government refuses to budge — on labor rights, against cuts in poverty-level pensions and fire-sale privatizations have been in plain view from day one.

8. A “Yes” vote will save Europe. “Yes” would mean more austerity and social destruction, and the government that implements it cannot last long. The one that follows will not be led by Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis — the last leaders, perhaps anywhere in Europe, of an authentic pro-European left. If they fall, the anti-Europeans will come next, possibly including ultra-right elements such as the Greek Nazi party, Golden Dawn. And the anti-European fire will spread, to France, the U.K. and Spain, among other countries.

9. A “No” vote will destroy Europe. In fact, only the “No” can save Greece — and by saving Greece, save Europe. A “No” means that the Greek people will not bend, that their government will not fall, and that the creditors need, finally, to come to terms with the failures of European policy so far. Negotiations can then resume — or more correctly, proper negotiations can then start. This is vital, if Europe is to be saved. If there ever was a moment when the United States should speak for decency and democratic values — as well as our national interest — it is right now.

Bitcoin has a serious potential within the Greek crisis

Edward Tj GeretyThe world is watching with bated breath as the Greek people consider how to vote in the country’s upcoming referendum. A yes vote on Sunday will see Greece accept the terms of the troika’s bailout, and commit itself to further austerity; a no vote will see the country taking the first step towards exiting the Euro entirely.

But not everyone is afraid of the prospect of “Grexit”. For proponents of Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency, a shaky Mediterranean economy implementing capital controls amid the prospect of full-blown exit from the euro recalls halcyon days gone by.

In theory, when the conventional financial system is experiencing turbulence, alternative currencies such as bitcoin should have their time to shine. The decentralised nature of the currency means that it’s impossible for any central bank to impose controls on it, while the pseudonymity at its core could make it the perfect vehicle to get money into and out of the country while avoiding legal reprisals.

As a result, Tony Gallippi, the co-founder of bitcoin payment processor Bitpay, tweeted on Sunday night that he expected the price of bitcoin to rise to between $610 and $1,250 if Greece exits the Euro. The currency is currently worth $250. On Reddit’s bitcoin subforum, users are sharing tips on how to buy bitcoin in the country, and commenting on reports of bank runs in the capital: “Should’ve bought bitcoins”.

Part of the reason why the crisis is so tempting for proponents of the cryptocurrency is the echoes of a previous crisis in the Eurozone: the banking collapse in Cyprus in 2013, which saw that nation also impose capital controls to prevent massive outflows of currency from the panicking country. That collapse came at the same time as the first major boom in the price of bitcoin, which began the year at less than $20 and peaked at ten times that by early April – before it all came crashing down.

At the time, many credited the price rise to interest in the currency sparked by the banking crisis, but Nathaniel Popper, author of the book Digital Gold: the Untold Story of Bitcoin, says that they are labouring under a misapprehension.

Speaking on the Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast, Popper explained that the rise was more likely caused by an influx of money from Silicon Valley. In those days, “if someone buys $1m of bitcoin in one go … that will make the price rise”, he said.

For now, the price of bitcoin has steadily risen as the Greek crisis has intensified, from $240 on Wednesday to $250 over the weekend. It remains a long way off its 2014 highs of $1,000 per coin, but what happens after Sunday’s vote is anybody’s guess.

 

Bitcoin: Could it become the Currency of International Trade?

edward tj geretyU.S. Senate informational panels deemed it legitimate. Detractors dismiss it as unstable and a vehicle for criminal trade. China has banned new deposits on its largest exchange.

Bitcoin, the international digital payment system and currency and one of the hottest technology and finance topics this past year, could become a widespread vehicle for trade, believe the leaders of a Miami group. To further that view, Miami International Bitcoin will be participating in the North American Bitcoin Conference slated for Miami Beach in January.

“The thing that’s really exciting about bitcoin is that, here in South Florida, we have a half billion people to the south of us who do not have access to a banking system that works well, capital markets, credit — things that we take for granted,” said Charles Evans, business professor at Florida Atlantic University and one of the founders of Miami International Bitcoin.

“I fully expect that Miami could become the ‘Silicon Valley’ of small-scale international finance,” said Evans, who will speak at the conference. “I defy anybody to do business in South Florida without doing international business.”

Bitcoin began in 2009 as an electronic payment system and currency allowing for peer-to-peer payments and financial exchanges without financial regulation or a third party, such as a bank. Users establish an online wallet using their local currency and exchange with other bitcoin owners. As a payment system, it functions much like PayPal, but there are no charge fees and no credit cards are required. As a currency, bitcoin allows for a nearly universal system as units can be converted to local currencies, usually without fees.

The 2014 conference will take place Jan. 24-26, and is expected to draw more than 500 members of the bitcoin community. It hopes to build on the success of past conferences like Bitcoin 2013, held in May in San Jose, Calif., by bringing together technology professionals, business people and policy makers to discuss the future of bitcoin.

The Clevelander hotel will even allow conference goers to pay for their rooms, food and drinks with bitcoin through conference sponsor BitPay. The hotel joins other businesses that are accepting bitcoin as payment like Vanity Cosmetic Center in Miami and Planet Linux Caffe in Coral Gables. Internationally, bitcoin is gaining acceptance for various kinds of purchases like gift cards and even for Black Friday shopping last month.

Daniel Mery, owner of Planet Linux in Coral Gables, said customers can easily walk up and use their phones to purchase coffee, pastries and sandwiches in the cafe with bitcoin.

“We want to promote bitcoin like we promote new technologies,” Mery said. “Bitcoin is a universal currency, it’s a currency that no government controls.” He wants to encourage other local store owners — not just those appealing to techies — to follow his lead.

Proponents like Evans see bitcoin as a potential payment solution that facilitates international trade without requiring currency exchange, especially in regions like the Caribbean and the Americas where cell phone and technology usage is increasing. In Venezuela, for example, there are 30.5 million cell users, a number that tops the country’s actual population, according to National Telecommunications Commission data.

Since bitcoin can be transferred via smart phones, Carlos Parra, an economics professor at Florida International University, believes there’s a chance to impact impoverished and under-served residents in countries like Venezuela.

“If it turns out that bitcoins end up having less volatility than the national currency, then people at the bottom of the pyramid in Venezuela, for them it would be easier to use bitcoins,” Parra said. “Bitcoins would be very useful for international transfers. Most of the remittances to the Caribbean come from Miami and they are making a lot of inroads with mobile money.”

But understanding the currency and overcoming skepticism remain potential challenges for international expansion and acceptance. “There’s the connotation that it’s used for black markets and illegal purposes. From the public affairs side of things, a company wouldn’t want to be exposed to that, even if it’s an indirect relationship,” Parra said.

Recently, bitcoin took a hit in value when BTC China, the largest bitcoin exchange in China, said it would stop accepting deposits for bitcoin in the local currencies, renminbi and yuan. Bitcoin’s exchange rate dropped from a peak of more than $1,000 to as low as about $300 before settling in the $500 and $600 range. Monday it traded at $641 for 1 bitcoin.

“The run-up we saw over the last month or so was unsustainable,” Evans said. “It was based on high expectations that people in China would be able to use bitcoin in a way that is not the case.”

And as other international marketplaces are revealed as hoaxes or simply disappear, there’s still skepticism about bitcoin becoming a rival to the dollar or euro — or even holding its value as an investment.

For individuals who have already invested, bitcoin advocates want to also let people know the currency is still highly vulnerable to hacking.

Sean Emmanuel co-founded Bot Revolt, a sort-of bitcoin “antivirus,” to help educate people about bitcoin if they invest. Subscribers pay monthly or annually to have Bot Revolt monitor their bitcoin exchanges to prevent illicit activity and hacking.

“Pushing out the word and getting people to understand that there are better ways to protect your bitcoin is one of the tougher things in the world,” Emmanuel said.

Emmanuel and his team, which is based in Pompano Beach, also plan to launch the beta version of the website bitcoin Intel in January, to track price movements. As the value continues to rise, Evans warns that new converts to bitcoin should remain cognizant of trends, like the recent and ongoing crackdowns in China.

“We’re talking about something that’s new, and very few people understand it, and they hear about it from their friends and get involved in it,” Evans said. “I wouldn’t count on (its exchange rate) doubling every day forever, so you’re going to have to watch the price movements and wait for things to calm down a little bit before you get too giddy.”

As with any investment, people have to know how to balance spending and saving, because the currency is vulnerable.

“I’ve personally invested money into bitcoin, so it’s definitely a cause for concern,” Emmanuel said. “You can have bitcoin that you store, and I have a set of bitcoin that I use to exchange goods and services between my colleagues.”

Evans thinks that beyond investing in bitcoin, individuals should think of creating personal business opportunities like Emmanuel did. Or like Kenneth Metral created with his online marketplace Coingig.

Metral is CEO of the Coingig site and works in South Miami with international partners. He said that he wants his site to become the “Amazon” of bitcoin and avoid the fates of marketplaces that sold illegal goods or duped users out of their bitcoins.

“We do a small verification process with each seller to make sure they’re real,” Metral said. “When a buyer purchases a product they pay us first, we wait until the buyer receives the product and then we release the payment to the seller.”

Coingig’s homepage is refreshed in real time to reflect the current price of bitcoin and translates a customer’s local currency into the bitcoin equivalent. Metral says the site is getting customers every day, because people are attracted to the idea of shopping without giving up their personal information: “It’s kind of changing the way we think about money and currency.”

And even if bitcoin plummets in value again (even before you finish reading this), Evans thinks it has already made an impact.

“This is the future with a capital t and a capital F,” said Evans.

Millennials are disillusioned with politics. Here’s a way that might change.

We often hear that Millennials are disengaged and disillusioned with the U.S. political system. In many ways, that’s true. Compared with Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) and Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964), the generation of Americans who were born after 1980 and before 1997 identify less with political parties, are less interested in politics and vote at lower rates. Even young Americans who consider themselves politically active may not do much more than vote every few years, sign an online petition once a year, or passive-aggressively unfriend people who express different political views on Facebook.

Many people see these trends as a product of the general uprooting of American civic society. For a variety of complex reasons — including changes in work, technology and gender roles — Americans today know less about their neighbors, are less likely to take part in their communities, and be part of fewer formal institutions such as churches or political parties.

But there are hints that this could change, as social media lowers the cost of reaching out to Millennials and introduces new ways to engage and organize them politically. On Wednesday, the newest entrant in this area emerged, with the release of a new app called Brigade, which its founders, including Napster founder and Facebook backer Sean Parker, describe as “like a Tindr for politics.” The app follows in the traditions of Web sites like DoSomething.org and Change.org that have already successfully used social media to start petitions, form nonprofits and recruit volunteers.

The app, which launched in private beta testing  Wednesday morning, allows people to express their opinions on a variety of issues, from climate change and charter schools to the future of Ukraine, and see how those opinions compare with their friends and connections. It also encourages people to comment on trending news topics and form groups with their friends and neighbors, potentially for offline social action.

The app is also meant to be a tool for advocacy groups and candidates, who can use it to build out their supporter networks, run campaigns on a specific issue and get much more accurate information on who their supporters are and what they believe. The app launched with several advocacy partners, including the Drug Policy Alliance, Heritage Action and Americans for Tax Reform.

In an interview, Brigade chief executive Matt Mahan and president James Windon said they hope the app will help connect voters and give them tools to organize. By starting conversations about politics with your friends and contacts, the goal is to help bridge the gap between American’s political and civic lives and their social lives and “bring it back in the sphere of people we trust.”

The app is also designed to better map the complexity of people’s political views outside of America’s two parties, an approach that is particularly suited to the views of Millennials. And when the general election comes in 2016, the company is planning to introduce features to help people vote in line with their values. “People often don’t fall into a left-right spectrum, especially when it comes to local issues. We think we’re going to create new openings for people to act together to do something that might get buried in the current system,” says Mahan.

Thirteen-thousand people have already tested out Brigade, and users can invite others to participate. People can also request an invitation through the app’s Web site.

Brigade has about 50 employees housed in Washington and San Francisco and raised $9.5 million in venture capital in April from Parker, Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff and venture capitalist Ron Conway. The company does not have an immediate plan to generate a profit, but Windon said that they do intend to do so in the future.

“Right now, we’re trying to get the tools out. Assuming we can, we’ll be thinking about revenue in the future,” he said. “We have to assume that the data we’re collecting will form part of our revenue model.”

The basic task of getting millennials engaged will be challenging enough. Poll after poll show that millennials are less interested in politics and talk about it less frequently than their elders. They are also far more likely to describe themselves as independents, though in practice many lean liberal, especially on social issues like same-sex marriage. According to Pew, these figures are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation any group has shown in the quarter century that Pew has done its polling.

One reason millennials may not be as politically motivated is they don’t see much of a difference between Democrats and Republicans. And fewer millennials say they trust political parties — or people in general. Just 19 percent of millennials agree that most people can be trusted, compared with 31 percent of Gen Xers and 40 percent of Boomers in a poll by Pew Research Center.

Pew Research Center

That mistrust extends to institutions of authority more generally. In a Harvard survey of 3,000 18- to 29-year-olds, only about half of the respondents said they trusted the military, while 42 percent trusted the Supreme Court. The figures were even lower for the president, the United Nations, the federal government and Congress. The same poll also showed little confidence in the justice system in general, or the ability of protests like #BlackLivesMatter to make changes to it.

Mindy Romero,  director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of California, Davis, says younger people don’t trust political parties because they grew up during a period of intense partisan bickering, and they don’t personally see evidence of what Washington is doing for their communities. The economic hardships triggered by the Great Recession and globalization have further eroded their faith in institutions.

But young people also face specific barriers to political participation that could be reduced, says Romero. One is a lack of education and preparation in schools about practical aspects like voter registration, as well as the more abstract understanding of civic duty. She says another barrier is America’s two-step voting process, which requires you to separately register before you vote. Young people tend to move around more, and that can cause their registration to lapse.

There are also practical barriers to reaching young people, since they are less likely to participate in formal organizations and pay attention to diverse media sources.

“You can’t reach young people through formal organizations, because they’re not in them … They’re not all watching the same TV show,” says Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts who directs a civic engagement program. The one place young people do congregate is college, so a lot of campuses have become the focus of a lot of political youth organization. But even so, Levine points out that most millennials aren’t in college in a given year. About 70 percent of high school grads are enrolled in college or university the next year, but they only stay in school for a few years.

The one place where millennials do talk politics more than older generations is on social media. In a poll by Pew Research Center, roughly a quarter of millennial Facebook users said at least half of the posts they see on Facebook relate to government and politics – compared with only 18 percent of Gen Xers and 16 percent of Baby Boomers.

Pew Research Center

The obstacles abound, but once political messages reach Millennials, they can be very effective. The Obama campaign directly asked young people to vote, volunteer and express their opinions, and found that Millennials responded strongly. “One of the lessons of the 2008 Obama campaign is that it really pays off to actually ask people to participate,” Levine says.

Parties, candidates and analysts alike have also found that Millennials are more willing to organize around particular issues rather than political parties. “For all human beings, it makes more sense to talk about issues than parties – who cares about parties. Most people are more interested in solving issues,” says Levine. “But I think it’s especially true for young people, who have a particularly weak attachment to political parties.”

All this hints at better ways to get Millennials engaged in political and civic life — including appealing to them directly, using social media in a smart, strategic way, and focusing on issues they care about and how those issues impact their communities.