Following our regular weekly interview, the Finanser talks this week with best-sellng author Jeffrey Robinson.
Jeffrey Robinson is a native New Yorker and an international bestselling author of 30 books. He is a recognised expert on organised crime, fraud and money laundering, and has been labelled by the British Bankers’ Association as “the world’s most important financial crime journalist”. After my recent coverage of bitcoin, the blockchain and cryptocurrencies, he got in touch to provide the other view of this world. As his most recent book is a year long investigation into the other side of bitcoin – “Bitcon: The Naked Truth About Bitcoin” – the conversation proved fascinating.
— What is your background with bitcoin and how did you find some of the activities with bitcoin rather suspicious?
A few years ago, someone told me that bitcoins were good for money laundering. And after books like The Laundrymen, The Merger, The Sink and The Takedown, serious books about the serious business of dirty money, I was interested. So, I looked into it and eventually came to the conclusion, as I say in BitCon – The Naked Truth About Bitcoin, that it is, in fact, not good for money laundering. The system moves it but doesn’t inherently disguise the origins of illegal funds or help them reappear as legally obtained funds. However, bitcoin is great for capital flight, terror finance, tax evasion, extortion and criminal finance. But, for money laundering, it basically sucks.
Still, I wanted to know more so I went to one of these Bitcoin meetings. One of these big convention type things that they hold all the time. I was awestruck at the general level of naïve stupidity. These were pre-pubescent kids. It felt like a bad high school reunion. Everyone was keenly intent on convincing me that the dollar is dead; that Bitcoin was about to take over the world; that all the central bankers should be thrown in jail.
I said to myself: “If this is what the Bitcoin movement is all about, it has no chance whatsoever.” But, over lunch at that meeting, I spoke with one of the few grown-ups in the room about the technology. It dawned on me that maybe there is something here when it comes to the transferring of assets.
The way I see it, and the way he saw it, too, with greater development of asset transfer there will be greater emphasis on valuing those assets in dollars and pounds and euros. That means the pretend currency will become increasingly useless and eventually disappear.
By the way, I call it a pretend currency because it doesn’t satisfy any of the three main criteria for modern currency. Furthermore, it is traded like a pretend commodity on what I have come to believe is a pump and a dump market; where very few people control the market and the gullible lose money. Only the few people who control the market make money.
The more I got into this the more evident it became to me that, if you could separate out the lunatics, the delusionals, the pump and dump schemes, the pretend currency and all of that, and get to the core blockchain, you might actually have something interesting. It was with that in mind that I went and spent a year running around Planet Bitcoin, talking to a lot of people and asking the kinds of questions that I didn’t see anybody else asking.
— I find it intriguing, in your book ‘BitCon’ that you quite clearly lay out the idea that the currency has no future. And yet, when you talk to the fundamentalists in the community of the Bitcoin world, they believe you can’t have a blockchain without bitcoin. The two are integrally tied together. Do you agree with that view?
No, not at all. This is the old argument of: “The Catholic Church is the only church, and everything else is heresy.” It simply isn’t true. Preston Byrne in Eris is working on a blockchain that has nothing at all to do with bitcoin. Ripple has nothing to do with bitcoin. People don’t want to know about bitcoin because it is surrounded by so much hype, spin, misinformation and outright fantasy, and it’s too clumsy. On the other hand, if you have a bank or a group of banks that could operate a centralized or closed blockchain just among themselves, for the transfer of assets back and forth, that could work. This bank or group of banks could, say, send money from the US to London and back and forth, and if it was just these banks working on these settlements, you wouldn’t need bitcoin. You wouldn’t need the miners as you don’t need any mining. It’s a closed ledger that the banks control, and the banks essentially are inventing their own blockchain.
Of course, that’s seen as heresy by the bitcoin faithful. But look at the concept of decentralization. It’s a political ideology. “I don’t want the government involved”. That makes it non-commercial. How about if the banks don’t want to turn over their money for the ten minutes that it takes the miners to verify each transaction, which means they temporarily lose control of the money. A couple of months ago, transactions were taking an hour and a half or almost two hours. No bank is going to give up control of $100 million for two hours, especially when you consider that much of it will be verified by miners in China. It’s not going to happen. The decentralisation political ideology does not conform with what the banks want. They want a commercial solution. What they’re looking for is a centralized, or closed, blockchain.
Now, the faithful will say, “You can’t have a centralised blockchain, it’s just a database”. Well, decentralized blockchains are just a database. There are efficiencies and inefficiencies in that database, so you take the great efficiency of the decentralised blockchain, you centralize it, close it, and you can say bye-bye bitcoin because no one needs it.
— I can see both sides of the argument in some ways and right now we are seeing a lot of the banks on Wall Street starting to play. For example, UBS recently announced that they’re incorporating laboratories to develop blockchain technologies to reduce cost.
That’s right, but they don’t say they’re getting into bitcoin, the pretend currency.
You see this is part of a hype and spin and why we need to separate the pretend currency from the blockchain. Every time someone speaks of the technological advancements, the bitcoin faithful immediately equate it to a success for the pretend currency. But it’s not. As a matter of fact, there are no bitcoin pretend-currency successes. I can’t find even one of them. You talk about the VCs in Silicon Valley and London and Canada, especially the big ones who have invested upwards of a half a billion dollars. The investment is not in bitcoin the pretend currency; it’s in the concept of blockchain technology.
I think Marc Andreessen gave the game away when I contacted him for BitCon. He said, “My only interest is in finding practical solutions to real problems”. When you think about that, he’s developing businesses that will ride off the back of the blockchain. What he needs to do is sell it to somebody. So, if it’s a financial thing, he’s going to have to sell it to a bank or a finance house. If that bank or finance house says, “We have no interest in this pretend currency, we want it in dollars and pounds”, he’ll abandon bitcoin in a heartbeat. He has no loyalty to the pretend currency, none whatsoever. No one does. Except speculators and the guys trying to flog it to greater fools. In fact, Andreessen told me how he hardly has any of it. He doesn’t own a lot of it.
— Yes. If you look at Marc Andreessen, in particular, you can see his VC fund Andreessen Horowitz investing heavily in the technology developments, such as Ripple, rather than the currency.
That’s right. That is their only interest. You’ve got $500 million approximately invested in this technology. None of them have seen real returns yet. How sustainable is that if it goes on for another two or three years? It’s not. These guys are only interested in seeing two, three, five or ten times their return on money and, if they’re not making it, they’re going to pull out and put their money into someplace else. That’s how venture capitalists stay alive.
I really blame the media for a lot of this. I don’t blame the bitcoin media, because there is no bitcoin media. They are simply regurgitating PR releases. CoinDesk is not journalism. I’m sorry, but it isn’t. However, the mainstream media – CNN, BBC, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Forbes and the like – aren’t asking the right questions. They are blinded and enamored by the idea of bitcoin. They keep rehashing this “bitcoin is the currency of the future” crap and never look beyond it to say: “Hold on a minute, this stuff can’t stand a close scrute”.
For example, Dish Network, Dell, Expedia and others supposedly “accept” bitcoin, at least according to the press reports. The truth is that they don’t “accept” it. They simply allow you to pay in bitcoin. And those payments go through Coinbase or BitPay. This is because Dish and Dell and Expedia and the others don’t want anything to do with bitcoin. Allowing a customer to pay with bitcoins is not an endorsement of bitcoin, it’s a marketing ploy.
Microsoft is not endorsing bitcoin. Bill Gates said recently something about how crypto-currency may be the future of finance. Right. So, immediately the media screams, Bill Gates endorses bitcoin. No, he doesn’t. Apparently Bill Gates doesn’t even have any bitcoins. That’s the kind of hype and spin and misinformation that really drives me nuts. It’s a failure of journalism to do its job. As an old school journalist, I find that really extremely worrying.
— In your book you’ve dug through a lot of the headlines, in terms of where claims are being made about bitcoin that actually aren’t true.
They’re categorically untrue. I’ll give you a really good example. Take my pal Patrick Byrne, the CEO and Chairman of Overstock. About a year ago, he was saying he has no interest in cryptocurrencies or in bitcoin. Well, somebody convinced him that there were pockets of bitcoin all over the place that couldn’t be spent anywhere. So he said, let’s go after those pockets of bitcoin and sell them garden furniture. This was a marketing ploy. He announced, “Overstock will accept bitcoins.” The press loved it. But Overstock wasn’t “accepting” bitcoins because every sale had to through Coinbase. What’s more, Patrick was smart enough to have negotiated with Coinbase that he wouldn’t have to pay a commission on the currency conversion. So “accepting” bitcoin didn’t cost him anything. The very first day he racked up $133,000 worth of bitcoin driven sales. It looked like he was supporting the bitcoin community, so the bitcoin community supported him. Within three months, however, his bitcoin-driven sales were down to $7,000 a day. Why? Because the people who had these pockets of bitcoin and no place to spend them, had spent them. And they didn’t buy back in. They saw no reason to buy any more bitcoins simply to use them to buy for pillow cases and garden furniture priced in dollars at Overstock. That’s significant. Think about it. How is there any logical reason for anybody to take dollars to buy bitcoins to pay for things priced in dollars? It adds no value and, in fact, creates extra expense. So, his sales dropped down to $7,000 a day. He then announced that he would accept bitcoin worldwide and his sales went up to $8,000 a day. But they have since fallen again. He has even said publicly, there is no international interest in bitcoin. None.
Shortly after admitting world wide disinterest, he filed a report with the SEC which received no media reporting whatsoever. He’d decided to hold on to 10% of all his bitcoin sales. It means that Coinbase now converts 90% and sends him the remaining 10%. So he’s holding onto $700 a day worth of bitcoin business which he says he is giving to his staff as bonuses. By the way, the staff apparently insisted they put a bitcoin ATM in the lobby of the building in Utah so they could cash out right away. Now, on $7000 a day of bitcoin-driven sales, he’s saving his 3% Visa and Mastercard fees. That’s $210. Okay, $210 a day times 365 adds up. Except, he told the SEC that, in order to integrate the 10% he holds, he must integrate $700 a day into his bookkeeping for tax purposes. That’s not so easy because bitcoin is considered property by the tax people, which means there are both capital gains and capital loss calculations on each bitcoin. So far for the privilege of keeping a few bitcoins on his books, he told the SEC, it has cost him $400,000. Next, Patrick said in that SEC filing, he would probably have to spend another $400,000 to make his bookkeeping fully compatible. So, he’s spending $800,000 to save $210 a day. It will take him almost ten years to get his money back. Explain to me how this is a good idea, how this is sustainable, how this makes any sense at all.
— The Bitcoin community claim they have created money without government if they live within the Bitcoin system. What’s your reaction to this claim?
But you cannot live within the Bitcoin system. It’s impossible. Sure, you can buy bitcoins with your dollars and fool some people into thinking you’re living on bitcoins. But you’re not. To manage it, you need a circular flow of income, and with bitcoins, there is none. Every time you purchase something with bitcoins, as soon as the sellers of the goods and services turn it over to Coinbase or Bitpay to convert it back to dollars or pounds, each purchase becomes a sale of bitcoins. That way, no one’s holding this stuff.
Equally, when you look at the real statistics, you find that a lot of the numbers the Bitcion faithful claim as usage, are outright phony. The faithful say there are 110,000 transactions a day, but only about a thousand of those transactions are for the buying and selling of goods and services. The rest are miners moving bitcoins between different wallets and address, and gambling. On top of that, there is what’s called “the change factor” which means each transaction gets counted twice. Next, the faithful say, there are eight million wallets. What they don’t tell you is that almost all of them are either empty or near-empty. In truth, Coinometrics at Cambridge says that fewer than 250,000 wallets hold one bitcoin or more. That’s not 250,000 people, that’s wallets, and most people have multiple wallets. Based on that, I am correct when I say, there are more people who are members of the Kuwait Airways frequent flier club than there are people on the planet holding bitcoins.
The faithful also say there are 80,000 to 100,000 businesses around the world that “accept” Bitcoin. But they don’t “accept” it. Most of them never see any bitcoins and the few that do, mostly, don’t hold any. I called some of these businesses and asked, “Since you put a bitcoin button on your site, what’s happened?” They said, “It’s a pain in the ass. We’d much rather have somebody just give us cash, because what we have to do as soon as we get the bitcoins is sell them. We don’t want them.”
Of the very few businesses I found that actually keep bitcoins, the one I liked the best is a guy who sells rodeo tickets in Texas. He said to me, “I put the bitcoin button on my site hoping that I’d get one or two, which I would save so that when I hit a million dollars of coins, I could retire. But I also play the lottery and that never comes in.” I asked, “How many purchases have you actually had with bitcoins?” He said, “None”.
The facts are the facts. No one is using this stuff. To that I add this undeniable fact: As a global economic phenomenon, bitcoin is a non-event.
The pretend currency is not working. Where people are saying bitcoin has a future, ask them to point to a bitcoin success. Nobody is saying, “Look at this, here is a huge success,” because there aren’t any. Instead, they point to the future. They say: “Just wait and see how bitcoin will end poverty by becoming a bank for the great unbanked.”
Huh? You and I both live in countries where there are unbanked, but they’re unbanked for various reasons. In some cases it’s cultural. There are ethnic communities that don’t want banks, that operate only in cash. There are also people who cannot afford banking and have to use payday lenders and cheque cashiers or things like that. But I cannot find a single case where bitcoin has actually saved any of those people, and this is in the developed world. Not a one. In the United States, where there are 70 or 80 million unbanked, there is now a move by Bank of America and Walmart to go after these people and to get them credit, to bring them into the banking system. How do you expect three delusionals teenagers on bicycles, wearing t-shirts that say, “In thin air we trust”, to compete with Bank of America and Walmart? It’s not going to happen.
Also, in the States and in Britain and throughout the developed world, WiFi is cheap and readily available, and smartphones are readily available and cheap. But the unbanked are still unbanked. Now look at the developing world where WiFi is expensive, where smartphones are not plentiful and where people have traditional, cultural, religious and political distrust of all sorts of things coming from the West. How are you going to sell these people on an invisible currency they can’t possibly use? They’re simply not going to buy into this.
On the other hand, a bank in Kenya and Vodafone, whom they know, are saying to them: “Look at M-PESA. You can put that on your phone and move money.” They have sales and marketing forces. They understand the traditional, culture, religious and political mindset. Those three guys on their bicycle with the t-shirts are never ever going to compete with that.
— I still haven’t worked out your view between the idea that there’s a good technology here, which is going to play something useful for banks such as Ripple, which has centralized capabilities.
Or Eris. It’s the blockchain that is useful, and the blockchain needn’t have anything to do with bitcoin.
— Versus the Bitcoin guys who keep coming back at me and saying, “But it’s out there, it’s in the wild. We’ve got it, we don’t care about you.”
Except no one’s using it. Preston Byrne in Eris had a great quote the other day that I re-tweeted, because I think it’s the best quote ever about bitcoin: “A paradigm shift is not a paradigm shift if no one is using it.” That sums it up. The faithful always talk about bitcoin being disruptive. What they ignore, at their peril, is the fact that the disrupted will always be heard from.
— So you see this as a pretend currency, but it actually has a real technology, and your outlook for the future would be: this is a really useful thing?
No, no, no. Bitcoin is a pretend currency traded like a pretend commodity and pushed and pumped by a snake oil salesmen who have a self-interest in finding greater fools to buy it from them. Look at the Winklevoss twins and their Bitcoin ETF. These guys are grasping at straws to find greater fools to buy their bitcoins from them. And they’re not alone. The problem with bitcoin the technology is that it is surrounded by the need to recruit the gullible in order to keep the game alive.
— What about the way in which bitcoin is used as a community currency, for crowdfunding for example?
Like the Elmer Gantrys of the old south, some of these evangelists are preaching: “Look at crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, and this will save you all.“ Andreas Antonopoulos testified before the Canadian Senate last fall, telling the committee on banking how wonderful Bitcoin was. I testified in January and spent most of my time debunking everything he said, explaining to the senators: “This guy is pulling the wool over your eyes.” One of his misleading contentions was how bitcoin crowdsourcing was changing things for small businesses. The idea that you could have people from around the world collectively giving you two bitcoins so that you could do whatever business you needed to do with two borrowed bitcoins. Again, the media just accepts this stuff, and they accepted his explanation. So I spoke to people who are borrowing crowd-sourced bitcoins, and spoke to people who are lending this stuff, and asked: “How does it work?” One guy in South America said to me: “It works great. I borrowed 1.1 bitcoin and I only paid 2% interest.” I said: “Gee, that isn’t bad. What was the term of the loan?” He said: “15 days.” I said: “Hold on a minute. You paid 2% interest for 15 days? Tony Soprano charges 2% for 15 days. That’s 48% a year. If you put it on your credit card, you can get it for 19% a year. You’re paying extortionate usury.” I then looked closely at the leading bitcoin crowdsourcing site, and they’re listing loans at 204% interest, and 305% interest and I even found one at 2,037% interest.
Short and simple, this is loan sharking. And there are laws against this. It is even possibly criminal for sites to aide and abet these loans. And it is definitely bad for business. What’s more, if you’re sitting in Britain and you crowdsource a guy in South America and he doesn’t pay you back, how do you collect on your loan? But, Antonopoulos sat in front of those Canadian senators and, with a straight face, told them: “It’s a wonderful thing.” It took me to say: “Look at the numbers, they don’t lie. He’s full of crap”. That’s what gets me about this. All of the spin and the misinformation and the hype, and the mainstream media is not doing its job debunking this. They should be saying: “Let’s look closely”, because bitcoin cannot stand a close scrute. Because, frankly, when it comes to bitcoin, what you see is never what you get.
— In BitCon, you write about Mt.Gox and the guy who ran it, Mark Kerpeles, being such a geek that he wasn’t actually sustainable in his own world, let alone running billions of dollars of other people’s money.
Karpeles was a train wreck waiting to happen. And he was in Japan, which meant if you wanted to get your money back, you had to go there. Now, here’s Coinbase in the United States, run by a bunch of Americans. If something goes wrong, they’re easier to get to get. But how will you know until it happens because they don’t publish their books? They’ve just gotten a $75 million fill-up. Why? Because, I would suggest, they were in trouble and needed more money. There is a processor in Slovenia, run by two geeks. Are you telling me that you’re going to trust your money to anyone in Slovenia? This is crazy. There are no consumer protections. There’s absolutely no guarantees in any of this. And people say it’s wonderful. But it isn’t wonderful. It’s a minefield that’s fraught with problems, and it will come unglued because it simply cannot continue.
It’s not helped by the criminality that surrounds bitcoin. Not just Mt. Gox, but Ross Ulbricht – aka Dread Pirate Roberts – and his Silk Road conviction. Or Charlie Shrem, one of the original bitcoin stars, now doing time in federal prison for illegal activities with bitcoin. Or any of the other so-called “stars” who have previous criminal convictions. Or the fact that the champion of bitcoin, the Bitcoin Foundation, was near-bankrupt through alleged mismanagement and sheer stupidity.
As soon as the guys at Eris or Etherium or Ripple or any of the many other labs working on bitcoin-less blockchains get it right – by which I mean that they create a blockchain that deals in dollars and pounds and other currencies – that’s the end of bitcoin. It’s dead. That is when all the bitcoin processors in the United States or Slovenia will find themselves in an economic death-spiral because there won’t be enough action to sustain them. I’m not even convinced there’s enough action to sustain them for much longer, now. As soon as one of the VCs announces: “I just figured out a way we don’t need bitcoin”, it’s over. We’ve seen it before. Fads always disappear. Pet Rocks. Goo-Goo Dolls. The guy who invented pogs died the other day. His legacy is pogs. Satoshi’s legacy will be the concept of the blockchain, but the legacy of the pretend currency will be pogs.
— But what about the whole idea that it will become a centralised technology. In fact, I don’t know if you saw it, but the Fed and IBM announced the other day that they’re working together on creating a dollar-based cryptocurrency that will be authorised and regulated and centralized. Is that the way it’s going to go?
That’s right. That’s the future. Centralized. Closed. As soon as they work out payment systems in dollars, sterling and euros, bitcoin goes down in history like 8-track, semi-automatic transmissions and Pet.Com. The idea that everyone is going to use this pretend currency because it’s an alternative way of beating the central banks, is ludicrous. The faithful say: “Why would you believe in a central banker when you can believe in mathematics?” The answer is because mathematics alone and the algorithm alone, can’t run an economy. You need the central banker to run the economy. But, they say, central bankers inflate everything so that the value of your money is miniscule. They argue, if you’d put $100 under your mattress in 1913, today it would be worth $3. So what? I don’t know anybody who’s got 1913 dollars under their mattress. And anybody who puts money under their mattress is a fool, because money invested can keep up, and often, beats inflation.
Inflation is built into the system specifically to avoid deflation. If you have a closed commodity economy, like bitcoin or like gold, the deflation you end up with is ten times worse than inflation. The bitcoin faithful want all the benefits of the gold standard without any of the problems attached to the gold standard. Look around. There isn’t a single country left on Earth that’s on the gold standard. And for good reason. The bitcoin faithful simply don’t understand the world economy. They don’t understand money. All they understand is their own self-interest. As one kid said to me: “When bitcoins hit $1 million dollars a coin, I’m going to be a multi-millionaire. I’m going to get rich.” Yeah, good luck.
— You seem rather anti-bitcoin.
I’m passionate about this stuff because it’s easy to see through it, and because nobody is asking the right questions. I see people come on CNBC and Fox Business, talking about the joys of bitcoin, and none of the journalists are doing their jobs by saying: “You’re full of crap”. They’re buying into this stuff and, when it all goes wrong, trust me, they will be the first to say: “We knew. We told you so.” There was a guy on CNBC that I openly challenged, who has a bitcoin credit card. He said: “You put bitcoins on your credit card and you can pay for anything with bitcoins. You go to Selfridges, John Lewis, a petrol station, and you pay in bitcoin. Isn’t that terrific?” No. It’s a con. It requires you to buy bitcoins with pounds or euros or dollars first, which is not only completely illogical but a really stupid thing to do. Why bother? Where’s the benefit? Just pay in pounds, euros or dollars. Why put bitcoins in the middle? Why add the cost when you’re getting no added value? Same thing with the bitcoin ATMs which, by the way, are mostly going broke. Bitcoin ATMs are proving to be non-profitable because (a) nobody’s using them, (b) the rent is too high and (c) the charges are too high. They set their own exchange rate and they add a fee on top of it. There’s no reason to use them. The whole concept of bitcoin the pretend currency, is illogical. Yes, you can fool some of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all the time. Bitcoin the pretend currency will die on that.
— So it’s like The Emperor’s New Clothes? Eventually you see there’s nothing there?
That’s right. It’s become a cult. It’s become a religion. And I’m the heretic because I stand up and say: “This is crazy.” So they come after me. There are whole Reddit forums talking about the fact that I don’t understand anything. Vehemence, vengeance and juvenile temper tantrums show you the kinds of people who are involved in this, and you quickly understand that they can’t possibly sustain this because they truly are delusional. The rational ones are the VCs who are putting real money onto the blockchain to find practical business solutions to real problems. And none of those practical business solutions will involve bitcoin the currency. None of them. Because bitcoin is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
— And if I’m talking to you in about ten years, it’s hard to forecast these things, but do you think we’ll be looking back and saying, “Look at all these bitcoin fraudsters who have now disappeared, but didn’t they give us a great technology?”
But they’re not giving us a great technology. They’re pumping bitcoin, the pretend currency, which has nothing to do with the technology. Again, they’re self-interested. One of these clowns went on the record as saying: “Bitcoin has gone so viral, it is viral cubed.” The man needs to keep taking his meds because he’s just not in touch with reality. More recently, he’s claimed that bitcoin’s future is assured because the average life of a fiat currency is 27 years. In the next breath he recalled that Sterling has been around since the 17th century. Only people who want to believe the earth is flat buy into his absurdities. But then, without those flat-earthers, the pretend currency would become worthless. The point is that the blockchain will revolutionise things, but it won’t be the bitcoin blockchain. And it won’t take ten years. Five years from now, you and I will talk about bitcoin the way we talk about Edsel.