Bitcoin for the unbanked: receding possibilities

In October 2016 the former COO of the Chinese Bitcoin exchange BTC-C generated plenty of controversy with a nonchalant tweet starting out with this casual statement:

“Bitcoin isn’t for people that live on less than $2 a day.”

Casually dropped in the midst of one of those interminable arguments about Bitcoin scaling playing out on social-media, this statement was appalling for the implied premise. It was a complete 180 degree turn from the rhetoric surrounding the rise of cryptocurrency, with Bitcoin always the torch-bearer. Virtual currencies are liberating forces we were told, breaking up the hold of entrenched institutions on finance that rigged markets and debased currencies. Arrayed against the forces of progress was a rotating cast of villains, different for each portrayal but largely interchangeable in terms of their unfair position: the Federal Reserve, too-big-to-fail banks requiring bailouts, government agencies asleep at the wheel clinging on to outdated regulations or worse enabling those bailouts in a case of regulatory capture, Visa/MasterCard duopoly controlling online payments. Bitcoin was going to be the new money system for  everyman, unequivocally on the side of with David against the faceless institutional Goliath. No need for banks, credit-card networks, payment processors, money-transmitter licenses. Anyone with an inexpensive smart phone running a Bitcoin wallet application could send and receive money directly to anyone else anywhere in the world. No army of middle-man circling for their cut of the transaction, no gatekeepers to decide who is worthy enough to partake in this network. Also no need to worry about the debasement of hard-earned currency by an out of control printing press operated at the behest of unaccountable bureaucrats.

Rhetorical excesses aside, there were plenty of solid use cases for Bitcoin in the early days suggesting that it could help the so-called “unbanked”— more than a billion people living in developing nations without access to financial services, subsisting strictly on a cash system. No bank accounts, no way to write checks or swipe credit-cards for purchases, no credit history, no way to finance large purchases. In Africa nascent systems such as M-Pesa had already demonstrated that one could leap-frog from a standard cash economy to using smartphone wallets directly. In a strange twist, these countries skipped entire generations of earlier payment systems including check clearing, ACH, wires, PIN debit & credit networks, skipping straight to mobile wallets while US tech companies struggle and flounder in their attempts to bootstrap mobile payments. Yet M-Pesa is still a centralized technology operated by the wireless carrier Vodafone. It is crucially dependent on the coverage of retail infrastructure, specifically kiosks where consumers can go to exchange cash for M-Pesa credits.

Bitcoin offers some compelling advantages over this model. With a decentralized system, no single actor has enough leverage to squeeze the ecosystem for additional profits. Safaricom can raise M-Pesa transaction fees arbitrarily. The closest analog to a pricing cartel in Bitcoin are miners, but they face relentless pressure to keep fees competitive: if one miner decides to charge too much for mining Bitcoin transactions into the ledger, a more efficient one will come along and gladly collect the fees from those transactions. While consumers still need currency exchanges to convert between BTC and local fiat money, that function can be served by private vendors competing in a transparent market instead of under complete control of Safaricom/Vodafone. For those concerned about monetary policy, BTC offers an attractive intrinsically deflationary model. The government of Kenya can churn out shillings and Safaricom can flood the market with M-Pesa credits just as easily as Hasbro can print more Monopoly money. But no one can fabricate Bitcoins out of thin air and cause runaway inflation in BTC prices.

Given all of these factors, it is not too hard to see why Bitcoin circa 2012 looked promising for developing nations. It is another case of the surprising last-mover advantage: instead of playing catch-up with developed countries by painstakingly building out “legacy” payment rails—check clearing, card networks, eventually NFC payments—emerging markets can leapfrog straight to the latest paradigm of virtual currency.

It did not work out that way. A quick look at Bitcoin exchange statistics reveals that the majority of trading in Bitcoin is concentrated in a few markets with existing, highly-developed financial systems, not emerging markets home to millions of unbanked consumers. (China is arguably the rare exception because Bitcoin was one of the few options around capital controls in place to prevent currency outflows, but that volume has evaporated almost overnight after the Central Bank cracked down on exchanges.) It is not to difficult to see why the rosy picture painted above did not play out. For starters, BTC itself has been an extremely volatile: from an all-time high near $1300USD before the implosion of Mt Gox to dipping below $200 in two years, doubling again within a year and then embarking on a stratospheric climb towards $3000. For all the talk of inflationary policies, fluctuations in the value of Bitcoin would make even the most irresponsible, interventionist central banker look restrained by comparison. That volatility makes it less than ideal to use Bitcoin for everyday commerce, much less enter into long-term contracts denominated in BTC.

One could argue that early volatility is just growing pains for a new-fangled currency as the market struggles to discover “correct” pricing. Alternatively it can be blamed on hoards of speculators with no actual use for BTC chasing this coveted asset simply because other people are also trying to buy it—a classic case of an asset bubble. Either way, optimists expect such speculative activity will eventually diminish in scale compared to the overall volume of cryptocurrency trading, resulting in a steady state with relatively stable exchange rates. But there is one more assumption built into this lofty vision of Bitcoin, as an democratizing force that helps millions of consumers in developing countries fully participate in markets: low transaction costs. That premise looked solid in 2012 and anchored many other presumed use-cases for Bitcoin such as paying for that cup of coffee. All of these scenarios have been called into question by recent developments. In contrast with the problem of exchange-rate volatility which may well improve as the market matures, the vision of low-cost efficient payments is becoming less realistic.

The Bitcoin fee model is unusual to say the least. Most payment systems charge costs that are at least in part proportional to the value transferred. This follows a natural assumption: someone moving large amounts of money derives greater utility from that transaction than a person moving a modest amount. It follows that they would be willing to pay higher costs for the privilege of executing that transaction. (This is an oversimplification; it is also common to have fixed costs and discounts that kick-in for high amounts.) Bitcoin throws that logic out the window, charging instead based on approximate “complexity” of transactions. That complexity is indirectly measured by amount of space required to represent the transaction on the blockchain. A transaction with a single source, straightforward redeem script (“sign with this public-key”) and single destination output takes relatively few bytes to encode. One that combines multiple inputs, complex redemption conditions (“signed by 3 out of 5 keys”) and distributes those funds to multiple destinations takes up more space. Yet complexity is orthogonal to value transferred. This is what makes it possible to move $80 million USD with a few cents in transaction fees—an astonishing level of efficiency unequaled by any other payment system available to consumers—or moving $5 while paying half that amount in fees, which is extremely wasteful.

It’s as if banks charged fees for cashing checks based on how much ink there is on the check instead of their notional value. Yet this model makes sense given that space in the blockchain is itself a scarce resource. Each new block miner for extending the ledger can accommodate exactly 1MB worth of transactions. That scarcity creates natural competition for transactions trying to get mined into the next block by providing sufficient incentives to miners.

That brings us back to the question of developing markets. Back in the early days when ambitious visions of everyone paying for their next cup of coffee in bitcoin were being bandied about, those fees were negligible. Bitcoin was poised to undercut credit-card networks for retail purchases, massively undercut Western Union for international remittances and even outdo Paypal for efficient peer-to-peer payments. It even looked like the first realistic option for micro-payments, where very small amounts of money change hands very frequently: visitors to a web site donating a few cents for each article read. Fast forward to 2017, blocks are full, memory pool—that waiting queue of outstanding transactions waiting to be confirmed in the ledger— has ballooned and transactions fees are no longer negligible. Bitcoin businesses that naturally attract frequent fund movements such as exchanges have resorted to policy changes for passing transaction fees directly to customers. The only fighting chance for micro-payments today rests on the deployment of additional overlays such as the Lightning Network, implemented on top of the standard Bitcoin protocol.

Given the status quo it would be difficult disagree with the statement that Bitcoin as it exists today has very little to offer citizens of developing nations looking for an alternative payment solution for everyday purchases. Indeed the network as deployed today is not capable of clearing a large number of small transactions. (They may still find some value in its deflationary nature, as with Venezuelan citizens hoarding BTC in the midst of their economic crisis.)

It did not have to be that way. The scarcity of space is an artificial consequence of the arbitrary 1MB limit, the relic from a tactical fix implemented in response to an unrelated problem without much consideration given to future consequences. One could imagine counterfactuals where the blocksize limit is allowed to float, perhaps increasing automatically over time or adjusting in response to demand in the same way mining difficulty is constantly calibrated for constant throughput. There are clear costs to increasing blocksize: additional space required for storing a larger ledger would place demands on all nodes participating in the network. By raising costs, critics contend that such unchecked growth may force some to give up, resulting in a less decentralized network. On the other hand, the ledger is expanding every time a new block is mined and “cost” of running full node does go up measured in raw disk space. So the relevant question concerns rate of increase. Is the increased burden outpacing Moore’s law to the point that running a full node becomes more expensive in real terms? Is the growth rate predictable enough for planning future capacity? (That is a strike against quantum leaps from 1MB → 8MB because it leaves little time for adjustment.)

Arguments for and against raising block limit are being advanced daily, as are alternatives that improve throughput while leaving that sacred parameter alone. The problem is not for lack of ideas on scaling; there are too many possibilities coupled with too little consensus on which ones to pursue. The community has been unable to agree on a single solution, precipitating the current crisis with miners and users playing a game of chicken that could splinter the network on August 1st. High fees and low transaction rates have sabotaged many scenarios for using bitcoin that seemed perfectly within reach in the past. Dashed hopes for getting the millions of unbanked citizens of developing nations onboard is just one part of that collateral damage.