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Uncertainty over Bitcoin’s suitability for ESG-related strategies, which attracted more than $50B in flows in 2020, has exacerbated Bitcoin volatility this year.1 Reasonable people can debate whether the emissions associated with mining digital assets are appropriate. But anyone who doubts the positive Bitcoin can do for developing countries should spend a few days in San Salvador and El Zonte ("Bitcoin Beach"), as I did last week around the introduction of Bitcoin as legal tender in El Salvador, a nation of 6.5m with a GDP per capita of $3,800, just 10% of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)2 average of $38,000.3 Perhaps your view of Bitcoin and what ESG means may change after you read this piece.
A majority of El Zonte's population of 1,829 still live on the edge of subsistence. Tin roofs, barefoot children and stray dogs feature prominently among the heavily potted roads. A glance at most store shelves reveals an obvious shortage of working capital and sufficient refrigeration. There is no municipal water or gas. Google tells me the nearest ATM is 12km away.
Roman "Chimbera" Martinez, one of the community organizers behind the Bitcoin Beach project, told me, as we sat in the new Garten hotel overlooking the prime surfing below: "I never thought I would see a big hotel like this. We all thought we would be fisherman. Everyone was dreaming to leave the country, to go. That was the dream, to cross the border."4 For the record, the hotel has 9 rooms.
El Zonte's fortunes began to change in 2019 with a "multi six-figure" dollar donation (in Bitcoin) from an anonymous single donor affiliated with Michael Peterson, an evangelical surfer who lives in El Zonte part-time with his family.5 As Chimbera, the community organizer, tells it, faith-based organizations had been privately funding social initiatives in El Zonte for years. But the Bitcoin donation took things to another level, because it stipulated that the money must be sent to another person and used in transactions to help create a Bitcoin economy, not just cashed out into dollars. First, every family got $50 worth. Soon the Bitcoin Beach organization, under Peterson's control but with a growing cadre of contributors such as Chimbera, were paying local youths Bitcoin for doing their homework, picking up trash or lifeguarding the town's surfing youth.
Given that COVID had shut down in-person schooling and other government services, the private/NGO sector was a lifeline. The donations got big enough that Bitcoin Beach sponsored the El Salvadorean national surf team, with plans to pay them a monthly stipend in Bitcoin. More donations followed.6
On the day I visited, Chimbera led a class at the newly constructed, Bitcoin-funded Hope House. Teens and twenty-somethings studied project management skills with software donated from one of El Salvador's largest companies. "My dream is to change our community, so people can have better opportunities here. But they need tools: English, computers, financial education, how to be a leader, how to be entrepreneurs," says Chimbera.
The little bets are paying off. Bitcoin Beach developed its own crypto wallet, which is now the third most downloaded financial app in El Salvador.7One local woman told me she started a business paying neighbors' electricity bills on their behalf, an endeavor that typically includes a one hour bus-ride and at least as long again on a queue. Locals now send her pictures of their bill, and she sends them a Bitcoin Lightning invoice, reselling the Bitcoin peer-to-peer in San Salvador or via an exchange. The proprietor of another El Zonte local boutique told me she received her first two Bitcoin customers this week. She promptly recycled the Bitcoin for new clothes at a Zara in San Salvador. My conversations around town revealed locals highly attuned to the nature of risk and reward. That is, unwilling to go all-in on Bitcoin with anything close to 100%, but I think that it is unlikely to believe 0% is the right answer, either.
This is not to say that the September 7 national rollout has gone well. Most El Salvadorians are still unable to redeem their $30 in free Bitcoin from the government-sponsored Chivo wallet, which was rapidly overwhelmed. President Nayib Bukele has promised to fix the issues cellphone-model-by-cellphone-model, but the gaffe has emboldened critics, who also note that one of Chivo's board members includes Bukele's chief of staff Marta Carolina Recinos de Bernal, recently on a Washington DC list of Central American officials accused of corruption and potentially subject to U.S. asset forfeiture.8,9
As Bukele negotiates with the IMF for a $1B program to patch budget gaps through 2023, the lack of support from traditional multilateral institutions can create some interesting game theory. For example, Samson Mow, chief strategy officer at Bitcoin miner Blockstream, says that he has spoken to investors who have softly committed to buying a $1B El Salvador dollar bond yielding 9%, not far off the coupon of recent issues.10,11 Those buyers, he said, would be even more eager if the El Salvador government were to invest, say, half of the proceeds in Bitcoin itself, turning the country into a sovereign version of Microstrategy, whose CEO Michael Saylor has been accumulating Bitcoin via his publicly traded software company.
Since 11 August 2020, when Microstrategy announced its first purchase, the stock has returned 356% vs. the Bloomberg Bitcoin Index, which returned 303% over the same time period.12 Investors should appreciate the potential similarities between meme-driven investments such as AMC or Gamestop (whose stocks both trade in tokenized form 365/24/7 on the offshore crypto exchange FTX), and a potential El Salvador sovereign issue that might circumvent the IMF.
Such tokenized securities are a fast-growing space: last week the Swiss exchange Six announced a new digital exchange that will let regulated institutions trade, settle and store digital tokens through one venue, underpinned by "the highest Swiss standards of oversight and regulation."13 The Wall Street Journal reported as far back as 2018 that Switzerland "wants to be the world capital of crypto."14 This year the Swiss canton of Jug began accepting up to CHF 100,000 (USD $108,000) as payment for taxes.15 Might not El Salvador find a willing banker among the Swiss? This is a question worth pondering.
We are only exploring the hypothetical here, but should Washington and the IMF demand conditions that Bukele deems overly harsh, forcing El Salvador into an intentional default, the potential implications are enormous. Specifically, if the country defaults on its U.S. dollar debt, can creditors seize the assets (“attach”, in legal terminology) of the debtor nation’s crypto flows? Typically, in a default, this is the source of creditor power. Any flow of money to accounts owned by the “deadbeat” can be attached and put in escrow until a debt deal is agreed. So, the money flows stop, which is why countries have historically tried to reach voluntary agreements to reschedule debt.
El Salvador may be the first test case of whether crypto could be seized in such a scenario, whether the fast-growing crypto debt markets would fund such an endeavor, and at what price. Given the sensitivity of the topic, we got no answers to these questions from the government in San Salvador last week. "The policy is set at the top," the Minister of Economy Maria Luisa Hayem told me, gesturing to a portrait of President Bukele hanging on the wall of the conference room we were in.16
Bitcoin, she explained, "plays a huge role in financial inclusion," but it is just one element of a comprehensive 12-point pro-growth economic plan that she hopes will be released before the end of year, including tax breaks and tax exemptions for foreign investment. "Previously there was no relationship between the public and private sectors. The government was there to block, and we are doing the opposite," she said.
As for the IMF and others' concerns that Bitcoin could destabilize the banking system (or make enemies of powerful financial interests), Minister Hayem referred me to a May press release from the banking association, supporting the Bitcoin move. "The banks are resilient, they will adapt," she said. Judging by the very long bank lines I waited on in San Salvador to change money and to talk to a bank teller, and the general lack of ATM machines, perhaps we should not be so sure. But that is a topic for another trip.
Meanwhile, back in El Zonte, I wander down to the public beach again to chat with a very modest innkeeper, a local who surfed the world before resettling in El Zonte to fix up his obviously work-in-progress hostel. Fluent in English, Aldo hates banks. He has always lived his life in cash, and while he's attracted to Bitcoin's technology, he worries that property development in the area around El Zonte will contribute to environmental issues and that smartphone life will ruin local culture.
"It was better here before the dollar," he lamented, anecdotal confirmation of research that theorizes El Salvador's 2001 dollarization hurt the poor disproportionately.17 When I point out that his 8-year-old daughter will want a smartphone in a few years, and he'll be amazed at the things she'll be doing on it, he melts almost immediately. As he backtracks we meet in the middle with smiles about how life is about finding balance.
I think more about balance in the hour-long car ride to San Salvador Airport, for the midnight 4.5 hour redeye to JFK. Scrolling through my newsfeed, I read an unverified report that Ukraine will make Bitcoin legal tender by 202318, and recall that Ukraine's GDP per capita ($3,700 as of 2020) is nearly identical to El Salvador, but with a population 8x larger.19 The Ukranian government had already announced intentions to mine Bitcoin with nuclear power in order to "help use idle load and reduce the burden on transmission systems."20 And then last week, Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky reportedly met with Apple CEO Tim Cook in Silicon Valley to discuss collaboration on hyperscale datacenters.21
For countries like Ukraine, "balance" suggests finding a middle path between Russian encroachment and NATO uncertainty; "balance" means finding steady baseload power demand from a rich multinational to help with the massive funding requirement of five new nuclear reactors.22 Should global regulators punish these poor countries for trying to find this balance via Bitcoin, rather than another way?
Whatever the Ukranian, or Belarusian, or Tunisian version of Bitcoin Beach will be, if El Zonte is a guide, I believe Bitcoin will continue to bring hope and development to some of the poorest people in the world. I think the investment community — especially ESG managers seeking to focus on social impact — should take note. By the time I write that blog, Bitcoin’s price may be higher.
2The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development is an intergovernmental organization founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade.
4Interviews with Ramon "Chimbera" Martinez, 11/9/2021 and 12/9/2021
6Interviews with Ramon Martinez & https://amycastor.com/2021/06/25/michael-peterson-el-salvador-and-bitcoin-beach/
7SimilarWeb, as of 11/9/2021. https://www.similarweb.com/apps/top/google/store-rank/sv/finance/top-free/
10Interview with Samson Mow, 2/9/2021.
12Bloomberg, as of 12/9/2021.
13WSJ, 10/9/2021 https://www.wsj.com/articles/switzerland-gives-green-light-to-crypto-trading-exchange-11631273969
14WSJ, April 2018 https://www.wsj.com/articles/switzerland-wants-to-be-the-world-capital-of-cryptocurrency-1524942058?mod=article_inline
16Interview with Economy Minister, 10/9/2021.
18City A.M. - Ukraine set to become next country to make legal tender, 12/9/2021.
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