Nudged by several quarters, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has taken an explicit step towards “ringfencing regulated entities” by prohibiting Indian banks from dealing with or providing services to any entities or individuals who deal with virtual currencies. A specified period of time shall be provided to those entities who are already providing these services to exit the industry.
RBI’s aforesaid step cuts air supply to the highly speculative and unregulated cryptocurrency market. Along with this move, RBI also announced that it would be coming up with its own version of a digital currency which would be a centrally regulated currency.
Before we set out to discuss the implications of this move, it is pertinent to briefly discuss the term “cryptocurrency”.
Cryptocurrencies essentially include digital money. The most popular cryptocurrency which nowadays has become a household name is bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies do not have any intrinsic value and are completely opposite to the Government issued money which has its equivalent in gold.
Cryptocurrencies were devised in order to dispense with the intermediaries and create a peer-to-peer lending system. It has helped in lowering transactional costs and by virtue of being based on cryptography which is quite secure. However, various factors like their volatile nature, lack of a central regulatory authority, no physical equivalent contributed to the growing suspicion around cryptocurrencies and making them unreliable. Institutions and authorities as big as the International Monetary Fund have become wary of cryptocurrencies.
RBI’s move of cordoning the banks under its aegis from any kind of dealing with cryptocurrencies is at best a protective and cautious measure. In the wake of the recent financial scams which have rocked the country and its banking system and massive erosion of public confidence in the financial markets, a pre-emptive step of this kind is welcome.
However, this spells doom for traders who have been dealing in cryptocurrencies. It is to be noted that RBI has not directly placed any ban on cryptocurrencies but has constructively made trading in them almost impossible. If a middle class investor has invested in bitcoins or any other virtual currency, he/she will now not be able to convert their earnings from cryptocurrencies into money. This would lead to huge financial losses not only to the individual but also to the Government which collects huge amounts as taxes from cryptocurrencies.
It is difficult to term RBI’s move blanketly as a positive or a negative step. Some factions are arguing that it is a dictatorial move, as RBI plans to launch its own digital currency while protecting its banks from other virtual currencies.
However, given the volatility and uncertainty extant in the cryptocurrency market, it is efficient, if the Government wants to dispense with the unregulated digital currency and introduce its own digital currency. Such a move is likely to bring about the benefits of a digital currency without having to compromise on the security and safety of small and midsize investors.
One of the most pertinent questions in the wake of this announcement is that whether this step should be looked upon as a death knell to cryptocurrencies in India. RBI has isolated virtual currencies by making them a pariah to its banks. This means that one cannot redeem the cryptocurrencies held by them as bank money. Though, it is beyond doubt that this would hit the cryptocurrency traders hard, but a number of ways may be devised in order to utilise cryptocurrencies through other mechanisms.
For instance, in some countries, people use bitcoins to buy Amazon coupons. Hence, it may be fallacious to term that RBI’s announcement would completely efface unregulated virtual currencies from India. It may be tougher to deal in them but not impossible.
The efficacy of RBI moves in case of cryptocurrencies will have to face the test of time.
* Managing Partner of Corp Comm Legal
** Research Associate.