Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, the telecom arm of India’s largest company by market cap (NSE:RELIANCE), plans to create its own cryptocurrency called JioCoin. Supply chain management logistics and loyalty payment with JioCoin are amongst the envisaged uses of JioCoin. Worldwide, many large corporates have already started launching their own private cryptocurrency. KFC, Burger King and Kodak are the few well-known names that have hitched onto the bandwagon of this currency of the Internet.
Fast-food chain KFC has announced that it will accept virtual currency for paying bills in its outlets in Canada with the launch of Bitcoin Bucket. A customer can buy this bucket with 0.0011564 BTC, equivalent of CAD $20, according to a company statement. Eastman Kodak has announced last week that it is going to launch its own cryptocurrency KodakCoin in partnership with WENN Digital. Burger King has launched its own cryptocurrency in Russia called ‘WhopperCoin. IBM recently partnered with Stellar and klickex to develop a blockchain-based cross-border payments solution. Stellar is a distributed hybrid Blockchain that facilitates cross-asset transfer of value including payments. Similar to Bitcoin, Lumen is the asset of value issued by Stellar.
This rush by multinational companies to get on board of the cryptocurrency mania camouflages a much larger issue and a potential threat to the current international political order. This threat can be analyzed from various perspectives including political, economic and technological.
Glenda Sluga, a Professor of International History, has written about the possible unraveling of the current international order from a historical and political perspective: These days, the pulse of the world’s political health is running fast. The general prognosis is terminal, the end of the international world order, as we know it.(here) Political headwinds which led to such prognosis are easily discernible- rise of “radical nationalism” in USA, “long the axis of modern international society” and, rise of “heteropolarity” in the international power structure.
Beyond this haze of political chaos, a much bigger threat to the existing international world order lies in emergence of private cryptocurrency and its adoption by multinationals. There is no gainsaying the fact the comity of nations defines the current world order. A nation state without its own currency is like the staging of Hamlet without the prince of Denmark. The power of a nation state to tax its citizens would stand highly diminished if large corporates can issue their own currency. Let us see how it would play out in reality.
Alice buys 1000 JioCoins (JC) by paying, say, 20000 Indian rupees. Alice pays 60 JC to Bob for as rent for the apartment she has leased from Bob. Bob buys monthly grocery from the supermarket run by Reliance. Bob uses 250 JC for this purpose. Bob tops up his Jio mobile with 50 JC. Suppose, Bob works in Reliance Industries and receives 3000 JC every month. Bob pays 750 JC to Reliance Petroleum for purchase of gas for his car. He has purchased his car by taking loan from HSBC by paying EMI of 750 JC every month. This EMI payment is routed through a cryptocurrency exchange run by a Russian bank. RIL pays IBM India monthly 100 million JC for maintaining its IT infrastructure. IBM may pay RIL is own cryptocurrency for using Jio mobile services in India. Gradually, a complete ecosystem of economic agents can emerge, who will use JC as their preferred currency for all their payment requirements. It may be seen that the JC to Rupee exchange takes place only when Alice purchased JC. At a certain stage of development JC will acquire its own life, cutting its umbilical record with the fiat currency.
The above description of evolution of JC to encompass a significant slice of economic transactions in its country of incorporation, i.e. India, does not necessarily imply that JC would pose a threat to the existence, or at least severely restrict usefulness, of the sovereign currency INR as a fiat money. Initially, INR can continue to be the unit of account within the boundary of India. But if JC emerges as the people’s preferred medium of transactions and store of value, only raw state power can prevent rupee’s passage to oblivion. Be that as it may, the moot question is whether JC would severely dent the Indian state’s capability to tax the economic activities mediated through JC. Given the ability of a cryptocurrency to mask the identity of transactors, imposition of indirect taxes, like goods and service tax, might be a serious challenge for tax administration. If an Indian resident tax payer earns and spends only in JC, fixation of its tax liability would not be an easy task.
If all multinationals including RIL, IBM and others can agree on an exchange platform for conversion of their currencies then the nations of the world would find themselves divested of their defining power to tax and earn seigniorage. The depth and reach of the large multinationals can be gauged from the fact that in 2016 the Fortune 500 companies had revenue of 27.7 trillion USD while the combined GDP of 198 countries was around 76 trillion USD. Using Output to GDP ratio for US economy, the share of Fortune 500 companies in the worlds’ GDP would work to around 21 percent. So if these large corporates were to sign off from the current international order with their own currencies, their total GDP would be the second highest, next to USA only. They can usher into a new Bretton Wood regime for their private currencies and significantly reduce the cost of managing exchange rate risk.
Technologically, these large corporates could not but continue to be part of one country or other, at least formally, the emergence of cryptocurrency can unshackle them from this tether of fiat currency and its in-built inflationary bias. If the world economic order get re- arranged on this line, what would happen to the multitude of people who would continue to remain outside the charmed circle of digital economy, can only be a matter of speculation and not an informed guess.
Dr. A.K.Nag was a senior executive of the Reserve Bank of India, the central bank and the monetary authority of the country. He was also one of the main architects of the RBI's enterprise wide data warehouse, a pioneering effort for any central bank anywhere and many other such one-of-its-kind projects.