Does the IMF have a hidden script for El Salvador’s Bitcoin play?
On Jan. 25, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) directors asked El Salvador to “narrow the scope” of its Bitcoin Law by “removing Bitcoin’s legal tender status.” Adopting a cryptocurrency as the Central American country has done “entails large risks for financial and market integrity, financial stability and consumer protection,” the fund wrote.
Why did the IMF ask El Salvador to effectively pull the plug on its cryptocurrency experiment? Surely this small country — ranked 104th globally in gross domestic product (GDP) — is no threat to the international bank’s balance sheet. Moreover, 70% of El Salvador’s populace is unbanked, and one-fifth of its GDP is from United States remittances. Arguably, it could profit from Bitcoin’s (BTC) use.
Then again, it’s only been half a year since El Salvador declared Bitcoin legal tender — the world’s first nation to do so. Is that really enough time to draw any useful conclusions?
One objective of the IMF is “to ensure exchange [rate] stability,” Gavin Brown, associate professor in financial technology at the University of Liverpool, told Cointelegraph. Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies generally have exhibited extreme volatility, evident in the recent 50% drawdown from November’s record market prices. “This clearly gives a mandate for the IMF to be at best cautious of volatile monetary alternatives such as Bitcoin.”
But that may not be the whole story. “The material impact of such a nation pivoting toward Bitcoin as they have done is in itself not a big deal,” Brown continued. “However, what is important is the signal that this sends to other nations should they [El Salvador] make a success of it.”
After all, more than 65 countries presently peg their currencies to the U.S. dollar, Brown noted. “This, along with the dollarization of oil and the strength of the U.S. economy, has ensured the primacy of the dollar.” Bitcoin and, by extension, El Salvador are not yet a direct threat to this. “But the keyword there is ‘yet.’ Other nations may have their heads turned by Bitcoin and El Salvador as a consequence.”
Others were unsurprised that the IMF was asking the country to scrap its legal tender experiment. “It does not surprise me that the IMF is making this request of El Salvador for multiple reasons,” David Tawil, president and co-founder of ProChain Capital, told Cointelegraph.
As the world’s lender of last resort to sovereign nations, the IMF is looking to have fewer, not more, borrowers, said Tawil. Then, too, El Salvador doesn’t have a particularly sterling record with the IMF and capital markets generally. But there might be something more self-serving behind it, too, he suggested, adding:
“It is possible that if Bitcoin becomes a strong worldwide reserve currency, the IMF may be deemed a lot less effective and necessary.”
Moreover, the risks listed in the fund’s Jan. 25 statement, including financial stability, do “not seem to be a compelling enough reason, given there is very little evidence of the widespread use of Bitcoin for day-to-day transactions in El Salvador,” Syed Rahman, a partner at law firm Rahman Ravelli, told Cointelegraph.
What spurred the fund to action then? “The IMF is clearly reacting to the recent volatility within the markets,” said Rahman. Given the price retrenchment and apparent drop in investor demand for BTC, “it’s not clear whether the current structure is attracting a recurrent source of liquidity” in the IMF’s mind.
Pioneer or renegade
But maybe the IMF knows whereof it speaks. What if Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is more stumbler than seer, and his nation’s grand experiment is just a giant bungle?
“El Salvador’s experiment hasn’t gone very well,” acknowledged Tawil. Technical problems have emerged, and Bitcoin’s recent market price drop hasn’t helped. “El Salvador is not a poster child for a strong and thriving economy. So, it was never likely that there was going to be a long line of followers behind El Salvador.”
“I don’t see any evidence that the Bitcoin adoption has been a success,” John Hawkins, senior lecturer at Canberra School of Politics, Economics and Society, University of Canberra, told Cointelegraph, “so I think it’s unlikely that many, if any, countries will follow.”
One possible exception could be countries where hyperinflation has led to a loss of confidence in the national currency such as Venezuela, Hawkins added, “but even there, dollarization or a currency board would be a better option” than adopting Bitcoin.
Nor has there been any surge in foreign investment in El Salvador since September when BTC became legal tender, continued Hawkins. “President Bukele promised it would add 25% to El Salvador’s GDP.” That hasn’t happened.
An 84% adoption rate?
On the other hand, an Ark Investment Management report issued in late January recounted that crypto adoption had soared in the country. “An estimated 3.8 million people use El Salvador’s Bitcoin wallet, Chivo, suggesting 84% adoption among eligible citizens.” More people now have Bitcoin wallets than traditional bank accounts (1.9 million), the report noted.
Hawkins wasn’t impressed. Salvadorans who followed President Bukele’s advice about holding Bitcoin instead of dollars would have lost a significant proportion of their savings, he told Cointelegraph, adding:
“It’s unsurprising that a lot of people wanted a Chivo wallet, as it came with a free $30. News stories suggest many people just withdrew the $30 and have not used the wallet since.”
Ark Investment also noted that Chivo was settling $2 million in remittances daily as of October 2021, “accounting for roughly 12% of El Salvador’s $6 billion in annual remittances and more than 2% of its GDP.” The nation’s Bitcoin play has given its citizens unprecedented financial opportunities, said Ark CEO Cathie Wood.
“El Salvador will hopefully continue with its experiment,” Tawil told Cointelegraph, predicting that it would “achieve slow but important success. And, the price of Bitcoin will rise again.” Indeed, in the long term:
“El Salvador may be the most important first mover for the sector.”
Still, isn’t there a price to pay if El Salvador continues to flout IMF directives? “It does matter what the IMF says,” Hawkins said. “Even if you do not respect their expertise, El Salvador has been looking for a loan from them.” Dissing the fund and taking actions that the multilateral bank regards as risky just make it harder for El Salvador to get that loan.
A hidden agenda?
What about this notion that the IMF has ulterior motives and that it is simply hostile to cryptocurrencies because they threaten the U.S. dollar and/or the incumbent global banking system?
“I absolutely agree,” said Tawil. “I think that the IMF is a self-serving agency and is likely as corrupt as other worldwide governing bodies, such as the International Olympic Committee.”
Hawkins differed. “I don’t think the IMF is motivated by protecting banks. They are concerned about the welfare of people in El Salvador and also want El Salvador to be able to repay loans from the IMF.”
The IMF has been taking a “rather aggressive approach” to cryptocurrency-related products, commented Rahman, but current volatility is affecting all markets, not just cryptocurrencies. “It is also worth noting that El Salvador’s relations with the United States have deteriorated, and it could be inferred this is a contributing factor.”
What about the timing of the IMF’s message, why now? The fund has been critical of the El Salvador BTC experiment from the beginning, said Tawil, but “the current pullback in the price of Bitcoin allows the IMF to scream ‘I told you so’ and have additional force behind its opinion.”
Bukele was notably purchasing more BTC during the most recent crypto drawdown. “Most people go in when the price is up,” he tweeted on Jan. 24, “but the safest and most profitable moment to buy is when the price is down. It’s not rocket science.”
Reading the future
The IMF’s demands to El Salvador on Bitcoin “shows the institution to be on the wrong side of history,” declared deVere CEO Nigel Green in an emailed press release. “The IMF [is] asking a pioneering sovereign nation to drop a future-focused financial policy that attempts to bring it out of financial instability and a reliance on another country’s currency.”
One shouldn’t forget, either, that the IMF is headquartered in Washington, D.C., that the U.S. is a founding member, and the U.S. is also the largest contributor to the international institution, which has 190 member countries. “The fortunes and interests of the IMF and the U.S. are, therefore, arguably inextricably linked,” Brown told Cointelegraph.