The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, recently published a report entitled “Debunking the narratives about cryptocurrency and financial inclusion.” The report analyzes the claim that the development and adoption of cryptocurrencies can increase financial inclusion of the unbanked, underbanked, and minority populations, including Black, Latino, and Hispanic communities. The report’s author, Tontantzin Carmona, suggests that popular claims of cryptocurrency increasing financial inclusion of these populations may be exaggerated at best, or completely false.
Financial Inclusion Claims of Crypto Proponents
Carmona begins her report by reviewing the two most widespread narratives about financial inclusion related to crypto. The first narrative she discusses is that cryptocurrencies will provide easy access to financial services and will offer the unbanked and underbanked a mechanism for making financial transactions. This narrative suggests that the main reason unbanked households have difficulty accessing banking services is because they live far from a bank, the bank is open at inconvenient hours, or they lack the ability to use digital payment options. It also suggests that crypto be used as a currency spent on everyday goods and services. The second narrative that Carmona discusses is that cryptocurrency can, and should, be viewed as long-term, buy-and-hold investment that Black, Latino, and Hispanic individuals and households can use as they seek upward economic and financial mobility, rather than as a currency used for everyday goods and services.
Carmona notes the dichotomy of these competing objectives and the conflict it creates. Either cryptocurrency should be treated similar to traditional currency and transacted on a daily basis, or households should treat cryptocurrency as a long-term investment. Cryptocurrency held by an unbanked, underbanked, or minority household cannot accomplish both objectives simultaneously. Thus, it is not clear which financial inclusion problem cryptocurrency is trying to solve.
Can Crypto Help the Unbanked?
As for the claim that cryptocurrency should be considered a tool for unbanked, Carmona rightly points out something that users of crypto already know — most crypto platforms and exchanges require a linked bank account to fund the crypto account and initial purchases of cryptocurrency. Moreover, due to the notoriously volatile nature of cryptocurrencies, their price fluctuations make them unsuitable and unreliable as a means of everyday payment. Thus, regardless of the utility of cryptocurrency stored on cryptocurrency exchanges and platforms, consumers will almost certainly also require an account at a traditional financial institution holding U.S. dollars.
Carmona points out that what vulnerable populations really need is access to a fast, secure, and convenient payment system, and that crypto proponents’ solution—, stablecoins — is also ill-suited for this purpose. Presently, stablecoins’ primary purpose is the facilitation of trading, lending, and borrowing of other digital assets within the crypto ecosystem, rather than outside of it. Regardless of the potential utility of stablecoins to facilitate payments in the future, like other cryptocurrencies, the purchase and exchange of stablecoins requires a cryptocurrency exchange, which in turn almost always requires the linking of a traditional bank account holding U.S. dollars. Thus, the utility of stablecoins for the unbanked is mitigated by the requirements of the stablecoins themselves.
Is Crypto a Wealth-Building Tool?
The second narrative that Carmona tackles in her report is that of cryptocurrency as a wealth-building tool. One only needs to read the news to understand the problem with encouraging minority populations to buy-and-hold cryptocurrency to increase their wealth and financial mobility. In spite of years of investment and development poured into crypto, it has never developed beyond a speculative asset. Cryptocurrencies have no intrinsic value and are not backed by anything; they derive their value simply from other investors and potential investors believing they are good investments. If that changes, the value can drop to nothing. This is particularly risky for lower-income, vulnerable populations who may invest a greater proportion of what wealth they do have into speculative cryptocurrency investments.
CoinJournal recently reported that since 2014, 316 cryptocurrency exchanges have failed and, most shockingly, 42% of those failed exchanged vanished without a trace, taking accountholder funds with them. Notable examples of failed exchanges include Celsius, Three Arrows Capital, Voyager Digital, and most recently FTX. Between $1 and $2 billion of client funds is missing at FTX alone, spanning from retail investors to the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund, who had invested $95 billion in FTX. There is no doubt that vulnerable populations, such as low- middle-income retail investors and minorities are among the victims of FTX’s dramatic failure.
Statements from Policymakers
Given the increased attention that cryptocurrency is receiving on Capitol Hill, it should be no surprise that policymakers are making statements about the purported benefits of cryptocurrency in increasing financial inclusion for underbanked and unbanked populations. What is interesting however, is the different opinions, even among members of the same party, on the effectiveness of cryptocurrency related to financial inclusion. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), well-known for his support of cryptocurrency, stated at the 2022 DC Blockchain Summit that “people of color look at big financial institutions for what their history shows them to be: discriminating against vulnerable communities. It’s no surprise the African Americans and Latinos are turning to a world that is a decentralized world, that they hope will be a more level playing field.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, stated during a hearing on cryptocurrency that “crypto doesn’t actually function as real currency in any traditional sense. Allowing more people to trap their money in risky, speculative investments isn’t the kind of financial inclusion we need. It’s not going to do anything to help Americans working hourly jobs who don’t put their paychecks in the bank because of abusive fees.” It is clear from these opposing statements that even members of the same political party disagree on the financial inclusion benefits of cryptocurrency. The question is which opinion holds more weight among vulnerable populations?
Carmona recommends that regulators view crypto’s purported benefits as similar to those of other alternative financial services that attempt to the fill gaps left by traditional financial services, such as payday lending, check cashing services, and remittance services. She adds that regulators should also implement baseline consumer protections that provide the same level of consumer protections that an account holder would receive at a bank or other traditional financial institution.
Other recommendations that Carmona presents in her study are (1) the agency that oversees cryptocurrency should have an explicit investor protection mandate and significant resources to monitor the industry, (2) financial literacy materials should prioritize transparency and accountability, (3) crypto companies should be required to disclose the gender and racial diversity data of their workforce and board members, and (4) government officials should be asked, if not required, to refrain from making misleading claims regarding crypto and financial inclusion.
Carmona closes her report by outlining more direct and impactful ways that financial inclusion can be addressed rather than the use of cryptocurrencies, like real-time payments solutions such as FedNow, direct checking accounts and transaction services through the post office, and requiring financial institutions to offer basic, no- or low-cost bank accounts.
Regardless of the potential utility of cryptocurrency to the financial system as a whole, one thing is clear, claims made by crypto’s proponents of the importance of cryptocurrency as a tool to increase financial inclusion are misleading, even dangerous, to vulnerable populations who may invest in cryptocurrency either as a tool for everyday transactions, or as a long-term investment.
While further development and implementation of crypto- and blockchain-based financial products are likely, and there very well may be valid business-related reasons for bank- and non-bank financial service providers to offer these products, members of the Innovative Payments Association should reconsider financial inclusion as a reasonable justification for their investment and development of such products.
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