China is coming up with cryptocurrency – shock or surprise?

The meeting of finance and technology, widely known as fintech, is changing the landscape of investment management. As the saying goes, it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future events. But it’s manifestly worth the effort because catching big trends is how fortunes are made and catastrophic losses are avoided.

Blockchain-related topics are extremely hot nowadays and cryptocurrencies are one of those. So, what is a cryptocurrency? From the word itself you can see that it has something to do with cryptography and currency. For its part, cryptography is the process of converting ordinary plain text into unintelligible text and vice-versa. Modern cryptography deals with confidentiality: information cannot be understood by anyone, integrity: information cannot be altered, and authentication: sender and receiver can confirm each other.

Putting all the pieces together, cryptocurrency is a medium of exchange value (just like ordinary money) that exists in the digital world and relies on encryption, which makes transactions secure. A cryptocurrency is an alternative form of payment to cash, credit cards, and cheques. The technology behind it allows you to send it directly to others without going through a third party like a bank. In short, cryptocurrencies are like virtual accounting systems.

As you can find, there are many exciting use cases for this. You can send money back to your family without incurring large international fees if you’re working in a different country. Merchants no longer have to worry about payment fraud because people can only spend what they have. Summing up, Cryptocurrency is a radically new way of paying that makes all the transactions secure and helps to get rid of intermediaries represented by banks, which also contributes to a significant reduction in the commission fee.

The cryptocurrencies can either be based on blockchain technology or can be centrally issued, circulated within a community or geographic location, or tied to fiat currency. Blockchain is a revolutionary ledger technology, with a wide array of potential applications from smart contracts to healthcare systems, but it did not catch the attention of speculators and the media until Bitcoin surged from $0.009 to more than $11,000 per coin. There are more than 869 cryptocurrencies, but without fundamentals, they are little more than “trust machines” and, as such, are nearly unanalyzable. They generate no cash flow, making discounted valuation approaches inapplicable, but this criticism applies to gold as well.

Although it is cheaper to invest in the early stages, during a new cryptocurrency’s initial coin offering, doing so may overlook the network effect that favors older altcoins (alternative cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin).

Cryptocurrencies are going to play a major role in the coming years and China has decided to be part of that future, in a big way. China’s official digital currency is nearly ready. As much as China frowns on cryptocurrency, it’s happy to introduce its cryptocurrency. There is a great deal of confusion and misunderstood facts surrounding the legal status of cryptocurrency in China. Various headlines like China Bans Bitcoin, China Bans Crypto Exchanges, China Bans Bitcoin Mining, and many more make most people unclear on where China stands on cryptocurrency and whether that has any real impact on how its citizens behave.

The People’s Bank of China has revealed that its digital currency, “can now be said to be ready” after five years of research work. Don’t expect it to mimic crypto, however. According to payments Deputy Chief Mu Changchun, it’ll use a more complex algorithm and structure. This project of coming up with own cryptocurrency of China was started by the former governor of China’s central bank, Zhou Xiaochuan, who retired in March. He decided to come up with the digital currency which will protect China from having to adopt a technology standard, like Bitcoin, designed and controlled by others. 

Facebook Inc.’s push to create cryptocurrency Libra has caused concerns among global central banks, including the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), which said the digital asset must be put under central bank’s supervision to prevent potential foreign exchange risks and protect the authority of monetary policy. Sun Tianqi, an official from China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange, said, “Libra must be seen as a foreign currency and be put under China’s framework of forex management”. Dave Chapman, executive director at BC Technology Group Ltd also said on similar lines that, “It is without a doubt that with the announcement of Libra, governments, regulators and central banks around the world have had to speed up their plans and approach to digital assets. They have to consider the possibility that non-government issued currencies could dramatically disrupt finance and payments.”

How the cryptocurrency issued by China will be different from other cryptocurrencies, might be one of the questions coming to your mind. To begin with, in launching the new cryptocurrency, referred to as DC/EP for Digital Currency/Electronic Payment, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has stolen a march on both Facebook and other central bankers who have been discussing the possibility of a cryptocurrency and how it’s the implication. What sets China’s DC/EP apart from libra and Mark Carney’s(Bank of England’s Governor) “synthetic hegemonic currency” (SHC), according to Paul Schulte(The founder and editor of Schulte Research, a company does research on banks, financial technology, bank algorithms, and credit algorithms), is that while libra is little more than early-stage computer code and the SHC doesn’t appear to have gone much further than Carney’s mind, the Chinese cryptocurrency is ready to launch. “China is barreling forward on reforms and rolling out the cryptocurrency,” says Schulte, who now runs a research firm. PBOC will be the first central bank to come up with its cryptocurrency. Unlike the decentralized blockchain-based offerings, this one could give Beijing more control over its entire financial system. It would increase the PBOC’s ability to root out risks and crackdown on money laundering. It could also give the government an unprecedented window into individuals’ private lives.

Deputy Chief Mu Changchun described the central bank’s “two-tiered” system, wherein the bank would create the cryptocurrency and a small group of trusted commercial businesses would “pay the central bank 100% in full” to be allowed to distribute it. This dual delivery system is suitable for national conditions of China. It can not only use existing resources to mobilize the enthusiasm of commercial banks but also smoothly improve the acceptance of the digital currency across China. If China’s leaders agree on with this idea of a legal cryptocurrency for the whole country, its introduction will likely be gradual. Early adopters would be barred from using it on investment products, a person familiar with the central bank’s plans says, which would make the impact on monetary policy negligible. 

“China’s strategic plan is to integrate more closely with the rest of the world. Cryptocurrency is just one of the means to have a more internationalized renminbi. It’s all strategic. It’s all long term”, said Charles Liu, chairman of HAO International, a private equity firm investing over $700 million in Chinese growth companies. Finally, the Chinese government said that the cryptocurrency could launch as soon as November 11, China’s busiest shopping day, known as Singles Day.

Author
Pratik Jaju
Team Member– Fintech
(M.Sc. Finance, NMIMS – Mumbai. Batch 2019-21)

Connect with Harsh on LinkedIn
Co-author
Omkar Pawar
Team Member– Fintech
(M.Sc. Finance, NMIMS – Mumbai. Batch 2019-21)

Connect with Omkar on LinkedIn
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Industry Focus – Diving into a segment of The Equity Market – The Battery Segment

CHINA’S CHOKEHOLD ON BATTERY

Batteries are going to be the picks and shovels of the future business that are data driven and electrified. 5 years from now the electrical grid is going to be materially different compared to what we have today and the electrical vehicle business is going to be robust. There is increasing demand for batteries and their primary element the lithium ion. Essentially it uses the element lithium ion, to capture electrical particles and turn them to useable power.

Over the course of the next 5 years the battery segment it is well poised to grow at the rate of 10 to 15 percent sustainably over the next 10 years. In terms of where we are seeing this, different companies are tying up and recognising the importance of batteries – in June 2018 GM and Honda announced a partnership that Honda is going to buy battery modules from GM as they are looking for better performance and longer range. Like how the transportation segment revolved around the “fuel economy”, in the coming years the move is towards the “battery economy”. The better you make a battery, the better you can make an electrical vehicle – and the same is true for anything that has battery at the heart of it – data centres, grid, or even a corporate head quarters (where a lot of data is stored, power is required and the electric generator that is used are powered using advanced batteries). This is all a part of a much bigger movement, to make an effective and efficient use of electricity and how we do business in the future.

Leading up to today we see more demand for smart phones, stationary storage is catching up, but the EV’s are going to be the drivers of demand of battery (Goldman Sachs projects about 55% of the lithium ion battery market will be controlled by EV in 2020). Batteries are going to emerge as a really important part of the economy for both energy production and transportation.

What exactly is a battery?

The simplest definition can be that it is a device that is able to store electrical energy in the form of chemical energy and convert that energy into electricity. There are different chemical substances in the battery, which then exchange electrons across the battery cell which then exchange energy. The main components are the cathode the positive terminal of the battery, the anode the negative terminal of the battery and the electrolyte. The electrons flow from the anode – the negative terminal of the battery, towards the cathode – the positive terminal of the battery creating a closed circuit.

The most popular battery for all application today is the lithium-ion battery. The lithium is the martial which is in the cathode, used to exchange electrons across the system.

The lithium ion battery has become the default go-to for battery manufactures. First of all there is a fair amount of lithium available; it is very light and thin. It can hold its charge, for a substantial amount of time when compared to the lead acid or the classic alkaline battery. When you charge a lithium ion, you can be fairly secure that the charge you put in, most of it is going to stay there. The classic alkaline battery is not rechargeable, and the lead acid battery which is rechargeable, but requires constant recharging as it discharges easily.

The next question that arises is the availability and the production of lithium which can be in 2 ways – from Brian ponds predominantly from South America – Chile & Argentina. The second is from mineral rocks predominantly from China, Australia, Portugal and Zimbabwe.

The lithium is extracted through normal evaporation from Brian pond as it is the cheapest and the simplest way, but it can be time consuming. When mining it from mineral rocks, there is higher concentrated amount of lithium but it is more expensive and has environmental impacts.

CHINA’S CHOKEHOLD ON BATTERY – SUPPLY AND DEMAND

China wants to push toward cleaner energy, due to their air condition and their population. They   have weak supplies of hydro carbons such as oil or natural gas and are depended heavily on Russia and the Middle East for oil, but have a robust lithium reserve, dominating global markets. In home market lithium ion is key for EV, as it vital for them to have large amounts of native production.

China has a huge reserve of lithium; most of it is in the form of mineral rocks, for producing lithium. Several native Chinese companies are using this to their advantage and making their names in the lithium ion business. Tianqi lithium recently paid nearly $4.3 billion, to become the second largest share holder in Chile’s SQM mining company one of the largest lit aggregators and producers of lithium in the world.

China very well positioned, having a controlling stance over lithium by making investments in South America and Australia and get a big bite out the market outside China as well. They have not dived into their own reserve, as they have locked up supplies elsewhere.

Being the largest consumer of lithium as well as the producer, China really controls both the demand side as well as the supply side.

Cobalt is a very important component for a battery; it helps in maintaining the longevity, stability and safety of the battery. If we reduce the level of cobalt in the battery, we need to increase the level of nickel, which increases risks of overheating and fires. It is expensive and expected to increase in demand between 10 and 25 times from current levels by 2030 with over 50% of the demand coming from battery segment. About 2/3 rd of the global supplies comes out of Congo.

Again when it comes to Cobalt, China has a significant position controlling 8 of the 14 largest miners in the Congo. China also accounts for 80% of the production of cobalt related chemicals, the chemical required to take the metal of the ground refine it and make it useable for the battery. China’s position in cobalt and layering it on lithium, locks-in both the supply and the demand side for the lithium ion battery.

As we look at different ways to produce cathode to go with lithium anode there is a strong interest in moving away from the strong holds that China has built up reserves around. Anode is predominantly graphite, which by surprise China had around 65% of the global production in 2017. Of the cathode and anode side, China had a major presence.

In the anode side, there have been explorations, works have been going on to replace graphite with aluminium, as it can hold more lithium, but any of these technologies have not reached commercial scale right now.

Important take away from the macro perspective is that as we look out in the battery market in the next 3-5 years, it’s going to run through China.

The leading EV battery formula that’s being used right now – nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide cathode, China controls 57 % of their production. When it comes to the significant control of the inputs lithium, cobalt, when it comes to the refining capacity of the cobalt, they have 80 % of that capacity. On top of that, having a majority share of manufacturing of the cathodes that go into the manufacturing  of lithium ion battery and over about 40% EV demand (source: IEA), IEA is projecting for China to control by 2040. When you are controlling all the steps in the value chain, from the rock coming out of the ground, all the way down to an EV driving of the lot, at least in the near term China is going to have a very important role to play.

Indrajith Aditya
Team Member – Equity Research and Valuation
(M.Sc. Finance, NMIMS – Mumbai 2018-20)