Why cryptocurrency is risky but presents a massive opportunity for New Zealand to lead the world

Easy Crypto CEO Janine Grainger
"A year or two ago you were the weirdo at the BBQ talking about crypto. Now everyone's comparing their portfolios on apps." Photo credit: Supplied

Cryptocurrency, depending on who you listen to, can be either the entire future of money or a giant con that will make a few people rich to the detriment of the many.

There are more subtle takes, of course, where cryptocurrency has ongoing uses but isn't necessarily how we will all be buying our groceries in years to come.

Like many things these days, however, that subtlety appears less prevalent - particularly on social media where 'crypto-bros' decry those who don't invest and billionaires like Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey tout the benefits.

How crypto hit the mainstream

Easy Crypto, a New Zealand exchange registered as a Financial Services Provider, recently undertook a survey showing a large number of Kiwis had already bought into digital currency.

In a poll of 1000 New Zealanders, 18.4 percent of adults said they had crypto investments, which is just shy of the 19.7 percent who hold more traditional property investments.

That might seem surprising given there's a big hurdle to get over to understand it - from the lingo to the technology - as well as how you can actually buy and sell it.

Easy Crypto's co-founder and CEO Janine Grainger told Newshub the percentage was bigger than she had expected and showed crypto was going mainstream.

"A year or two ago you were the weirdo at the barbecue talking about cryptocurrency and now everyone's comparing their portfolios on apps. It's much more commonplace," she said.

Even though it's not new, a lot of preconceptions remain over cryptocurrency that aren't necessarily true, either.

One of those is that it's male-dominated, with the online crypto-bro stereotype making up the vast majority of the industry. That came up again during recent discussions on International Women's Day, Grainger said.

"Some of my female staff were saying that they had perceived cryptocurrency as being a very male-dominated industry before they joined us," she said.

"It's interesting being a female leader in the industry to then give other women confidence that this is a space for them. One of the biggest things is just being able to see that the space is more diverse than perhaps the portrayal you see out there.

"I think somewhere between 35 to 40 percent of our customer base are women. It's also very diverse in age ranges as well - we've got a lot of older customers."

One of the things that may have helped with that diversification is the COVID-19 pandemic, as people were forced to work and shop online more than ever before, increasing digital literacy.

Older crypto investors may also benefit from greater financial literacy than younger people, Grainger said, which encourages them not to have all of their eggs in one basket.

"They're more used to things like portfolio diversification to have income and interest-bearing products, so they really get into different types of passive income products with cryptocurrencies because they understand the context of compound interest.

"They're drawing those parallels with traditional financial assets and seeing the ways that cryptocurrency can complement say, a term deposit, or perhaps behave in ways similar to stocks and shares and seeing those similarities between traditional finance and crypto finance," she told Newshub.

'It's not a safe asset'

One of the major downsides to cryptocurrencies is their volatility. Although there has been a general upwards trend since creation for the most popular digital currencies, the value can rise and fall by huge amounts in a very short time.

Anyone interested should learn about the risks just as much as they do the potential rewards, Grainger said.

"The crypto markets can change 10 percent in a day. It's really volatile. That's such an important consideration for anyone looking into investing cryptocurrency, that risk appetite and understanding the volatility.

"It's not a safe asset. It's a very risky, highly volatile asset."

There are also concerns on the environmental impact of cryptocurrencies. They're created through a process of 'mining', where computers are rewarded for solving complex problems. The computing power used is huge - bitcoin miners alone use more electricity than many countries do in a single year, for example.

It's a legitimate concern, Grainger said, but she added both transparency and innovation are key to understanding how this will improve in the future.

"Transparency is important. If you go to the stock market and buy some shares you don't necessarily know the environmental impact of your share purchase, or of the company that you're investing in," she said.

"In so much of our life we do not have transparency over the environmental impact of our actions. It's very hidden to us. Cryptocurrency is amazing from its transparency point of view.

"If you make a transaction, you have really great clarity on the environmental impact of that in terms of the amount of energy used. That transparency is really powerful because it drives change and it drives innovation."

Grainger drew parallels to early generation mobile phones to further her point.

"My first mobile phone could make calls on it and play that snake game. That was about it, right? It's not really a game changer in terms of connectivity."

That's not true now.

"There's so much possibility and so much you can do with [mobile phones now]. It would have been really ill-informed of us to think that mobile phones would never take off by looking at the first generation and not thinking about how that changes."

'A really good opportunity for NZ'

There are many online who consider a lack of regulation one of the major positives about cryptocurrencies, particularly libertarians. However Grainger sees a role for it, particularly as it could protect those in Aotearoa who buy and sell digital currency.

"I think the really big benefit is around safety and security for people. You're much safer using a New Zealand player because anyone like Easy Crypto is regulated under New Zealand law."

That brings protections for people via the dispute resolution scheme if there are problems, which might not be possible if you use offshore or unregulated exchanges.

There's also a role for the Government, Grainger said.

Last year Parliament's Finance and Expenditure Committee announced an inquiry into the nature, impact and risk of cryptocurrencies, looking at the benefits and the risks to New Zealand. The terms of reference includes how cryptocurrencies are created and traded - particularly the environmental impact of crypto coin mining.

But the Government could have a more holistic role to take in the process, too.

"They should take a role in terms of enabling innovation, ensuring a joined up regulatory approach to promote New Zealand as a place for crypto businesses or blockchain businesses more broadly," Grainger said.

"I think this is incredibly important when you look at New Zealand, right? We're a small island nation very far away from the rest of the world, relatively reliant on primary produce and agriculture.

"This new wave of digitisation could provide a really incredible opportunity for us to become a hub of that high-tech activity that makes us less reliant on primary exports."

There's also an environmental benefit, with no exports and no shipping boosting the country's greenhouse gases, she said.

"I think it's a really great opportunity for New Zealand. I think the first countries to come out with a coordinated, thought-through approach to regulation that enables innovation whilst also protecting the monetary system and everyday consumers will really benefit," she said.

Buyer beware

Not everyone is as positive about the future of cryptocurrencies. Technology writer Stephen Diehl has been a longstanding critic, calling them a "destructive force".

He supports "forceful regulation" to stop "financially corrosive enterprise" from growing further, he wrote on his website in a piece entitled 'The Case Against Crypto'.

The biggest issue may be that the technology associated with cryptocurrencies doesn't actually solve any real problems, he argues.

"The crypto project has had 13 years to try and find a problem to solve. It has not found one," Diehl wrote.

"For the last 13 years these projects have done nothing but scam people by creating synthetic asset bubbles for gambling and destroying the environment.

"There are fundamental limitations to the scalability of blockchain-based technologies, and every use case is better served by another simpler technology except for crime, ransomware, extra-legal gambling, and sanctions evasion; all of which are a drain on society, not a benefit."

That means there are no tangible benefits to using the technology over the current practise of trusted parties and centralised databases, he said.

Diehl may be at least partially correct in asserting concerns over the criminality of cryptocurrencies - but then fraud, money laundering and similar criminal behaviours have been around a lot longer than digital money has.

Ultimately the choice to use or invest in the market comes down to the individual and that necessitates evaluating the risk. In that way it's not massively different to the share market, Grainger insisted.

Typically before people buy shares in a company, they will look at its product, competitors, its performance, the value and more. The same applies with crypto. If they don't then the risk is perhaps greater than anticipated.

Whether you are for or against cryptocurrencies, it can probably be best summed up in a two-word phrase that all of us should think about with every single purchase we make: "Buyer beware."