DAVOS/ZURICH: As a large number of Indian HNIs and their representatives went around Swiss ski resort town of Davos for attending the annual WEF summit last week, they also got several pitches on the margins for two new 'safe and promising havens' — cryptocurrencies and cash vaults.
Cash vaults, which are huge in size unlike the typical bank lockers in India and can contain not just cash but also gold, data, paintings and sculptures, are big business in Switzerland and are not just limited to banks, with several stand-alone entities offering these services.
Some vaults are actually buried deep under the snow with several strong layers of security, multiple executives associated with this business said.
What they want is now to expand their operations to India — by offering their Swiss vaults to HNIs from India and also by roping in 'strategic partners' to set up similar vaults there, some of the Indians approached by them said.
The Davos meet also saw a number of entities and individuals associated with several cryptocurrencies present in the city — some were registered for the meet, but most of them remained outside the official programmes to pitch these 'safe' and new-age products.
Again, several Indians were approached not just for investing in these currencies, but to join as partners. Those pitching the two 'safe havens' included several non-resident Indians, as also those from Russia, Germany and China.
All of those making the pitch and receiving such pitches refused to be named, saying they do not want to land in regulatory problems as there are no rules as yet either for cryptocurrencies like bitcoins or cash vaults in India.
However, some top global leaders spoke openly about the risks associated with cryptocurrencies during the official sessions of the World Economic Forum.
IMF Chief Christine Lagarde said that the multilateral financial institution was already looking into the issues relating to cryptocurrencies to analyse potential risks arising out of this new asset class due to the anonymity attached to it and the possible money laundering risks, while the US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asserted that these currencies would not be allowed at all for any illicit trades.
Lagarde, however, said that the new technologies that have led to creation of cryptocurrencies need to be analysed properly and felt that innovative technologies can help improve the financial inclusion scenario in the world.
Bitcoin's price has increased more than 12-fold in the past four years, and the combined market of crypto-assets is now valued at more than USD 500 billion. Such valuations have caused many to think that the market is overheated.
"I tend to think of bitcoin as an interesting experiment, not a permanent feature of our lives," said Robert J Shiller, Sterling Professor of Economics, Yale University, USA.
Schiller compared the market to a speculative bubble that rouses public interest. "It involves contagious stories about people making a lot of money," he said.
But beyond the hype of a single cryptocurrency, thousands of other digital currencies have been introduced, and blockchain, the technology underlying bitcoin, carries the potential of providing decentralised, incorruptible ledger, which could be used in a variety of other contexts.
Whether or not cryptocurrencies offer a widespread, scalable alternative to traditional currencies depends greatly on their efficiency of use and on how well they function as a store of value. Volatility in the bitcoin market carries risks for those who hold their savings in the market, and many prefer to see bitcoin as an asset, rather than a replacement for central-bank-created currency, according to the World Economic Forum.
Regulators around the world have raised concern about the way in which cryptocurrencies make it easy to move money anonymously. As such, they provide a useful tool for illicit activities, such as money laundering.
"I do think (cryptocurrency) needs to be regulated, just like anything I would want to become mainstream should be regulated, said Neil Rimer, General Partner and Co-Founder, Index Ventures, Switzerland, adding that regulation could be one way of increasing public trust in the experiment.
Not only are nations seeking to regulate the use of cryptocurrency, many are also seeking to take advantage of the disruptive innovation associated with it. For example, Sweden is considering the creation of its own digital currency, an "e-krona", which would complement traditional notes and coins, said Cecilia Skingsley, Deputy Governor of the Swedish Central Bank.
"Cash is going out of fashion very quickly," she said, while adding that digital currencies could provide consumers greater convenience and, potentially, efficiency.
Some developing nations have also seen the potential of becoming part of the cryptocurrency movement. "A lot of smaller economies now they start to think if we just make our regulation a little bit more crypto-friendly, we can attract a lot of investment and a lot of talent," said Jennifer Zhu Scott, Principal, Radian Partners, Hong Kong SAR.
The staying power and pricing of bitcoin suggest that crypto-assets will continue to have a disruptive impact on global finance, but they raise more questions than answers about what shape that disruption will take.