Low Volatility, Low Yield in Stocks Fuel Bitcoin and Altcoins

There’s been no shortage of news about the surge in Bitcoin and some of the altcoins (alternative crypto currencies) in 2017. Japan allowing Bitcoins for transactions was a big factor in fueling the demand for Bitcoin as well as increasing odds that other countries, most notably South Korea, may follow suit.

However, there’s an additional factor that is driving up the demand and speculation in Bitcoin and other altcoins. A low volatility and low yield stock market is forcing many people to look elsewhere for volatility and higher yields. More funds are looking at cryptocurrencies as a place to take on more risk for the higher yield. More traders are finding solace in the volatility that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and altcoins such as Ethereum offer. The chart below shows the number of confirmed transactions on the Bitcoin Blockchain per day for the last 12 months.

Confirmed Transactions Per Day (click to enlarge), Source: Blockchain.info

The chart below shows the number Bitcoin Blockchain wallets, which have almost doubled over the last 12 months.

Bitcoin Blockchain Wallets (click to enlarge), Source: Blockchain.info

Now let’s look at the chart below, which is the USD equivalent of daily trading volume of only Bitcoin.

USD Exchange Trade Volume (click to enlarge), Source: Blockchain.info

The final chart shows the average daily market price for Bitcoin across major exchanges in USD.

Average USD market price for Bitcoin (click to enlarge), Source: Blockchain.info

From these charts, we can see:

  • The number of Bitcoin transactions is rising rapidly.
  • The number of wallets, and likely, the number of people jumping into the Bitcoin and cryptocurrency world continues to rise.
  • The daily trading volume of only Bitcoin continues to increase with wild swings.
  • Continued volatility in the price of Bitcoin is making it, and in turn, other cryptocurrencies very attractive to traders and speculators.

I expect volatility to moderate a bit in the short term but I also expect more and more traders, investors and technically savvy users jumping into the cryptocurrency world, mostly because of curiosity but also because other high-yield assets have already been widely invested in and the hunt for yield in a near zero interest rate world continues.

The whole ICO market is fascinating, if not highly speculative, and also offers another path to long-term yield. I expect this to add to the volatility and, hence, the increased speculation in the base cryptocurrencies. There aren’t many places that a company can raise $35 million for their company in less than a minute. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any place one can do that.

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Startups, Angels, Venture Capitalists and the 2017 India Budget

It is Indian budget season for the new fiscal year starting in April and just like every year, the pundits are all weighing in with what they would like to see and what they expect to see. We’ve seen some very positive moves by the India government in terms of setting up a company and various benefits under the “Startup India” program. However, there’s still a long way to go before the true potential of the Indian market is realized.

This is a very important budget for Indian startups and investors. 2016 was not a very pleasant year for global startups but especially Indian startups and investors. Many startups raised follow-on rounds of capital but most struggled to raise the next round of financing. In 2016, the pendulum definitively swung to favor investors once again. Many investors took advantage of the lack of capital by sticking unfriendly terms into agreements, others, simply battered companies with down-rounds. I hope to see more moderation over the long run and expect increased competition amongst investors to create better terms and pricing in the market.

In 2014, I had written about various initiatives which I felt would be beneficial for startups and investors. We’ve seen some of the ideas implemented in various capacities and there’s no doubt that the overall Indian ecosystem has matured significantly since 2014.

I still maintain that the best thing any government can do to spur innovation is to remove or, at least, minimize regulations, provide for a highly educated workforce, enable a robust infrastructure (physical and digital) and get out of the way so that private markets can move unimpeded. However, I’m pretty sure a laissez faire approach to startups and tech investing isn’t going to be the norm in India anytime soon, so below are some suggestions that can have a high impact with some good planning and execution.

  1. Ease of Doing Business – The Indian government needs to understand that over-regulating any industry will put it into a strangle-hold, even with the best intentions in place. Fledgling industries like tech startups, venture capital and angel investing are no different. In fact, they are more susceptible to dying a premature death because of the high risk nature of the business.

    Startup India and other government initiatives have had an overall positive impact but very few startups have been able to take advantage of the various benefits because of continued red tape and regulations left to interpretation by bureaucrats.

    Solution: Simplify or remove specific regulations that continue to make it difficult to do business or invest in India. A large portion of the focus should be on foreign investors for reasons highlighted in the next point.
  2. Downstream or Follow-On Capital – Additional capital at later stages continues to be a major constraint, even after several new funds closed money in 2016. Perhaps the cooling off by foreign hedge funds, mutual funds and corporate investors has had a larger negative impact than was anticipated.

    Solution: Make it simpler and less onerous from a compliance perspective for startups, angels and VCs. India needs to attract more capital domestically and internationally. Make it easy for these stakeholders to participate in the Indian innovation economy with more speed, thru less regulation and less onerous or duplicated compliance.
  3. Accredited Investors and Qualified Institutional Investors – Define what accredited individual (angel) and qualified institutional investors (venture capital funds, accelerator programs and incubators) are in India. For example, in the US an accredited investor is a person who earns $200,000 per year over the last two years or has more than $1,000,000 in assets, not including their primary residence. In India a similar definition could be used.

    Solution: A one time, online only registration with SEBI should allow accredited domestic and foreign investors to easily fund startups with no additional compliance requirements placed on the startup or the investor.

    For foreign investors, the unique identification number can easily be submitted to the RBI when wire transfers are received from international sources. Thus, removing additional compliance steps (and costs) for a startup when it receives an investment from a foreign investor. Many of these suggestions can easily be used outside of investing in just tech startups.
  4. High tax rates and a complex tax code – The current tax rates are very high. Investors take significant risks when investing in startups which have a very high failure rate. Coupled with a very complex tax code, investors, especially smaller ones providing risk capital, don’t have significant financial benefits when investing in high risk startups.

    Solution: Give accredited investors a zero tax rate on long-term capital gains when invested in technology startups. Perhaps a modest 15-20% flat short-term capital gain tax would be appropriate. Currently, foreign investors are subject to 40% withholding.
  5. M&A – It is still incredibly complex for an international company to acquire an Indian startup. It’s also very expensive for all parties involved. This limits the number of smaller acquisitions or acqui-hires that can take place in India. Smaller companies finding modest exits (less than $25 million in value) also helps turn the wheel of tech startups and needs to be addressed.

    Solution: Regulations should be simplified to allow both domestic and international companies to easily acquire or merge with Indian companies. Specifically, smaller companies. In the worst case, a one-time review by a single window, online, clearance entity to approve international acquisitions with minimal government related paperwork or government compliance can be put into effect. This could be an entity under SEBI with participation from the RBI and Invest India.
  6. Single-window clearance for the Startup India program has been wrought with typical Indian bureaucracy. The program needs a complete revamp. Rework the program to automatically grant “startup” status to any company funded by accredited investors (foreign and domestic venture capital funds and angel investors). Status should be granted via a single online form submission with validation from the investor/incubator/accelerator.
  7. Pervasive users – Digital access is still too expensive for most of the non-english speakers in the country.

    Solution: Make “broadband” accessible and affordable.

    1. By putting more government services like BHIM online, citizens, especially those in rural India, will have an additional need to have Internet connectivity.
    2. Fiber optic infrastructure has been put into place across much of India but it’s been expensive to provide. Consequently, demand has been low because price is high and usage beyond WhatsApp or Facebook for much of India has been unnecessary. TRAI should redefine broadband as, at least, 25 megabits per second preferably, closer to 100 mbps. Anything less that this leaves video and audio content out of the hands of hundreds of millions of people.
    3. Encourage telcos to re-invest into infrastructure and provide minimum broadband speeds of 25 megabits per second over wired and wireless. Provide tax incentives for them to re-invest in India’s digital infrastructure and even bigger breaks if they provide higher speeds in rural parts of India at discounted rates.
    4. Invest in an ultra highspeed national Internet backbone.
    5. Invite international companies (e.g. Google, Facebook, NTT Docomo, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom, Telenor, etc.) to invest in the Indian digital infrastructure and compete on a level playing field while maintaining the fundamentals of Net Neutrality.
    6. Provide subsidies to the poor and rural parts of India to get online. Require an Aadhaar card to be eligible.

All of this aside, I think the government will have more far-reaching issues to address in the budget, some will likely be linked to demonetization and the affect it has had on GDP but we can all hope that Indian startups and investors get some love this year.

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Fighting Fraud Thru a Cashless Society

Photo by Flickr user Weldon Kennedy

Emerging markets often leapfrog technologies. For much of Independent India, it was very difficult to get a fixed-line phone. They were expensive and the wait  could be as long as five years. In the 1990’s came the mobile revolution and people across India were able to get a communication device for a relatively small amount of money and they could take the device with them everywhere. Most importantly, they didn’t have to wait years, but only a few hours for the phone to start working.

When it comes to the adoption of non-cash payments, India is in a similar position. Cash has been the preferred source of making and receiving payments since Independence in 1947. Credit cards still have very low penetration across the country. While debit cards have slightly more penetration, mobile wallets (a method of storing credit/debit cards and cash on a mobile phone) have seen quick and widespread adoption. By some estimates, there were 19.9 million credit cards across India in 2014. PayTM and MobiKwik, two of the largest mobile wallet providers in the country, claim to have 20 and 12 million active users respectively.  It’s pretty evident that India is fertile ground for cashless transactions, but also has plenty of room to grow.

With the recent developments in government, essential steps for promoting the use of electronic payments, including withdrawal of surcharges, service charges, convenience fees on cards and digital payments are soon to be rolled out across the country. While the adoption rate of mobile, card-based, and online transactions is currently lower than many other countries, payments via online platforms still accounted for 14 percent of all spending in India last year.

India, with most other emerging markets, faces the challenge of regulating transactions and removing illegal “black money” from the system. A recent study has India ranked fourth in the world for illicit money outflows with an astounding $51 billion leaving the country per year between 2004-2013 alone. Yesterday, Prime Minister Modi took a bold step in curbing the use of “black money” by changing the status of the ₹ 500 and ₹ 1,000 notes as no longer legal tender. This could have short-term implications on GDP since cash purchases still made up a large chunk of the Indian economy. The Indian government will eventually introduce new notes in addition to the ₹ 2,000 that was just launched.

These changes are going to create a significant amount of intended strain on the country’s parallel “black” economy but it’s a blessing for Indian startups and new age, digital first, financial services solutions. It also helps advance the government’s policy of financial inclusion by bringing the unbanked into the financial system.

The Solution to the Black Economy: Going Cashless

Cashless transactions with the right security measures in place would remove customer reliance on underground markets (also known as the “parallel economy”). At the moment, high transaction fees, time to complete a transaction and potential security problems are hindering the popularity of cashless transactions, but legislative progress on both fronts does suggest a positive outlook moving forward.

Enabling people to make inexpensive and easy payments using a phone or a fingerprint is convenient both for buyers and sellers and offers tighter security. This ultimately limits fraud and decreases the circulation of capital in the shadow economy, which, in turn, will lead to more tax revenue.

Shining a light on the parallel economy is something that has challenged governments all over the world for ages, even in established Western countries. In Italy, these underground activities are believed to make up 21% of the economy.

The Indian government understands that a cashless society will make it easier to curb the illicit outflow of capital and is taking steps to encourage technology solutions that scale with the size of the Indian economy.

Trust in a Transaction: Know Your Customer (“KYC”)

Knowing the parties in a transaction has always been difficult but in the digital age, a whole new level of uncertainty and potential for fraud exists. It’s part of the reason banks make customers jump through hoops for seemingly minor and mundane information to authenticate identity.

The ongoing work by the Unique Identification Authority of India to collect biometric data and issue all residents a universal ID number (called the Aadhaar) is unprecedented and early results are promising. The program has continued to grow rapidly over the last seven years with recent enrollment passing one billion citizens. However, the infrastructure needed to effectively implement Aadhaar throughout the country still needs workaccess to localized bank branches and ATMs, for example, is not readily accessible to millions – yet. Though the program is still in the early stages of implementation, it represents a major leap towards a financial infrastructure with strong safeguards in place.

The tweet above by Sanjay is indicative of how Aadhaar is going to change the way verification of parties in a transaction (“eKYC”) and transactions themselves take place for more than a billion people. The largest mobile wallet in India, PayTM, has reduced paper based KYC to 1%.

In order for cashless transactions to catch on, mobile-to-mobile payments also need to be streamlined. Last year the National Payments Corporation of India launched the United Payment Interface (UPI) to make mobile-to-mobile payments easier. The system allows for the quick transfer of funds across different banks with the use of a single identifierremoving the need to exchange sensitive personal information during financial transactions. 

All you need to do is download a UPI enabled app and let the fun begin. Startups like Instamojo have been pushing the limits of how digital payments can be made or received for years. Now, with the policy finally catching up, they can make it even simpler to send money or receive payments with nothing more than a cell phone.

Transparency and Portability

The Aadhaar number is a good step in bringing a scalable identification system to an incredibly diverse population of more than a billion people. However, coupled with blockchain technology, solutions providing more financial transparency to the entire country can easily be developed. With blockchain, an open ledger of all transactions could be recorded in a secure and transparent network linked to the legacy banking system.

With a blockchain, customers could have account number portability when moving between banks. That portability is something that politicians in India are already calling for. Imagine, switching banks or brokerage accounts to a new service provider and taking your account number with you. Potentially, not having to deal with changing routing numbers or providing your employer with new banking information ever again.

NASDAQ is currently testing blockchain technologies in a trial program. Last year, nine of the world’s biggest banks announced a partnership to create a blockchain framework that could be used globally.

The Future

With all of these developments on the horizon, disruptive technologies and solutions around payments, financial inclusion, remittance, public market investing and broader financial services are going to be boundless. As India adapts and implements the proper security measures and makes bold policy decisions, digital transactions will continue to become accessible, easier, less expensive, and, hence, more frequent.

Customers will have peace of mind about their accounts being protected thanks to biometric security. Business professionals will also find comfort in knowing that blockchain technology records all transactions and protects them from fraudulent activity.

Arguably the biggest winner of all will be the Indian government. With such a system in place, it could greatly reduce its much-derided bureaucracy. The government will also be closer to it’s goals of banking the unbanked, stamping out corruption and black market activities while simultaneously increasing revenues and GDP (by adding in cash transactions that were previously not being captured by official mechanisms).

While India still faces some complex challenges, the country is certainly heading in the right direction with regard to a more sustainable cashless society. If history is any indication, India will, in fact, fully embrace the shift just as it did with mobile a decade ago, though, not without some teething pains.

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“Show Me The Money”: India’s Big Promise to VCs

According to CBInsights, there are seven Indian startups are already valued at more than $1 billion. If you include Micromax, Mu Sigma, and InMobi, the number would be ten. Merely 2 years ago, there were only five unicorns.

It won’t be long before large exits confirm India’s ability to deliver meaningful returns to startup investors. There have been more than sixty mergers and acquisitions in India’s tech sector worth more than $800 million in just 2015. Indian IPOs increased nine times in 2015. Also in 2015, “21 IPOs were launched on the BSE, the Bombay Stock Exchange, compared with five in 2014, the highest number since 2011, when 37 IPOs were launched.” Sure they weren’t tech startups but it shows that the domestic appetite for IPOs is on the rise – something, tech startups are very excited about.

While many Indian startups may not take the typical path to an IPO, the opportunities for exits are real and more options continue to emerge. Here are a few of these promising signs for Indian startups and investors.

IPO Me, Please

In September, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) approved e-commerce firm Infibeam’s plan to sell US $68 million in shares. Infibeam was India’s first e-commerce IPO in March 2016, clearing the way for future e-commerce companies. Snapdeal hopes to go public in India within the next few years. It was valued at nearly $5 billion last year, and has said it is likely to IPO in India rather than on a foreign exchange. Flipkart is, also, likely to IPO in the next few years, although rumors of a merger between Amazon India and Flipkart keep making rounds. Other tech unicorns like PayTM, MuSigma, Micromax may also entertain IPOs either in India or in the US. As they go public, they will act as proxies for the broader digital startup sector where many larger investors can’t easily participate.

Acquisitions and Investments by Major Players

India’s major startups are spending significant amounts of money to round out their portfolios as they prepare for their next, more public phase of competition. Snapdeal acquired mobile prepaid recharge provider, FreeCharge for $400 million in April, then launched a digital wallet for their bundled  services in September. They’ve acquired ten more firms over the last year, such as online loan platform RupeePower, luxury goods retailer Exclusively, and MartMobi, a mobile apps developer and TechStars alum.

Meanwhile Ola, another member of India’s Unicorn club, acquired rival rideshare service TaxiForSure for $200 million. Ola also acquired Qarth and trip-planning company, Geotagg.

According to Crunchbase, Flipkart wasn’t sitting on the sidelines either, publicly announcing three acquisitions in 2015 as well as PhonePe so far in 2016.

MakeMyTrip, the NASDAQ-listed travel firm, picked up last-minute booking site MyGola, 500 Startups’ first investment in India back in 2011, and has launched an “innovation fund” to invest in more startups.

It’s not just Indian firms who are doing the buying – Twitter picked up ZipDial, an Indian firm that turns missed calls into smartphone alerts, for an undisclosed amount (also a 500 Startups portfolio company). Yahoo bought Bangalore based, BookPad in 2014.

Times Internet, part of the media heavyweight, Bennett, Coleman and Company, recently announced leading an investment of $11.2 million in Haptik, an Indian concierge service. FreshDesk, another Tiger Global backed startup, recently announced its 5th acquisition.

What’s In It For Investors?

The Reserve Bank of India recently made it easier for foreign investors to sell or transfer their stakes in Indian startups, and loosened disclosure requirements. Relaxing rules like these should go a long way in attracting new investment dollars from overseas investors as well as continuing to make investing in startups attractive to local investors.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has promised to make it even easier for investors to both enter and exit startups through its Startup India Plan. This initiative, launched in January, intends to expand the country’s culture of innovation in technology startups to other areas, such as agriculture, manufacturing and healthcare.

India Accelerating

There were 141 M&A deals worth US$1.26 billion involving Indian tech startups in four years from 2010 to the end of 2013, a stark increase from years prior.  If you consider the massive growth in mobile phone penetration, the second largest Internet user base in the world, acceleration of e-commerce in India (which is expected to top $17 billion this year, having quadrupled since 2010) and a government that is committed to creating the next “Startup Nation” of 1.3 billion people, then the future of exits in India starts looking far more interesting.

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