Will there ever be more than 21 million Bitcoin?

Anthony Pompliano is the host of the Pomp Podcast, where he talks about all things crypto and Bitcoin. He is also widely followed on Twitter. On Twitter, Pompliano often makes proclamations about banks and central banking. One of his most know catchphrases is “Long Bitcoin, Short the Bankers“.



Incidentally one might make the case that Pompliano is indirectly participating in the banking industry through Morgon Creek Capital, which is an investor in Blokfi.

This morning BlockFi announced that they have raised a $50M Series C round of funding. The investment round was led by my partners and I at Morgan Creek Digital, alongside an amazing list of co-investors like Valar Ventures, CMT Digital, Castle Island Ventures, Winklevoss Capital, SCB 10X, Avon Ventures, Purple Arch Ventures, Kenetic Capital, HashKey, Michael Antonov, NBA player Matthew Dellavedova and two prestigious university endowments.

I will be joining BlockFi’s board of directors as part of this investment.

Pomp Newsletter, August 2020

What does BlockFi do? Well according to the newsletter:

For those that are unaware, let me break down what BlockFi does today, why I think this business can be one of the next multi-billion dollar fintech giants, and where they are going next. Today they have the following products:

  1. A lending product that allows an individual or organization to deposit crypto assets and take US dollar loans out against the collateral. This is popular for people who want USD liquidity, but would rather not sell their Bitcoin or other assets.
  2. An interest-bearing account where users can deposit Bitcoin, Ether, or stablecoins and earn up to 8.6% APY interest.
  3. A cryptocurrency exchange that has no transaction fees.

Sounds like a bank. Quacks like a bank. Must be a bank.

How to Create Bitcoin

I myself am a customer of BlockFi as I have a deposit there. I’m actually a quite content customer. I should also note that I have nothing against the banking profession or of Anthonly Pompliano being one. It’s an honorable profession in my opinion.

Anyways, the cryptocurrencies that I have deposited at BlockFi, as highlighted in the newsletter, carry interest. Interestingly, the interest rates offered through BlockFi are considerably higher than interest rates shown offered by banks.

It’s worth wondering how BlockFi pays its customers interest. There are a number of ways BlockFi can do this. One way would be to just buy cryptocurrencies and pay the customers. However, although this might be good for customer acquisitions, it does sound pretty costly.

A second way, would be to lend out the deposits. The problem here is that if you are accepting deposits by paying up to 8.4% interest, you have to find lenders that can pay even higher interests, to get a positive spread after factoring in delinquencies.

As described in the newsletter, BlockFi has a lending program whereby lenders have to deposit crypto as a collateral. It might come as a surprise that the collateral required to get a loan at BlockFi is double the amount that is being lent. Alas, we can assume that BlockFi is not in much need of writing off bad loans.

Bitcoin Printing

A third way for BlockFi to pay out interests would be to simply add the amount to their clients statements. After all, this is what banks to and banking is all about. The location of the so-called money printing does not happen at the central bank level but at the banks they service.

So what happens if BlockFi or any other banking institution built on top of Bitcoin does this (NB: I have know idea if this is the case, I’m just theorizing here)? Now there are more Bitcoins in circulation that have been created.

The question I ask myself is this. Even if the supply of Bitcoin is fixed, what is to say that the circulation of Bitcoin cannot be increased when lending and other banking related institutions, such as BlockFi, become more widely used?

How does BlockFi custody assets?

This question is answered on the BlockFi website:

When clients send crypto to their BlockFi account or purchase additional crypto within the BlockFi Interest Account, that digital asset is replaced with an obligation to return the same amount of that crypto plus any interest earned. In order to pay our clients crypto interest on a monthly basis and to meet withdrawal requests on a timely basis, we engage in a number of activities, including (1) keeping a material amount of digital assets available for withdrawal with third parties such as Gemini, BitGo, and Coinbase; (2) purchasing, as principal, SEC-regulated equities and predominately CFTC-regulated futures and (3) applying risk management to the lending activities in the institutional market. The credit risks to these institutions are mitigated by credit due diligence and/or collateral (such as cash, crypto, or other assets).

Digital currency is not legal tender, is not backed by any government, and the BlockFi Interest Account is not a bank account nor a brokerage account, and is not subject to FDIC, SIPC, or other similar protections. Interest rates, withdrawal limits, and fees are subject to change and are largely dictated by market conditions. This is not a risk-free product and loss of principal is possible.


What is Inflation Anyway?

I feel like we have made inflation deceptively simple. We have this exact number for it. The Bureau of Statistics will declare something like “last month, the inflation was 2.46%, annually adjusted.” It will do so with an number that is so precise that at will have at least two decimals, implying the surgical accuracy employed to get to that particular number.

We don’t seem to ask ourselves how we come up with these number, do we?

Do We Even Know What Inflation Is?

The great Milton Friedman did not have even a shadow of a doubt: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” Well, here is what the equally great Robert Solow said about Milton Friedman: “Another difference between Milton [Friedman] and myself is that everything reminds Milton of the money supply. Well, everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of my papers.”

In Japan they have been expanding the money supply for decades. They can’t seem to produce inflation, no matter how hard they try. If we ask the European Central Bank what inflation is, they say something like “inflation occurs when there is a general rise in prices.” (They will also ask if you have seen the inflation monster and offer you to watch a cartoon about price stability).

If inflation is just general rise in prices, then why do prices rise or fall? Most would say, because changes in supply and demand. Don’t prices of products and services tend to drop over time? How do we even measure this?

How to Measure Inflation?

This seams to me an exceptionally tricky undertaking. If inflation is supposed to measure changes in the price of the stuff we buy over a period of time, what happens when we start buying different stuff over time? Our behaviors and preferences are constantly changing? Imagine a lab scientist that has to test his experiment on rats one day and then repeat the experiments with hamsters.

Do you see the problem here? The stuff we buy is not constant. Take mobile phones for example. How can you realistically measure the inflation in mobile phones from one year to another? Or even, how do you compare the price inflation of mobile phones to a period 20 years ago, when there were no mobile phones?

What about all the stuff we don’t pay for yet derive some benefit from? How do you factor in the change in cost of consuming Google searches into any inflation measurement? Should you measure the increase and decrease in paid ads displayed with organic searches? 

And there there are substitute products. If pork rises in value, relative to beef, you might be inclined to consume more beef and less pork. But the baskets of goods and services will take that into account.

So next time, when you see an inflation number with a couple of decimal points. Ask yourself how it was measured and how accurate that measurement could be.

How do Banks Make Money?

You might think that the role of commercial banks is to accept deposits from the public and channel them into projects, where the bank can lend the money out at higher rates of return. You would be wrong.

When you hear the world deposit, you might think that the bank is storing the money for you, therefore acting as a custodian. It isn’t. When you deposit your money in the bank, in a legal sense, you are lending your money to the bank.

Money Creation

Banks, currently, are the effective creators of the money supply. They produce money. They do this by selling promissory notes, such as mortgages, car loans or business loans. Deposits are more like a by-product of the money creation process.

This is brilliantly explained by Professor Richard Werner (who happens to also be the guy who came up with the terms Quantitative Easing), in the following video:

Richard Werner: Essentially, if we want to produce something we need funding. So there is a role for banking in almost everything that happening in the economy. But what exactly is that role? Banks are being thought of as intermediaries. This is not really what is happening. They are creators of the money supply. 

Interviewer: So, you are firmly of the view that banks create money out of thin air?

Richard Werner: I produced the first empirical study to prove that, in the 5,000-year history of banking. Banks are thought of as deposit-taking institutions that lend money. The legal reality is that banks don’t take deposits and banks do not lend money. So, what is a deposit? A deposit is not actually a deposit. It’s not a bailment. It’s not held in custody. 

At law, the word deposit is meaningless. The law courts in various judgements have made it very clear. If you give your money to the bank, even if it is called a deposit, this money is simply a loan to the bank. So, there is no such thing as a deposit. 

Banks borrow from the public. That much we have established. What about lending? Are they lending money? No, they don’t. Banks don’t lend money. At law, it’s very clear. They are in the business of purchasing securities. That’s it. 

So you say: “Ok. don’t confuse me with all that legalese. I want a loan.” Fine, here is the loan contract. Here is the offer letter. And you sign. At law, it’s very clear. You have issued a security, namely a promissory note. And the bank is going to purchase that. That is what is happening. 

Interviewer: Put it in laymen terms.   

Richard Werner: It means that what the bank is doing is very different from what it presents to the public that it is doing. How does this fit together? You say “fine, the bank purchases my promissory note. But how do I get my money?” 

The bank will say, “you will find it in your account with us.” That will be technically correct. If they say, “we will transfer it to your account,” that’s wrong. Because no money is transferred at all. From anywhere inside the bank or outside of it. Why? Because what we call a deposit is simply the bank’s record of its debt to the public. Now, it also owes you money and its record of the money it owes you is what you think you are getting as money. And that is all it is. 

And that is how the banks create the money supply. The money supply consists of 97% of bank deposits. And these are created out of nothing by banks when they lend. Because they invent fictitious customer deposits. Why? They simply restate, slightly incorrectly in accounting terms, what is an account payable liability arising from the loan contract, having purchased your promissory note, as a customer deposit. 

But nobody has deposited any money.