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Crypto won’t save Ukraine — or Russia

Protocol Fintech

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Fintech. This Friday: Crypto at war, Block’s solid quarter, and Citi’s overdraft move.

Off the chain

It’s surreal to watch the stock markets shake off the initial shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The geopolitical and humanitarian disaster has to add up to something, right? Instead, Wall Street is focusing on Block’s sunny outlook and Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong’s prediction that crypto winters are, like, so 2017. The optimistic read: Investors are discounting the long-term impact of Putin’s aggression. The cynical one? I don’t want to think about it.

— Owen Thomas (email | twitter)

Crypto at war

Crypto’s going to war. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlights the limits — and promise — of the blockchain in a major geopolitical conflict. A campaign to send aid in the form of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to besieged Ukrainians ran into logistical and legal hurdles. The Biden administration put out a long list of Russian officials and their allies who are now subject to sanctions: They might well turn to crypto to get around the penalties and restrictions.

“What fascinates me is that crypto will now be front and center for use by both Russia and Ukraine in this fight,” Michael Fasanello of the Blockchain Intelligence Group told Protocol.

Your crypto’s no good here. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence said it welcomed donations for logistics and medical support, but made it clear that it can only accept transfers of fiat money to its bank account.

  • If you saw reports of crypto funding the Ukrainian military, that’s likely because a non-governmental organization, Come Back Alive, which supports the military, has been taking bitcoin.
  • The NGO’s website said donations could be made through Fondy, SWIFT, a bitcoin wallet and Patreon. Its Patreon page made waves on social media for offering subscription tiers like “Bomb,” “Bullet” or “Tank.” It’s had a Patreon page since 2020, but it was taken down sometime Thursday, according to Internet Archive captures. Patreon tweeted that it didn’t allow purchases of military equipment and had “suspended a campaign while we investigate.”
  • The NGO’s bitcoin wallet had received 19.9 bitcoin last night, worth $700,000, which has since climbed to 112.6 bitcoin, roughly $4.4 million. It's not exactly a game-changer against Putin’s juggernaut, though: Russia’s annual military budget was estimated at $65 billion in 2019.
  • FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried also signaled his support for the country, tweeting that the crypto exchange “gave $25 to each Ukrainian on FTX,” adding “do what you gotta do.”

Russia has defied the West, but can it put DeFi to the test? The Biden administration’s sanctions took aim at Russia’s “corrupt” elites and their families, but didn’t specifically mention crypto.

  • There’s a growing call to oust Russia from SWIFT, the global payments network that processes around $5 trillion a day, but also uncertainty over whether the move could backfire.
  • Access to crypto could in theory soften the blow of those penalties. “The Russians will lean on crypto to circumvent global sanctions that are increasingly strangling their economy,” Fasanello said.
  • It’s telling that Putin recently put the kibosh on efforts by the Bank of Russia to ban crypto.
  • Some take a maximalist view of crypto’s power. "If the Russians decide — and they're already doing this, I'm sure — to avoid using any currency other than cryptocurrency, they can effectively avoid virtually all of the sanctions," Ross S. Delston, an anti-money laundering compliance expert, told CNN.
  • But governments are getting better and better at catching crypto. Look at Canada’s move to sanction crypto wallets used by backers of the trucker convoy, or the Department of Justice’s recent seizure of $3.6 billion in stolen bitcoin. Russian crypto holders might find themselves similarly vulnerable, especially as they try to cash out their coins.

That’s because options for turning crypto into regular money and vice versa remain limited. That’s a problem both for those trying to offer Ukraine relief and those seeking to evade sanctions.

  • Bitcoin can’t readily pay for food or medical supplies in a conflict zone. You need a service to convert your money: one licensed as a money transmitter, which means anti-money laundering regulations kick in.
  • Some companies provide APIs for companies to convert crypto, such as MoonPay, Transak and Wyre, but oversight of this part of the industry is just emerging and the rules are often unclear. MoonPay and Wyre do not operate in Russia.
  • The typical crypto holder doesn’t keep a hardware wallet locked away in a safe. More likely, most are using a centralized exchange like Coinbase, which attracted millions of visitors with its Super Bowl ad. The company admitted last year it had disclosed transactions to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces sanctions.

This is the first war fought in the age of crypto. The digital-asset industry is maturing, but it still carries a lot of hope and a lot of hype. There’s a romance to the notion of sending bitcoin to the front line. But the reality is that soldiers and oligarchs alike still need cash.

— Lindsey Choo (email | twitter), Benjamin Pimentel (email | twitter) and Tomio Geron(email | twitter)


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On the money

On Protocol: Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong thinks that crypto winters are a thing of the past after the crypto exchange reported an earnings beat. The company has previously acknowledged that its fortunes rose and fell in the short term along with cryptocurrency prices.

Citi is planning to eliminate overdraft fees. The banking giant announced its plans to eliminate not just overdraft fees, but also fees for overdraft protection and returned items by the summer in an effort to offer “the most consumer-friendly overdraft practices.”

Also on Protocol: Western nations are still undecided on SWIFT sanctions against Russia. President Joe Biden stated that while SWIFT sanctions remain an option, some European leaders are resisting the move.

TransUnion is launching a “buy now, pay later” credit tool. The new Point-of-Sale suite of solutions will help people who take out BNPL loans have payments on them count toward their long-term credit history, the credit-reporting agency said.

Opendoor’s earnings beat was not enough for Wall Street. OPEN plunged by over 9% in after-hours trading after the iBuyer reported fourth-quarter earnings, despite offering a healthy outlook for the year.

China’s Supreme Court ruled crypto transactions were “illegal fundraising.” The ruling, effective March 1, set a precedent for future criminal prosecutions of the crypto industry. China largely banned cryptocurrencies last year, favoring its eCNY instead.

Block's solid quarter

Jack Dorsey loves to talk about Block’s bitcoin efforts. But the company’s fourth-quarter earnings report shows that the company’s narrative for Wall Street is still being told by its original Square business and the newer Cash App.

Both have become solidly profitable on an operational basis, with more growth ahead: “As we look ahead to 2022, beyond the first quarter, we believe Cash App's year-over-year gross profit growth rate will improve in the second half of the year compared to the first half," said CFO Amrita Ahuja on a call with analysts.

She added that the company expected to "sequentially grow gross profit each quarter across Cash App and Square throughout the year, assuming the macroeconomic environment remains stable.”

Read the full story.

— Tomio Geron


How do you maximize Sales and Marketing performance? Point them at the same targets. Watch the latest episode of Club Revenue on Nasdaq as Bhaskar Roy, Chief Marketing Officer at Workato, reveals his remarkable tactics so that Marketing and Sales can outperform.

Learn more

The chart

With the Ukraine conflict throwing markets into chaos, some eyes turned to crypto prices. But over time, digital assets haven’t proven to be a good hedge for public equities. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are more likely to move in lockstep with other risk assets than provide diversification, as the past month’s trading shows.

Thanks for reading — hang in there until Monday.

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