By Adam R. Smith, aka “American Scream” – Technology Ethicist
Is Bitcoin a Ponzi scheme? How close is it to the traditional definition? Let’s look at the facts.
First let’s start with various formal definitions:
Definition of “Ponzi Scheme”
Webster’s Dictionary – arguably the primary source of what things mean for close to 200 years, and the standard for education in US and around the world:
Pon·zi scheme | \ ˈpän-zē-
: an investment swindle in which some early investors are paid off with money put up by later ones in order to encourage more and bigger risks
Ponzi scheme, fraudulent and illegal investment operation that promises quick, easy, and significant returns on investments with little or no risk. A Ponzi scheme is a type of pyramid scheme in which the operator, at the pyramid’s top, acquires a small group of investors that is initially provided with tremendous investment returns via funds secured from a second group of investors. The second group, in turn, is paid with funds obtained from a third group of investors, and so on until the number of potential investors is exhausted and the scheme collapses. The operator may either appropriate a portion of incoming investments as the scheme progresses or wait until the operation is about to collapse before absconding with the funds.
A Ponzi scheme (/ˈpɒnzi/, Italian: [ˈpontsi]) is a form of fraud that lures investors and pays profits to earlier investors with funds from more recent investors. The scheme leads victims to believe that profits are coming from legitimate business activity (e.g., product sales or successful investments), and they remain unaware that other investors are the source of funds. A Ponzi scheme can maintain the illusion of a sustainable business as long as new investors contribute new funds, and as long as most of the investors do not demand full repayment and still believe in the non-existent assets they are purported to own.
With little or no legitimate earnings, Ponzi schemes require a constant flow of new money to survive. When it becomes hard to recruit new investors, or when large numbers of existing investors cash out, these schemes tend to collapse. As a result, most investors end up losing all or much of the money they invested. In some cases, the operator of the scheme may simply disappear with the money.
Here’s the SEC’s page on Ponzi schemes:
A Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud that pays existing investors with funds collected from new investors. Ponzi scheme organizers often promise to invest your money and generate high returns with little or no risk. But in many Ponzi schemes, the fraudsters do not invest the money. Instead, they use it to pay those who invested earlier and may keep some for themselves.
With little or no legitimate earnings, Ponzi schemes require a constant flow of new money to survive. When it becomes hard to recruit new investors, or when large numbers of existing investors cash out, these schemes tend to collapse.
Ponzi schemes are named after Charles Ponzi, who duped investors in the 1920s with a postage stamp speculation scheme.
How Ponzi Schemes Actually Work
If we distill all the various definitions of Ponzi down to a basic set of characteristics, here’s what we get:
- A scheme where the primary source of money comes from recruiting new people
- A scheme where people who buy in earlier, get paid from people who buy in later.
- A scheme that involves misleading the people who are buying into the scheme
- A scheme that requires constant recruitment of new buyers in order to sustain itself
- A scheme that naturally collapses when either too many early buyers try to exit/cash out, or the income from new buyers dries up and the scheme is exposed.
The above five primary characteristics define what a Ponzi is.
I’m going to add a sixth characteristic that becomes obvious during the course of this analysis:
\6. A scheme that is often ignored as being a scam as long as it continues operating and paying off people. It’s not acknowledged as a Ponzi until a significant portion of investors lose their money.
This 6th characteristic, while not a requirement, is clearly pronounced in both the original scheme involing Charles Ponzi, and the largest Ponzi ever, Bernie Madoffs. More details will be provided later on in this document.
There are various other “red flags” which are not exclusive or required but are often associated with Ponzis, according to the SEC:
Many Ponzi schemes share common characteristics. Look for these warning signs:
- High returns with little or no risk. Every investment carries some degree of risk, and investments yielding higher returns typically involve more risk. Be highly suspicious of any “guaranteed” investment opportunity.
- Overly consistent returns. Investments tend to go up and down over time. Be skeptical about an investment that regularly generates positive returns regardless of overall market conditions.
- Unregistered investments. Ponzi schemes typically involve investments that are not registered with the SEC or with state regulators. Registration is important because it provides investors with access to information about the company’s management, products, services, and finances.
- Unlicensed sellers. Federal and state securities laws require investment professionals and firms to be licensed or registered. Most Ponzi schemes involve unlicensed individuals or unregistered firms.
- Secretive, complex strategies. Avoid investments if you don’t understand them or can’t get complete information about them.
- Issues with paperwork. Account statement errors may be a sign that funds are not being invested as promised.
- Difficulty receiving payments. Be suspicious if you don’t receive a payment or have difficulty cashing out. Ponzi scheme promoters sometimes try to prevent participants from cashing out by offering even higher returns for staying put.
Let’s cite some common established Ponzi schemes
Charles Ponzi’s original scheme
In the early 1900s an Italian immigrant named Charles Ponzi noticed that there were differences in the exchange rate for postal stamps between Europe and America. He surmised that if he could buy stamps from one area and sell them in another, he could profit. And if he scaled this operation enough, the profits would be substantive. The base premise seemed believable and he managed to acquire a few investors to begin. He promised a 50% profit within 45 days.*
In reality, there’s no evidence Ponzie ever bought/sold stamps in large quantities. Instead, he paid earlier investors with money he acquired from
later people who bought into the scheme.
From the Smithsonian Institution:
Ponzi was good to his word at first, using funds from new investors to pay off the old. As his popularity and number of investors grew, postal inspectors became suspicious of how he was able to ensure the returns he promised. Their investigation showed that worldwide International Reply Coupon sales were not nearly high enough to support Ponzi’s story about trading in them to make a profit. Inspectors were sure that he was doing something illegal, but despite the fact that he sent messages to his investors through the mail, they could not arrest him for fraud, because at that point no one was complaining of being cheated. These early funders were still flush with money pouring in from new investors.
Following the publication of a newspaper article that questioned the validity of his operations, Ponzi went on the offensive. He called a meeting with federal, state, and local authorities on Monday, July 26, 1920 during which he suggested they audit his books. Also at his own suggestion, Ponzi agreed to stop taking investments during the audit in order to make the job easier. In this attempt to reassure the public, Ponzi caused his own demise. The next day angry investors crowded his office to demand their money—they feared that Ponzi was about to close up shop.
Ponzi was able to pay back a few of these investors, again trying to reassure the rest. Many continued to withdraw their money until Monday, August 9, when Massachusetts Bank Commissioner Joseph Allen told the Hanover Trust Company to stop honoring Ponzi’s checks, and three people, who had deposited with Ponzi, filed a petition in court to declare Ponzi bankrupt. Unable to pay back these investors, Ponzi was charged with using the mails in a scheme to defraud, and in November pled guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison.
After being found not guilty in two state trials, Ponzi was found guilty of additional charges in a February 1925 trial and sentenced to another seven to nine years. While free on bail, Ponzi headed to Florida where he returned to his old tricks and was sentenced to a year in jail for violating Florida’s securities laws before he disappeared while awaiting an appeal. Found a few months later, Ponzi was sent back to Boston to serve out his remaining sentence there, and after being released in February, he was deported to Italy on October 7, 1934.
It’s quite revealing that Ponzi appeared so certain he was not doing anything wrong that we was willing to submit to an audit, but people recognized that would be a great time to exit-scam and called him on it and he was found out. Even after being convicted, he continued to scam people.
Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme
To date (not including the Crypto market, which is even larger) Bernie Madoff is credited with operating the largest Ponzi scheme ever, defrauding people of over $65B.
Madoff’s scheme was similar to Ponzi’s, but instead of stamps, the scheme involved investing in his fund which supposedly engaged in elaborate options trading based on the ebb and flow of blue chip stocks. From Wikipedia:
Madoff’s sales pitch was an investment strategy consisting of purchasing blue-chip stocks and taking options contracts on them, sometimes called a split-strike conversion or a collar. “Typically, a position will consist of the ownership of 30–35 S&P 100 stocks, most correlated to that index, the sale of out-of-the-money ‘calls’ on the index and the purchase of out-of-the-money ‘puts’ on the index. The sale of the ‘calls’ is designed to increase the rate of return, while allowing upward movement of the stock portfolio to the strike price of the ‘calls’. The ‘puts’, funded in large part by the sales of the ‘calls’, limit the portfolio’s downside.”
In his 1992 “Avellino and Bienes” interview with The Wall Street Journal, Madoff discussed his supposed methods: In the 1970s, he had placed invested funds in “convertible arbitrage positions in large-cap stocks, with promised investment returns of 18% to 20%”, and in 1982, he began using futures contracts on the stock index, and then placed put options on futures during the 1987 stock market crash. A few analysts performing due diligence had been unable to replicate the Madoff fund’s past returns using historic price data for U.S. stocks and options on the indexes. Barron’s raised the possibility that Madoff’s returns were most likely due to front running his firm’s brokerage clients.
Madoff was so good at his scheme, he would actually generate bogus “investment reports” outlining how profits had come by pretending he had made certain investments prior to stocks changing valuation – he fabricated these reports later, as if he had anticipated the price movements. In reality he made no such investments.
Many examining his claims found his ability to predict and time the market, bordering on supernatural. Early critics questioned whether he was being honest and suspected he was operating a scheme.
But, like with Charles Ponzi’s scheme, as long as people were making money, no action was taken. It’s only when the scheme starts to implode, that authorities begin to seriously investigate. As long as the later investors don’t know they’ve been defrauded yet, everybody thinks… or more importantly wants to believe that the scheme is legitimate.
Staying Intellectually Honest – No Fallacious Responses
Before we even get into the analysis/arguments, it’s important to note, don’t bother trying to argue using common fallacies.
Specifically, arguing “If Bitcoin is a Ponzi, so is fiat/stocks/etc.” — DO NOT DO THAT — IT’S A FALLACY AND A DISTRACTION
This is called the Tu Quoque fallacy, or “Appeal to Hypocrisy”, often characterized as “Two wrongs make a right.” YOU CAN’T USE THAT ARGUMENT. IT’S PHONY.
We’re not here to talk about whether anything else is a Ponzi. Whether fiat is also a Ponzi is a separate argument you can bring up later. It has no bearing on the discussion here. This is also a test to see who has actually read this article. I predict a bunch of people will throw out this fallacious argument despite being told it’s invalid — and it may get you banned, so don’t.
With that out of the way, let’s move on…
Comparing Bitcoin/Crypto Investing To Ponzi Schemes
Ok, let’s get down to the details here.
First off, it’s important to qualify where Cryptocurrencies seem to intersect with the idea of Ponzi Schemes. Not every implementation of crypto currency looks Ponzi-like, but certain uses and use-cases cross into this area, and we’re going to make some distinctions:
Crypto as a technology is not a Ponzi. It’s just a technology/tool.
The concept of cryptocurrency and blockchain says nothing about “investments” or “profit.” It’s just a prototype of a type of technology that allows data to be reliably stored across a network of computers. Blockchain itself has no malicious intent or design. Bitcoin as a concept has no malicious intent or design.
Likewise, we can’t blame the postal stamp industry for Charles Ponzi’s original scheme, or the New York Stock Exchange for Bernie Madoff’s scam.
The actual scam was taking these concepts and misrepresenting them, and using misleading and inaccurate information about the markets to entice people to buy in to a scheme that was unsustainable.
So any attempt to defend Bitcoin as not being a Ponzi based on an analysis of the underlying technology is irrelevant.
NOTE: We’re going to talk about Bitcoin, but much of this discussion can apply to all other crypto currencies, including ETH and others. In some cases, certain types of cryptos or crypto-related schemes (such as De-Fi) are arguably even more Ponzi-like and may be noted.
Bitcoin was originally created as a proof-of-concept. Then it was implemented by people as a digital currency. Then later it was re-branded as “digital gold” and an “investment.”
This later stage, which is now the dominant method of using Bitcoin and other crypto currencies (as an investment security) is what we’re going to compare with Ponzi schemes.
It’s important to know that there are fundamental differences between currencies and investment securities. This is a separate issue that is worthy of its own lengthy article but it’s important to recognize that fiat currency was not designed, nor intended to ever be an “investment.” Dollars or Euros are simply tokens recognized by the state that represent a transfer of value. If currency was an investment, it would encourage hoarding, which is the opposite of what it was intended to do: currency is supposed to be circulated, not saved. This is one of the reasons why Bitcoin is not particularly good at either being a currency or an investment – you can’t do both well. You ideally should be one or the other.
If you ask a dozen crypto enthusiasts why they’re into it and what they want out of it, you’re likely to get a dozen diverse responses, from “wanting to change the world” to “wanting to get rich” and everything in between. It’s amazing how many different narratives people in the crypto community have, many of which are in direct conflict with each other. This is one of the big problems and we’ll tackle this characteristic first:
[PONZI ELEMENT] Is The Bitcoin/Cryptocurrency Industry Misleading?
Characteristic #3 of a Ponzi is: A scheme that involves misleading the people who are buying into the scheme
So we’re going to address this characteristic first, becuase it really is one of the more arguable points.
I’m going to break this down into a few key elements:
The Conflict Between Crypto-Currency and Crypto-Investment
Some people say the objective is to “HODL” Bitcoin until it becomes a currency used by everybody. While others constantly measure the value of Bitcoin in fiat (dollars or euros). Adherents fall into one or both of these categories: either you want the price to go up, then you cash out and get rich, or you hope the number goes up, and then you can spend Bitcoin directly for things. Because beyond those two options, there’s nothing you can do with Bitcoin – it doesn’t otherwise represent any tangible material asset. It has to be traded for something, either goods & services, or fiat to trade for goods and services. That’s its only utility
The problem is, if Bitcoin is a currency, it needs to be traded to be viable, but if Bitcoin is an investment, it should be hoarded and not traded, so it can’t really do both. You have to pick one. You can’t have it both ways. Likewise, currency trading is dangerous and speculative and not really considered “investing” – it’s just gambling. The same applies to Bitcoin. You either use it as a currency and it needs to be stable without price fluctuations, or you use it as an inestment, in which case to get anything out of it, you have to convert it into fiat.
This is basically how crypto works. Can we all agree on that?
Also comparing crypto to gold or silver is a separate discussion. There are strong arguments for gold and silver making poor investments as well.
So right away, there is confusion in the crypto community over whether Bitcoin is a currency or an investment. In order to appeal to both camps, Bitcoin would never be very good at either.
This is one of the first and most distinctive misrepresentations of Bitcoin: That it can successfully function as both a currency and an investment. It is good at neither. For more references on that, see here. You can’t have it both ways. Currencies need to be stable. Investments need to go up. People who think Bitcoin can do both have been misled.
The Crypto Industry Is Largely Un-Regulated – This Presents A Serious Misinformation Problem.
Yes, there are plenty of risky, speculative investments in other areas: OTC, commodities, options trading, forex, etc. The difference between these industries and the crypto industry is that there are established institutions overseeing these industries and lots of rules and regulations. The agencies in these industries are licensed. They pay fees and taxes which support an infrastructure that endeavors to “keep the industry honest and lawful.” Of course no system is perfect, but in the traditional finance world, at least there is a system; there are rules and there are authorities who are tasked with enforcing those rules.
This is not the case in the Crypto industry. Being such a new area, created to hide slightly outside the traditional regulatory boundaries, there aren’t many “checks-and-balances” when it comes to crypto exchanges and trading systems.
If you sign up for a traditional brokerage account, you’re likely to be presented with various disclaimers required by law to educate consumers on the risks associated with the market. This is neither mandated nor guaranteed to be told to those interested in getting into cryptocurrencies.
In fact, the dominant discussion on crypto is “number go up” – an almost rabid fixation on the value of Bitcoin is $, which itself seems ironic. If Bitcoin is a hedge against inflation of the dollar, why compare it to the dollar? The inability of people to see the logical inconsistencies here is more evidence of propaganda and misinformation.
The Crypto Industry Is Anything But Objective
The dominant narrative in crypto, among the majority of its users is overwhelmingly positive and sensationalist. It’s all how awesome Bitcoin is and how it’s going to change the world. There’s very little debate in most social media circles. Communities are almost exclusively dedicated to boosting the reputation of crypto, and very little tolerance is allowed for critical/skeptical viewpoints. You’ll be hard pressed to find any content in the major crypto subreddits critical of the subject matter. It’s easy to get banned if you don’t toe the established line.
Overwhelming Amounts Of Misinformation In the Crypto Community
It’s really hard to get a straight answer from most crypto institutions regarding the “adoption” of this technology by the mainstream.
For example, an article on a crypto forum about how a particular company is ‘accepting Bitcoin’ will not point out that in most cases, the company in question is not actually accepting crypto, but instead partnering with an intermediary exchange who will accept crypto, convert it to fiat, and then pay the company. This is also the case with Paypal. They’re lauded as now allowing people to buy/sell crypto, but in reality, they’ve simply partnered with a third party who will do all the crypto exchanging and they’re merely getting fees and commissions. Also, Paypal’s third party implementation of crypto utilizes their own private ledger that is separate from the public blockchain. These omissions are some of the many examples of misinformation commonly floating around in the industry. It’s less involving “adoption” as it is “exploitation.”
El Salvador for example, is now being held as a “model” for Bitcoin’s success. Its military leader rammed through a bill legitimizing Bitcoin as so-called legal tender, despite only half the residents of the country having access to the Internet – that latter element you will not find listed in any pro-crypto social media circles.
The Crypto Industry Vilifies The Status Quo To Make Its Own System Look Better
The crypto industry routinely promotes a number of rather egregious, highly subjective, highly debatable narratives in order to prop itself up. Talking points like:
- “Fiat inflation is out of control”
- “the government is totally corrupt”
- “buying power is going to collapse any minute”
- “centralization is bad”
- “banks are bad”
- “regulation is bad”
- “taxation is ‘theft'”
and a variety of other not very accurate, not very rational talking points designed to scare people. I unpack and dissect most of these false claims here.
Crypto enthusiasts claim that the anonymous, math-driven, distributed blockchain network is a better way to conduct business than dealing with the “evil”, “centralized”, “corrupt” government institutions. Despite the fact that virtually everything we depend upon runs reliably under that infrastructure, including the Internet and communications networks upon which Bitcoin depends!
This is the real “FUD” (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) that is being propagated in this industry: That the system that reliably runs our lives can collapse at any moment and we need to jump ship to this new system that has yet to prove itself better at anything.
Another common way to mislead people is to cite various unstable third-world countries as examples of where Crypto can flourish: Zimbabwe, Venezuela, El Salvador, etc. These incredibly atypical, unstable nation-states are held as examples of where Bitcoin can thrive? They’re also held up as cautionary tales of what’s going to happen to America if we don’t stop the “out-of-control government.” This kind of absurd propaganda is rampant.
People lose their money on a regular basis thinking crypto is as “safe” as other financial systems
One of the biggest misconceptions among retail “investors” is this notion that investing in crypto is similar to investing in stocks or other securities. This is a common argument made, and it’s completely false. There are various laws that protect consumers from fraud, like the Fair Credit Billing Act. Traditional banks and brokerage houses also have their client accounts FDIC insured against losses. There are no such protections in the crypto industry, despite the erroneous claims otherwise.
On top of that, most crypto transactions are one-way and non-reversable, making them exceptionally appealing for criminal activities. It’s also much more complicated to set up a crypto wallet and do transactions than using traditional means like debit and credit cards. There are thousands of new ways to be defrauded using crypto that newbies won’t even be aware of until its too late. And these are not things that are told to people signing up. But once defrauded, the victims are accused of being irresponsible.
The Crypto Industry Ignores Its Own Serious Problems
Proponents of crypto love to complain about the problems and inflation in the traditional economy. But when confronted with clear evidence of phony crypto currencies and wash trading they look the other way.
As of this writing, there’s more than $56 Billion of one stablecoin itself: USDT, aka “Tether” floating around in the crypto market being used to buy and sell other cryptocurrencies, pumping the market, for which there’s never been any reliable evidence is properly asset-backed
The infamous “Tether Scam” is so egregious and out of control, it’s become a symbol of how it’s virtually impossible to tell scammer from victim in the cryptocurrency market. Virtually nobody who has money “in play” seems to care that there’s lots of evidence that there’s a lot of illegal wash trading going on.
But just like with Charles Ponzi’s original scheme and Bernie Madoff… as long as enough people are making money, everybody looks the other way and ignores all the serious warning signs..
So is there deception in the cryptocurrency industry?
There’s overwhelming evidence it’s rampant. And most importantly, it’s not regulated to be nearly as open and responsible as the traditional finance networks, so where is the motivation for any of these organizations to act contrary to their self interests and let their customers know how risky the market actually is?
I took on Chracteristic #3 because in my opinion, it’s the only truly “debatable” element of Ponzi schemes where one might argue, if someone is aware of the risks, then they’re not being misled. But the problem is, it’s really, really difficult to find anybody who is into crypto who will acknowledge how risky and speculative the industry is. And the reason for this is because of the other elements: the need to constantly recruit others.
For example, if I buy stock in Apple. Whether I go around telling people Apple is awesome, doesn’t have much bearing on their bottom line. They make their money creating useful products. While reputation can certainly affect the value of a company’s stock, the real base value is determined their fundamentals: income assets and liabilities. But with crypto, reputation is EVERYTHING. As a result, it’s almost impossible to get a straight, honest, objective answer from players in this industry.
Now, let’s move on to the other Ponzi elements:
[PONZI ELEMENT] Does Bitcoin’s Income Come From Later Investors?
Most cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, are merely symbolic digital tokens. They have no intrinsic value. They only have symbolic value based on what people will pay for them. As a result the only revenue generated by Bitcoin comes from people buying in at a higher price. If you sell Bitcoin at a loss, you’ve lost revenue. If you sell Bitcoin at a profit, you gain revenue. These are the primary ways to create value in the system.
There are a few exceptions to this, and they truly are exceptions:
- Miners create Bitcoin out of nothing – This is true, operating a mining rig has the potential to create a dividend of crypto. However mining isn’t free, and costs money to operate, so in effect, mining is still “buying Bitcoin”. It’s just you’re paying for it with electricity, time and other resources that cost money instead of money directly. If you do it right, you can mine Bitcoin at a rate below the resale value and create a little profit. But if the resale price of BTC drops, mining becomes a loss leader. There’s not much incentive to mine if you can’t sell and cover your expenses (this becomes more important when we examine how the Ponzi scheme collapses).
- Miners (those who manage the blockchain) get fees for handling transactions – This is similar to basic mining, and supposedly once all the supply of Bitcoin is mined, miners will be motivated to continue operating their networks in return for transaction fees. This is still consuming resources you have to pay for, in return for getting crypto. So you’re still “buying” it.
In short, all crypto valuation comes from those who buy in later. Crypto by itself does not create value. The only value attributed to crypto is (primarily) by popularity (supply & demand) and cost to service.
Person A decides to acquire some Bitcoin. The market price is, say, $30,000/BTC. Person A sets up an account at an exchange or finds someone willing to sell them 1BTC for $30kUSD. Assuming the transaction goes down properly (which shouldn’t always be assumed) and assuming there are no other fees (which again, is unlikely but for the sake of this example we’ll keep things simple). Person A now has 1BTC and Person B has $30k and sold their 1BTC.
Person A is now the “later investor”. Person B is the “earlier investor” and got paid by the later investor. That’s the only way people typically profit from crypto.
Now, Person A looks at the price of bitcoin and it says on some web site the price is now $40k/BTC. Person A thinks they’re up $10k. But in reality, Person A still has $0. This is where the principal: Not your fiat, not your value comes into play. It’s not any different from one of Bernie Madoff’s clients seeing a monthly statement showing their portfolio is worth $40k. Until they cash out. IF they can cash out, they don’t have that $40k.
If Person A wants to see a profit, they have to sell their 1BTC. They hear this is relatively easy to do. And depending upon the health of the exchange and the network, it may not be a problem to sell and collect your profit, but again, when you do that, now there’s a Person C, who paid $10k more, and has to find Person D before they can see a return.
This cycle is supposed to continue indefinitely, but can you see that it’s mathematically impossible for that to happen? Eventually you run out of people or money. And if more people want to sell than want to buy, the price of BTC drops, then more people lose their money — but actually they already lost their money, they just don’t know it yet because they couldn’t find a “greater fool” (later investor”) to pay more.
[PONZI ELEMENT] A scheme that requires constant recruitment of new buyers in order to sustain itself
Which brings us to this element. Bitcoin really only works if its price continues to go up. Since it has no other utility (unlike stocks which can create value, unlike real estate which can be used or rented out, unlike gold which can be worn or used in industrial applications), crypto has no use other than to be held until traded. Because of this, the crypto as an investment model will begin to collapse if it doesn’t continually increase in price. If the market drops or stagnates, people will want to pull their investments out. But because of the growth curve and previous investors taking their cash out, there’s only a limited amount of liquidity in the market. Just like in any other Ponzi scheme, if too many investors try to cash out, the whole scheme collapses. There isn’t enough money to even a fraction of the people in the scheme — the extent of how bad it is depends upon how big the payouts were to the early investors. All Ponzi schemes work this way, and this is how Bitcoin works too.
It’s no secret how obsessive crypto enthusiasts are. They know, they have to get more people to “invest”. It’s the only way they see a profit. The later you get in, the more people need to buy in, higher after you. If this doesn’t happen, we get to our last element:
[PONZI ELEMENT] Does The Market Collapse If There Isn’t Constant Growth?
As mentioned, the only way to create revenue from crypto is to sell it to someone later, for more. This model requires a constant influx of new buyers.
What happens when we run out of new buyers?
The price stagnates. If everybody who is holding crypto still decides they won’t sell, the market could just sit there. But that’s unlikely.
Imagine if Bernie Madoff told clients the returns weren’t there? How long do you think his clients would keep their money in their accounts? At some point they’d want it back. If there is no growth, there’s no incentive for anybody to be “invested” in the scheme.
The problem is, everybody who’s been paid already has taken the liquidity out of the market. So there isn’t enough money to pay the people who might want to cash out.
That’s when the house of cards crumbles.
And obviously, with Bitcoin just like with all Ponzi schemes, the people who bought in later, lost the most. It’s possible early adopters could have made out like bandits. Although in the crypto space, there’s an even more common reaction: Exit Scams.
In the crypto world, it’s a lot easier to abscond with everybody’s money than it is in the traditional financial world. That’s due to the unique characteristics of crypto being able to be instantly transferred anywhere in the world. So rather than be outed as a Ponzi, most of the existing crypto-based Ponzis were characterized merely as “fraud” with people either stealing money and disappearing, or in some cases faking their own deaths or claiming they were hacked. Either way, it’s a convenient, efficient way to shut down the Ponzi scheme and avoid getting caught.
Summary: Crypto as an investment ‘ticks all the boxes’ matching a Ponzi, but as long as “number go up” most people, most journalists, most media, and most enforcement agencies, like in the past with similar schemes, won’t acknowledge what’s really going on.
Time will tell. Time is the enemy for these things.
Bernie Madoff’s scheme lasted longer than Bitcoin so far. Just because it hasn’t collapsed yet, doesn’t mean it won’t.
Invest if you want, but know the risks. Know the “math” too.