The Short-Term View on Bitcoin Remittances

If the world switched to bitcoin, remittances alone would save billions annually. But how can the dream become reality?

Aug 31, 2014 at 2:15 p.m. UTC
Updated May 2, 2022 at 3:56 p.m. UTC

Luis Buenaventura is the head of product at Satoshi Citadel Industries, and “dreams of a world where everyone has access to everything”. 

Satoshi Citadel Industries manages several different digital currency services and sites, including Bitmarket, in-beta exchange Coinage, photo-sharing site, and remittance service ReBit.

SCI is also rolling out pre-loaded bitcoin cards as a way to get bitcoin into newcomers’ wallets.

Sending money

Remittance is often cited as the one of the primary ways that bitcoin would change the global financial landscape, by virtue of the cryptocurrency’s microscopic transfer fees and region-agnostic transmission.

Advocates and enthusiasts often point to exorbitant remittance fees as a sign of an established industry that is ripe for disruption.

A recent Business Insider study projects global savings of 90% (US$42bn) if we were to adopt bitcoin-based remittance on a worldwide scale. But what does it take for this paradise of free-flowing bytes and money to actually become a reality?

The road ahead, initially paved with libertarian dreams and well-meaning naiveté, has some missing segments that have yet to be filled in.

'Half a business'

In a recent interview on Let’s Talk Bitcoin, crypto-evangelist Richard Boase refers to BitPesa, a well-known bitcoin remittance service based in Kenya, as “half a business”.

In order to understand this, you need to understand how the average bitcoin remittance business in the developing world works.

An overseas customer wants to send money to a friend overseas, so they visit the website of a bitcoin remittance company in the relevant country and type in the amount of money they want to send. The site responds with a BTC invoice. The customer whips out his or her smartphone, scans and confirms the transfer, and bitcoins come flying out of their virtual wallet and into that of the remittance company.

On the local side of the process, the company raises the equivalent amount in fiat and delivers it to the customer’s nominated recipient.

Every bitcoin remittance service is, at its core, just a company that buys up bitcoins, as all it is doing is taking its customers’ BTC and paying their nominated recipients for it in fiat. This is why it’s only “half a business”.

Inevitably, the company will amass more BTC than it needs and run out of the fiat it needs to make payouts, that is, unless it also has a related service that sells the surplus coins.

In order to sustain this constant stream of incoming BTC and outgoing fiat, a remittance provider needs to either be very liquid or be very lively on the trading desks. This is easier when bitcoin’s market value is rising, but these past few weeks of tepid ups-and-downs have not been kind to the latter strategy.

The cost of compliance

Regulatory compliance, as described in an earlier CoinDesk piece, is one of the root causes of expensive remittance fees. The US, as a prime example, blurs the line between customer protection and outright protectionism by requiring money service businesses to obtain licences in 43 separate states. Furthermore, in California, for instance, the surety bond starts at $250,000.

Obtaining a licence in the US is the single largest barrier to entry into the remittance industry and explains, at least partially, why there has been so little innovation in the space. BitPesa tellingly opts to avoid the issue altogether and doesn’t accept customers from the US at all.

The sneaker API

Getting the bitcoins from the sender over to the company in the relevant country isn’t the end of the story. Once the BTC has made its trans-oceanic leap, the final challenge is in bridging the last mile – getting the local currency from the company headquarters into the hands of the waiting recipient.

In the Philippines, as in most Asian countries with substantial diaspora, there are dozens of options, including over-the-counter bank deposits, pawnshop/cash pickup centers, telco-backed mobile wallets and door-to-door delivery.

There are two problems, however. The first is there’s no clear market leader, so instead of specialising in one fulfilment method, a money transfer business instead needs to somehow integrate with all of them.

Second, none of these methods have any kind of web-service automation, so the act of taking funds from the company’s accounts and delivering them to a given fulfilment provider’s branch office must be done by physically visiting the establishment.

The good news is that labour is cheap in the developing world, and the sneakernet is alive and well. There is a substantially larger overhead to managing full-time manpower than a handful of JSON-RPC connections, but given the absence of the latter, such businesses must subsist via the former.

The final calculation

Although it is true that bitcoin reduces the cost of money transmission to next to nothing, the network isn’t the most expensive part of the money-transfer value chain. It’s actually compliance and logistics, both of which are sectors that bitcoin as a technology can address only tangentially.

In the short term, a bitcoin-powered remittance service will be severely hobbled by these realities and thus can only mount a mildly competitive alternative to traditional providers, and not the mind-blowing sea change that evangelists envision.

In a world where cryptocurrencies were ubiquitous, regulatory compliance could be rendered obsolete and logistics costs could disappear. That paradise might be down the road, but we’re not quite there yet.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, CoinDesk.

Sending money image via Shutterstock

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