Monday, February 22, 2021

Ponzis and bitcoin as a response to a bad economy: the case of Nigeria

Usually when I think about gambling and speculative excess, I've always associated it with giddy prosperity. When an economy is doing well, productivity is improving, new technology is being introduced, and unemployment is low, people have extra income that they can throw away at the casino. Or they put it into their brokerage account and, with the help of margin, generate speculative bubbles.

But lately I've been rethinking this view. Speculative bubbles and over-gambling are just as likely to be driven by sick and decaying economies as they are by prosperous ones. And Nigeria is a prime example of this.

Nigeria, one of Africa's largest major oil producer, plunged into recession in 2015 as oil prices collapsed. It saw only anemic growth from 2017 to 2019 before COVID-19 pushed it back into a much deeper recession.

Over that period Nigeria has seen an explosion of ponzi schemes. It started with MMM in 2016. Since then Ultimate Cycler, Icharity Club Nigeria, Get Help World Wide, Givers Forum, Twinkas, Crowd Rising, and Loom have all ripped through the country. Jack & Ibekwe (2018) provide a full list below, although it misses a large chunk of ponzis since it doesn't go past 2018.

Jack & Ibekwe (2018)

Jack & Ibekwe's paper is just one in a burgeoning Nigerian academic literature on ponzi schemes. This body of work provide us with plenty of useful information about what sorts of Nigerians are participating in ponzis and why.

How many Nigerians participate in ponzis? In a survey of 287 Port Harcourt business students, Bupo & Abam-Smith (2017) found that an astonishing 72% of students were involved in various ponzi schemes. Onoh's (2018) survey of 230 Nigerians found a participation rate of 78%.

The high participation rates that Bupo & Abam-Smith and Onoh pinpoint are confirmed in a 2016 poll run by NOIPolls, an established Nigerian polling agency. After querying 1000 Nigerians, NOIPolls found that 68% of survey participants had either participated in a ponzi, or knew someone who did. I would find a 5-10% national ponzi participation rate to be mindbogglingly high. But if the above data is correct, Nigeria far exceeds this. Given a population of over 200 million, tens of millions of Nigerians have participated in ponzis.

Who are the Nigerians that are playing? In their survey of 135 ponzi investors, Jack & Ibekwe found that young Nigerians aged 20-29 were most likely to be involved in ponzi schemes. Participants tended to be students and had post-secondary education. In a 2018 survey of 190 ponzi investors in the city of Calabar, Agba et al (2018) reported similar results. Most investors were unemployed, held a Bachelor of Science degree, and had a low income.

Another fact that blew my mind away is that many of the Nigerians who are involved in ponzis are self-conscious ponzi investors. That is, these aren't dupes. They know the nature of the game they're playing.

For instance, 66% the university students that Bupo & Adam Smith surveyed were aware that they were participating in a scam, one that would soon crash, but they played anyways, presumably because they believed they were skilled enough to get out before the end. Onoh found somewhat less ponzi self-consciousness in his survey of 230 Nigerians, with 34% realizing at the outset that the scheme made high returns by re-cycling contributions. But that's still a lot of savvy players.


Let's back up a bit and define the term ponzi scheme. A ponzi is a type of zero-sum game, much like a lottery or a casino game such as roulette. By zero-sum, I mean that nothing of value is created. For each person who makes a profit, there is necessarily someone who loses. Put differently, ponzis and lotteries don't generate funds, they redistribute funds.

All zero-sum games have an algorithm, or sorting method, for figuring out who will lose and who will win. A lottery, for instance, redistributes funds from all losing ticket numbers to the winning ticket. A poker game redistributes the pot from bad card hands to good hands. A ponzi scheme's unique algorithm is to pay early entrants at the expense of late entrants.

What attracts people to zero-sum betting games is the allure of massive returns. Buy the right lottery ticket and your life will change. Choose the right number on the roulette table and you earn an immediate 3400% return on your investment. Get in early on the right ponzi, and you'll be vaulted into a totally different socioeconomic class. Of course, on net these schemes don't generate any wealth.


Back to Nigeria. What the Nigerian ponzi scheme literature suggests is that ponzi schemes were self-consciously used by Nigerians as a coping mechanism for economic malaise.

For instance, in their survey of ponzi investors Jack & Ibekwe found that 60.3% cited harsh economic conditions as their reason for joining ponzi schemes. In a survey of 384 ponzi investors, Obamuyi et al (2018) found that one of the most popular reasons for participating in ponzis was the "current economic situation." And in Bupo & Abam-Smith's analysis of 287 Port Harcourt business students, 231 agreed that the scheme helped reduce the impact of the present recession.

So let me paint a picture. Nigeria has always been a highly unequal country. The poor are very poor, the rich are very rich. There is plenty of poverty (although this is improving) and not much of a government-run social security net. Nigeria also suffers from endemic corruption, and this impedes the ability of regular folks to improve their lot.

The yearning and frustration that this creates gives rise to a constant demand for quick financial escapes, or zero-sum games. But what sorts of zero sum games? Nigerian authorities take a relatively paternalistic approach to gambling. Depending on the game, Nigerian law either prohibits it outright or limits it. For instance, Nigeria has only three land-based casino for 200 million people. Non-skill based card games are illegal. Apart from sports betting, online casinos are prohibited, and many foreign websites don't accept Nigerians. 

So a big part of the demand to play life-changing betting games gets channeled into whatever the underground market can provide, like ponzi schemes.

If you start with a large population of unhappy young people who want to play life-changing zero-sum games, combine that with limitations on legal gambling, and add in a massive economic collapse which only makes their lives worse, you're going to get a big wave of illegal ponzi schemes cropping up.

Canada and the US also have problems with inequality and poverty, albeit not as extreme as Nigeria. Our economies have also been hit by the biggest shock in decades.

But unlike Nigeria, Canada and the US have well-developed capital markets. So when desperate Canadians and Americans look for long shot life-changing bets, they needn't limit themselves to traditional gambles like lotteries, casinos, or online poker. Online brokerages like Robin Hood and Wealthsimple make it easy for us to make hundred-to-one bets in options markets or leverage up on Tesla or GameStop stock.


In addition to embracing ponzi schemes, Nigerians have also become the world's most prolific owners of cryptocurrencies, as the chart below illustrates. This data comes from Global Web Index via this article.


I've been tracking bitcoin usage in Nigeria for a while now. We know that bitcoin is being used in combination with gift cards by Nigerian-based business email compromise and romance scammers as a convenient way to repatriate extorted funds:

We also know that Nigerians living in the US are making remittances to their Nigerian friends and family using this same combination of gift cards and bitcoins. Buying gift cards and exchanging them for bitcoin and then Nigerian naira may sound like a circuitous way to make remittances. But it is economical because families get the superior black market exchange rate rather than the official rate.

Nigerians who shop at foreign online stores face monthly card limits, some as low as US$100. Again, this is because Nigeria's central bank rations access to foreign exchange. Cryptocurrencies may be a hack around this. Also, Nigerian importers have been using cryptocurrency as a trade currency for Chinese imports. Rather than having to rely on acquiring carefully-rationed foreign exchange from the Central Bank of Nigeria, they can offer a Chinese exporter some bitcoins and the goods will be shipped.

So cryptocurrency is certainly being used as an alternative form of doing payments. But this can't explain why 20% of Nigerians (around 40 million people) hold some of the stuff. After all, unofficial imports, scams, and remittances are a small part of economic activity.


I'd suggest that Nigeria's cryptocurrency adoption is a natural extension of its earlier ponzi scheme addiction. 

Like a poker game or roulette or the lottery, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Litecoin are zero-sum betting games. They redistribute a fixed pot among participating players. Of all types of zero-sum games, cryptocurrencies are most similar to ponzi schemes. Both use an "early bird" redistribution algorithm: late entrants' funds are paid out to early birds. But cryptocurrencies are not quite ponzi schemes. Whereas ponzis such as MMM or Ultimate Cycler are centrally managed by a coordinator, a cryptocurrency is spontaneous and decentralized.

In the same way that young Nigerians turned to ponzi schemes as an economic drug for coping with the 2015 collapse and ensuing lack of opportunity, they may be doing the same with cryptocurrencies. COVID-19 has pushed Nigerian unemployment to its highest level in a decade, the young being hurt the most. And so once again desperate Nigerian students are on the hunt for life-changing zero-sum bets. This time they've settled on cryptocurrency, the decentralized nature of which renders them almost impossible for authorities to stop.

My "ponzi" interpretation of Nigerian cryptocurrency adoption runs counter to the crypto-optimist view.

Cryptocurrency advocates see adoption of cryptocurrencies in developing nations like Nigeria as a vindication of cryptocurrency-as-monetary technology. Their thesis is that legacy payments systems and central banks in developing countries are failing at their task, and so cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are being adopted because the offer a better monetary alternative.

The crypto-optimist view overestimates the usefulness of cryptocurrency-as-currency. There are certainly some cases where Nigerians are using cryptocurrencies for payments, and I presented them above. But the main reason that cryptocurrencies are popular is why any zero-sum game is popular: they intoxicate players with the promise of huge price gains.

Viewed in this light, Nigerian adoption of cryptocurrencies isn't a bitcoin fixes this moment. Rather, it's a repeat of Nigeria's earlier adoption of MMM and Ultimate Cycler. That these games keep sweeping through Nigeria is a symptom of underlying economic misery. Desperate to escape their plight, young Nigerians are once again making last-ditch bets on zero-sum betting games.


There is a silver lining.

Traditional ponzi schemes are often run by scammers rather than honest game managers. In an honest ponzi, 100% of the invested funds are paid out by the manager before the game closes down. But in a ponzi scam, the game manager absconds with the pot. And so ponzis often collapse before coming to their inevitable, natural end.   
Cryptocurrencies aren't run by a central game manager. As long as players custody their own coins, there is no one who can abscond with players' funds. So a desperate Nigerian student who wants to make a potentially life-changing zero-sum bet may do a bit better buying ₦10,000 of bitcoins than putting ₦10,000 into the next version of Ultimate Cycler, since bitcoin is more secure. (See this post for more).

But let's not kid ourselves. A nation of desperate gamblers, ponzi players, and cryptocurrency punters is a sad development. It is a symptom of a sick economy, one in which unemployed young people are flocking to make zero-sum bets because that is the only way they see their lot in life improving.