Bitcoin catches fire in Thailand
Over a sturdy self-produced table stands a five-gallon orange Igloo jug. The jug is pumping cold water to cool the malt on a steel pot that is connected through a copper pipe.
This is Chit Beer, a major craft beer producer that started in 2012. Standing across the river from Wat Sanam Nua, a perfectly tiled temple that is Koh Kret's main attraction, Chit Beer has a reputation for being one of the top craft breweries in the country and is known as the home of the country's only bitcoin ATM.
A bitcoin ATM is exactly what it sounds like: a machine that takes banknotes and converts them into bitcoins. The reverse is also applicable, whereby it takes bitcoins and converts them into banknotes. There are more than 1,929 bitcoin ATMs around the world, according to Coin ATM Radar.
This particular machine is owned by EasyBit, a Hong Kong-based company headquartered in Argentina, which operates more than 100 bitcoin ATMs in over 16 countries, including four in Vietnam. In Vietnam, a good percentage of business comes from remittances, with the rest from young people looking to buy games online or people looking to purchase products from China and the US, according to EasyBit.
MINING THE MONEY
The US has more than 1,220 of these machines, which may be located in a Citgo gas station, in a poor area in West Philadelphia, or inside a mom-and-pop shop in a Hispanic neighbourhood.
According to EasyBit chief executive Michael Dupree Jr, machines are placed in places where young tech-savvy people congregate. The ATMs are hosted for a small fee to increase foot traffic from this demographic.
"I also think that people who want to buy bitcoin will drive kilometres to get them, so they [the companies] just want to put them [bitcoin ATMs] where it is cheapest," said Aubert Louis, co-owner of the Bahtcoin account of the LocalBitcoins trading platform, which has the largest cryptocurrency trading volume out of Belgium.
LocalBitcoins trades more than 100 bitcoins (close to 54.2 million baht) in France and Belgium, where the partners, who are based in Bangkok, maintain a workforce dedicated to carrying out the meetings.
LocalBitcoins functions as a Craigslist-style website that lists brokers willing to trade cash for bitcoins and bitcoins for cash. "We are exactly like human ATMs. We get contacted by people, and then we set up a meeting to do the actual trade," Mr Louis said.
Now 25, Mr Louis stepped into the world of bitcoin at 17.
"My friend told me I could make money through my central processing unit [CPU], so I said why not," he said. At the time, bitcoin was trading at fractions of cents on the euro, so mining through a CPU all day to generate 20 bitcoins produced less than a euro, according to Mr Louis.
"It was just not profitable when compared with the cost of electricity I was using," he said.
He decided to give it another try four years later when bitcoin hit €200 per unit.
"I got together with a group of friends to buy machines and we started to mine. We were making eight bitcoins a day, but were selling them as soon as we mined them."
As the price of bitcoin appreciates and competition for the coins increases, making a profit from mining has become increasingly difficult for small players, who compete against massive computer centres in China.
'ALL KINDS OF PEOPLE'
Bitcoins are a finite commodity. There are close to 16 million units of bitcoin in the market, out of the total 21 million limit. Every 10 minutes a new block of 12.5 bitcoins is released into the system. Miners then compete with other miners to come up with a correct 64-digit hexadecimal "hash" that corresponds to transactions on the ledger.
Generating a correct "hash" requires a massive amount of computational power.
As more miners enter the market, especially larger ones, the amount of computations per second required to be successful also increases. As the amount of miners increases, the amount of bitcoin that goes to each decreases, Mr Louis said.
For small players, serving as bitcoin brokers is a much more profitable enterprise -- to the tune of 6% of the transaction amount. There are 37 bitcoin brokers in Thailand registered on LocalBitcoins, some with more than 1,000 bitcoins in assets. Prices for bitcoin are about 13% higher in Thailand than in the US, a sign of high demand for this cryptocurrency.
"Based on our experience there is no average buyer of bitcoin," said Raphael Broens, who is Mr Louis's partner. "All kinds of people have approached us. Some with financial backgrounds and some are hippies looking for an alternative to the banking system. Most are normal people with normal income."
A lot of their clients have online businesses, or make frequent purchases on the internet. "A majority of our clients are involved in online businesses [and either] buy or sell [bitcoin] but not both," Mr Louis said. "Some of our clients are over 60. For example, a grandmother approached us with €3000, saying she had heard about it from her son. She handed us the money and started walking away. We were like, wait, you need to install an e-wallet in your phone at least. Many other traders would have just walked away with the money."
While the partners maintain a thriving business in Europe, they will probably not set up local meetings. "I would never see myself doing something similar here," Mr Louis said. "The regulations around bitcoin are still unclear, and trading large amounts of money in public could land you in trouble with the police."
Bitcoin has already manifested as a democratising force within the financial industry, prompting many who would never have thought about participating in financial markets to invest in high-performing and extremely volatile assets.
In Thailand, a country where less than 40% of the adult population owns a debit card, allowing bitcoin to be traded for cash could enable bitcoin ownership to expand beyond the middle and upper classes.
An indication of the potential of these cash alternatives to expand access to financial markets is apparent in the location of bitcoin ATMs, many of which are in semi-rural or low-income areas.
One of the dangers is that people without particular expertise in markets are investing a good percentage of their net worth in it, unaware of the high risk involved.
As Barry Ritholtz, the author of Bailout Nation, once said: "If you are not willing to play against a professional football player, why would you be willing to play in the stock market against investment banks."
For adherents, however, bitcoin is a "different beast", more easily understood and trusted than equities, bonds and other securities.
"I have never invested in the market," said Christopher T Riggs, a film professional, speaking at Satoshi Square, a meeting of bitcoin investors and enthusiasts in Bangkok. "I used to put all of my money in real estate before, but even that can be really volatile. A few years ago some people in the UK lost 40% of the value of their flats. Sure there is risk, but I trust bitcoin about the same [as] real estate, and much more than banks and stocks.
"My girlfriend knows about it because of me and she is super interested because it makes sense and is all on the computer. People these days spend their lives on laptops and mobile phones."
As the ease of investing in bitcoin grows, so may the percentage of people who invest in bitcoin as an alternative to bank deposit or index funds, which generate much more modest returns.
"The bank gives me very little in returns, and they charge me for additional services," Mr Riggs said. "Bitcoin is the future."
Satoshi Square is held every Monday at the Clubhouse Sports Bar & Grill on Sukhumvit Soi 23, drawing a steady flow of older expatriates interested in the bitcoin industry.
David Barnes, the co-organiser of the meeting, is also the managing director of Bitcoin Co Ltd, the parent company of Bitcoin Exchange Thailand (bx.in.th), the most widely used online bitcoin trading platform.
While the ease of trading cash for bitcoin could give underprivileged segments of society access to the financial market, it could also deepen the association of the cryptocurrency with illicit activities.
Registering at online exchanges like Bitcoin Exchange Thailand requires uploading a picture of a person's passport and linking a bank account. Cash exchanges, in contrast, require minimal means of identification.
Since its inception bitcoin has been linked to illicit marketplaces, gaining traction in online black markets like Silk Road, which was best known for trading drugs, as the cryptocurrency allows buyers to remain anonymous.
While Silk Road has been closed since 2014, many opioid traffickers, in China and elsewhere, list bitcoin as a preferred method of payment. Bitcoin has also been popular with hackers who carry out ransomware attacks, allowing for almost untraceable ransom payments.