Wednesday, February 24, 2021

In Nigeria, One Bitcoin Can Cost $68,000. Here’s Why

Bitcoin has already passed the $68,000 mark in Nigeria, but that’s if you use the official exchange rate.

Awosika Ayodeji, a Nigerian blockchain project designer, isn’t complaining. He is happy to wake up and see bitcoin prices quoted using unofficial U.S. dollar exchange rates because it means he’d be getting more naira per dollar when he converts his crypto earnings to his local currency.

At the same time, however, “buying [bitcoin] becomes more expensive, too,” Ayodeji noted.

On Friday, Nigeria’s official exchange rate for the U.S. dollar was around 380 naira per dollar. Using this rate, a bitcoin listing on peer-to-peer platform LocalBitcoins in Nigeria of around 26,000,000 naira converted to $68,246. On the surface, this looks like a hefty 24% premium, which in this context refers to bitcoin’s price being much higher in specific locations than it is on average worldwide.

In Nigeria, these premiums aren’t consistent. On peer-to-peer platform Paxful, the listed bitcoin prices were based on $1 trading for around 475 naira. This rate converted to $54,736, a price much closer to the average bitcoin trading price of the day. In fact, the informal market dollar exchange rate in Nigeria on Friday was around 478 naira, reflecting the rate seen on Paxful and the bitcoin prices listed on LocalBitcoins.

In emerging markets that are facing a currency crisis, bitcoin prices can actually shed light on the informal market for U.S. dollars. In Argentina, Latin American crypto exchange Bitso listed the bitcoin price at 8,700,993 Argentinian pesos on Friday, which converted to a whopping $98,000 using the official exchange rate, which was around 89 Argentine pesos per dollar. But bitcoin listings on exchanges like Bitso indicated the dollar was worth around 150 pesos, reflecting the informal going rate for the dollar.

Yele Bademosi, chief executive officer at social payments app Bundle Africa said exchanges are most likely using informal dollar rates, thus inflating bitcoin’s price in local currency. According to Andrés Ondarra, country manager for Argentina at Bitso, the market exchange rate for the dollar is usually higher than the official exchange rate in Argentina as well.

“This is mainly reflecting the difference between the informal U.S. dollar rate and the official one. The gap between the official and the informal dollar in Argentina is around 70%,” Emiliano Limia, press officer at Argentine crypto exchange Buenbittold CoinDesk via an email.

Exchanges using informal rates instead of official ones indicate the local bitcoin markets exist outside of government rules, and that bitcoin trading might reveal the real value of the local currency against the dollar.

According to Gina Pieters, a professor of economics and the University of Chicago who published a paper on how bitcoin can detect exchange rate manipulation and capital controls, bitcoin premiums can occur for a number of reasons.

“It seems unlikely that the price should be that much higher unless there is the manipulation of the nominal exchange rate channel,” Pieters said in an email to CoinDesk, referring to the price of one currency in terms of another.

In fact, the thesis of Pieters’ 2016 paper was that bitcoin trading can be used to approximate unofficial exchange rates, “which, in turn, can be used to detect both the existence and the magnitude of the distortion caused by capital controls and exchange rate manipulations.”

Informal exchange rates

Due to the falling purchasing power of the naira, on any given day, Nigeria has multiple exchange rates for the dollar. The informal exchange rates are typically much weaker, with Nigerians having to dish out more naira per dollar, indicating the local currency may be worth less than what the government says.

According to a chapter in economist Koji Kubo’s book about Myanmar’s foreign exchange market, multiple exchange rates emerge within the unofficial market when governments implement “exhaustive exchange restrictions” or limitations on the amount of foreign currency that could be bought or sold.

In 2020, Argentina’s government imposed strict controls on the purchase of U.S. dollars, restricting the amount of dollars citizens could buy and hold to $200, in an attempt to stop capital from flowing out of the country. The dollar black market flourished as a result, with people scrambling to buy more dollars to protect their wealth, and even paying more pesos per dollar. This quickly spilled over to crypto as Argentines tried to ditch the peso for stronger currencies: demand for bitcoin soared in 2020.

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s facing a U.S. dollar shortage: in 2020, local media reportedNigerian banks were limiting the amount of dollars Nigerians can spend abroad to as low as $500. Thanks to the scarcity of dollars that could not meet local demand, the value of the naira fell in local informal markets as people showed willingness to pay more naira per dollar.

“The general market is now setting the price to $480 as that seems to be the present value generally accepted between buyers and sellers,” Ayodeji said.

The lower informal exchange rate can mean sending money to family in Nigeria or Argentina in bitcoin can be beneficial as one bitcoin can get you more of the local currency, but this also means that the purchasing power of the local currency is weakening. Sending money out of the country can be problematic, as your wealth converts to less dollars.

It’s typically difficult to estimate local informal dollar rates: Ayodeji said black market currency merchants might ask for even more naira per dollar. But bitcoin conversions can calculate a decent estimate, Ayodeji said.

Still, premiums can exist even after you factor in the difference in exchange rates. One possible reason is, in countries with high inflation, people may be willing to pay more for bitcoin.

“In the euro area the prices are pretty much the same as spot prices in big centralized exchanges,” Jukka Blomberg, chief marketing officer at LocalBitcoins, said in an email. But “in countries such as Venezuela, there can even be quite big premiums.”

Blomberg explained this is because Venezuelans who are willing to sell their bitcoin in exchange for their local currency typically want a higher premium due to the risk they have to take by accepting a highly inflationary currency such as the bolivar. In Venezuela, where the inflation rate hit a staggering 10 million% in 2019, and the value of the bolivar was dropping almost daily against the U.S. dollar, people began turning to bitcoin. In fact, the local demand for bitcoin drove crypto adoption in Venezuela ahead of other hyperinflationary countries like Argentina.

Nigeria is also an inflationary country, and citizens have been turning to bitcoin to weather value drops in naira. Demand for bitcoin was so high that the central bank of Nigeria first ordered banks to shut down all accounts associated with crypto trading, and released a five-page explainer that said the measure was taken to protect the country’s financial system.

According to Ayodeji, the naira exchange rate on crypto platforms changed drastically the days after the ban was announced, perhaps driven by the panic that followed, and the demand for bitcoin dropping slightly: the unofficial exchange hit between 410 and 420 naira per dollar, Ayodeji said.

“But the market circled back,” he said. 

By Sandali Handagama

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