Cryptocurrency is a giant multi-level marketing scheme

The holy grail of pyramid schemes?
The holy grail of pyramid schemes?
Image: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
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It’s hard to see red flags when you’re wearing rose-colored glasses.

Cryptocurrency’s warning signs having been coming fast and furious. A new report indicates that half of initial coin offerings, which are the crypto world’s money-raising equivalent of an IPO, have already died—and many of the remaining are blatant scams with no intent to build a product. Then there are the crypto-rich stories that shouldn’t pass a basic smell test of reasonability and logic. Just look at Ripple. In early January, Ripple co-founder Chris Larsen had a net worth of $59 billion, moving him ahead of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founders of Google, and the founder of Oracle. But following a crypto crash in mid January, Larsen had lost $44 billion of his net worth. Gravity can be a heartache.

Then you have the mythology surrounding Satoshi Nakamoto, the anonymous listed inventor of bitcoin and its underlying blockchain technology. A mysterious character who creates 880,000 bitcoins of dubious value whose value is propped up by a public enthralled by stories of newly minted crypto millionaires? That’s not going to end well. Throw in a twist where one person allegedly manipulated prices on the Mt. Gox currency exchange to drive the price from $150 to $1,000, and it all sounds like a Hollywood film. The red flags are right out there in the open, waving in the wind.

But the public should know by now how these kinds of movies end: with a few people getting rich and a whole lot of people losing money.

Despite the damn-the-man libertarian framing of cryptocurrency as the great democratizer of wealth, just 1,000 people own 40% of the entire bitcoin market (which was valued at over $200 billion in early 2018, and now hovers somewhere over $100 billion depending on the massive daily fluctuations).

That’s not the currency of the future—that’s a giant multi-level marketing scheme.

Broadly defined, multi-level marketing schemes work by creating a structure where people are recruited and then incentivized to recruit new members. Nutritional-supplement seller Herbalife and cosmetics company Mary Kay are two prime examples. The more people who buy into the concept down the line, the more that the individuals at the top make, hence the closely related pyramid-scheme synonym. A participant’s livelihood therefore depends on recruiting new believers, and the proselytizers who were around from the early days deemphasize the associated risks. Eventually too many people try to join the bottom and the middle bricks begin falling out—but not before the early adopters are able to make an exorbitant amount of money.

Isn’t this exactly what is happening in the cryptocurrency world? Those who bought in early have an incredibly strong interest to recruit new “members”: The more people who buy crypto, the higher the prices become, and the thicker the owners’ digital wallets get. As the field goes mainstream, their current holdings will spike in value, especially given the fact that many cryptocurrencies trade with small volume. But eventually the hype will die down, and the latecomers will shoulder the brunt.

The thought of making easy money, especially after seeing others around you make money, triggers people to suspend their typical reasoning. Looking to capitalize on this moment of suspended logic, new cryptocurrencies are multiplying like Gremlins. There are currently 1,519 cryptocurrencies available to purchase, many of which are listed at well under a penny. (But if that penny goes up to a dime, someone makes a lot of money.)

Much like your essential-oil obsessive cousin who finally sees through their pyramid scheme’s shiny facade, a light is beginning to shine on crypto harpers. Respected investor and currency trader George Soros said at the recent World Economic Forum that “bitcoin is not a currency.” Likewise, Warren Buffet is skeptical: “I can say almost with certainty that [cryptocurrencies] will come to a bad ending,” he told CNBC in January. An EU Commission has just stated that cryptocurrencies are not a currency and do not have guaranteed value. Even the North American Bitcoin Conference stopped accepting bitcoin as payment to its own conference.

Yet true believers are still undeterred. We have seen this mass delusion play out before, and you don’t have to go back to the Tulip Mania of 1636-1637 to see it. The late 1990s featured a mania around Beanie Babies, where adults spent thousands of dollars for plush toys made in China. Their price continued to rise based on the belief that the Beanie Babies had turned into a new type of asset, and lots of people lost major savings. But still, there was a winner: Creator Ty Warner is currently worth $2.7 billion.

In a similar fashion, cryptocurrencies are minting millionaires and billionaires because they are convincing down-the-line participants that there is easy money at the end of the rainbow. The newness and complex technical nature of cryptocurrency masks a multilevel-marketing strategy we have seen perpetuated throughout history—except instead of slinging beauty products or protein powders, we’re now buying invisible coins.