Long

‘Ecuador Bans Bitcoin’! A Monetary Mix-Up

A little over a year ago an article passed through my inbox that caught my eye; maybe some of you remember it, although the story registered just a blip on Bitcoin’s kaleidoscopic news radar.

‘Ecuador Bans Bitcoin, Plans Own Digital Money’, the headline read.

I was in the middle of writing up research I had conducted in Quito, Ecuador for my dissertation when I came across the article. That research focused, in part, on the everyday politics of money in Ecuador amidst a left-populist program of constitutional reform and institutional change. At the same time, I was pursuing collaborative research with my colleagues Bill Maurer, Lana Swartz, Scott Mainwaring, and others on new financial technologies and payment systems, including Bitcoin, the distributed online protocol that has so gripped technical and popular imaginations alike. Together, we tried to decipher a phenomenon that has now become paradigmatic of efforts to rethink and remake the very infrastructures we use to send, spend, save, and keep track of value. We are continuing to try to make sense of this rapidly diversifying universe of financial technologies and monetary forms, which Scott has called a ‘Cambrian explosion’ in the tokens, rails, and portals of payment.

Primed by these research interests, the headline grabbed my attention. Two worlds in this expanding universe of experiments with money and technology were curiously converging. That they came together in Ecuador is not insignificant, but as is often the case, the clamor that surrounded Bitcoin, its cryptocurrency ilk, and their underlying blockchain technology made it hard to hear much of anything else. In that clamor, we might have missed a shared unease—sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted—around the question of how to make value endure.

 

Electronic Money

Other reports followed the first, as cryptocurrency forums, Bitcoin news aggregators, and then mainstream outlets responded to news that the Ecuadorian National Assembly had approved a new Monetary and Financial Code. That legislation promised to reform Ecuador’s banking system—creating, for example, a new policy and regulatory body to centralize oversight of the financial sector. But it also included a much-debated provision giving the Ecuadorian Central Bank the exclusive authority to establish a national mobile payments system and use its balance sheet to manage the circulation of what it called, building on previous Central Bank resolutions, ‘electronic money’.

It was this exclusive mandate that the international Bitcoin community, based by-and-large in North America and Europe, seized upon. Maybe the response was predictable: Because it was designed to disintermediate traditional payment platforms by facilitating peer-to-peer value transfer without relying on a ‘trusted third party’, Bitcoin has been widely understood as challenging the role of states and banks in issuing money and supervising the systems that channel its movement. Even for skeptical observers, Bitcoin seems to point to a future of proliferating, competitive, privately issued moneys and money-like tokens or coupons. For true believers, news about the apparent prohibition of Bitcoin in Ecuador could be filed among other examples of hostile governments seeking to short-circuit that future. In Ecuador, a small group of Bitcoin users echoed these concerns, protesting that, whether intentionally or inadvertently, the BCE (the Spanish acronym for the Ecuadorian Central Bank) had effectively banned the use of cryptocurrencies there. Even more incredible, however, was the suggestion by some that the Ecuadorian government was planning to emit its own digital currency.

The idea of a state-administered, cryptographically secured digital currency has been around almost as long as Bitcoin itself (see, for instance, the Royal Canadian Mint’s MintChip project), and recently, the idea has become somewhat more credible. The suggestion that Ecuador was to become the first country to issue its own cryptocurrency, however, was more than a little misleading. The BCE’s proposal for a centrally integrated mobile payments system had nothing to do with Bitcoin per se. That system looked, instead, more like Kenya’s M-Pesa, to which Ecuadorian officials explicitly compared and contrasted their plan. In the wake of M-Pesa’s dramatic success as a system for providing basic financial services to tens of thousands of Kenyans, its cell phone-based ‘branchless banking’ model has gained traction among development professionals and industry actors around the world. The design of the Ecuadorian mobile payments project drew heavily on this ‘e-money’ paradigm.[1] Like other deposit-based mobile money schemes, the Ecuadorian system—now operational with, as I write this, some 46,000 accounts—allows citizens to open an account, deposit state-issued money into that account, and use their cell phones to conduct SMS-based money transfer, savings, and bill payment. Ecuadorian officials insist that the primary mission of the project is to expand the reach of formal financial services to un- and under-banked populations and reduce the costs of cash, especially to the poor.[2]

MPesa Agent
“M-Pesa Agent,” courtesy of Ivan Small and the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion.

At the same time, among mobile money schemes, the Ecuadorian Central Bank’s initiative is unique. That’s because the infrastructure of the system is routed through and administered by the BCE, not a mobile network operator. Individual accounts are held with the BCE directly, and the BCE purchases airtime from the country’s mobile network providers and guarantees the low costs of using the system, ensuring its accessibility. The BCE also deals directly with a variety of retailers and financial institutions, including dozens of local cooperatives, to credit and debit accounts; these institutions thus serve as ‘macro-agents’ and cash-in/cash-out points. The project is, in short, the world’s first publically mandated and operated mobile money system.

BCE officials see this system’s public foundation and orientation as integral to its significance: Unlike other mobile money initiatives, Ecuador’s is fully interoperable, platform- and provider-agnostic, and (as officials repeatedly stress) not-for-profit. As philosophical justification, officials argue that money itself is a ‘public good’—as Fausto Valencia, the BCE official in charge of the project, put it during a conference in Quito in October 2014—and the infrastructures through which it circulates should be treated as such.[3] A white paper (and an overview in English) by researcher Javier Félix and his colleagues provides a useful summary of the system’s technical elements while also documenting these political and development objectives.[4]

At no point, however, was the system to be blockchain-based or otherwise cryptographically secured, and subsequent efforts to dispel the association between Bitcoin and Ecuador’s mobile payments project, including by the BCE itself, confirm this. Moreover, despite the widely reported ‘banning’ of Bitcoin, the legal status of cryptocurrencies in Ecuador remains unclear.[5] Today, more than a year after the passage of the Monetary and Financial Code and more than six months after the launch of the ‘e-money’ system, the reaction to the BCE’s announcement in Anglophone circles seems overblown—perhaps a misunderstanding of the Spanish phrase ‘dinero electrónico’, perhaps another example of the Bitcoin hype machine and attention bubble. Bitcoin, it seems, strikes a chord resonant enough to subsume other experiments with money’s forms.

Indeed, there are many who might have celebrated the BCE’s explicit attempt to reassert the importance of the public in payment. I count my colleagues and myself among them; since our earliest forays into payments and fintech, we have insisted (alongside plenty of fellow travelers) on the political implications of debates, often sparked by cryptocurrency, about the future of money. We have also, here and there, expressed worry about the privatization or even enclosure of its infrastructures. Would Bitcoin fulfill its promise to be a digital version of cash—a relatively open, accessible, and, yes, public payment system—or would it end up consolidated and partitioned into closed loops, fenced off from one another, their points of access gated and tolled? The Gates Foundation’s recent Level One Project offers a similarly principled call for a nationally interoperable, open-loop digital payments system; or have a look at Kevin Donovan’s chapter in a key 2012 World Bank publication, which suggests that ‘the provision of money by private companies over private infrastructure risks undermining an important function of the public sector, namely, that the means of value transfer are not “owned” by anyone’. From this perspective, the Ecuadorian mobile payments project looks downright progressive.

In Ecuador, however, the response to the mobile payments project was quite different. As debate about the Monetary and Financial Code heated up, a group of experts began to express doubts about how the ‘electronic money’ system would work and what its true purpose might be. A ‘tsunami of rumors’ inundated the country. The Ecuadorian Association of Private Banks (ABPE) issued a statement calling for the Central Bank to amend its proposal. Friends and acquaintances emailed me to relay their own concerns, share stories about arguments in their homes and workplaces, and ask for my opinion. As recently as June 2015, the head of the ABPE appeared on television, gesturing agitatedly as he intoned:

Personally, as a citizen, I am not going to sign up for the electronic money [system]. No! I don’t have confidence [in it], because I think they are going to use [it] in a way that’s completely inappropriate.

The BCE’s mobile payments plan provoked, in short, a fierce controversy, which has swirled, off and on, up through the present.

At the heart of that controversy—and the distrust expressed by the likes of the ABPE director—is a stubborn set of political anxieties about the temporal persistence of value and the proper site of authority over its issuance and circulation. Those anxieties are not about Bitcoin—not exactly—but they are shared by many who debate the implications of Bitcoin and other new financial technologies for the future of money. In Ecuador, those anxieties are also shaped in crucial ways by the country’s particular political and economic context and by Ecuadorians’ unique historical experience with money.

The dollar changed everything
“The dollar changed everything,” courtesy Nicholas Welcome.

Credible Commitments

For the past 15 years, Ecuadorians have used the U.S. dollar as legal tender. In early 2000, in the midst of a worsening financial crisis—which had precipitated a startling cycle of inflation and devaluation and led to a series of bank bailouts, asset freezes, and a surprise bank holiday—Ecuadorian officials announced a plan to abandon the country’s national currency, the sucre, and formally adopt the dollar. At the time of its announcement, dollarization met with serious resistance. Many Ecuadorians took to the streets to protest the ‘death’ of the sucre and what it represented: not only the loss of a national symbol, but also the unaccountability of state and financial actors, who were accused of bringing on the crisis and profiting from the monetary regime change.

Over the past decade and a half, however, most Ecuadorians have embraced the dollar. Living in Ecuador, I have heard again and again that the dollar, unlike the sucre, is a moneda de confianza, a ‘trustworthy currency’. It is ‘trustworthy’, Ecuadorians say, because it is ‘hard’ and ‘strong’; its value does not fluctuate, but persists over time. Today, many fear that the introduction of a new currency, national or regional, would produce the same instability and uncertainty that led to dollarization in the first place. And so, when my friends in Ecuador heard about the new dinero electrónico, they worried: Would it spell the end of dollarization?

Anxieties about the end of dollarization in Ecuador are not new. Rumors have sometimes feverishly circulated that current President Rafael Correa, who previously criticized dollarization, was planning to release a new currency. Every few years, journalists and experts offer warnings about de-dollarization. Often presented as technical exposés questioning the sustainability of increased state spending, these warnings showcase the widening political conflicts that mark contemporary Ecuador. Correa’s election in 2007—based on his promise to rewrite Ecuador’s constitution and revolutionize the country by tackling entrenched power structures, poverty, and inequality—was seen as part of a resurgence of the left in Latin America. Correa’s government embarked on a ‘techno-populist’ program of public investment and legal and institutional reform that promoted, according to Correa and his supporters, participatory democracy, environmental protection, and an expansive notion of economic development and social wellbeing that is encoded in the new constitution itself. In practice, Correa’s so-called ‘Citizens’ Revolution’ has also sought to reassert the role of the state, especially with regards to economic planning and monetary governance. The mobile payments project, and the new Monetary and Financial Code more generally, should be seen in terms of this broader political agenda. That agenda has prompted heightened criticism as Correa has worked to centralize his own executive authority—expanding natural resource extraction, stepping up attacks on journalists and activists, and sparking widespread protests.

Dollarization remains a flashpoint in this context. Critics argue that, on top of a worsening trade balance, increased state spending—on infrastructure, education, and healthcare, but also on government propaganda—will undermine the supply of dollars in the country, endangering dollarization itself.[6] The worry of state overspending is an old one, and the corresponding calls for fiscal discipline are equally familiar. But dollarization adds a new twist. Official dollarization all but eliminates the primary tools of national monetary policy, restricting the capacity of the dollarizing government to influence the money supply and thus, its proponents in Ecuador hoped, inflation. Championed by a small group of Ecuadorian businesspeople, think tanks, and international economic experts, dollarization in Ecuador was intended to stabilize the value of money by irreversibly tying the hands of policymakers who had, according to both expert and popular opinion, proven themselves too inept or corrupt to be trusted with the nation’s money. The acceptance of the dollar today signals, in part, Ecuadorians’ continuing suspicions about their government’s ability to guarantee the value of money, and the hubbub that surrounded the Central Bank’s mobile payments plan was also part and parcel of these worries. Was that plan ultimately motivated by a desire to reclaim the state’s role in money creation?

There are echoes here of the ideology professed by many early adopters of Bitcoin, who saw in the cryptocurrency the technical capacity to hardwire stability into the value of money. Like Bitcoin, dollarization promises to insulate money from politics. Indeed, both share a desire, a wild hope, to excise the problem of credibility from money, to displace the trust behind the acceptance of money in everyday life from the social and political relations among citizens and between citizens and the issuing authority into some imagined immutability: the seeming irreversibility of dollarization’s ‘credible commitment’, the seeming permanence of Bitcoin’s cryptographic code.

But Correa threatened to reconnect money and politics. Because the BCE’s monetary policy options are so limited—there is no possibility of quantitative easing in Ecuador—Ecuador’s economy depends on influxes of currency (for example, from oil sales, remittances, and tourism), although the BCE also maintains a reserve of dollar-denominated liquid assets. Critics argue that these constraints will force the government to search for other ways to generate liquidity for its political program. Many in Ecuador therefore wondered: Was the ‘electronic money’ system part of a plan to bypass the constraints of dollarization on government expenditure—to create, that is, a ‘parallel currency’ to fund the state’s deficit, finance its debt, or pay its employees?

 

‘Backing’ Money

“Let’s suppose, for example,” one widely circulated article muses,

that people decide to go to the Central Bank and exchange their dollars for electronic money, or that the government decides to begin to pay salaries or [other] obligations with electronic money instead of dollars. […] [T]he quantity of money in circulation (dollars plus electronic money) would be greater than its reserve in the Central Bank. This would increase the level of money in circulation, with the resulting inflationary effects. The electronic money would gradually lose its value and would begin to trade lower than the dollar. In practice, this would mean a devaluation and the end of dollarization, the adoption of a bi-monetary system.

The BCE’s ‘electronic money’ is presented here, interestingly, as the inverse of Bitcoin: If Bitcoin is imagined as a way for money to escape state control, Ecuadorian dinero electrónico is understood, in this doomsday scenario, to be a way for the state to regain control over money. But according to critics, the ability to create money comes with the strong temptation to abuse it, for the BCE to issue more dinero electrónico than deposits or reserves, instituting a kind of fractional reserve arrangement that will inevitably decouple the value of ‘electronic’ and ‘real’ dollars. Indeed, for critics, talk about ‘financial inclusion’ or the ‘modernization of the payment system’ are simply ‘euphemisms’ for de-dollarization at the hands of an ‘unbacked’ digital currency. And, as one interviewer suggests, this kind of ‘inorganic emission’ of currency ‘is father and mother of runaway inflation’.

This basic fear—that the mobile payments system will lead Ecuadorians back to the ‘monetary hell’ that dollarization forestalled—shows up again and again in everyday conversations and media coverage of the project. It even worked its way into the English-language press, including Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page.[7] In response to these concerns, critics insisted that all mobile deposits should be ‘backed’ entirely by dollars: ‘[The Central Bank] has to return la plata’, one economist demanded, using the colloquial expression for money and smacking the back of one hand against the palm of another, ‘in cash, in bills, in liquid money.’ Or, as one of my Ecuadorians friends told me, ‘the dollar is stable. It’s hard. That’s everything. That’s why we want dollars.’

the security of dollarization
“The security of dollarization,” courtesy Nicholas Welcome.

 

The Ecuadorian Central Bank reacted quickly to these worries, declaring that ‘dollarization is not at risk’[8] and issuing a resolution that explicitly requires all mobile deposits be ‘backed’ in full by assets on the BCE’s books. The liquidity of those assets, the resolution states, must be equal to the liquidity of the BCE’s normal dollar reserves. In a press conference, the head of the Central Bank made the metaphor explicit, holding up a coin next to his smartphone; the image later circulated on the BCE’s website and Twitter account with the caption, ‘Electronic money backed 100%’.

All mobile money schemes must decide how to secure the value of users’ deposits; most tackle this problem through the application of country-specific legal arrangements and systems of regulatory oversight.[9] But in Ecuador, the question mutated into a concern over the value of money per se—as it has for the Bitcoin community and others grappling with the implications of cryptocurrency and the wider universe of contemporary monetary experimentation.

The early debates around Bitcoin oriented, almost inescapably, to its value: to the speculation that drove its dollar value up and to the hard ceiling that would keep its supply steady and (therefore, proponents argued) guard against inflating its value away. The thrill that Bitcoin provided was the thrill of value that seemed to inhere in the thing itself: in the network, the code, the math, the computational intensity of mining. In some circles, the debate around cryptocurrency has since moved on to questions of ledgers and law: the use of the blockchain, for example, to settle back-end financial transactions, enforce contracts, or keep track of records for all kinds of things, from property titles to diamonds. But even in these proposals, the value of Bitcoin remains embedded in the promise of its code—specifically, in the way the code seems to preclude the possibility of human mistakes, malfeasance, or prejudice. This technological determinism, an investment in the cryptographic hardwiring of software, parallels the dollar determinism prevalent in Ecuador. Oddly, then, from the perspective of the controversy over Ecuador’s mobile payment system, Bitcoin and the dollar share something important: Unlike the new dinero electrónico, neither bitcoins nor dollars require ‘backing’, because both bitcoins and dollars seem to ‘back’ themselves.

That image of the coin and the smartphone perfectly encapsulates the fantasy of value animating worries in Ecuador about the end of dollarization, which give rise to demands for the dollar to ‘back’ mobile deposits. It is a fantasy of security, of persistence, of value that endures because it is placed beyond human hands, that also animates the crypto- in cryptocurrency.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 10.16.04 AM
“Electronic money backed 100%”

 

The Vertigo of Fiat and the Politics of Persistent Value

As I write this, the Bitcoin community is in the midst of a great forking experiment, splitting the software and perhaps the blockchain itself. At issue, ostensibly, is a technical question about how Bitcoin should scale, and whether its code needs to be modified to avoid future delays in processing an increasing number of transactions. After months of debate on forums and list-servs, two developers released their own version of Bitcoin’s open-source code, which they are calling Bitcoin XT (in contrast to the original ‘Bitcoin Core’). The XT code, among other changes, would increase the size limit of each block of bitcoin transactions, thus increasing both processing capacity and the amount of memory needed to store the full ledger of past transactions. By calling on all the nodes making up the Bitcoin network—that is, everyone running the software that verifies and records bitcoin transactions—to adopt their revision, the XT developers have effectively forced the community to a vote. If 75% of the previous 1000 blocks have been processed using XT by January 2016, then the nodes running the original software will have two weeks before XT begins writing to a new blockchain. This would institute a ‘hard fork’, a break between two separate versions of the code: Transactions registered on one ledger will not be valid according to the record maintained on the other.

Inside this mundane, even esoteric debate are a series of thornier conflicts: Should Bitcoin act principally as a medium of exchange between individuals, or as a ledger for financial settlement, which might require the kind of scaling the Bitcoin XT proponents are calling for? That is, who should Bitcoin serve, the relatively small group of miners and developers who run and maintain the network or the wider community of users and institutions who rely on the network, but who may not contribute significantly to its upkeep? As one of the XT developers himself suggested (writing that ‘the decision-making process in Bitcoin Core has broken’ and that to avoid changing the block size would effectively ‘violate the Bitcoin social contract’), this is ultimately a debate about how to make such decisions. It is a debate about the pragmatics of governance, a debate over the infrastructures not of money per se, but of politics.

And like in Ecuador, this politics has been fed by a desire for persistence. The unfolding conflict over Bitcoin’s block size exposes a worry that changing the code (or, indeed, not changing it in accordance with some originalist vision laid out by Satoshi himself) will damage Bitcoin’s credibility and undermine trust. The code—like a dollar, whether in one’s pocket or on one’s phone—must endure. One observer thus proposed that Bitcoin was going through a ‘constitutional crisis’. But, as Sarah Jeong more colorfully pointed out, it is only a constitutional crisis if you see constitutions as sets of code fixed for eternity at their moment of inscription, which must not be changed for fear of undermining their credibility and authority.

Similarly, the worry about the re-introduction of fiat currency in Ecuador is really a worry about turning money again to political—we might even say public, although whose public is exactly the point—ends. To many Ecuadorians, that is, dollarization represents a reconfiguration of the state’s place in the ‘hierarchy of money’, an abnegation of the authority of the state and its actors to issue currency and guarantee its endurance. Remembering their experience with crisis and dollarization, Ecuadorians feared the reintroduction of fiat currency. For fiat, of course, refers to creation by decree—the sovereign power to create value ex nihilo, as if out of nothing. That nothingness threatened to unsettle the value of money. But there is also something odd about worries that, with the mobile payments system in place, the Ecuadorian government will over-issue electronic money, effectively ‘printing’ currency through state fiat. For after all, the dollar is itself the result of state fiat—just not Ecuador’s—and there are many who regularly worry about expanding its supply. The state’s role in money only appears problematic when the state itself is contested.

There is also precedent for issuing non-dollar monetary units in Ecuador: The BCE continues to ‘print’ (or rather, ‘mint’) money by outsourcing the production of its own fractional coinage to supplement U.S. quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. In fact, the new Financial and Monetary code puts the provision and administration of ‘metallic’ and ‘electronic’ money side by side under the aegis of the BCE. And, of course, there’s this obvious point: Despite worries about the ‘fiction’ of ‘electronic money’, existing digital bank deposits in Ecuador vastly exceed the sum of mobile money expected to circulate (some $80 million, according to the BCE), just as dollars issued by the U.S. Treasury exceed the coins issued under the authority of the BCE. We might, in other words, see the digital credits of the mobile payment system as just another dollar-denominated instrument or, indeed, just another dollar denomination, circulating alongside U.S.-minted bills and coins, Ecuadorian national centavos, bank deposits, and all manner of other forms of money, tangible and intangible, relatively liquid and relatively illiquid.[10] Increased use of the mobile payments system might even lessen the pressure on one aspect of dollarization—the cash and coin handling cycle—insofar as it reduces the (not insignificant) cost of replacing physical coins and notes, which deteriorate much more quickly in Ecuador than elsewhere.

Ecuadorian centavo coins
“Ecuadorian centavo coins”, photo by the author.

 

None of this obviates the controversy in Ecuador, where concern over the endurance of value shapes the politics of money, paper or electronic. Money always seems to end up a staging ground for political debates in the guise of debates about value. Value is, value has, a politics. And that politics takes a particular shape, an insistence on persistence that elides what it takes to create something out of nothing and to make that something endure. For instance: the form of money’s claim on value, the mechanism of accounting for that claim, and the norms and rules for recognizing and compelling observance of it. Claims and code depend on their means of enforcement (institutional and non-institutional, official and customary) and thus on the community within which those means are accepted. The desire for endurance that animates both dollarization and Bitcoin rests on this complex social and political apparatus; it is as much public promise as private demand.

At the same time, this apparatus does not make the desire, the demand, irrelevant. Like any technology, money can be put to a variety of ends, some unintended or unforeseen, others deeply embedded in the historical repertoire of expectations we have compiled around it. That is, there is always the possibility that people will demand of money something other than that it simply facilitate the transfer of value; there is always the possibility that some will demand that it act as store of wealth, as capital—that its value endure. As the intersection of Bitcoin and mobile money in Ecuador illuminates, that possibility is never eliminated, only eclipsed, temporarily; this politics of persistent value itself endures, like a shadow.

The conflation of Bitcoin and Ecuador’s mobile payments project thus offers a surprisingly useful vantage point from which to take in the broader vista of contemporary money. The impulse to find a cryptocurrency angle in Ecuador’s mobile payments project was based on a misunderstanding—or, perhaps, a hope. It was nevertheless productive, in that it points to the politics of persistent value at stake in the wider universe of monetary experimentation. Up to this point, much of the focus in commentary on this experimentation has been on technological innovations in the media, channels, and interfaces that facilitate and record transactions. But at the intersection of cryptocurrency and mobile money in Ecuador is a concern with endurance, and with fiat.

There is a kind of vertigo that swells up in fiat’s wake, a hall-of-mirrors unsteadiness that frustrates attempts to pin down the source of its sovereignty. For the fiat creation of value is not truly out of nothing: there is law, there is the state and its bureaucracies; there is the network of financial institutions—all of which make possible and secure that sovereign power, and all of which can become, individually or in combination, the targets of criticism and contestation. The questions surfaced by Ecuador’s mobile money experiment, as by Bitcoin and its ilk, point to the form of money and its value, but also beyond it, to the layered jumble of actors and institutions that accredit, authorize, and legitimize it and to the variable credibility, authority, and legitimacy of those actors and institutions themselves. Fiat, in other words, is passive-voice shorthand not for a fantasy of one-to-one equivalence—money that perfectly conforms to the value it represents—but for the politics of collective life.

 

Thanks to Quinn DuPont, Johannes Lenhard, Bill Maurer, Nick Seaver, Lana Swartz, and an anonymous reviewer for reading and commenting on a draft of this essay.


[1] Another inspiration, although not explicitly acknowledged by Ecuadorian officials, might have been the E.U.’s e-money directive, which defines electronic money as a digital unit or token backed one-to-one by cash reserves.

[2] While many argued that the project would, for example, increase security by decreasing the need for people to carry cash, officials frequently returned to the gap in Ecuador between access to financial services and access to mobile communication: While 40% of Ecuador’s total population does not have a bank account, there are more cell phones than people in the country. This is a common trope in the mobile money-for-development domain.

[3] A 2011 Central Bank report by Santiago Vásquez also uses this language, including among its closing recommendations that ‘the BCE act as the sole issuer of electronic money in the economy, thus converting mobile money into a public good with equal levels of access, security, and coverage for all of Ecuador’s inhabitants’.

[4] Full disclosure: While working as a research assistant at the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, I collaborated directly with Félix on his research.

[5] The part of the Monetary Code at issue is article 98, which prohibits ‘the circulation and receipt of currency or money not authorized’ by Ecuador’s financial regulatory body. While several English-language reports quoted directly from the Monetary Code, they also recklessly inserted the word ‘cryptocurrency’ in brackets in the place of ‘currency or money’. In fact, the law makes no direct reference to Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency and includes provisions allowing for the use of multiple modes of payment.

[6] As proof, critics point to new government policies directed either at freeing up liquidity for government spending (from debt financing from China in exchange for future deliveries of oil and other natural resources to an arrangement with Goldman Sachs to swap gold bullion reserves for more liquid assets) or at limiting the flow of dollars out of the country (for example, through controversial tariffs on certain imported goods).

[7] The Bloomberg piece was taken down after the BCE and the Ecuadorian Ministry of Political Economy issued a statement challenging the article’s reporting, but its text is available here.

[8] Correa himself insisted that ‘the costs of leaving dollarization would be catastrophic’.

[9] In Kenya, for example, mobile deposits are kept separate from banks’ lending and other activities through the use of a trust account.

[10] This is, in fact, how David Andolfatto describes the proposed Fedcoin: ‘another denomination (with an exchange rate fixed at par)’.


Taylor C. Nelms is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, where he also earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology. His research concerns the politics and pragmatics of money, law, and the state, especially in the context of efforts to reimagine economy and society. His website is taylornelms.net and he tweets at @royal_t14.