You may have already got this very enticing WhatsApp or email. It goes like this: “Initiative Q is building a new payment network and giving away significant sums of their future currency to early adopters. It is by invite only and I have a limited number of invites. Click this link to sign up…Initiative Q will succeed only if many people join. The more people invite their friends, the greater the likelihood of reaching the goal of each Q being worth around one US dollar.” You can see the site here: initiativeq.com.
What’s the deal? This start-up aims to replace the current payment systems (currency, credit cards, cash, wire transfers) because they are clunky and costly. There are newer technologies ready to replace them, says the material on the site, but this does not happen because not enough people switch to the new currencies. If a platform was created that enough people in the world on-boarded, then $20 trillion of transactions a year will flow on this new payment system. “Initiative Q is reserving this Q currency for people who join today—the earlier you join, the more Q you can reserve”. And then the killer line: “Think of this as getting free bitcoin seven years ago.”
If you drive down from Chennai to Pondicherry, it is not unusual to see a furry, beaked head poking out over a high wall, looking quizzically at the world go by the yard in which it lives. The six-feet bird came as an import from Australia and, unknowingly, became a part of a multi-crore scam in Tamil Nadu that defrauded hundreds of thousands of people. Emu farming promised super normal returns – invest in emu chicks, they get fat on your money and are then sold for their meat and oil, doubling or tripling your initial money. Sounds far-fetched? It may to you, but some Rs.500 crore of real retail money bought the scheme. It isn’t as if people only in the south are gullible; 1,600 kms north of Chennai, in West Bengal, an even larger bunch of people at the bottom of the pyramid collected every rupee they could and invested in real estate deals, teak farms and in products as bizarre as potato bonds that offered to double money in a short time. And it isn’t as if it is the rural poor that are gullible, Indians in urban areas have got burnt taking online surveys or trusting their money to a stock guru for multi-bagger rewards. One newspaper report (http://bit.ly/15TnxY8) puts the size of fraudulent deposit-taking schemes just in West Bengal at Rs.70,000 crore. There is no estimate for the size of the problem across the country but we can conjecture that it will be in trillions and not billions.
I’m between meetings and while away time at a Barista near IIT. The book I have open is less interesting than the conversation I shamelessly eavesdrop on. Didn’t have to try very hard as the two men who sat less than two feet away are locked up in a world of their own. One seems to be the person with the scheme. The other sounds like the person who will go and sell that scheme. Twenty minutes of hearing high energy hectoring, approach lines, counter questions and a very basic but effective sales pitch and I reluctantly leave the free theatre. These men are obviously practicing a pyramid scheme and person one is prepping person two. The thread that runs through person one’s rant at person two and then of person two to the victim he calls on the phone is this: you’re a loser if you carry on with your low-level life as it is now. You want the big bucks? The good life? To be in the fast lane? Then you need to jump into this scheme. It is only for you. I am your special friend. There is a small window of opportunity open. It will shut. Remember that person? How useless he used to be? Well, now he’s in Mumbai. Drinks everyday at five star bars. And you can’t even afford this coffee you drink that I bought you. Hurry up and sign on.
Calvin and Hobbes play this wonderful game called Calvinball. The key feature of the game is that it operates under rules, but these are “subject to be changed, amended, or deleted by any player(s) involved. These rules are not required, nor necessary to play Calvinball”. This game looks suspiciously like the Indian financial product intermediation space. All regulators can point to pages and pages of rules. But when you play the game, all these are ignored to form completely new ones as the game goes along.