The Melbourne based Doctor of Psychiatry turned crypto-broker tells Blockleaders about his fascinating journey from medicine to blockchain, life as an immigrant in Australia and his hopes for the future of digital money.
It’s 9.00 am in Melbourne and it is already 40 degrees outside. Wild horses are dropping dead. Bushfires are reported in Tasmania. Somehow, professional tennis players continue to contest the Australian Open, although some matches were suspended yesterday for the safety of players and spectators. In the south of the country, exhausted Aussies bake in temperatures just shy of 50 degrees. It’s a busy time, one must presume, for medical professionals and first responders.
Deep in conversation from his - I hope - well air-conditioned office, one doctor isn’t losing his cool. Dr. Prash Puspanathan, Doctor of Psychiatry and CEO of award-winning boutique crypto brokerage Caleb & Brown, is good a person to know. How many friends can you call on to cure you of what ails your mind and your wallet? Indeed, how many financial brokers are also clinical advisers to a national psychedelic society? And while we’re asking, who knew that national psychedelic societies are a thing?
But for Prash there is a clear philosophical line that can be drawn from psychedelics to cryptocurrencies, and he is persuasive in his reasoning. Articulate and almost offensively intelligent, the soft-spoken Singapore native speaks with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, as he guides me through a dissection of the crypto market, globalisation, immigration and, of course, the mind.
“I was a surgical trainee, but as I discovered the effect psychedelics can have on the mind, and the complexities of the mind, I became convinced that my future lay in treating the mind rather than the body. That promise of psychedelics was something I could never turn away from.
A few years ago, while I was writing a talk on the medical potential of psychedelics and as I was researching the notion of cognitive liberty, I stumbled across the idea of fiscal liberty - the belief that you should have the freedom to spend your money whichever way you want. It’s not something you consider as a problem in the developed world until you investigate it deeply.
This led me to the Bitcoin whitepaper. I got extremely involved in that paradigm, which I found ideologically similar to the psychedelic paradigm. I invested in cryptocurrencies myself and soon realised that there was a gap in the market. There was no safe, trusted means of obtaining large volumes of cryptocurrencies. That’s how Caleb & Brown came into being. But I still maintain an active interest in the medical use of psychedelics.”
Australia is not alone in categorising most psychedelic substances as Class A drugs alongside cocaine and heroin, a state of affairs which is unlikely to change any time soon. But microdosing of psychedelics in the belief that it enhances cognitive performance is creeping into corporate culture. “We are a long way away from decriminalisation. The medical cannabis wave has chartered a path and provides a use case, but it will be years before we see anything like this with psychedelics. There are so many medical, legal and regulatory hurdles to jump - even testing with psychedelics is legally problematic. But I believe that the usage of these substances to enhance performance will become more widespread on Wall Street in the coming years, as it already has in Silicon Valley.”
However, when it comes to cryptocurrencies, Australia has taken a far less clear position, except when it comes to taxation. Prash’s business is regulated by the qango with oversight for Australia’s anti-terrorism and anti-money laundering laws. “We are licensed by AUSTRAC to provide a cryptocurrency exchange service. That’s the only licensing in place at present. The other regulators - companies registration, financial services - have been silent on the treatment of cryptocurrencies.
Meanwhile, the tax authorities treat cryptocurrencies as commodities, which means that tax is due whenever crypto is exchanged for a profit. The problem here is that it fails to take account of the depreciation of crypto assets. So, for example, if your crypto holdings have depreciated by 50%, the loss cannot be offset against your tax liability unless you actually sell the cryptos for a loss. More seriously, if you exchange Bitcoin for Ethereum at a profit today and the price of Ether crashes tomorrow, your tax liability is on the profit you made, even if your holdings are now worth next to nothing. I would like to see cryptos treated as regulated financial instruments, which would make them more attractive for wealth management and financial advisers. After all, making crypto investing attractive for institutional investment firms is essential for the growth of the ecosystem.”
Companies working with cryptos are met with intransigence by the banking sector, a situation that is hardly unique to Australia. “Only yesterday I read about another crypto exchange having their banking services withdrawn. And it happens quickly. If the company is lucky, it might receive a letter giving it seven day’s notice that its account will be frozen. Frustratingly, it’s impossible to get a proper explanation other than the assertion that the banks are private institutions and can do business with whomever they choose.”
Prash’s native Singapore is a hotbed of blockchain activity, although, with a very pro-active State and an infrastructure struggling to keep up, Singapore presents businesses with almost a direct reversal of the issues they face in Australia. “Regulators in Singapore have certainly done a lot to push regulation forward to make the country more crypto-friendly. But there is a dichotomy, in that the regulators are very advanced, but the influx that has occurred of startups and private enterprises have been somewhat hamstrung by the banking infrastructure.”
Finding the right fiscal space for cryptos is a global problem. But whether they are securities, financial instruments, or working currencies, their potential in taking power away from banks entices Prash. “One of the main problems with the financial system now is the complete opacity of it. If anything, the crypto ecosystem allows much greater transparency on the basis of the distributed ledger technology at its heart.
What fascinates me more is the question of access. We have anointed the banks with an enormous amount of power. We’ve assigned them that power and then we give them our money to hold. We get on our knees and bow down to the rules they set for us about how we transact our funds. It’s a remarkably counter-intuitive notion that has become ingrained in society over time. This is where the idea of fiscal liberty should be centered. It’s not about hiding your money from authorities - I don’t have any problem with fair taxation. Having free access to our money without an opaque intermediary is more interesting to me.”
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Prash speaks authoritatively about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and is refreshingly hyperbole-free in his analysis. There is a decentralised utopia out there for the taking, but practical steps must be taken by governments, regulators and financial services before we can hope to reach the libertarian ideal held dear by decentralisation maximalists. He tells me it is only through proper regulation and government action that institutional investment will enter the market, thereby moving the world away from the staid, outmoded banking paradigm, and allowing the value of these assets to start moving up again.
“A lot of crypto purists shy away from regulation because they see it as stepping away from the decentralised ethos they avow. But for me, regulation is a benign trojan horse that allows us to ease the transition from our current model to the utopian ideal that the purist dreams of.
The crypto market is currently worth in the region of $150 billion, whereas there is 7 trillion in gold and $70 trillion held in high net worth individual funds run by wealth managers and financial advisors. It is difficult to imagine the crypto market moving forward without some of that money moving into the crypto space. For that to happen, regulation must happen first.
Secondly, more mainstream investment models must be created. I know a lot has been written about ETFs, but we’ve seen with gold and other commodities that the launch of ETFs can really boost the industry, and I think that can happen with cryptos. This will take time, maybe years.
Thirdly, there is the matter of custody. If we want to see greater validity and a more mature infrastructure in the space, there must be better custody solutions. A lot of work is being done, but nobody yet has a credible solution. I like to draw a distinction between custody services and custody solutions. For a service to be a custody solution, the key element is underwriting. What happens when something goes wrong? Until there is a robust underwriting mechanism, there will be a reluctance to hold large quantities of assets with all the inherent dangers that entails.”
But when the dust settles, will these digital assets have any purpose other than to be held and traded? Will we ever routinely buy skinny lattes with Bitcoin? “This is another contentious point. Roger Ver wouldn’t agree with me, but in my view, multiple cryptocurrencies can co-exist and they will each have their own value proposition. The main value of Bitcoin is in its fundamental scarcity, which gives it great potential as a store of value. Regardless of what we read about the Lightning Network, I can’t see us using Bitcoin for day to day transactions. It’s just not practicable.”
Prash has made Australia his home and has never felt discriminated against for his nationality or skin colour. “I moved here in 2005, and in that time I have never faced any setbacks or discrimination based on where I am from. But I think that is due to my credentials to some extent. But I can’t deny that there is a level of discrimination here. You just have to look at our immigration and asylum policy. I spent time working as a doctor in immigration detention centres with our asylum seeker population and that was a very disheartening experience. Australia is geographically isolated, and also socio-economically independent to a large degree. It doesn’t have the same influences or pressures that are felt by countries in Europe or the Americas. The immigrant communities in Europe are often from neighbouring countries. Here, they are from very distant states and are easier to classify as “aliens”. It’s interesting because each generation of Australians has repeatedly had this attitude to the next generation of immigrants.”
It will be for historians to analyse why this decade has seen the rise of populist, right-wing political movements across the globe. These movements espouse anti-bank and anti-government sentiments that sound similar to those voiced by some crypto believers. The political mavericks at the helm of these new parties point the finger accusingly at globalisation, condemning states and banks for choosing profit over the working men and women of Italy, the US or one of the other nations that has lurched to the right. Is the age of globalisation over, and what can that mean for blockchain, a technology unencumbered by borders?
“I still believe strongly that globalisation is a core tenant of what the crypto ecosystem promises us. We have approximations towards globalisation now and that has been facilitated by advances in technology, transportation and so on. But money is crucial as a means of establishing trust. The fact that we have these geographically divergent currencies means we have divergent means of establishing trust. That is something I would like to see changed, and cryptocurrencies can help in establishing that trust.
As globalisation has become more of a reality in the past fifty years, we have been faced with the reality of what that looks like. But with globalisation, you can’t pick and choose the bits that you want. If you want cheap labour, you have to cope with the fact that you will have waves of immigration and a more multicultural society. This has driven some of the backlash that we are seeing now. But globalisation can’t simply be turned off, and it will be interesting to see how we adapt to its challenges over the next ten or twenty years.”
My conversation with Prash ends on a cautionary note as we turn our attention to the economic outlook for the coming months and years. For Prash a financial shock is in in the air.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens this year. At this point, the wheels are in motion. We have been repeating the same mistakes we made in the run-up to the crash of 2008. At some point, the house of cards will have to crumble. The last three months of 2018 were disastrous. The FTSE and Dow Jones had horrific quarters, and this is a significant indicator of where the financial system is sitting. It’s inevitable. Nobody talks about subprime mortgages anymore, but the practice of buffering our financial system still occurs. The status quo of control in the banking sector remained after the last crash and that has been prohibitive to innovation in the sector”
Recession comes with opportunity, however, but Prash has very little time for taking stock. “It will be a catalyst for change. If nothing else, we will be forced to examine how we do business, and that is something that excites me. For myself, I hope in the future to have more time to think. It’s the most crucial ingredient for any academic or for anyone who wants to innovate.”