Ripple: Utility Token or Security?

The uncertain relationship between Ripple and its token is complicated by the presence of more than 100 financial institutions that use or test payment systems on the Ripple platform. And although the Ripple token is integrated into only one of these systems, xRapid, and in xCurrent and xVia it is an optional payment option, many institutional investors are acquiring the cryptocurrency. Under the assumptions of insiders and on the basis of the personal interest of this class of investors, the SEC may consider Ripple to be a security, and this will prevent its listing on the largest exchanges. Another potential threat that can turn Ripple into a security is that when it was launched in 2012, the token was released thanks to a model much like the ICO model, and one of its constituent parts was the airdrop. The tokens created on the XRP Ledger platform were distributed among users of popular Bitcoin forums. At the same time, a study published last year on the Steemit blog analyzes cryptocurrencies based on the Howey test and concludes that the Ripple token is not a security. “At this time there is no expectation of profit (dividends or payouts) expected for Ripple holders. It is used as a value holder for transactions in the Ripple ecosystem.” This approach boils down to the assertion that the Ripple banking business does not directly affect the price of the cryptocurrency, although it will undoubtedly benefit from demand by large financial institutions that will use it in their transactions.

In order to understand the truth, it is necessary to understand the Ripple technology. “Just a reminder: Ripple is not a cryptocurrency. This is an electronic token issued by Ripple Labs Inc.,” writes a BitcoinTalk user. The Ripple team prefers the term “digital asset.” “I do not call it a cryptocurrency. This is not a currency,” said Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse in February at the Yahoo Finance crypto summit.

One of the main claims to Ripple is that it is, in fact, centralized, that is, the network nodes are controlled by a limited number of Ripple operators and its partners. Ripple determines which nodes confirm the transactions, making up the so-called unique node list (UNL), whereas in more “traditional” cryptocurrencies this function can be performed by any network member who installed the necessary software. The developers of Ripple recognize that the cryptocurrency is not as decentralized as they would like it to be, and in this sense is inferior to many competitors, including Bitcoin and Ether (although accusations of lack of decentralization were presented to the latter two as well). In this regard, critics of Ripple argue that it does not bring any innovations to the crypto economy, being, in fact, electronic money for online payments. “The distributed consensus mechanism does not serve any specific purpose, because the nodes in the Ripple system, by default, give complete control over updating the registry data to the server. Therefore, in our opinion, XRP does not have many potentially interesting technical characteristics peculiar to such cryptocurrencies as Bitcoin or Ethereum,” the researchers of Bitmex Research said in a report published in February.

In an interview with Coindesk, Ripple Chief Technology Officer Stefan Thomas said that in the future, Ripple would be “more decentralized” than Bitcoin, and the company has already taken a step in this direction by adding 55 validators, including Microsoft and MIT to confirm the transactions on the network. In addition, in 2013, Ripple fulfilled another promise by making the source code open and thus ensuring greater transparency of the technology, although even then many did not believe that this plan would be implemented. At the same time, Ripple’s developers now see its advantages over “traditional” cryptocurrency in terms of speed and scalability and pay attention to its consensus algorithm, noting that it is less energy-intensive than a proof-of-work algorithm. At the Yahoo Finance summit, the head of Ripple’s strategic department Cory Johnson said that the Ripple “represents the intrinsic value” unlike other, “sillier coins and assets.” Ripple followers support this assertion, saying that Ripple always had a clear goal to make financial products on the platform even faster and cheaper. “Ripple is positioning XRP as a settlement asset to go with its payment network. There’s huge value in being able to settle international payments in second with a universal asset,” noted Ripple chief cryptographer David Schwartz.

At the same time, one of the “enemies,” a miner and Bitcoin investor under the pseudonym P4man, said in an article on Coindesk that the only “reasonable cause” for the existence of Ripple is the extraction of profits by the Ripple company in the period of “crypto madness.” Claiming this, P4man relies on the fact that the company and its related subsidiaries own at least 60 billion out of the 100 billion max supply of XRP. Critics also argue that the Ripple token may be uninteresting even to Ripple’s “target audience” financial institutions because it is too volatile. P4man writes that the company is trying to mix the two ideas that make sense only separately in its cryptocurrency, namely, to provide a specific group complete control over their own resources thanks to a payment system in which users trust one another and at the same time to create something like Bitcoin, a digital currency without control. As a result, P4man believes, an overly complex system is obtained that does not provide the expected results in the form of cheap quick payments.

Ripple advocates, however, often compare the products of Ripple to a “Trojan horse,” as it is necessary to “enter” it into a sufficient number of banks around the world and then “release the Ripple.” Such tactics are already being implemented as Ripple starts calling on companies using xCurrent to move to xRapid (a system utilizing Ripple tokens) to improve liquidity. Schwartz described these tactics on the forum Xrp Chat, demonstrating how the increasing number of payment corridors raise the value of Ripple. “Now, say you’re a company like Seagate that pays out money all over the globe. If you have to make payments to five countries in our corridors, you’d rather hold one pile of XRP than five piles of different currencies. That increases demand. Now, say you’re a company like Apple with a huge pile of cash. If you want to snap up other assets cheap, you’ll need to hold the asset the people selling want. If they’re going into any of our corridors, they’ll want XRP, so you would want to hold it,” says Schwartz, noting that the plan “is no guarantee of success,” and it was “pretty crazy,” but “if that succeeds, it could increase the price of XRP.”

“We have 160 full-time employees and have raised tens of millions of dollars. We’ve hired many amazing people, and our track record speaks for itself,” Schwartz said.

The status of the Ripple token is largely related to the implementation of this plan. With its success, the pendulum will swing towards the utility token. In this case, however, it is possible that speculation on the “interest” of large investors will continue, which can only be resolved by the SEC.

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