Using Ripple to understand valuation, risk and the SEC in the brave new world of blockchain

Given XRP is one of the more successful cryptocurrencies and Ripple (the XRP sponsor) has an incredible list of backers/board members and has been in business since 2012, they seem like a good company to use to take a deeper dive into the mechanics of the crypto market and analyze where some of the liabilities exist.

First, let’s go through a little background-In September of 2016 it was announced that Ripple raised $55 million USD in funding at a valuation of $410M USD.  The XRP token according to Chainfx was trading at $.007 USD on Sept 1, 2016.  Given there are 100B total tokens & 39.25% are in the market.  The market cap of XRP would have been $700M near the time of the valuation.  Today the XRP market cap is near $53 billion USD.

More from on Ripple’s valuation from David Schwartz, Chief Cryptographer at Ripple  “As Michael Nadolillo point out, Ripple did not create XRP. XRP existed before Ripple did.

As for how you value a company like Ripple, it comes down to two components. First is how to value the XRP that Ripple holds. The second is how to value whatever else Ripple might do that might materialize as shareholder value.

Presumably, the current price of XRP reflects some fair prediction of the value of XRP. If it was an unreasonably low estimate of XRP’s value, we’d expect people to buy it and cause the price to rise. Similarly, if it was an unreasonable high estimate, we’d expect people to sell and cause the price to drop.

So we can take the amount of XRP that Ripple holds and multiply it by the price of XRP to get a fair market estimate of the value of Ripple’s XRP. But you have to remember that Ripple will have to use some of the value of that XRP to incentivize partners, pay employees, and so on. It will not all materialize as value to Ripple’s shareholders.

Of course, some of that expenditure may translate into revenue beyond XRP for Ripple. For example, Ripple might trade XRP (or use revenue from XRP sales) to acquire equity in other companies. Ripple might use XRP (or revenue from XRP) to form new ventures that generate value from sources other than XRP.

So some multiplier has to be used to represent what fraction of the value of Ripple’s XRP you think will materialize as shareholder value. The challenging thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any good, objective way to agree on what this multiplier should be. I’ve seen knowledgeable people place it at 15% and I’ve seen them place it at 85%.

The market cap of XRP is not really a meaningful number for computing Ripple’s value though it does give a general idea of the economic importance of XRP compared to other digital assets. Ripple doesn’t own all the XRP, so the value of all the XRP doesn’t really relate to Ripple’s value.”

Ripple is essentially a high-value service that provides the ability for institutions to send money globally using the power of blockchain.   They have the RippleNet messaging systems for enterprises to use for cross-border payments and it does NOT require XRP–Ripple execs have even mentioned that XRP is not essential to Ripple’s business case (it’s just an add-on).  The execs have also mentioned that the ‘old’ cross-border payment systems cost ~20 basis points but with Ripple, customers could have a 6-basis point improvement using their platform without XRP.  With XRP there is an additional 2-basis  savings (note: this doesn’t take into account volatility of the XRP currency).

You have to wonder, does Ripple want to be the first non-sovereign private central bank leveraging cryptocurrency?

Ripple says they have 100 banks using their platform however it’s difficult to tell if those institutions are just kicking the tires or are they building out production systems.   You would think that these customers already have a ton of resources engaged in the ‘old’ way of moving money around for multi-national corporations and they make a ton of money doing it the ‘old’ way.   Also, these old-school banks and corporations are mostly risk-averse and if they think there are regulatory issues they will wait until those are clearly worked out.

Is XRP centralized or decentralized?

As opposed to Bitcoin, XRP does not seem all that decentralized–that may be a huge problem for the SEC… or maybe not.

  • Ripple says they are committed to decentralizing the XRP ledger and divesting operating control and giving up control of their validator nodes.
  • Bitmex did a report on Ripple / XRP where they downloaded the node software and all keys came from Ripple and they are in control of the consensus system.
  • Past CEO Chris Larson (17% of total) and current CEO Brad Garlinghouse (6.3% of the company) own a large share. (see here)

The most important point here is that most all cryptocurrency projects are going to start out centralized and then go to decentralized—it just seems to be taking Ripple a while to get there (it must be difficult). What makes this troubling is the market cap is huge and MOST IMPORTANTLY – the SEC has recently reported the following.  In this speech, William Hinman emphasized that “decentralization” is what makes Ethereum and Bitcoin NOT securities (absence of a “central actor” or third party who meaningfully determines “the enterprise’s success.”).  That can’t be good for Ripple.

Does Ripple need XRP?

Ripple may be a different animal (if they are really building a non-sovereign private central bank) however their platform seems like a permissioned system (private Blockchain) and tokens are not even necessary given the actors involved trust each other.   A permission-less system needs a token to incentive behavior because there are no middlemen.

If this is the case, the issue here is that they sold XRP to retail investors when was meant to be used by banks.

Is having a cryptocurrency worth the headache?

I guess all this boil down to is having XRP worth all the hassle when it only provides a 2 basis point saving for customers?

It seems that Ripple already has a great deal of interest and momentum from industry (MoneyGram is even interested). However, the cryptocurrency model seems to have lead to plenty of legal headaches (beyond what the SEC may bring in the future).  There is a lawsuit with R3 where Ripple granted options for billions of XRP at less than 1 cent in 2016 to incent R3’s banking network to adopt the platform.  Ripple canceled the option and now it’s in court.  There is also a class-action lawsuit against Ripple (see Bloomberg article here).  And there are other strange troubling issues–See the case of Jeb McCaleb family member froze funds at node level to get 1m back…

On top of all this, it also seems that even with all the success this company is having they are having difficulty getting listed in the most powerful exchanges (more here).

Bottom line – it may be worth the headaches IF the currency is what is funding the growth and the company can use this momentum to actually change a giant old school market.   It’s difficult to tell from the company’s quarterly reports where the revenue is coming from but you have to believe (after reading some of the background articles listed below) that the primary source of revenues is from the sale of XRP.

Net Net: If Ripple can steer clear of the SEC then maybe it was worth it and they will accomplish a sea change in the financial market.   …and just maybe the SEC sees the long-term upside in having this industry change!

Background reading:

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