Bitcoin Is Failing As Money—But Bitcoin Cash Isn’t

Money has three principal functions: as a medium of exchange, as a store of value, and as a unit of account.

Secondary attributes that have aided the adoption of various forms of money include interestingness (“Ooh! Look how shiny that gold is!”), uniform divisibility, portability, resistance to counterfeit, and imposeability. That last one is important, because it is what makes state-backed fiat currency the dominant form of money in the world. The U.S. government is territorially and militarily powerful. That allows it to print green paper unbacked by any commodity and tell people both within and without its jurisdiction to accept it. For almost fifty years, that model of money has prevailed.

Bitcoin, in the last few weeks, has made me want to add another attribute to this list: low transaction costs. Miners on the Bitcoin network—which once made a feature out of its low transaction costs—now charge roughly the equivalent of $43 to upwards of a hundred dollars to add a single transaction to the Blockchain. The size of a block on the Bitcoin Blockchain is limited. Currently, it is 1MB. A user-defined transaction fee is broadcast with every Bitcoin transation, and miners add transactions to new blocks in exchange for these fees. Bitcoin mines new blocks every 10 minutes.

I first became broadly aware of Bitcoin in 2011. Back then, the price was $10 a coin, and back then the standard cost of adding a transaction to the blockchain was .0001 BTC, or a tenth of a cent. Whoop! Nowadays, Bitcoin sells for upwards of $14,000 a coin, putting the equivalent price of .0001 BTC up to $1.40. But fees have increased much more than this, because there is more congestion. More users than ever—drawn in by rising Bitcoin prices—are trying to use the network at once, and this is creating congestion. If more than 1MB of transactions are broadcast, then miners will only add the most expensive transactions. The cost of the transaction fees has been bid up and up and up to the point where yesterday it averaged $43 per transaction. That might not be so bad if you’re sending 10 BTC to pay for a Lamborghini, but if you’re not a Bitcoin millionaire and you want to buy a coffee or pizza, or want to send $20 to a friend, or even just want to buy into Bitcoin for a couple of hundred bucks, a $43 transaction fee is a real killer. It makes any use of Bitcoin as a medium of exchange impossible for anything much other than London or Hong Kong real estate, and Lamborghinis, etc. This congestion also means days and days of waiting for transactions to be added to the blockchain.

Ultimately, this problem is preventing Bitcoin from functioning as a medium of exchange.

The problem has gotten so bad that millions of dollars are trapped in small accounts where the network transaction fees are larger than the balance of the account, effectively rendering them worthless. So for a lot of users, Bitcoin has turned out to be a pretty shitty store of value.

Now, a problem is not a problem if you solve it. An obvious solution is to increase the block size, to ease congestion. But the community has failed to implement this.  But there has been a failure to find a solution to this problem of massive transaction fees, which is why they are still very high. Bitcoin’s community—which is controlled by the miners—has totally failed to reach a consensus on how to increase the block size, or indeed whether to increase the block size at all.

Some users allege that larger blocks will result in more centralization, as it will increase storage demands. Developers in the community such as Blockstream instead propose a Lightning Network to solve the problem of congestion. This Lightning Network is a space in the blockchain where multiple Bitcoin users create a contract to store their Bitcoin, and can transact in it among themselves without any fees for accessing the blockchain. But this is a theoretical future solution to a current and practical problem, so it’s not really offering any relief. If it was, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Plus, even in the Lightning Network vision, users would still have to access the blockchain in order to put their funds into a Lightning Network channel, which would still require them to pay the fees to do so. Furthermore, Lightning Networks themselves might also demand high fees.

Anyway, the idea that larger blocks will cause centralization is extremely dubious. Data storage is very cheap, and getting much, much cheaper. Data transfer rates across the internet are also improving. And even the developers of the Lightning Network admit that in order to serve a global population, block size increases up above 100MB—far above even what Bitcoin Cash has today—will become necessary.

Massive fees, of course, benefit one specific group: miners. So, of course, it’s in their interest to keep the fees high, and to avoid increasing the block size. But by doing so, they are strangling the entire network.

Relief is coming in the form of hard forks. Some Bitcoin users have forked off Bitcoin’s history and started their own versions of the coin, Bitcoin Cash and Bitcoin Gold. These new implementations of Bitcoin are based around the principle of increasing the block size periodically to avoid congestion. Already, these coins already have much lower transaction fees—around 1-2c per transaction. As a result, they’re beginning to capture the market. Bitcoin Cash in particular has increased in price 37% over the past week, while Bitcoin Core’s price has fallen 25%. Other users are migrating away from Bitcoin Core toward other cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum, Monero, Zcash, Digibyte, Dogecoin, and Litecoin, as well as next-gen unmineable coins like IOTA and Rai Blocks. But as more and more users are drawn into the cryptocurrency space by rising crypto prices, other cryptocurrencies based on the basic Bitcoin model of small block size are also experiencing rising transaction fees. Monero and Ethereum in particular have seen their fees greatly spike.

Are transaction fees the thing that kills cryptocurrency? Almost certainly not. Decentralized ecash is a very popular concept that has attracted billions of dollars of investment. Meanwhile, central banking and state-backed fiat money have become increasingly unpopular in the wake of the 2008 financial sector bailouts that funnelled trillions of dollars away from taxpayers and into the pockets of bankers. And there are already many viable alternatives to Bitcoin Core, such as Bitcoin Cash which can function as a medium of exchange, and store of value.

But maybe this will be the thing that kills Bitcoin Core. And given that Bitcoin Core is by far the biggest and most widely known cryptocurrency, that may cause a severe but temporary depression for the wider crypto market that scares away many retail and institutional investors. Time is running out for a solution that drops transaction fees to a manageable level, and allows Bitcoin Core to function again as a medium of exchange and store of value. Bitcoin’s rate of adoption as a medium of exchange is already abysmal, with only 3 out of the top 500 ecommerce websites accepting it as payment for goods and services.

While transaction fees are currently enriching the miners, this rent-seeking is in danger of killing the golden goose. Bitcoin Core’s backers do not have the power of the U.S. government. They can’t force people to use Bitcoin Core to, for example, pay taxes. It’s a voluntary model. So if people can’t use Bitcoin Core as it was originally envisioned—as ecash—then the only people using it will be people HODLing it simply because the price has gone up. That is completely unsustainable. It’s the definition of a bubble, and at least in the tulip bubble the tulip growers didn’t charge their clients huge fees to move their tulips around! As more and more Bitcoin Core users switch to Bitcoin Cash and other alternatives, this bubble will burst.


Bitcoin: The opportunity costs of mining for money

Everything we do and every choice we make has an opportunity cost. In a world of scarce time and resources each choice necessarily means rejecting many other possible opportunities. One of the best illustrations of this concept was made by President Eisenhower in a 1953 speech. Eisenhower criticized the use of scarce resources for military purposes because of the opportunity cost:

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: A modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. [The Chance For Peace]

These kinds of choices are just as difficult as they were for Eisenhower in 1953. How much time, resources, and effort should be dedicated to military activities? It’s still a contentious argument, and opinions greatly differ.


Is Bitcoin A Bubble?

One key hallmark of Bitcoin’s price rise from the beginning of 2013 to now, where it has just crept above $240 a coin — up $100 a coin from the last time I wrote about Bitcoin — has been the oft-repeated mantra that Bitcoin is in a speculative bubble, and its price may be due to imminently collapse. This has spawned article after article after article after article — people were calling Bitcoin a bubble at $30 a coin, at $60 a coin — yet the price keeps climbing (and those who were discouraged from investing at lower prices missed out on spectacular gains). It is certain that at some stage the sellers will outnumber the bidders and the price will fall or crash. But when?

I ended my last article on Bitcoin joking that Bitcoin had a much better chance of being part of the monetary future than Groupon did being part of the future of commerce, and that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bitcoin at some stage trading at Groupon’s record market cap — enough to price Bitcoin at $2,000 a coin. But this was a joke. Bitcoin and Groupon are fundamentally different investments; Bitcoin is an experimental deflationary crypto-currency instrument and anonymous payments system, while Groupon is the equity in an experimental company. That means Bitcoin is a whole new asset class. And not a fantasy asset class, but one that is rapidly permeating the spheres of human consciousness, an idea that is replicating and multiplying at a rate far beyond its original audience of crypto-anarchists, heterodox monetary theorists, and black marketeers.

I don’t really see Bitcoin (and its crypto-currency siblings) facilitating trade a great deal in the future (although, its deflationary-nature might make it attractive to merchants who wish to hoard it). During Bitcoin’s recent run (or more accurately, hyper-deflation) Bitcoin’s velocity has actually fallen sharply as its rising value has encouraged hoarding. Gresham’s Law implies that whenever possible Bitcoin’s deflationary nature will subordinate it to fiat currency for transactions. State-backed currencies tend to depreciate year-on-year, encouraging spending and discouraging saving. That is treated by central bankers as an imperative of monetary policy. Yet Bitcoin’s deflationary nature encourages the opposite, implying that Bitcoin is not a threat to state-backed fiat but a complementary currency, an intangible, anonymous, global and infinitely mobile counterpart to tangibles like gold.

Gold remains a part of the global financial system, a savings instrument alongside its tiny role as an industrial metal and its larger role as jewellery. Credit-Suisse estimated that total global financial assets in 2012 were $223 trillion, of which gold makes up 0.6%, translating to a $1.338 trillion market cap for gold as a financial asset, (although a larger amount of gold — around $8 trillion total at current prices — exists in other forms like jewellery).

There are no fundamental ways to estimate the value of assets like gold or bitcoin, and their values are entirely in the eye of the beholder. But we know Bitcoin is presently vastly outperforming gold as a speculative savings vehicle, and in spite of the fundamental differences (particularly that one is tangible, and one is not) this may drive more and more investors — including institutional investors and funds looking to diversify into something slightly futuristic — into Bitcoin. If Bitcoin’s market cap were to rise to equal that of gold’s as a percentage of global GDP today, that would imply a price of $160,650 per Bitcoin, far, far higher than any price target I have yet seen. Even if Bitcoin were only to rise to 10% of gold’s market cap, that would imply a Bitcoin price of $16,065, still far higher than any price target I have seen. Even at 1% of gold’s market cap, Bitcoin would still fetch $1607 per coin, an almost-sevenfold increase over today’s price.

And gold is by no means a widely-held asset in today’s global financial system. If Bitcoin grew to 1% of the global financial system today each each coin would reach $267,600 in price.

These are, of course, fantasy figures based on back-of-an-envelope calculations, and should not be taken seriously. But what they show is that if the idea of Bitcoin continues to flourish — and if fund managers, and institutional investors begin to hunger for a slice of yield — then there is more than enough liquidity out there today to drive Bitcoin far, far higher.

On the other hand, if Bitcoin is outlawed worldwide by governments (perhaps due to concerns over money laundering and tax evasion) then of course any chance of it beginning to attract any such levels of interest are nil.  But the current government approach to Bitcoin so far appears to be one of attempted regulation rather than outright warfare.

At some stage Bitcoin may be supplanted by competitor crypto-currencies, but so far it is by far the most widely-adopted, and cryptography experts agree that its cryptography is sound, so there is no reason to assume that this may occur anytime soon. But judging by the birthrate and deathrate of social networks in recent years, a fast birthrate and deathrate for crypto-currencies is by no means out of the question. Technology is a fast-paced world where yesterday’s prize-pig is today’s turkey, and already there exist currencies built on similar technology to Bitcoin trading at much lower levels — Litecoin, Namecoin, Freicoin, PPCoin, Novacoin, etc. Whether these act as supplements or competitors remains to be seen, but it may be helpful to remember that while social networking sites today remain hugely popular, the early leaders in that field like MySpace and Friendster are nowhere to be seen. Is it possible that Bitcoin is the MySpace of decentralised crypto-currencies, and that the Facebook and Twitter are just around the corner? Yes — perhaps a platform with a more consumer-friendly interface than Bitcoin will come to dominate the field, making up a sizeable chunk of global financial assets, and Bitcoin itself will dwindle.  Certainly, the source code is available to larger organisations (Facebook? Google? Amazon? Banks?) who may wish to experiment with their own decentralised crypto-currency systems.

It is really hard to say what ultimately will occur, but Bitcoin does demonstrate the principle that anonymous, deflationary crypto-currency can be an attractive complementary proposition in a world where inflationary state-backed fiat currency has become the norm. I would caution that holders of Bitcoins — particularly those sitting on large long-term profits — should seek to diversify both into real-world assets like real estate, productive assets like farmland and factories, and index funds, as well as into new crypto-currencies as they emerge, particularly ones built with more consumer-friendly interfaces that may come to dominate the market. Bitcoin could easily end the year below its current price, but as Bitcoin grows in the public awareness this is decreasingly likely. In the long-term, a market cap target of 1% of gold’s market cap (currently, that would yield a price of $1607 per coin) seems viable, especially if larger players including institutions begin to experiment in the strange new world of crypto-currency.

Of Bitcoin & the State

Bitcoin is very much in ascendancy. While it has for over three years existed as a decentralised and anonymous electronics payments system and medium of exchange for online black markets and gambling, more attempts to integrate Bitcoin into the wider economic system — most notably the integration of Bitpay with — have brought Bitcoin to the attention of a wider segment of the population. Alongside this, the egregious spectacle of depositor haircuts in Cyprus, and the spectre that depositor haircuts might happen elsewhere seems to have spurred a great new interest in alternatives to bank deposits in particular and state fiat currency in general. Consequently, the price is soaring — pushing up above $140 per bitcoin at the time of writing. Of course, this is still far less than a single ounce of gold currently priced at $1572.

There are many similarities between Bitcoin and gold. Gold is cooked up in the heart of supernovae, and is therefore exceedingly rare on Earth. It has a distinctive colouring, is non-perishable, fungible, portable, hard-to-counterfeit, and even today so expensive to synthesise that the supply is naturally limited. That made it a leading medium-of-exchange and store of purchasing power. Even today, in an age where it has been eclipsed in practice as a medium-of-exchange and as a unit-of-account for debts by state-backed fiat monies, it remains an enduring store of purchasing power.

Bitcoin is an even more limited currency — limited by the algorithms that control its mining. The maximum number of Bitcoins permitted by the code is 21 million (and in practice will gradually fall lower than this due to lost coins). Gold has been mined for over 5000 years, yet there is still gold in the ground today. Bitcoin’s mining will be (in theory) complete in a little over ten years — all the Bitcoins that there will ever be are projected to exist by 2025. True, there are already additional new currencies like Namecoin based on the Bitcoin technology but these do not trade at par with Bitcoin. This implies that Bitcoin will have a deflationary bias, as opposed to modern fiat currencies which tend toward inflation.

Many people have been attracted to the Bitcoin project by the notion of moving exchange outside of the scope of the state. Bitcoin has already begun to facilitate many activities that the state prohibits. More importantly, Bitcoin transactions are anonymous, and denominated outside of state fiat currency, so the state’s power to tax this economic activity is limited. As the range of Bitcoin-denominated merchants grows, it may become increasingly plausible to leave state  fiat currency behind altogether, and lead an anonymous economic life online fuelled by Bitcoins.

So is Bitcoin really a challenge to state power? And if it is, is it inevitable that the state will try to destroy Bitcoin? Some believe there can only be one survivor — the expansive modern state, with fiat currency, central banking, taxation and redistribution, or Bitcoin, the decentralised cryptographic currency.

The 21st Century is looking increasingly likely to be defined by decentralisation. In energy markets, homes are becoming able to generate their own (increasingly cheap!) decentralised energy through solar panels and other alternative and renewable energy sources. 3-D printing is looking to do the same thing for manufacturing. The internet has already decentralised information, learning and communication. Bitcoin is looking to do the same thing for money and savings.

But I don’t think that conflict is inevitable, and I certainly don’t foresee Bitcoin destroying the state. The state will have to change and adapt, but these changes will be gradual. Bitcoin today is not a competitor to state fiat money, but a complement. It would be very difficult today to convert all your state fiat currency into Bitcoins, and live a purely Bitcoin-oriented life, just as it would be very difficult to convert into gold or silver and life a gold or silver-oriented life. This is a manifestation of Gresham’s law — the idea that depreciating money drives out the appreciating money as a medium of exchange. Certainly, with Bitcoin rampaging upward in price — (a trend that Bitcoin’s deflationary nature encourages — holders will want to hold onto it rather than trade it for goods and services. If I had $1000 of Bitcoin, and $1000 of Federal reserve notes, I’d be far more likely to spend my FRNs on food and fuel and shelter than my Bitcoin, which might be worth $1001 of goods and services (or at current rates of increase, $1500 of goods and services) next week.

Bitcoin, then, is emerging as a savings instrument, an alternative to the ultra-low interest rates in the dollar-denominated world, the risks of equities, and a recent slump in the prices of gold and silver which have in the past decade acted in a similar role to that which Bitcoin is emerging into. (This does not mean that Bitcoin is a threat to gold and silver, as there are some fundamental differences, not least that the metals are tangibles and Bitcoin is not).

This means that the state is far more likely to attempt to regulate Bitcoin rather than destroy it. The key is to make Bitcoin-denominated income taxable. This means regulating and taxing the entry-and-exit points — the points where people convert from state fiat currency into Bitcoin.

This is so-far the approach that the US Federal government has chosen to take:

The federal agency charged with enforcing the nation’s laws against money laundering has issued new guidelines suggesting that several parties in the Bitcoin economy qualify as Money Services Businesses under US law. Money Services Businesses (MSBs) must register with the federal government, collect information about their customers, and take steps to combat money laundering by their customers.

The new guidelines do not mention Bitcoin by name, but there’s little doubt which “de-centralized virtual currency” the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) had in mind when it drafted the new guidelines. A FinCEN spokesman told Bank Technology News last year that “we are aware of Bitcoin and other similar operations, and we are studying the mechanism behind Bitcoin.”

America’s anti-money-laundering laws require financial institutions to collect information on potentially suspicious transactions by their customers and report these to the federal government. Among the institutions subject to these regulatory requirements are “money services businesses,” including “money transmitters.” Until now, it wasn’t clear who in the Bitcoin network qualified as a money transmitter under the law.

For a centralized virtual currency like Facebook credits, the issuer of the currency (in this case, Facebook) must register as an MSB, because the act of buying the virtual currency transfers value from one location (the user’s conventional bank account) to another (the user’s virtual currency account). The same logic would apply to Bitcoin exchanges such as Mt. Gox. Allowing people to buy and sell bitcoins for dollars constitutes money transmission and therefore makes these businesses subject to federal regulation.

Of course, the Bitcoin network is fully decentralized. No single party has the power to issue new Bitcoins or approve Bitcoin transactions. Rather, the nodes in the Bitcoin network maintain a shared transaction register called the blockchain. Nodes called “miners” race to solve a cryptographic puzzle; the winner of each race is allowed to create the next entry in the blockchain. As a reward for its effort, the winning miner gets to credit itself a standard amount, currently 25 Bitcoins. Given that Bitcoins are now worth more than $50 and a new block is created every 10 minutes, Bitcoin mining has emerged as a significant business.

If a lot of economic activity were to move totally into Bitcoin, then the state might react more aggressively, seeking to tax transactions within the Bitcoin network (which may or may not be technically possible given Bitcoin’s anonymous nature) rather than just at the entry and exit points. There are, of course, risks for those wishing to move their entire economic life into Bitcoin — not just Gresham’s law, but transaction risks (Bitcoin has no clearing house, so all transactions are uninsured), and the risk that Bitcoin will be superseded (perhaps via the cryptography being rendered obsolete by some black swan advance in processing power, mathematics or cryptography?)

This current boom, where awareness of Bitcoin is growing considerably and many more individuals are joining the network, may soon be over. It is inevitable that at some stage the number of profit-takers seeking to cash out of Bitcoin into a currency where they can spend their profits will exceed the number of new investors trying to buy Bitcoin. At that stage, the price will fall. Just how much it falls will impact to what extent Bitcoin establishes itself as a decentralised and trusted store of purchasing power.

The last consolidation phase in Bitcoin’s price — between 2011 and 2013 — was not overwhelmingly encouraging, as prices remained far below the 2011 peak for a long while:


Yet they remained far above the pre-2011 levels. And while the 2011 boom was marked by curious scepticism, this boom seems to be marked by the notion of decentralised virtual currency going viral. Due to this increased awareness, it is highly probable that Bitcoin will end 2013 above whether it started it, even if the present prices do not prove sustainable. Ultimately, Bitcoin has no fundamentals (P/E, EBITDA, cash flow, etc) and so is worth what people will pay for it. And as Max Keiser, an early champion of Bitcoin put it:

In my view, Bitcoin has a much better chance of being part of the future of money than Groupon ever did of being part of the future of commerce.