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.

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Banks are an Endangered Species

In the long run, all the hullabaloo about the various global banking crises is just hot air.

The old establishment banks — the ones that have been bailed out this week in Spain, and in 2008 in America — are unnecessary middlemen. This is because of the ludicrous spreads from which they profit. They borrow from central banks and from depositors at absurdly low rates of interest (that’s what ZIRP is all about) and lend at vastly higher rates. What useful function does it serve? At one time, banks generated value by being wise lenders, lending to businesses that they determined would add value. Today they prefer gamble up even bigger profits in the zero-sum derivatives casino and shadow banking whorehouse, requiring frequent bailouts when such schemes go awry. They are dinosaurs that offer no real value to their shareholders, their customers, or to society.

And for all their claims of systemic importance, for all the bailouts, all the whining, all the pontification they are gradually being sidelined by other forms of intermediation, specifically peer-to-peer lending wherein lenders and borrowers are matched directly often via the internet. The lender gets interest, the borrower pays interest, but because there is no middleman taking a (huge) cut both rates are more favourable — the borrower pays less interest, the lender receives more interest.

The market for such lending has already grown to £250 million-a-year in the UK alone. The BBC reports:

Lending via three websites that link savers with borrowers – bypassing the banking system – has topped £250m.

The “new age” finance carries no protection for deposits, but is being tipped as a serious threat to traditional banks.

The peer-to-peer sites are led by Zopa, which has lent more than £200m since it started in 2005.

Funding Circle, specialising in business loans, has topped £34m, and RateSetter has reached £24m.

Last month the government said it would lend these sort of firms £100m to help expand their own lending to businesses.

Alas, the government could lend these firms ten times that (that would still be a tiny sliver of what they have channelled to the establishment banks in recent years) and the market would still be rigged in favour of the establishment banks.

That’s because of deposit insurance. Money lent peer-to-peer is not insured by the government, whereas money deposited in banks is. This is a heinous advantage that the dinosaur banks have been given by government fiat, and certainly a huge stumbling block to peer-to-peer lending forcing the dinosaur banking system to either massively cut their spreads, or go out of business.

Governments who want a fair free market banking system with the benefits of real competition should either extend some form of deposit insurance to peer-to-peer lending schemes, or should get rid of deposit insurance altogether. Everyone wins except the banks and large financial corporations — lenders get more interest for their money, borrowers pay lower rates, and the parasitic establishment banking system that has vampirised the taxpayer for trillions must either choose to drastically reform itself to compete against peer-to-peer lending, or go out of business.

In a free market without the unfair advantage of deposit insurance the banking dinosaurs profiting from huge spreads would be an endangered species. They are only surviving and prospering because the government has rigged the rules of the game for their favour. That cannot last forever.