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.

Advertisements

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 Amazon.com — 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:

bitcoin

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.