The initial rise could have been a flash in the pan, a fad attracting speculators, but in the last two years, Bitcoin seems to have found new fans, as can be seen below:
Bitcoin's success, at least in the financial markets, has attracted a host of competitors, with Ethereum (Ether) being the most successful. Ether's rise in market price, since its introduction in 2015 has been even more precipitous that Bitcoin's, though it has pulled back in recent weeks:
The key features of a block chain are:
- Decentralized verification: The validation and verification of a transaction is sourced to members, called miners in the crypto currency world. Verification usually involves trying different algorithms (hashes) to find the unique one that matches the transaction block, and the successful miner is rewarded, currently with the crypto currency. At least, as I understand it, this process requires more brute force (powerful processors trying different algorithms before you find a match) than intellectual firepower.
- Complete and open records: Every transaction, once validated and verified, is converted into a block of data that is recorded in the block chain ledger, which is accessible to everyone in the network. If you are worried about privacy, the transaction records do not include personal data but take the form of encrypted data (hashes).
- Incorruptible: A block chain, once recorded and shared, cannot be changed since those changes are visible to everyone in the network and are quickly tagged as fraudulent. Thus, the ledger, once created, becomes almost incorruptible.
The Currency Question
- Unit of account: A key role for a currency is to operate as a unit of account, allowing you to value not just assets and liabilities, but also goods and services. To be effective as a unit of account, a currency has to be fungible (one unit of the currency is identical to any other unit), divisible and countable.
- Medium of exchange: Currencies exist to make transactions possible, and this is best accomplished if the currency in question is easily accessible and transportable, and is accepted by buyers and sellers as legal tender. The latter will occur only if people trust that the currency will maintain its value and if transactions costs are low.
- Store of value: To the extent that you hold some or all of your wealth in a currency, you want to feel secure about leaving it in that currency, knowing that it will not lose its buying power while stored.
Given these requirements, you can see why there are no perfect currencies and why every currency has to measured on a continuum from good to bad. Broadly speaking, currencies can take one of three forms, a physical asset (gold, silver, diamonds, shells), a fiat currency (usually taking the form of paper and coins, backed by a government) and crypto currencies. Gold's long tenure as a currency can be attributed to its strength as a store of value, arising from its natural scarcity and durability, though it falls short of fiat currencies, in terms of convenience and acceptance, both as a unit of account and as medium of exchanges. Fiat currencies are backed by sovereign governments and consequently can vary in quality as currencies, depending upon the trust that we have in the issuing governments. Without trust, fiat currency is just paper, and there are some fiat currencies where that paper can become close to worthless. For crypto currencies, the question then becomes how well they deliver on each of the purposes. As units of account, there is no reason to doubt that they can function, since they are fungible, divisible and countable. The weakest link in crypto currencies has been their failure to make deeper inroads as mediums of exchange or as stores of value. Using Bitcoin, to illustrate, it is disappointing that so few retailers still accept it as payment for goods and services. Even the much hyped successes, such as Overstock and Microsoft accepting Bitcoin is illusory, since they do so on limited items, and only with an intermediary who converts the bitcoin into US dollars for them. I certainly would not embark on a long or short trip away from home today, with just bitcoins in my pocket, nor would I be willing to convert all of my liquid savings into bitcoin or any other crypto currency. Would you?
So, why has crypto currency not seen wider acceptance in transactions? There are a few reasons, some of which are more benign than others:
- Inertia: Fiat currencies have a had a long run, and it is not surprising that for many people, currency is physical and takes the form of government issued paper and coins. While people may use credit cards and Apple Pay, their thinking is still framed by the past, and it may take a while, especially for older consumers and retailers, to accept a digital currency. That said, the speed with which consumers have adapted to ride sharing services and taken to social media suggests that inertia cannot be the dominant reason holding back the acceptance of crypto currencies.
- Price volatility: Crypto currencies have seen and continue to see wild swings in prices, not a bad characteristic in a traded asset but definitely not a good one in a currency. A retailer or service provider who prices his or her goods and services in bitcoin will constantly have to reset the price and consumers have little certitude of how much the bitcoin in their wallers will buy a few hours from now.
- Competing crypto currencies: The crypto currency game is still young and the competing players each claim to have found the "magic bullet" for eventual acceptance. As technologies and tastes evolve, you will see a thinning of the herd, where buyers and sellers will pick winners, perhaps from the current list or maybe something new. It is possible that until this happens, transactors will hold up, for fear of backing the wrong horse in the race.
While the price of bitcoin has increase more than a thousand fold, since the start of 2012, the number of transactions involving bitcoin was only about thirty two times larger in July 2017 than what it was at the start of 2012. In my view, there are three possible explanations for the divergence, and they are not mutually exclusive:
- Markets are forward looking: If you are a believer in crypto currencies, the most optimistic explanation is that markets are forward looking and that the rise in the prices of Bitcoin and Ether reflects market expectations that they will succeed as currencies, if not right away, in the near future.
- Speculative asset: I am second to none in having faith in markets, but there is a simpler and perhaps better explanation for the frenzied price movements in crypto currencies. I have long drawn a distinction between the value game (where you try to attach a value to an asset based upon fundamentals) and the pricing game, where mood and momentum drive the process. I would argue, based upon my limited observations of the crypto currency markets, that these are pure pricing games, where fundamentals have been long since forgotten. If you don't believe me, visit one of the forums where traders in these markets converse and take note of how little talk there is about fundamentals and how much there is about trading indicators.
- Loss of trust in centralized authorities (governments & central banks): There can be no denying that the creators of Bitcoin and Ether were trying to draw as much inspiration for their design from gold, as they were from fiat currencies. Thus, you have miners in crypto currency markets who do their own version of prospecting when validating transactions and are rewarded with the currency in question. For ages, gold has held a special place in the currency continuum, often being the asset of last resort for people who have lost faith in fiat currencies, either because they don't trust the governments backing them or because of debasement (high inflation). While gold will continue to play this role, I believe that for some people (especially younger and more technologically inclined), bitcoin and ether are playing the same role. As surveys continue to show depleting trust in centralized authorities (governments and central banks), you may see more money flow into crypto currencies.
- Transaction, not trading, talk: From creators and proponents of the currency, you will hear less talk about how much money you would make by buying and selling the currency and more on its efficacy in transactions.
- Transaction, not trading, features: The design of the crypto currency will focus on creating features that make it attractive as a currency (for transactions), not as investments. Thus, if you are going to impose a cap (either rigid like Bitcoin or more flexible, as with other currencies), you need to explain to transactors, not traders, why the cap makes sense.
- Trust in something: I know that we live in an age where trust is a scarce resource and I argued that that the growth in crypto currencies can be attributed, at least partly, to this loss of trust. That said, to be effective as a currency, you do need to be able to trust in something and perhaps accept compromises on privacy and centralized authority (at least on some dimensions of the currency).
Crypto currencies, with bitcoin and ether leading the pack, have succeeded in financial markets by attracting investors, and in the public discourse by garnering attention, but they have not succeeded (yet) as currencies. I believe that there will be one or more digital currencies competing with fiat currencies for transactions, sooner rather than later, but I am hard pressed to find a winner on the current list, right now, but that could change if the proponents and designers of one of the currencies starts thinking less about it as a speculative asset and more as a transaction medium, and acting accordingly. If that does not happen, we will have to wait for a fresh entrant and the most enduring part of this phase in markets may be the block chain and not the currencies themselves.