Bitcoin: Digital gold or fool's gold?
13 March 2018 | Joe Davis
"What do you think about Bitcoin?"
Over the past few months, I've gotten this question more than any other. In 2017 the value of Bitcoin, the world's first cryptocurrency, rose by almost 1,200%, prompting excitement and bafflement.
My answer: I'm enthusiastic about the blockchain technology that makes Bitcoin possible. In fact, Vanguard is using such technology to instantaneously update data like the share prices of companies in our index funds. As for Bitcoin the currency? I see a decent probability that its price goes to zero.
Are cryptocurrencies currencies?
Bitcoin's creators introduced the cryptocurrency in the wake of the global financial crisis. The goal was to bypass governments and banks when two individuals want to transact. No country, company or institution controls the currency. But are Bitcoin and competing cryptocurrencies really currencies? Let's think about what a currency is:
- A currency is a unit of account. Cryptocurrencies qualify, as they can measure the value of other goods and services.
- A currency is a medium of exchange. I'd give cryptocurrencies a qualified yes on this point. Currently, only a limited number of vendors globally accept cryptocurrencies, and recent volatility will only discourage increased adoption.
- A currency is a store of value. Bitcoin is not. Its price volatility undermines its adoption, as fewer vendors will accept a currency whose value can fluctuate so dramatically. The prices of newer currencies have been similarly volatile.
The existential dilemma
Let's call the verdict on the currency question mixed. Even if cryptocurrencies qualify for niche purposes, their prospects seem dubious.
The greatest threat is central banks, which have begun to research blockchain-based currencies and impose regulations on exchanges. Given the additional control and policy effectiveness that digital currencies could provide, central banks have good reason to adopt digital currencies in the coming decades. Those currencies would be "legal tender", legally recognised forms of payment for all debts and charges.
If the choice were between Bitcoin or a blockchain-based euro, which would you rather have in your digital wallet?
Cryptocurrencies as investments
The investment case for cryptocurrencies is weak. Unlike shares and bonds, currencies generate no cash flows such as interest payments or dividends that can explain their prices. National currencies derive their prices from the underlying economic activity of the countries that issue them. Cryptocurrency prices, on the other hand, are generally not based on economic fundamentals. To date, their prices have depended more on speculation about their eventual adoption and use. The speculation creates volatility that, ironically, undermines their value as a currency.
Nor are cryptocurrencies a chance to capitalise on blockchain technology, which is the method most cryptocurrencies use to record network transactions and ensure their accuracy. Although cryptocurrencies are built using a blockchain, they are not necessarily tied to the value of blockchain applications that may improve the cost, speed and security of executing transactions or contracts. Bitcoin is an investment in blockchain in the same way that any failed dot-com startup from the 1990s was an investment in the internet.
For investors, adding some exposure to Bitcoin would mean reducing their allocations to tried and true asset classes such as shares, bonds and cash – the building blocks for well-diversified portfolios that can help them meet their goals. With no cash flows and extreme volatility, the investment case for Bitcoin is hardly compelling.
We are early in the development of blockchain technology. We'll likely see blockchain adopted by more governments and enterprises for specific purposes in the coming decades. As innovation quickens and competition increases, the majority of networks (and their associated cryptocurrencies) may be rendered obsolete, leaving many cryptocurrencies like tulip bulbs in 17th-century Holland – soaring to incredible heights before the speculative bubble pops.
And, unlike tulips, they don't look very nice in a vase.
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