A number of readers have asked me to weigh in on Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, whose fluctuations have dominated a lot of market news. Would I please comment on what it’s all about and what’s going on?
Well, I can tell you what it’s about. What’s going on is harder to explain.
The story so far: Bitcoin, the first and biggest cryptocurrency, was introduced in 2009. It uses an encryption key, similar to those used in hard-to-break codes — hence the “crypto” — to establish chains of ownership in tokens that entitle their current holders to … well, ownership of those tokens. And nowadays we use Bitcoin to buy houses and cars, pay our bills, make business investments and more.
Oh, wait. We don’t do any of those things. Twelve years on, cryptocurrencies play almost no role in normal economic activity. Almost the only time we hear about them being used as a means of payment — as opposed to speculative trading — is in association with illegal activity, like money laundering or the ransom Colonial Pipeline paid to hackers who shut it down.
Twelve years is an eon in information technology time. Venmo, which I can use to share restaurant bills, buy fresh fruit at sidewalk kiosks and much more, was also introduced in 2009. Apple unveiled its first-generation iPad in 2010. Zoom came into use in 2012. By the time a technology gets as old as cryptocurrency, we expect it either to have become part of the fabric of everyday life or to have been given up as a nonstarter.
If normal, law-abiding people don’t use cryptocurrency, it’s not for lack of effort on the part of crypto boosters. Many highly paid person-hours have been spent trying to find the killer app, the thing that will finally get the masses using Bitcoin, Ethereum or some other brand daily.
But I’ve been in numerous meetings with enthusiasts for cryptocurrency and/or blockchain, the concept that underlies it. In such meetings, I and others always ask, as politely as we can: “What problem does this technology solve? What does it do that other, much cheaper and easier-to-use technologies can’t do just as well or better?” I still haven’t heard a clear answer.
Yet investors continue to pay huge sums for digital tokens. The values of major cryptocurrencies fluctuate wildly — Bitcoin fell 30% Wednesday morning, then made up most of the losses that afternoon. Their collective value has, however, at times exceeded $2 trillion, more than half the value of all the intellectual property owned by U.S. business.
Why are people willing to pay large sums for assets that don’t seem to do anything? The answer, obviously, is that the prices of these assets keep going up, so that early investors made a lot of money, and their success keeps drawing in new investors.
This may sound to you like a speculative bubble, or maybe a Ponzi scheme — and speculative bubbles are, in effect, natural Ponzi schemes. But could a Ponzi scheme really go on for this long? Actually, yes: Bernie Madoff ran his scam for almost two decades, and might have gone even longer if the financial crisis hadn’t intervened.
Now, a long-running Ponzi scheme requires a narrative — and the narrative is where crypto really excels.
First, crypto boosters are very good at technobabble — using arcane terminology to convince themselves and others that they’re offering a revolutionary new technology, even though blockchain is actually pretty elderly by infotech standards and has yet to find any compelling uses.
Second, there’s a strong element of libertarian derp — assertions that fiat currencies, government-issued money without any tangible backing, will collapse any day now. True, Britain, whose currency was still standing last time I looked, went off the gold standard 90 years ago. But who’s counting?
Given all this, are cryptocurrencies headed for a crash sometime soon? Not necessarily. One fact that gives even crypto skeptics like me pause is the durability of gold as a highly valued asset. Gold, after all, suffers from pretty much the same problems as Bitcoin. People may think of it as money, but it lacks any attributes of a useful currency: You can’t actually use it to make transactions — try buying a new car with gold ingots — and its purchasing power has been extremely unstable.
So when John Maynard Keynes called the gold standard a “barbarous relic” way back in 1924, he wasn’t wrong. But the metal’s mystique, and its valuation, live on. It’s conceivable that one or two cryptocurrencies will somehow achieve similar longevity.
Or maybe not. For one thing, governments are well aware that cryptocurrencies are being used by bad actors and may well crack down in a way they never did on gold trading. Also, the proliferation of cryptocurrencies may prevent any one of them from achieving the semi-sacred status gold holds in some people’s minds.
The good news is that none of this matters very much. Because Bitcoin and its relatives haven’t managed to achieve any meaningful economic role, what happens to their value is basically irrelevant to those of us not playing the crypto game.