Saturday, 30 November 2013
The Bitcoin Bubble
The Economist published today an article "The Bitcoin Bibble":
"Bitcoin is booming. Investors are piling into the digital currency, which is not issued by a central bank but is conjured into being by cryptographic software running on a network of volunteers’ computers. This week the price of a Bitcoin soared to above $1,000, from less than $15 in January.
Having long been favoured by libertarians, gold bugs and drug dealers, Bitcoin is attracting some surprising new fans. Germany has recognised it as a “unit of account”. Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, told a Senate committee on virtual currencies that the idea “may hold long-term promise”. A small but growing band of shops and firms accept payments in Bitcoin. Some like the way it allows funds to be transferred directly between users, without middlemen. Others are attracted by the potential for anonymous transfers, or by the fact that the number of Bitcoins in circulation has a fixed upper limit—so there is no way a central bank can inflate their value away by issuing more.
But the recent price surge, driven by Chinese investors stashing money offshore, looks like a classic bubble. Hoarding means that Bitcoin is currently more of a speculative asset than a currency. And a crash is not the only risk Bitcoin users face. As the price rises, Bitcoin theft is increasing, both from individuals and from online exchanges that store the coins and convert them into other currencies. Around $1m in Bitcoins was recently stolen from BIPS, a European exchange. GBL, a Chinese Bitcoin exchange, abruptly vanished in October, taking $4.1m-worth of deposits with it."
The article ends with:
"... if you are lucky or clever enough to have owned an asset whose price has risen 60-fold in a year, it might be time to sell."
To be honest, I don't understand much of Bitcoins, to me it does resemble a classic pyramid scheme, including some rationale concepts (like the mining), which tries to give it some credibility (in itself very normal for these kind of schemes).
The price of Bitcoins fluctuates very much (sometimes 20% in a day), which makes it not very suitable being a currency.
Using Bitcoins for cross border payments would make live me easy, however, how can central banks check that the purpose of the payments was legal?
David Webb wrote an insightful article "The hole in Bitcoin", concluding:
"...here is the biggest flaw: the economics of it. For Bitcoin to succeed, it has to become a transaction currency, widely-accepted by the real world for goods and services. With a cap of 21 million Bitcoins, the accepted wisdom driving prices is that spreading the limited supply of Bitcoins over all these real-world transactions, even with fractional reserve banking, would necessitate a high valuation per Bitcoin.
Unfortunately, most of the people getting into Bitcoin, either with cash, goods and services or by buying and running mining rigs, are just hoarding the Bitcoins, either expecting the price to go up because they believe in this transactional utility, or expecting the price to go up because other people will - people like the Winklevoss twins, who proposed setting up an ETF to hoard Bitcoins (SEC filing), rather like the SPDR Gold Trust.
The flaw then is that most Bitcoin owners are hoarding something which they expect to become a widely-used transaction currency, and if everyone holds on to their Bitcoins, then it won't become a transaction currency.
Even if we are wrong and Bitcoin becomes a widely-accepted transaction currency, the second flaw in Bitcoin is this: when the rate of coin production is reduced towards zero, the only economic incentive the nodes will have to convert electricity into blocks (and heat and noise) is the transaction fees. So far, these are very low, but if the people who control the Bitcoin specification don't increase the fees to a commercial level then the amount of machines running the algorithm will plunge for lack of reward, and it will become much less expensive to take control of the network by holding more than 50% of the hashing power. However, if fees become a significant part of transaction values, then a lot of users (not seeking illegal goods and services) will wonder why they don't just use traditional payment networks denominated in real currencies. So there's the conundrum: charge too little, and someone will put in enough capital to take over the network and turn it, in effect, into just another MasterCard, Paypal or Visa. Charge too much, and people will use other payment networks."
Marc Faber in an interview on CNBC:
a "massive speculative bubble" has encroached on everything from stocks and bonds to bitcoin and farmland. He attributed the vast bubble to "symptoms of excess liquidity."
Faber said the markets, which have reached record highs, could still rise before the bubble bursts, if stimulus programs such as the Federal Reserve's massive monthly bond purchases and super-low interest rates continue.
"Now can the market go up another 20 percent before it tumbles?" Faber said on"Squawk Box". "Yeah, it can go up even more, if you print money."
Warning investors that they could see disappointing long-term returns in equities, Faber said he thought a correction in equities was overdue when the S&P 500index crossed 1,600 points. The benchmark index surpassed 1,808 points this week.
Faber pointed to a high Shiller price-to-earnings ratio, a market indicator named after Yale University professor and Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller, which relies on 10 years of adjusted inflation, as an indicator of the bubble. He said a high Shiller P/E ratio suggests low returns in the future.
Faber also referred to the rapid rise of bitcoin, the digital currency that crossed $1,200 early Friday, as an area affected by excess liquidity.
"Farmland is up 10 times over the last 10 years," Faber said. "And bitcoins are up now and who knows what next will go up."