Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Bitcoin and cryptocurrency as modern gold

This is Joseph

There has been a lot of discussion about bitcoin as a currency. There is a general concern that the value can jump around. From Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times:
From Dec. 18, 2017, to Feb. 10, 2018, bitcoin’s value fell by 55%. This year alone there have been three downdrafts of 20% or more over the course of a week or two, and an additional fall of 16% over 12 days in March. (All metrics are from Coinbase.)

This is obviously fatal to the primary idea of bitcoin as currency. It also finishes bitcoin as being a useful basis for financial instruments. Imagine buying a house for 100 bitcoin and then having it have a value of 50 bitcoin (because the coins are now worth more). Bought for 20 bitcoins down, the value of the mortgage is now 80 bitcoins and the house is underwater. How do you make long term investments when you cannot stably value real or financial assets? Here, I am using fait as a proxy for the purchasing power of bitcoin. 

But if you wanted a medium of exchange that has all of the pros and cons of bitcoin, then gold is actually a pretty good choice. Hiltzik again:

The problem is that as bad as bitcoin is as an investment, it’s even worse as a currency. Blogger Kevin Drum lists five features that a currency should have: It should be hard to counterfeit, stable in value, easy to carry, widely accepted and 100% liquid. Bitcoin fails three of these tests — it’s not stable in value, widely accepted or 100% liquid.

Now you could imagine gold, minted as coins, being able to do everything that bitcoin could do (including recordless transactions) except we know that it can be both liquid and widely accepted. It can be a pain if it is not coined to assess the value, but the trading features of bitcoin are complicated as well. For example, it clearly has a limit on how frequently it can be traded that greatly limits the ability to be used as a routine payment method. Thomas Lumley looks at how low the actual rate of bitcoin transactions is compared to the number of direct electronic transactions in the New Zealand economy. The short answer is that, for just a small country, bitcoin is way below the scale needed to replace the current financial system. This is bitcoin for the world (about 300,000/day)  and just New Zealand for the electronic transfers (looks to be about 5.5 million/day), and Dr. Lumley is quite transparent that these are not directly comparable measures as the blockchain might be bundling several transactions. But bitcoin is closing on on 1% of the world's energy usage, and still seems awful low for the number of transactions for just New Zealand (small, if rich, country). 

Now gold can be stolen but you can create financial instruments out of it. Further, bitcoin is vulnerable to theft or loss of a password. Furthermore, it is just as vulnerable to government snooping and law enforcement, due to the long term nature of the blockchain record. 

My real question is "what problem does it solve"? Especially compared to alternatives like gold. And, to be clear, gold was uniformly worse than fiat currency as a basis for the economy. I just don't see what bitcoin will do incrementally on gold or how it solves any major currency problem. 

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