CHOMPING AT THE BITCOIN
LOOKING AT THE PROS AND CONS OF THE CRYPTOCURRENCY FOR GLOBAL TRADERS
Bitcoin. What a joke! Remember?
Yeah, that was a time not that long ago when the cryptocurrency was easily dismissed as the domain of criminals and stoners and people who didn’t understand how trade, global and otherwise, worked; a pipedream where the pipe emptied directly into the gutter.
Remember Visa CFO Vasant Prabhu saying he didn’t know what bothered him more, “every crook and dirty politician” who’d been drawn to Bitcoin or the kindhearted but clueless investors.
“With a currency issued by the Federal Reserve, I know who stands behind it,” he said. “With cryptocurrency, who’s good for the money? Who the hell knows?”
Bitcoin. What a concept! Remember?
Yeah, that was a time not that long ago when Bitcoin climbed from about $900 a unit to nearly $20,000 and all manner of businesses–everything from real estate outfits to online dating services–announced they would accept them as payment.
Remember when Jack Dorsey, CEO of mobile payment giant Square, said that Bitcoin would become the world’s leading currency within 10 years: “The world ultimately will have a single currency, the Internet will have a single currency. I personally believe that it will be Bitcoin.”
Suffice it to say, opinion is, um, varied when it comes to cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin in particular, as is who supports it and who thinks it’s the worst thing to hit trade since COD and damns them as well as uses and accepts them. That latter list shows the wildly wide-ranging nature of the thing, since the list of acceptors includes those you’d expect–Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic; the MIT bookstore–and those you might not–KFC Canada; the Republican Party of Louisiana as well as businesses ranging from BIG (Microsoft; Whole Foods) to Helen’s Pizza of Jersey City, New Jersey, where you can get a slice of pie for 0.00339 bitcoin by directing your phone at a sign near the cash register.
So, as you can see, the only thing certain regarding Bitcoin is that nothing seems certain. Sure, there are plenty of stats and data packages, plenty of soundbites and opinion pieces, but as of yet, nothing even remotely approaching definitive. What seems to be needed is further proof and knowledge.
As a longtime investor with some measure of success put it: “I get into enough trouble with things I think I know something about. Why in the world should I take a long or short position in something I don’t know anything about?”
Said Warren Buffet.
Here’s a bit of the pros and cons and a lot of in-betweens as well as what a lot of major players have to say regarding Bitcoin and the global market.
RICHARD BRANSON, FOUNDER, VIRGIN GROUP
“Well, I think it is working. There may be other currencies like it that may be even better. But in the meantime, there’s a big industry around Bitcoin. People have made fortunes off Bitcoin, some have lost money. It is volatile, but people make money off of volatility, too. … Virgin Galactic is a bold entrepreneurial technology. It’s driving a revolution. And Bitcoin is doing just the same when it comes to inventing a new currency.”
Controversial? Here’s how bad it can get with Bitcoin. Forget debating its usefulness and safety, people are still having a hard time agreeing on exactly what it is.
In some news stories and on some financial sites, usually those with a somewhat pro-Bitcoin bent, you’ll see it described as a cryptocurrency and worldwide payment system and touted as the first decentralized digital currency since it works without the use of a central bank. What keeps everything on the up and up is that all peer-to-peer transactions are recorded in a public distribution ledger called a “blockchain.”
What is unique about the blockchain is that it is kept up by a network of technicians running Bitcoin software. They validate transactions, add them to ledgers and then broadcast the additions. About every 10 minutes a new block is created and added to the chronological chain.
And all that is very nice but to some, such as Jeffrey Dorfman, it ain’t enough.
Dorfman is a professor of economics at the University of Georgia and, like many, he remains either unimpressed or, as yet, unconvinced. Writing in Forbes, Dorfman rejected the very notion that Bitcoin is a currency–crypto or otherwise. He argues that Bitcoin is actually an asset. One of his proofs? The very blockchain Bitcoin touts.
“To protect the security of the blockchain that makes cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin so secure, processing of Bitcoin transactions is very slow. In fact, because of a limit on the number of transactions which can be completed in a day, it sometimes takes days to complete a simple transaction. Resistance to changing these rules from people who mostly like the anonymity and un-traceability of Bitcoin means that Bitcoin cannot become a widely used currency. Its very security negates its value in everyday use.”
JAMIE DIMON, CHAIRMAN/CEO, JP MORGAN CHASE
“I’d fire a [JP Morgan] trader in a second who traded [in Bitcoin]. For two reasons: It’s against our rules and they’re stupid. And both are dangerous.
“The currency isn’t going to work. You can’t have a business where people can invent a currency out of thin air and think that people who are buying it are really smart.
“If you were in Venezuela or Ecuador or North Korea or a bunch of parts like that, or if you were a drug dealer, a murderer, stuff like that, you are better off doing it in Bitcoin than U.S. dollars. So, there may be a market for that, but it would be a limited market.”
One of the most attractive features to a global trader about Bitcoin would have to be its lack of an exchange rate. Because it is not tied to any one country and, therefore, to any one central bank, it can’t be manipulated in that manner.
In fact, while some such as Visa’s Prabhu see the lack of a central bank’s backing as a weakness, others see it as an advantage that the currency is not tied to the interests of a particular country.
Let’s face it, in whatever nation you have your headquarters, the fact is a good deal of global traders have myriad international partners, suppliers, customers, etc. The last thing you want to do is get caught up in the national posturing that can come with currency manipulation. Bitcoin, in fact, has been shown it can used to approximate unofficial rates of currency exchange to reveal how they are secretly applied by various national governments. Even the smallest changes can be flagged by studying Bitcoin blocks.
By not having to deal with many different currencies and their individual, constantly fluctuating rates, you and your many international suppliers and buyers can all be on the same virtual page with Bitcoin. If everyone is using it, then everyone is speaking the same language, as it were.
PETER THIEL, CO-FOUNDER, PAYPAL
“PayPal had these goals of creating a new currency. We failed at that, and we just created a new payment system. I think Bitcoin has succeeded on the level of a new currency, but the payment system is somewhat lacking. It’s very hard to use, and that’s the big challenge on the Bitcoin side.”
Though Bitcoin has been described as the financial equivalent of the Wild West, there are some things about it that make it seem rather secure and almost, dare we say, conservative.
As mentioned above, the use of blockchains gives a level of transparency that appeals to even those who are not fans of Bitcoin because, as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase, says: “When you drill down, blockchains are really a shared version of reality everyone agrees on. So, whether it’s a fully immersive VR experience, augmented reality, or even Bitcoin or Ethereum in the physical world as a shared ledger for our ‘real world,’ we’ll increasingly trust blockchains as our basis for reality.”
Blockchains created from cryptocurrency transactions create clear, secure records that can be tracked and verified. There has been talk of tying contracts and shipments to transactions within the blockchain to make business and logistics easier to track. With blockchain technology backed by cryptocurrency, processes could become more efficient, easier and transparent. In fact, companies are so interested in the possibilities of blockchain technology that Danish shipper Maersk has partnered with IBM to pilot a blockchain shipment-tracking system.
Oh, by the way, another nice thing about Bitcoin is that because it is a peer-to-peer monetary system, there are no taxes that govern them. Transaction fees? As if.
FRANCOIS VILLEROY DE GALHAU, GOVERNOR, BANK OF FRANCE
“We need to be clear: Bitcoin is in no way a currency or even a cryptocurrency. It is a speculative asset. Its value and extreme volatility have no economic basis, and they are nobody’s responsibility. The Bank of France reminds those investing in Bitcoin that they do so entirely at their own risk.”
As with all things related to world trade, China plays a significant and sometime vexing role with Bitcoin.
On the one hand, China appears to be home to the largest number of Bitcoin adherents; on the other hand, the Chinese government has attempted, sometimes surreptitiously, to clamp down on Bitcoin activity, many times through the efforts of the Chinese central bank, the People’s Bank of China.
But, recently, in a March 19 interview with South Korean media outlet TokenPost, new Chinese central bank head Yi Gang stated that, “Bitcoin is a currency that provides freedom to anyone that uses it,” and emphasized that the cryptocurrency is transparent.
This was a stunner, or maybe not, given that Yi was educated in the United States. In fact, Yi’s rather positive viewpoint regarding Bitcoin was somewhat expected by analysts, given his pro-market philosophy and his plans to liberalize the Chinese financial industry. Potentially, the appointment of Yi and the re-election of President Xi Jinping could lead to the regulation of cryptocurrencies and legalization of trading.
Still, this is still China. If there is a thawing toward Bitcoin, it will still be done in a completely Chinese way. As one analyst observed: “China wants to control cryptocurrency, and China will get control. The repeated enforcements by the regulators were meant to protect its citizens from the financial risk of cryptocurrencies and limit capital outflow.”
NAVAL RAVIKANT, CEO, ANGELLIST
“Think of Bitcoin as a bank account in the cloud, and it’s completely decentralized: not the Swiss government, not the American government. It’s all the participants in the network enforcing.
“China may censor YouTube. China may censor Twitter. They won’t be able to censor Bitcoin. There’s no central authority. There’s no one you can go to and say, ‘We’re going to turn Bitcoin off.’”