Bitcoin with its underlying blockchain technology is by far the most controversial and least understood of the fintech innovations revolutionizing financial services. Since it was conceived in 2008 it has generally been viewed with suspicion, even outright derision. But both the currency and the technology are gaining legitimacy and there’s growing interest in its potential, as shown by these informal indicators:
- Strong growth in startup funding by top VCs and investors: between 2013 and 2015 venture investments grew from $95M to $622M per this recap http://www.coindesk.com/bitcoin-venture-capital/
- Improvement in price volatility (but still far from stable): high/low in 2013 was $1,147/$13, and in 2015 was $456/$214
- Robust discussions at the 2016 World Economic Forum, European Parliament, IMF, CFTC and other venues to consider the value, drawbacks and risks of bitcoin and blockchain
- Continuing evolution of regulations: New York’s BitLicense requirements, IRS and CFTC rulings, general openness in the UK, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Romania and elsewhere
At the February CFA Chicago Book Club meeting we discussed Paul Vigna’s and Michael J. Casey’s excellent book on all things bitcoin and blockchain. The two Wall Street Journal reporters thoroughly explored the origins, mechanics, personalities, motivations, recent developments and future of this fascinating technology.
There’s a shroud of ambiguity around bitcoin. It can be characterized as a currency, commodity, payment protocol or an expansive platform for trading anything of value, and the authors clearly explain each of these perspectives. They also describe the underlying technology and its two key breakthroughs: a universal ledger that captures every transaction and is continuously verified, and an incentive system for “nodes” to maintain the ledger. Bitcoin exists as a chain of digital signatures. Owners privately transfer coins by digitally signing a hash of the previous transaction and the public key of the next owner, adding their signatures to the end of the coin. Note, a “hash” is just a long string of characters and hashing is a common technique used in encryption and data-storage. The open source blockchain code tells computer nodes how to collaborate in maintaining the integrity of the universal bitcoin ledger via a process called mining.
Everyone’s heard about bitcoin “miners” who dig up newly minted electronic currency, but mining is really a misnomer. Networked computer nodes do the work of confirming that transactions are valid, verifying the ledger is correct, getting all other nodes to agree, closing the previous block of transactions and opening a new one. While doing so they can earn new bitcoin as a reward. There’s more to it, but essentially this is mining. The sequential blocks of transactions form the chronological blockchain ledger. One block, or group of transactions, is closed and a new one is opened every 10 minutes or so. Anyone with a computer and internet access can establish a node and mine, but to increase the likelihood of earning bitcoin miners employ massive computer power. There are dedicated server farms in the U.S. and abroad using computers designed just for this purpose. China is especially active in bitcoin mining.
The origins of bitcoin have contributed to its mystique and notoriety. A person or group named Satoshi Nakamoto conceived the open-source computer code on October 31st, 2008, by posting on a message board for cryptographers. It caught the attention of Hal Finney who dabbled in encryption technology in his off hours. He and Sathoshi worked to get the open-source protocol running in 2009, and slowly others began to adopt and use bitcoin. The cryptocurrency also appealed to “Cypherpunks”, an anarchic, libertarian group concerned with privacy protection and subverting the power of banks and governments to create economic crises and serve corporate interests at the expense of citizens. Satoshi’s true identity and motivation for introducing bitcoin aren’t known. He or she essentially disappeared in 2011 and past communications were encrypted, sparingly worded and didn’t elaborate on philosophy.
The current system for handling credit card transactions illustrates the problem bitcoin intends to solve. The authors walk through an everyday coffee purchase: seven entities are involved, including the merchant, front-end processors, payment processors, banks, credit card associations, clearing houses, etc. These entities share our banking and personal information, and of course earn fees which are paid by the merchant and ultimately you and I. Fees can total 3%, and much more when traveling abroad. This same transaction using bitcoin is strictly between the merchant and purchaser. The universal ledger confirms funds are available and validates the transaction. No personal information is shared because bitcoin is encrypted. No third party intermediaries are needed and no transaction fees are charged. In this scenario there’s no need for banks, credit cards, payment processors, dollars, euro or yen. Bitcoin proponents envision huge economic benefits from eliminating transaction fees.
A growing list of merchants accept bitcoin as payment for some or all of their products, including Dell, DISH Network, Microsoft, Expedia, Overstock, Newegg and many others. However, there are good reasons to be skeptical. Public perception suffered after several hacking incidents. For example, Mt. Gox, an early bitcoin exchange lost 650,000 of its client’s bitcoins and finally collapsed, impacting 127,000 users. Silk Road was another high-profile debacle. It was an Ebay-like site for trading in illegal drugs and assassinations that used encryption to hide web traffic and the anonymity of bitcoin to keep transactions private. Its operator, Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison for money laundering and trafficking narcotics. There’s also conflict within the bitcoin community itself, most recently related to a proposal to expand bitcoin transaction volume capacity, which is a small fraction of established payment systems. The argument exploded very publicly into death threats, virus attacks and censoring bitcoin discussion boards. Breakdowns like these, coupled with extreme price volatility in past years and other concerns damage public trust in bitcoin as a reliable currency.
Trust is a recurring theme in the book. In our current system banks and other central institutions maintain the central ledger that establishes the essential trust in who owes what to whom. Various parties in this system dedicate enormous resources to verify their records match and confirm trust. But with bitcoin, trust is automated. To be effective as currency bitcoin must be widely held and widely accepted. It’s the classic “chicken or egg” dilemma. Money must be a unit of account, a store of value and a medium of exchange, three conditions banks are currently tasked with safeguarding. But there’s an enormous cost for this in money, privacy, and economic damage banks are perceived to cause in crises. The authors deftly explore multiple perspectives on trust and the central role of banks:
- In developing countries millions of people lack access to banks. Bitcoin may be an ideal solution for countries with limited banking infrastructure, weak legal systems, 10%-20% fees on transfers from citizens working abroad and a high degree of self-employment.
- Russia’s and China’s national security depends on controlling their national currencies, so unregulated and encrypted bitcoin may be a threat to government’s hold on power.
- Developed countries incur hundreds of billions in transaction fees that could be used productively. But unlike bitcoin, the incumbent system allows for Keynesian intervention during crises to offset currency hoarding.
To the extent bitcoin has obstacles; the underlying blockchain technology has opportunities. Financial institutions are using it to create more efficient financial payment, trading and settlement systems. Major firms actively exploring blockchain solutions include Bank of America, Banco Santander, IBM, ING, Mizuho, NASDAQ, PwC, UBS and many others. Meanwhile, startups like Next, Ripple, Mastercoin, Ethereum, BitShares, Counterparty, Stellar and others are developing digital asset exchanges for peer-to-peer trading. The authors explore a variety of blockchain applications that extend beyond digital currency. Decentralized autonomous corporations (DACs) are similar to crowd-funding but DAC shareholders participate in ownership and any increase or decrease in value. Reputation markets for restaurateurs, contractors, freelancers, etc. use blockchain to hold their record of customer reviews, which can then be securitized to monetize goodwill. Voting can use an encrypted private key to send a tiny amount of bitcoin to a polling wallet. Votes are time-stamped and permanent in the blockchain to prevent fraud. Smart contracts, where bitcoin payments are made to a neutral wallet and disbursements are triggered automatically. Examples include homeowner’s escrow for insurance and tax payments, and credit default swaps where a credit event automatically triggers payment to the CDS owner. Smart property, where digital ownership tokens are assigned as property deeds, titles and certifications of ownership, makes them easily tradable with other digital asset claims. There are endless applications using the blockchain platform, and it’s seen by some as the internet all over again.
Blockchain clearly has a very bright future. As for bitcoin as digital currency, the authors present several future scenarios and discuss potential government reactions and the impact on various stakeholders:
- Bitcoin is adopted worldwide: The UK, Canada, Switzerland and Singapore are poised to lead due to their innovation-friendly regulations. The U.S. would take a back seat given the restrictions here. Banks and governments would have greatly diminished power. Millions of unbanked people in developing countries would gain access to an efficient financial system.
- Bitcoin is not adopted: The obstacles to realizing the grand vision are never overcome and a ‘just good enough’ option with lower fees and greater efficiency takes hold within the existing system.
- Hybrid system: Bitcoin grows alongside the existing system and national fiat currencies continue to be used. Exchanges are needed to convert to and from digital currency. Blockchain technology is used by institutions to improve transaction confirmations, payment systems, etc. Credit card companies, payment processors and currency traders could disappear. Or bitcoin could be adopted principally for online and certain other types of commerce.
- Multi-coin world: Currency itself becomes less important. The principle means of exchange could be smart property trading on blockchain-based exchanges where property items are divided to level needed. Commerce becomes a form of barter without the limitations of trading physical property. The authors posited selling half a horse for a flight to LA!
- National cryptocurrency: Countries launch their own digital currency using blockchain technology. People trade currency peer to peer without intermediaries, but control is still centralized leaving the state as the ultimate counterparty. Governments retain the ability to use policy measures to stimulate the economy. Cross-border transfers of digital currencies are difficult to restrict which undermines capital controls. The U.S. digital dollar has an enhanced role as a reserve currency, but the Fed is more accountable to the global marketplace. For example, if the U.S. digital dollar were mismanaged other currencies would become favored.
Regardless which of these scenarios is realized, bitcoin and blockchain have staggering potential to reshape financial services and other areas of the economy. They can no longer be dismissed as a fringe, radical movement. It will be fascinating to observe this space in the coming months and years.
March 15, 2016: My Side of the Street: Why Wolves, Flash Boys, Quants, and Masters of the Universe Don’t Represent the Real Wall Street by Jason DeSena Trennert
April 19, 2016: While America Aged: How Pension Debts Ruined General Motors, Stopped the NYC Subways, Bankrupted San Diego, and Loom as the Next Financial Crisis by Roger Lowenstein
May 17, 2016: TBD
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