Bitcoin – to regulate or not to regulate?

And by whom?

The virtual currency Bitcoin has pretty much taken the world by storm since it’s launch in 2009. With impressive value growth, the currency has quickly become a popular choice for traders and investors. Some have even suggested that the Bitcoin and other virtual currencies could be the saving grace for countries in dire economic straits.

In March, the world’s first Bitcoin ATM was opened on Cyprus after banks had been closed for a week. The ATM allows customers to deposit “real money” into a Bitcoin ATM in exchange for bitcoins and vice versa – making the virtual currency, a very real option for those who didn’t have access to money during the Cypriot crisis.

So seemingly, the cyber-currency seems to be taking off. Stateless and bankless, Bitcoins are not subject to regulation or fees, and therefore enjoy extreme volatility, according to its proponents. But according to regulators, this is exactly the problem.

For example, Bitcoin value recently dropped by nearly 80 per cent from an all-time high of $266 before crashing to $55 on one particular bleak April day, resulting in large losses for investors.

This prompted the US financial regulator, CFTC, to consider regulating the virtual currency Bitcoin in a bid to protect consumers against the risks associated with the currency.

Growing concerns over the online cash being used for illicit activities also led the US Treasury Department to implement new money-laundering rules, forcing Bitcoin and other virtual currency firms to comply with strict regulation.

With new regulatory scrutiny, proponents of the virtual currency might find themselves hard-pressed to maintain Bitcoins’ independence from the financial authorities.

But I can’t help but ask, are these latest moves by the American authorities, too little too late?

One Bitcoin investor recently stated that if US regulations made it hard for Bitcoin businesses to operate in the US, then they would just move to other countries and still be able to use the currency wherever they wanted.

And what’s more, bitcoins have already become a global phenomenon, reaching consumers across the world and bringing with it, it’s extreme potential for risk. So the question is how much of an impact the regulation of one state can have on virtual currencies? Rather it seems, that if Bitcoin and its competitors should be regulated, it should be by a global regulatory body. So I’m definitely hoping that the potential for both extreme growth and risk in bitcoins is acknowledged soon by more than just the US regulators. 

Whether or not you support the concept or have ever bought a Bitcoin, the matter of fact is, that a lot of other people have. And with ongoing financial turmoil, many more might come to rely on the virtual currency. So hint hint regulators, now is definitely the time to ask – to regulate or not to regulate the Bitcoin?

Photograph: Getty Images

Sandra Kilhof Nielsen is a freelance writer and former reporter for Retail Banker International, Cards International & Electronic Payments International.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.