Bitcoin: this is what a bubble looks like

Not if, but when, the bubble will burst.

This is what a bubble looks like:

That's the market capitalisation of Bitcoin, an innovative fiat currency which relies on some fancy cryptography to create a perfectly decentralised and unhackable store of value. The graph shows the total value of all bitcoins in circulation — and it's currently peaking at a little over half a billion dollars.

In a sense, Bitcoins are the ultimate fiat currency. There is absolutely nothing valuable about them except the extent to which others are prepared to take them as payment for goods and services. The willingness relies on a certain level of trust that the currency will stay a useful store of value, measure of exchange and unit of account in the near future; but whereas normal currencies derive the trust from the fact that they are backed up by respectable governments and independent central banks, Bitcoin derives it from a complex, and essentially permanent, set of rules which issue new bit coins at a steadily declining rate until the early 22nd century, when the total quantity of bitcoins in circulation will be fixed forever.

Currently, bitcoin is very useful for fringe-legal transactions, and as a digital-native currency, it has potential to be used in a wide array of web services. But that's not why the value of the total economy has more than tripled since January. For that, look to lessons we learned over four hundred years ago.

The South Sea bubble is one of the most famous boom-and-bust cycles in history. At the peak of the madness, famously, a huckster appeared public advertising stock in "a company for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is". Naturally, he disappeared soon after.

But looking back at contemporary sources reveals something else which is just as important: very few people caught up in the madness thought that they were buying something innately valuable. These weren't naïve investors spending exorbitant sums on stock which they thought would vest unrealistic rewards; instead, they knew full well the bubble they were buying into, but thought that they could sell out of it at profit before the whole thing came crashing down. Some did; but inevitably, many others failed.

Much the same seems to be at play in the Bitcoin ecosystem. It's not just people like Hugo Rifkind, who accidentally made £41 from his foray into bit coin investing; Timothy Lee, a writer for Ars Technica, holds nearly a tenth of his investment portfolio in bitcoin, having bought in last January and seen a ten-fold increase in value.

But while there's been a massive increase in bitcoin price, there's not been anywhere near an equivalent increase in the currency's use. A glance at blockchain.info, which displays all transactions, shows that the vast majority of bitcoin transactions—by number, if not by value—are made at the site SatoshiDICE, a gambling organisation. In fact, the ever-increasing value of bitcoins is like to act as to depress the bitcoin economy, as people decide to hold on to their money rather than exchange it for services, knowing that it will surely increase in value.

The crash will come. At the heady peaks it's at right now, only the slightest spark will be required to turn the trend negative. In 2011, the previous bubble burst when Mt Gox, then the most popular bureau d'exchange for the fledgeling currency, was disastrously hacked. This time, I doubt it would take that. The peaks are so high, and so many people have so much money "invested" in the currency, that the rush to be the first out of a bear market will be vicious to behold.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.