When the speculators flee, what will be left of Bitcoin?

The underlying currency might not work without the inflated prices.

Last week's post pointing out bubbly appearance of Bitcoin's market capitalisation sparked some kickback. That was to be expected; in any bubble, people who are currently exposed to the possibility of a crash are unlikely to take the news well. Bitcoin has even more die-hard defenders than most bubbles, though, because of the mixture of political and cultural factors which cause a lot of people to invest such hope in it.

Amongst the currency's fanbase – and the fact that a currency has a fanbase is itself notable – are libertarians who decry any government involvement in the free market, techno-utopians who love the idea of fully digital money, monetary hawks who like the fact that the success of bitcoin would basically end inflation, and, frankly, criminals who like a completely untraceable currency (I'm not implying that if you like an untraceable currency you must be a criminal, but there's no denying that Bitcoin is a big deal for sites like Silk Road), as well as your common-or-garden speculators. All of them (except maybe the criminals) have a bigger reason to hope for the success of Bitcoin than just financial: if it succeeds, it proves them right.

But I fear that there are very few arguments which can be made to prove the Bitcoin boom that we're seeing right now – which has resulted in a 250 per cent increase in the total value of the Bitcoin economy in just three months – isn't a bubble. The problem is that there is not really anything to point to in that time period to explain the massive increase, except the massive increase itself. So it may be comforting for Bitcoin fans that there is a Bitcoin hedge fund in Malta, but given that that hedge fund exists because of the boom, not the other way round, it doesn't explain anything.

In fact, in the last few months, there have been a few news events which ought, by rights, to reduce the value of the currency. Chief among them is the fact that the block chain – the distributed record of every Bitcoin transaction, and the technical underpinning of the entire things – forked earlier this month, something it should not be able to do.

A transaction was made using a new version of the software, which was too large for earlier versions to handle. As a result, some clients accepted it, while others rejected it, leaving two valid block chains circulating. Some users are pointing to the fact that the currency is still circulating largely unaffected as a sign of its strength, but that's a bit like saying that the fact that your plane is still flying after its engine exploded makes the explosion good news.

The best way to justify the exponential increase in the market capitalisation of Bitcoin would be to point to a similar exponential increase in people using the currency to perform their everyday lives, and that simply hasn't happened. Take-up is strong, but nowhere near the level it would need to be to explain a half-billion market cap. Whereas speculation – people buying Bitcoin low to sell high – does.

(Note too I'm not saying that the currency is a Ponzi scheme, an accusation often levelled at it over the fact that the first holders of bitcoin had the most to gain from talking it up to others and then selling high. A bubble isn't necessarily the same as a Ponzi scheme, even a bubble which is deliberately engineered to reward its first buyers, and I don't think Bitcoin has those characteristics.)

The natural price of Bitcoin is far, far lower than where it stands right now, probably around the same level it was last summer, after its first catastrophic crash and before its second. The real question for the currency isn't whether it can survive being an investment for speculators – it can't – but whether it can survive as a currency when valued at 10 per cent of what it is currently.

The problem it faces is that the distributed computing which lets Bitcoin work is expensive. It takes energy, and time, and frequently also specialised hardware. The reward for doing so – "mining", in the parlance – is a randomly allocated share of the new coins produced through inflation. As time goes on, the currency will produce less and less extra coins this way, but for now, the bigger fear is if the natural price for Bitcoin can go low enough that it no longer becomes efficient to run these mining rigs.

There are still ways of getting around that – the technology allows for the payment of what is essentially a processing fee on top of each transaction – but it may be the case that Bitcoin's use as a currency is currently being subsidised by its bubble-tastic value. Hopefully the two are separate enough that even after the crash, Bitcoin can continue to function as an alternative way to send money over the internet. But the more Bitcoin fans boost the bubble, the bigger the shock's going to be when it pops.

The Bitcoin logo.

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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Is Britain about to leave the European Union?

A series of bad polls have pro-Europeans panicked. Are they right?

Is this what Brexit looks like? A batch of polls all show significant movement towards a Leave vote. ORB, a phone pollster, has Leave up four points to 46 per cent, with Remain’s leave cut to four points. ICM’s online poll has Leave up three points, putting Brexit ahead of Remain by 52 per cent to 48 per cent once don’t-knows are excluded. ICM’s phone poll shows Leave up six points, a Brexit lead of three points.

That two phone polls are showing advances for Leave are particularly significant, as telephone polling has tended to show lower figures for Brexit. There is a lively debate over which method, phone or online, is likely to be more effective at predicting the referendum, although no-one knows for certain at the present time.

In any case, whether on the telephone or the Internet, the latest polls have pro-Europeans worried, and Brexiteers jubilant. Who’s right?

There are reasons to start trusting the polls, at least as far as voter ID is concerned

So far, the performances of the political parties in local elections and by-elections has been about par with what we’d expect from the polls. So the chances are good that the measures taken post-2015 election are working.

Bank holidays are always difficult

I would be deeply cautious of reading too much into three polls, all of which have been conducted over the bank holiday weekend, a time when people go out, play with their kids, get wasted or go away for a long weekend. The last set of bank holiday polls gave Ed Miliband’s Labour party  large leads, well outside the average, which tended to show the two parties neck-and-neck.

Although this time they might be more revealing than we expect

One reason why the polls got it wrong in 2015 is they talked to the wrong type of people. The demographic samples were right but they were not properly representative. (Look at it like this – if my poll includes 18 actors who are now earning millions in cinema, I may have a representative figure in terms of the total number of Britain’s millionaires – but their politics are likely to be far to the left of the average British one percenter, unless the actor in question is Tom Conti.)

Across telephone and online, the pollsters talked to people who were too politically-motivated, skewing the result: Ed Miliband’s Labour party did very well among young people for whom Thursday night was a time to watch Question Time and This Week, but less well among young people for whom Thursday is the new Friday.  The polls had too many party members and not enough party animals.

But the question no-one can answer is this: it may be that differential turnout in the European referendum means that a sample of hyper-politicos is actually a better sample than an ordinary poll. Just as the polls erred in 2015 by sampling too many political people, they may be calling the referendum wrong in having too many apolitical people.

These three polls aren’t the scariest for Remain released today

IpsosMori released a poll today, taken 15 days ago and so free from any bank holiday effect, without a referendum voting intention question, but one taking the temperature on which issues the British public believe are the most important of the day.

Far from growing more invested in the question of Britain’s European Union membership as the campaign enters its terminal phase, concern about the European Union has flatlined at 28 per cent – within the margin of error of last month’s IpsosMori survey, which put Britain at 30 per cent. The proportion who believe that it is the biggest single issue facing Britain today also remains static at 16 per cent. Evidence of the high turnout necessary to avert Brexit seems thin on the ground.

Pro-Europeans should be further worried by the identity of the groups that are concerned about the European Union. Conservative voters, the over-65s and people from social grades A (higher managerial, administrative and professional workers) and B (intermediate managerial, administrative and professional workers), are more concerned about the European Union than the national average. The only one of those three groups that is more likely to favour Remain over Leave are ABers, while Conservative voters and the over-65s are likely to vote for Brexit over the status quo.

Among the demographics who are least concerned about the European Union, the only pro-Brexit group that is significantly less concerned about EU membership than the national average are people from social grades D (semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers) to E (state pensioners, casual workers and jobseekers). The other groups that are least concerned with the European Union are people who live in urban areas and people aged from 18 to 24, the two most pro-European demographics.

The prospects of a Brexit vote are rather better than the betting odds would suggest. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.