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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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