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.

Show Hide image

No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.