Bitcoin is in hyperdeflation

Bubble or not, the underpinnings of Bitcoin pose problems to its use as a popular currency.

Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal covers the still-soaring price of Bitcoin – which has now broken $100 – and puts an interesting spin on the situation: the Bitcoin economy is now suffering hyperdeflation. He writes:

So a few weeks ago, a pizza might have cost you one Bitcoin. Today it might only cost you a fifth of a Bitcoin, which sounds great, but then if you're looking at the above chart, why would you spend anything?

Why would you buy a pizza (or pot or anything else) when tomorrow your Bitcoin will be worth more? With this kind of chart, you'd be insane to do anything but hoard your coins.

So yes, all the hype is great for some folks in the ecosystem, but ultimately there's a reason that over time, government prefer to see their currency slowly depreciate. A surging currency leads to hoarding which kills real transactions.

I've written repeatedly that I think the current price of Bitcoin is the result of a volatile bubble – though I'm no more certain than anyone else as to when that bubble will burst – and that explanation is part of the reason why. The faster the Bitcoin price rises, the fewer actual transactions you'll see being made with it. Insofar as there is a "real" price of the currency, as opposed to the inflated price it's showing now, that must be based on people actually using Bitcoin, rather than hoarding it. While the currency is in hyperdeflation, that won't happen (outside of a few crazy people doing things like selling their houses in it).

But while the bubble-like price of Bitcoin at the moment must be separated from its long-term prospects, those are also harmed by the promise of deflation.

The way the currency works, an ever-decreasing amount of new coins are introduced to the money supply, until 2140, when every coin in existence will have been created. Since Bitcoins can be destroyed – losing the private key for your account is basically the same as shredding your wallet – the economy will actually enter deflation some time before then, even counted in Bitcoin terms. With deflation comes hoarding, as things become cheaper to buy in the future rather than now; and that slump in demand would have the same effect as a permanent recession.

A normal currency could implement some unconventional policy to fight that. A tax on cash holdings, for instance, would serve to drop the real interest rate low enough to prompt some spending again. But that can't happen with Bitcoin, where holdings are anonymous by default, and – let's be honest, here – a large proportion of the actual use of the currency is criminal in nature.

Bubble or not, the underpinnings of Bitcoin pose problems to its use as a popular currency. Hyperdeflation may not spark the same populist fear as hyperinflation, but it's just as bad.


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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.