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.

*pop*

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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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