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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.