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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.