What's bitcoin's future?

A lot of booms and busts until it dies for good.

In the course of a little under seven hours, the price of Bitcoin in US dollars fell by over sixty per cent on Wednesday, to $106 a coin. Since then, it's fallen further, and is currently trading at $85 $80 $78 $80 a coin on a downward trend.

If the price doesn't recover, it seems like the beginning of the end for the speculator's bubble. The nature of such a bubble is that it can't hold steady for particularly long, since speculators must sell to realise their gains. Selling depresses the price, which sparks more selling, and so on.

But as bitcoins trend back to a low price, conversation is turning to their future. If the era of the bitcoin millionaires is over, does that mean that the era of bitcion being actually useful is upon us?

That's what I suggest in my piece in this week's magazine (a 180-page centenary spectacular, available in all good newsagents (the magazine, not the piece)), but there's more difficulties standing between there and here. The big one is that, even if bitcoin plunges further and the speculators market is destroyed, the deflationary problem will never go away.

The very nature of bitcoin is designed to encourage hoarding. That's what deflation means: if you hold currency, that currency will be more valuable next year than this year. For the last month, its not just been in deflation but hyperdeflation, a symptom of its meteoric rise.

But suppose bitcoin falls back to $10 a coin, and the absence of speculators returns a degree of stability to the market. A few online traders might decide that it makes sense to offer the currency as an alternative to Paypal, and find that, freed from the hyped-up claims that it is the future of all currency, it actually works quite well for cheap and easy transfers of money online.

But.

The minute bitcoin starts to be useful, the deflation problem rears its head again. If a sizeable number of online retailers are taking bitcoin, then it makes sense to buy a lot now and hoard them until you need them, because both the deflationary underpinnings and the expectation of an increase in the USD/BTC exchange rate mean that they'll be worth more in the future.

But once you start hoarding them, the supply goes down, and other people who need them for transactions have to pay more for them. That increases the exchange rate; and so there's more incentive to hoard; and so the exchange rate rises further – and suddenly it's back in another bubble, which eventually pops, and people again lose money.

This volatility, in other words, is inherent to the platform. That's a major barrier to widespread uptake, and a reason why I'm bearish on the future of bitcoin full stop. Once it's dead, I fear it's dead for good.

BOOM and bust.

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.