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.
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.