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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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