Are cryptocurrencies real money?

Mark Carney says they’re “not going anywhere”, but academics and traders say they’re changing fast. 

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Last week, amidst the champagne flutes and snowy peaks of Davos, Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney issued a damning assessment of cryptocurrencies. He questioned the very definition of the financial phenomenon – “they’re not crypto-currencies; they’re at best crypto-assets” – before concluding that they were simply “not going anywhere”.

This is not the first time Carney has rained on the crypto parade. Despite his assertion in Davos that cryptocurrencies were “not going to disrupt” financial markets, in March 2018 he called for increased regulation to “protect the safety and soundness of the financial system” from blockchain-based instruments. “The time has come to hold the crypto-asset ecosystem to the same standards as the rest of the financial system.”

He has maintained throughout that cryptocurrencies are mislabelled, insisting on calling them “crypto-assets” instead; the difference being that assets are not used in exchange for day-to-day goods and services, as conventional currencies are.

Tomaso Aste, scientific director at the UCL Centre for Blockchain Technologies, says that Carney is correct about how they are currently used – cryptocurrencies are rarely used in everyday situations to pay for things, but are kept because of their worth – but that doesn’t mean they’re not currency. “They are currency by design; they are designed as an instrument of transfer of value.”

If anything, Aste argues, they are emerging currencies. “They will become currencies in the moment in which they start to be used for the payment of goods and services … They are the currencies of the future.” And when that transition takes place, Este believes that conventional currencies will seem hugely inefficient by comparison and “disappear”. “The possibilities of this currency are so much better: more convenient, simpler, more secure.”

Hassan Hassan, a cryptocurrency trader and founder of Bluefield Capital, agrees with Aste. He says that cryptocurrencies are “increasingly being used for payment in return for goods and services worldwide”.

Hassan also says that the technology’s emerging use as currency is not the only factor that financial institutions will need to consider. “Mr Carney may want to focus on the practical applications of blockchain technology, as some of its innovations are likely to have a real long-term impact on the financial sector and beyond … although cryptocurrencies are not currently sophisticated or regulated enough to be considered as a credible alternative to the pound or the dollar, they do represent a technological innovation allowing for two parties to confidently trade without intermediaries, such as banks.”

In Hassan’s view, it’s inevitable that the technological innovation fuelled by TCP/IP – “most of us now simply know it as the Internet” – will revolutionise finance and money, just as it continues to do so in so many other aspects of everyday life. That banks could become obsolete is “certainly a disruptive notion,” he admits.  

Aste thinks that it is still “a bit early” for regulation of the sector on the scale that Carney is calling for, and that the current leading cryptocurrencies will not be the ones used in the future if conventional currencies are displaced; “I think there is still something missing”. Hassan agrees that cryptocurrencies will not be adopted “overnight”, but “a form of creeping organic adoption will take place, to the point where we ultimately use blockchain-based technology unwittingly”.

Augusta Riddy is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman.