Bitcoin and the Value of Financial Freedom

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Investors’ frenzied pursuit of bitcoin has bared the flaws of cryptocurrencies, but also highlighted their main value proposition: independence from regulated, mainstream, established systems.

At the beginning of 2017, bitcoin was still worth less than $1,000 and all the quaint, confused expectations about the cryptocurrency were still intact: It would, as Satoshi Nakamoto wrote in his (or her, or their) manifesto, make financial transactions cheap, fast and secure without requiring people to give up too much information. But as money piled in and the price rocketed — fivefold, tenfold, almost by a factor of 20 — it turned out that these dreams didn’t work out at scale.

Transaction fees jumped — to $32 per average transaction at the time of this writing, making bitcoin an impractical means of payment for merchants. Clearing can be painfully slow, given all the speculative demand. And converting into dollars and other fiat currencies isn’t easy. 

Most of the bitcoin community has rejected the most obvious solution, which is to increase the size of the blocks into which transactions are packaged for approval. Instead, much hope is invested in Lightning — a technology that would process less-critical transactions off the bitcoin blockchain to save on computing power and transaction fees. It will probably work when it’s ready, but it uses a different, more complex approach to security that malicious actors will almost certainly try to exploit.

As it is, bitcoin isn’t looking as secure as Nakamoto imagined it. By one estimate, bitcoin that has been stolen at one point makes up 10 percent of the current supply. Bitcoin “wallets,” often maintained by exchanges on behalf of clients, have become targets for hackers.  Youbit, a South Korean cryptocurrency dealer, just announced that it would shut down and file for bankruptcy after the theft of 17 percent of the assets it held. Earlier this month, more than 4,700 bitcoins were stolen from the NiceHash marketplace. The risk of losing bitcoin is higher than for traditional money kept in a bank.

Perhaps bitcoin’s popularity will speed efforts at improvement. It has certainly generated interest in alternatives: The total market capitalization of all cryptocurrencies had reached $630 billion at the time of this writing, and bitcoin accounted for less than half the total. Some of those other currencies employ bigger block sizes and are more easily scalable.

Still, bitcoin’s shortcomings are glaringly obvious. Even at current scale — fewer than 400,000 transactions a day, a tiny number for a real currency — it’s slow and expensive. Addressing these issues could increase risk by increasing complexity. It’s just not a good currency. So why aren’t investors staying away?

Well, some are. Traditional financial institutions can now bet on bitcoin on Chicago’s regulated exchanges, but volumes remain small compared with bitcoin’s market capitalization. Even Russian ruble futures are more popular. This reaction from the suit-and-tie crowd — who are far from impervious to greed and hype — says something about the nature of bitcoin’s appeal and its fundamental value.

The value is rooted in the cryptocurrency’s independence from the mainstream,  from any kind of government regulation, from assets that are subject to the traditional market’s moods and regulators’ prescriptions. For some people, the ability to own something completely outside the power of nation states — something that has defied regulatory bans, sanctions, currency restrictions, curbs on what can be legally bought with fiat money — trumps technological imperfection, volatility and the high risk of theft. It’s a pirate haven from which government and merchant ships are barred. The Venezuelan bolivar — the currency of what is perhaps the world’s most illogically regulated economy — is the 18th biggest currency for bitcoin trading, ahead of the Norwegian and Swedish kronas, punching far above its weight.

Even if today’s price is inflated, bitcoin isn’t fundamentally worthless. Neither are other decentralized cryptocurrencies. Volatility suggests that the market is trying to figure out how much financial freedom is worth. It’s probably most valuable in countries with oppressive regimes and unreasonable governments. Bans may to some extent be effective, but the value will always be there as long as there are people who mistrust governments and want to move money and assets away from their prying eyes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net



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