Lately it’s hard to go a day without someone asking me a question about Bitcoin. What is it? Why is it so valuable? Should I buy some? How do I buy some? The guy down on the corner in the pawn/gold exchange shop said he can buy me one (yes, this is actually happening!).
It seems Bitcoin and the crypto-currency craze has truly reached the mainstream and the implication of that are as of yet unknown. What we do know is that it’s attracting every shady crook and scam artist in the world. And why not? There really is tons of money to be made. I hope the following sheds some light on what Bitcoin is and isn’t.
Let’s start our discussion with the technology which made Bitcoin possible called “blockchain”. In very simple terms the blockchain technology is a record of all transactions ever done in Bitcoin. Imagine a gigantic piece of paper that lists every transaction ever completed. Then imagine that there are thousands of copies of this paper, and all of them are automatically updated when any two people agree to exchange Bitcoins. Every time a transaction takes place all these copies are checked for consistency to make sure you actually have the Bitcoins you claim to have. If everything checks out the new transaction is added to all the pieces of paper at once.
This is the heart of the truly genius idea that is blockchain, and it is what it makes it possible to have certainty over a Bitcoin balance someone owns, without needing any central party (like a bank) to verify it. If all the pieces of paper agree then the balance is correct, and trying to doctor or fake all the pieces of paper at once is impossible. The best (and worst) thing about this technology is that it has been made available for absolutely FREE to anyone who wants to use it.
Bitcoin is simply the oldest known use of the blockchain technology. Someone, a long time ago (in technology terms), decided to create a coin called a “Bitcoin” using blockchain and started trading it with other people. This was quickly picked up by all types of criminal and illegal activity providers as a way to exchange money without having to go through a bank. Fast forward a few years and everyone and their mother wants to own one because they saw it on TV.
Crypto-currencies or e-coins
The best (and worst) thing about blockchain technology is that its FREE, which means anyone can create a coin out of thin air, name it whatever they like, and start using it to trade with other people. It quite literally takes less than 24hrs to do so for someone with mediocre tech skills. The only difficult part is convincing suckers, err sorry, I mean lovely people, that the coin you created is worth something. This simple fact has led thousands of scam artists throughout the world to create their own coins and sell them to unsuspecting retirees and “I wanna get rich quick” targets.
You may have heard there is a limit to the number of Bitcoins that can be created and therefore the supply is limited, which is in turn is used as a justification for its price. For a number of technical reasons this is true, however, there is absolutely no limit to the number of crypto-currencies that can be created. Have you heard of Bitcoin Cash? How about Bitcoin Gold? Bitcoin Silver? Ethereum? Litecoin? There is an even a Dogecoin, as in Doge-coin. Yes I am NOT kidding, Google it. It was created as a joke and it now has a 700 million dollar market cap. Yup, they all exist, 1,365 different coins as of last count, and thousands more will be created as long as people are willing to throw real money at them. So much for the “you can’t make more of it!” argument.
Intrinsic Value vs. Market Value
How is it possible that something so easily created and with nothing to it other than a name and a story can be worth so much money? It all comes down to the difference between intrinsic and market value.
Market value is simply determined by the difference between supply and demand. If the demand exceeds supply at any point in time then the price will go up and vice versa. You can easily observe this in the “wild” each Christmas. A few years ago it was the PlayStation 4 that was bought up by “investors” and re-sold at ridiculous premiums to desperate guilt-riddled parents wanting to make up for not being around all that much. The PS4’s sticker price was $500 but on eBay they were selling for well over $2,000. The demand for PS4’s far exceeded supply during that Christmas season time period.
Fast forward to 2017 and PS4’s are on sale for $299.
Has the PS4 changed since that $2,000 Christmas? Does it provide 10 times less value to its owners now than it did back then? Is it no longer able to play games or access Netflix? Does it have fewer games and less accessories? The answer is of course a big fat NO. So why is it so much cheaper? It’s because fewer people are competing to buy a far larger supply of PS4’s on the market. The PS4’s market value has changed drastically but it’s intrinsic value has moved very little.
Gasoline has intrinsic value because you can burn it to move your car. In turn your car has intrinsic value because it can move you from place to place. Your stock holdings have intrinsic value because they are expected to eventually pay you dividends. Your home has intrinsic value because you can sleep in it and it can keep you warm and dry. Your dollars have intrinsic value because the government guarantees you can pay taxes and buy government services with them.
The intrinsic value of anything is simply the tangible value it provides and may or may not equal the market value at any one time. A good way to think about intrinsic value is as a floor to the value of any object. If the market value falls below that floor, enough people will simply choose to use the object rather than sell it, since they get more value out of keeping it. This in turns reduces supply and increases price back up to intrinsic value.
If there is a sudden interest in a product, market value often goes far above the intrinsic value, and then settles back down once the hype dies down. Thus financial bubbles of all kinds are born.
In some cases calculating intrinsic value is fairly easy (bonds, loans, mortgages, investment real estate) and in other cases it’s much harder (new technologies, your own home, time spent with family).
The good news is that calculating the intrinsic value of Bitcoin is extremely easy!
Let me get my calculator out…. Drum roll please…… It’s exactly….. $0!
It’s essentially the same thing as printing your own fraud-proof monopoly money. Should people stop wanting to buy your monopoly money, the only intrinsic value it will have is a certain bathroom function, which is still more than you can do with an e-coin.
Coins vs tech
Normally investors disagree on the intrinsic value of something and bring up arguments such future potential of a technology to justify various valuation. However, remember, Bitcoin is NOT a technology, it is an electronic piece of paper with transactions listed on it. Just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s in a bunch of computers backed by absolutely nothing. Block-chain itself is a very valuable technology freely available to anyone, however, you are NOT buying blockchain when you buy Bitcoin, you own none of the tech behind it.
To illustrate imagine that someone had found a cure for cancer and posted the step-by-step instructions on how to make it on-line, freely available for anyone to use. Now imagine that the same person also created a product called Cancer-Pill using their own instructions, trade marked it, and started selling it to the highest bidders. I think we can all agree a cure for cancer is immensely valuable to society (blockchain may or may not be, we still have to see), however, how much is a Cancer-Pill worth?
Initially, with no one else making cancer curing pills, and people hearing about the trade-marked name, it’s very likely the profits would be quite large and the price of the pill ridiculously high. However, as the money flows in, another person would without a doubt create a pill using the same freely available instructions and call it Cancer-Away. Cancer-away may not initially be as recognizable as Cancer-pill, so it might fetch a smaller price, but eventually both prices would converge as they are essentially the same thing. Over time, with more and more cancer curing pills with different names arriving on the market, the price of all of them would converge to something very close to the cost of production (ie. materials + time to make it). I think we can all agree this is a good thing, as it means the maximum number of people will be able to cure their cancer at the lowest possible price.
How does this apply to Bitcoin? Well, Bitcoin is simply the initial Cancer-Pill, but as mentioned above there are now 1,365 different “pills” in production and counting. While creating a cancer pill, even with step-by-step instructions, would require some materials, equipment and incur some costs, the production of a random generic e-coin costs pretty damn close to $0. All you need is a website and some hype.
The bottom line is that while a cancer pill is very valuable, it would not be a good investment to buy up the pills for far above the cost of making them, if the formula for making them is freely available to anyone. Similarly buying Bitcoin, or any other e-coin, is a bad investment even if you truly believe block-chain technology will change the world.
It’s amazing to see all these coins get created and their “inventors” claiming theirs is for some reason a slightly better version of blockchain, and then selling you the damned coin instead of the supposedly superior tech! Next time you see one of these guys on TV notice how deftly they switch between the term “coin” and “blockchain” creating an illusion that it’s all the same thing. Believe me these people know exactly what they are doing.
So is it all just a giant pile of poop?
No, not at all, the technology used in creating Bitcoin is great. However, at this time, I’m not aware of anyone offering a good practical use for it. The problem with the current crop of e-coins and blockchain applications is easy to illustrate.
Imagine for a second a world where only Bitcoin exists and you are going to buy some milk. What would be the price printed on that milk carton?
1 BTC? Or 1.5 BTC Or 2 BTC?
Aside from the fact that, at current prices, this would be some seriously expensive milk, the answer is that no price could be printed. That’s because if a price was printed, a poor grocery employee would have to sit there with an eraser and pencil, and every minute or so change the price. And then by the time you got to the cash register, the price would have changed again.
The point is that a real currencies primary “intrinsic” value is as a medium of exchange or a measuring stick for value. If a centimeter or inch on a measuring tape was constantly changing in physical size, it would not be particularly useful to ask for a 6 inch sub. It might end up being the size of an airplane.
The thing that makes crypto-currencies such a speculative craze right now, their stratospheric increases in value, is also the reason the current crop will likely fail in their intended use as currencies. However, out of the ashes of that, it’s likely that a new use of blockchain will emerge. The decentralized fraud proof ledger might be used to keep track of balances in another exotic currency called the Canadian or US dollar or Euro.
On that note, if you still want to invest in e-coins, I would like to invite you to buy my brand new UB coin for only $1 per coin. I don’t have blockchain up yet, but I’ll keep track of all your purchases in my Excel, and the second I hit 2K I’ll spend the the 2 days to get the blockchain up and running. It’s your opportunity to get in on the ground floor before it’s worth $10,000 per coin!
Ahhh, sometimes I wish I had looser morals….
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It’s amusing that you recognize blockchain is a remarkable technology but deny a use case for it. The blockchain is the use case. Up until now extraordinary effort is made to maintain property right ownership, all of it requiring a trusted entity. Some governments or entities do it better than others but none are efficient. For the 1st time it is conceivable that a solution has been found that could scale worldwide without needing the bureaucratic oversite required to regulate traditional entities. Bitcoin is self regulating. There will be a winner and the winner will beat current incumbents unable to scale worldwide. The only speculation is which one wins.
Thanks for the comment.
To be clear, I am not at all denying any use case for blockchain. I am uncertain what exactly it will look like, and whether it will actually be as big of a shake-up as many think, but I do see great potential. However, even assuming best case scenario, and a multi-national block-chain based currency becoming the standard payment method, none of that means the tokens for that currency will go up in price and make billionaires out of those holding them. In my opinion the appreciation in price of a token is a bug, rather than a feature, to be solved by anyone seriously wanting to create a “world currency”. Right now no one cares to do so because everyone is getting rich out of issuing tokens, so why bother doing something useful? It will take a major shake-up to change that mentality.
The use case is to be the currency itself, not a payment /settlement method. The requirements for that are a secure network and a widely held belief that there’s value in said currency. A bit of a circular argument but a self fulfilling prophecy once it’s off the ground (which it is). It’s very similar to (investment) gold in this case, another asset with zero intrinsic value but very popular with hoarders including all central banks. Of course most coins/tokens will end up worth zero, this is a winner takes all market.
When I read this post I thought I was reading something that I wrote myself lol! I agree with everything you said. I like you am a CFA charterholder and I’m about as old as you too. I remember the dot com mania of 1999 – 2000 and this bitcoin mania is so similar. When you have everyday folks who normally don’t “invest” in anything (aside from perhaps mutual funds) and are now getting involved in crypto you know that the dumb money has arrived late to the party and the days are numbered….but it’s always tough to time the exact peak. And just like with the dot com craze and even with the subprime bubble it looks like once again the skeptics like Dimon are early and are being made to look like fools at the moment. And now Dimon is recanting somewhat lol. Always tough to time the top of a mania and if you go short early you can get wiped out as bears did in 1999. Perhaps bitcoin has already made its peak and it’s just chopping around before the next downleg….will only know in hindsight. If it cracks below 10K that to me would signal the jig is up.
In an economy, a currencies primary function is as a medium of exchange, not a store of value. It is also used as a MEASURE of value. No one in their right mind, outside of illegal activity, holds a large percentage of their wealth in cash. This is by design, as the money needs to be fed back into the economy to keep it functioning.
As mediums of exchange and measures of value, all the so called crypto “currencies” fail because no one uses them to actually transact, and they are far too volatile to measure anything. The recent increases in value will make the hoarding worse of course, further distancing the currencies from their original intent.
As an investment, well, they generate absolutely nothing and give you ownership of nothing.
I see we’ve got the same outlook on this thing, perhaps due to having lived through a similar mania in our past. Dimon’s statement is not a recant as the crypto crowd would like to believe. They seems to miss the whole “coin vs. tech” part of my post, it just goes right over their head. It’s possible, and I would argue correct, to believe blockchain is an amazingly powerful idea/tech, while at the same time believing the coins are completely worthless. I believe that’s where all the wall street guys are at, including Dimon, and they’ve always been there.
Having said that, I never said it’s not possible to make money on this, you can definitely trade this thing, it’s just not an investment.
I lived through the 1999 mania as well, and the current environment in crypto world is very similar indeed. 99% of the high flying alt coins will go to zero.
However, don’t dismiss bitcoin as an asset, an investable one. Not as a currency, but as digital gold. With very similar properties to gold, including no cash flows, in fact negative carry, and zero to negative correlation with other assets, which makes it useful as a portfolio component, as it increases its sharpe ratio. It’s a long shot to reach universal acceptance as such, but at more than an order of magnitude lower valuation than total gold in the world it may be worth it. (and if enough people think it may be worth it, it will)
I love the article! Just have one comment to one of the last paragraphs. You mention there that maybe some time in the future blockchain will be used for real currencies – well, I’m glad to inform, that the future is already now :). The company called Billon (www.billongroup.com) has been doing it already for a while. Let me know if you’d like to find out more.
Bardzo interesujace Michal! I haven’t had a chance to read through this in detail but the idea seems solid. My main concerns would be around regulations, but since it doesn’t seem like you are issuing any coins, just encrypting existing balances, it might be easier to deal with.
Nice Polish ;). Fair concern and I’m happy to report, that we are a regulated entity in the UK (https://billon.live/uk/billon-financial/) and undergoing similar process in Poland 🙂
“The point is that a real currencies primary “intrinsic” value is as a medium of exchange or a measuring stick for value.”
Currencies have very little intrinsic value, almost none,because they are rectangular pieces of paper with printing on them just as a crypto currency to the best of my knowledge is a collection of coded computer instructions.What gives a currency value?One factor it seems to me is people’s trust in it as a means of exchange. A government’s acceptance of a currency can facilitate people’s trust in a currency. A government or country’s instability can cause people to become suspicious of a currency’s value as a means of exchange, its value drops and inflation results e.g. Venezuela
Governments can intervene in the supply of money and its relative scarcity can be manipulated, which cannot be done with a crypto currency to anywhere near the same extent.
Bitcoin will not become a global currency, because governments and people without bitcoin will not agree to do so, will not agree to make those currently holding each single bitcoin a billionaire per bitcoin and those currently without any bitcoin will not agree to be paupers.
There may be a future digital currency, but it won’t be the current bitcoin product. It would have to be a 1 for 1 current currency replacement.
Of course we all wish that we had mined a number of bitcoin in the past so that we could sell them today to the credulous, that is only natural.
Can I be your advisor on UB coin ICO? Found a typo towards the end, “I’ll spend the the 2 days”, I think you meant to say “the next”, see I am adding value already, all for 300 BTC worth of UB Coin, I hope. Ahhh, sometimes I wish I had looser morals….)))
You thinking is very clear. I am looking forward to continued entertainment with Bitcoin etc mania. However …..Monopoly money does have an intrinsic value. It seems to be about 2 quid for a big wedge at the moment. (Google shopping search). Whether that comes from being able to cheat in the board game or use in the bathroom is unclear!
It is therefore not really fair to equate the intrinsically honest Monopoly Money with Bitcoin. As Bitcoin is worth Zero that means Monopoly Money is infinitely valuable in comparison.
Disclaimer – I have no connection with the makers of or any investments in Monopoly Money.
Seems to me one of the points not made here, and one of the reasons for the Crypto craze is that people have lost faith in the established financial institutions. I have no doubt that the financial institutions will give us another melt down, and like last time they won’t be the losers we will.
Wish more people would read this, but not sure if minds would be changed even if they did. Numbers and chart lines seem to have more influence than common sense unfortunately. People can’t seem to separate the idea of blockchain and bitcoin. Buying an iphone does not grant me a share of Apple’s future success. In the same sense, buying a string of numbers over the internet does not give me a share in the success of blockchain technology. Possibly the way crypto is presented (charts, numbers, trades) conjures up impressions of the share market, where people can buy into part ownership of companies that do generate value, creating a bit of an illusion that crypto is the same. It is really just a product!
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies can best be described as potential currencies,they are not widely accepted today as a medium of exchange. And they have significant limitations holding them back from developing into full-fledged currencies.
Currency is basically a medium of exchange and not a store of value.No one holds a large percentage of their wealth in cash as the money needs to be fed back into the economy to keep it functioning. Crypto currencies fail because no one uses them to actually transact and they are far too volatile to measure anything. The recent increases in value will make the hoarding worse of course, further distancing the currencies from their original intent.