As a Bitcoin columnist, I get this question a lot. Today, an answer was requested at Quora.com, where I am the lead contributor on cryptocurrencies:
“Clearly, some people value Bitcoin. But How can this be? There is nothing there to give it value!”
Many individuals, like the one who asked this question, suspect that Bitcoin was pulled out of thin air—and that it is not backed by gold, a government, or an authoritative redemption guaranty. After all, it is just open source code. What stops me from creating an ElleryCoin using the same code?!
Let’s start with the short answer:
Indeed, it was pulled out thin air
It isn’t backed by an asset, government or promise
You could easily clone Bitcoin (the entire mining ecosystem) and distribute it yourself. It would be exactly like Bitcoin. Yet, Bitcoin is clearly valued by everyone, and your new coin is unlikely to generate interest or adoption.
A More Complete Answer:What is value?
Bitcoin has more intrinsic value than a government printed paper bill. The value arises from a combiation of fundamental properties:
It has a capped supply
It is widely recognized, liquid, and resistant to legislation
It has attained the robust supply-demand of a growing, 2-sided network.
It is open and transparent. This elevates user trust
Unlike cash and credit, Bitcoin requires no back-end settlement. That’s because it is not a payment instrument. Rather it is money itself.
Finally, it’s value is likely to be durable, because it is not printed by a country that has racked up debt. In fact, it can never be inflated.
Downside and Risks
But wait! What about the long transaction delay and high cost? There are sharp disagreements anong miners, users and developers concerning block size, transaction malleability, and replay issues. Aren’t these a deal killers? And what about wild volatility in the exchange rate? Doesn’t this retard adoption as a functional currency?
These are transient issues associated with a new technology. Although Bitcoin is weathering growth pains that arise from a new and distributed governance technology (democracy can be messy!), all of these issues have sound solutions. We have already witnessed and tested the solyutions with various forked coins. Think of them as beta tests. Even if current problems delay the day when you can spend bitcoin at every retail establishment—it is already sucking liquidity from national currencies and becoming the world’s de facto reserve currency.
Many individuals find all of this hard to accept. That is because we have been conditioned to think that ‘value’ arises from assets with ‘intrinsic’ value, the promise of redemption, or by edict. This is not true. In all things, (including gold, a Picasso painting, or your labor) value arises from simple supply and demand.
Some individuals claim that all other factors are secondary. But, even this statement is false. All other factors are irrelevant. They may be related, but they are not the source of value.
I recognize that this answer may seem smug or definitive. So, allow me to suggest related questions with answers that are a bit more interesting, because they are subtle. Unlike the question of value, these two questions are open to analysis and opinion: (1) “Will people continue to value bitcoin in the future?” — And (2) “When will Bitcoin stop swinging wildly in value?” (measured by its exchange rate with other currencies).
Bitcoin has many characteristics of a currency. It is portable, fungible, divisible, resistant to forgery, and it clearly has value. Today, that value came close to $20,000 per coin. Whether it has ‘intrinsic value’ is somewhat of a moot question, because the US dollar hasn’t exhibited this trait since 1972. Today, economists don’t even recognize the intrinsic value of gold—beyond a robust, international, supply-demand network.
Lately, Bitcoin is failing as a viable currency, at least for everyday consumer transactions. The settlement of each transaction is bogged down with long delays and a very high cost. The situation has become critical because of squabbling between miners, users and developers over how to offer speed transactions or lower the cost of settlement. Bitcoin forks and altcoins such as Dash and Bitcoin Cash demonstrate that these technical issues have solutions. Since Bitcoin is adaptable, I believe that these issues are temporary.
But an interesting question is not whether Bitcoin will eventually become a consumer currency. it is whether Bitcoin can distinguish itself as a store of value, rather than just an instrument for payment or debt settlement. After all, a Visa credit card, a traveler’s check and an Amazon gift card can all be used in retail payments, but none of them have value unless backed by someone or something. US Dollars on the other hand are perceived as inherently valuable. They carry the clout and gravitas of institutions and populations, without users questioning from where value arises. (This is changing, but bear with me)…
What about Bitcoin? Does owning some bitcoin represent a store of value? Yes: It absolutely does!
Bitcoin is a rapidly maturing two-sided network. Despite a meteoric rise in exchange value and wild fluctuations during the ride, it is the epitome of a stored value commodity. Regardless of government regulation, adoption as a consumer payment instrument, or the cost and speed of transactions, it has demonstrated stored value since May 22 2010, when Laszlo, a Bitcoin code developer, persuaded a restaurant to accept 10,000 BTC for 2 pizzas.
The “currency” accepted by the pizza parlor wasn’t a gift card. It was not backed by a government, a prior deposit, dollars, gold, the promise of redemption, or by threat of force or blackmail. When a large community of individuals value, exchange, and can easily authenticate something that has none of those underpinnings, that thing clearly has stored value.
In this case, value arises from its scarcity and a robust supply-demand-network. Because its value is not tied to a government or to other commodities, its exchange rate with other things will be bumpy, at first. But as it is recognized, traded and adopted as a stored value token, the wild spikes will smooth out.
when some vendors begin to quote prices in Bitcoin (rather than national currency)
when some of these vendors retain a fraction of their bitcoin-revenue for future purchases, payments or debt settlements—rather than converting revenue to fiat/national currency with each sale
Bitcoin is clearly a store of value, and it is beginning to displace gold and the US dollar as the recognized reserve currency (it is gradually becoming the new gold standard). But before Bitcoin can serve as a widely adopted everyday currency (i.e. as a payment instrument—with or without the stored value of a currency unto itself), it must first incorporate technical improvements that speed transactions and lower cost.
This is taking longer than many enthusiasts would have liked. But, that’s OK with anyone who keeps their eye on the big picture. Democracy is sometimes very sloppy.
On August 1 2017, the value of a Bitcoin was at $2,750 US dollars. Today, just over one month later, it is poised to leap past $5,000 per unit. With this gain, many people are asking if Bitcoin has any genuine, inherent value. Is it a pyramid scheme? —Or is it simply a house of cards ready to collapse when the wind picks up?
In a past article, I explained that Bitcoin fundamentals ought to place its value in the vicinity of $10,000.* (At the time, it was less than $450, and had even fallen to $220 in the following year).
For many consumers viewing the rising interest in Bitcoin from the stands, there is great mystery surrounding the underlying value. What, if anything, stands behind it? This is a question with a clear and concise answer. In fact, it has a very definitive and believable answer—but it is easiest to understand with just a little bit of historical perspective.
At one time, G7 fiat currencies were backed by a reserve of physical Gold or the pooling or cross-ownership of other currencies that are backed by gold. That ended in 1971 when the Bretton Woods agreement was dissolved by president Richard Nixon in Ithaca NY.
Today, US currency is backed by “The good faith and credit of the American worker” (This is the government explanation of intrinsic value). But in truth its future value is loosely tied to one simple question: Does the typical vendor or consumer (for example, someone accepting a $20 bill in exchange for a movie ticket or 2 large pizzas) expect it to buy these same things in the next few months?
A considerable number of speculative components contribute to the answer. For example:
What About the Big Picture? DEBT! Everyone knows that a house built on debt cannot thrive forever without a continuous stream of productivity and income. Is the money being printed without a commensurate added value to the nation’s capacity to repay debts?
Public Trust: Good faith goes beyond debt. Can consumers and creditors be certain that a change of government won’t cause rampant inflation or a willful failure to retire future debt? Can they be assured that their fellow workers will continue to produce and export manufactured goods in ever increasing quantity?
Guns & Tanks: Citizens are compelled by law to pay their taxes in official state currency. Even for those who attempt to fly under the wire or use alternate currencies during the tax year, this ultimately forces fiat currency to be recognized and honored.
Geopolitical Stability: We have been a debtor nation for decades and we have significant political and economic disputes with our largest creditors (China and nations of oil-rich gulf states). What would be the effect of them (a) moving away from the dollar as their reserve currency, or (b) investing the trillions of dollars they have earned in some other country?
This list is not exhaustive, but all constituents boil down to two fundamental concepts: Supply-and-demand and How long will demand last?
The dollar is an invention of a transient government. Even with a long history and complex banking framework, it is no more real than Bitcoin. Supply and demand for any commodity is based on popular recognition, anti-counterfeit features, innate desire and public goodwill. The real question is what contributes to the desire to own or spend Bitcoin?
The answer is that Bitcoin is backed by something far more reliable and trustworthy than the transient whim of elected legislators. It is backed by something that carries more weight than the US government. What could possibly guaranty the value of a Bitcoin? After all, it does not convey ownership in gold, and it has no redemption guarantee. There is no engraving of Caesar on the coin. (In fact, there is no coin at all!)…
Answer: Bitcoin is backed by math, a firm cap, a completely transparent set of books, and the critical mass of a two-sided network. Although it can be taxed (like any asset), it can be owned and transferred with impunity and without recourse. These may not seem like critical components of intrinsic value, but they are. In fact, they define intrinsic value in the modern era.
For most of us, figuring out the value of something that we want, comes from research. If you want a new set of wine glasses, you check the price online. Perhaps you consult a catalog. If the set of 8 stemware goblets that you like are a current model from a major company, there are probably many places to buy them. If there are multiple Ebay sellers and many recently completed sales, then you can establish the value with precision.
I’ve written a lot of Bitcoin articles on this Lifeboat Blog and elsewhere, so, let’s dig a bit deeper this time. Let’s talk about from where value really comes.
Supply and Demand
In the end, an item’s value is a direct result of supply and demand. It’s no different with a currency. And let’s be clear: Despite a raging debate, Bitcoin is a currency and not just a payment instrument. How can I be certain? Try this mental exercise—
Western Union money orders and Amazon Gift cards are each trusted monetary instruments. They facilitate cash transactions. But are they currencies with inherent value? If so, there would be no need to denominate them in units of fiat currency.
A money order is only worth something before it is redeemed. The gift card is only worth $500 when it is purchased or received as a gift. As the $500 is depleted, it becomes worthless. Eventually, it is just a piece of plastic. But like a dollar bill, a bitcoin can be circulated over and over. You may believe that its value comes from the government, but more realistically, its value arises from brand recognition and from pure supply and demand—not from a trusted redemption authority.
Bitcoin isn’t the first ethereal stash of bits with value. But it is more durable than others. The latest Pixar film on DVD or On Demand from your cable service provider has value. But piracy reduces the value dramatically. The supply is no longer scarce (no matter the demand) because of the ease and willingness to replicate digital files in any quantity. A Picasso painting is very rare, but it is so scarce, that we cannot gather enough data points to establish a stable value. Even worse, it’s not portable, divisible or fungible and it is nearly impossible to validate in the hands of the average person.
But, commodities like iPhones, Doritos tortilla chips—or even non-branded things, like Idaho potatoes, have a large and fluid market. These things have very measurable value and we can track the change in value over time.
People like to think that money is different than other commodities. In practice, it differs only by its handling characteristics: Compared to a Picaso painting or a new iPhone 6, currency has these properties. It is:
resistant to forgery
backed by something tangible
Bitcoin has all of these characteristics. In fact, it surpasses your national currency in every way. But many people are confused about that last niggling detail… Aristotle called it “intrinsic value”. They worry that there is no gold—or at least the promise of a stable government—to establish and stand behind the value of a bitcoin unit (BTC). The concern is understandable, but it is wrong.
Recall that value arises through supply and demand and not simply because of authority or promises. The real question is “Can we trust that the supply is limited and that the demand is durable?”. That is, will my coin be recognized, coveted and honored in the future?
The Case Against Bitcoin as a Currency
Here are some frightening facts (frightening for some cryptocurrency enthusiasts and early adopters): Bitcoin is manufactured out of thin air. It lacks the underpinnings of a traditional currency. Referring to that last item on Arisotle’s list above, Bitcoin seems to fail the test of intrinsic value, because it lacks at least one of these properties:
A fractional reserve requirement
An edict to remit taxes in Bitcoin
A promise of a trusted authority
Any claim of pegging it to the value to some essential commodity (intrinsic value)
Bitcoin doesn’t even offer a perception of uniqueness. The formula is open for anyone to copy. You could create a competing ‘Bob-coin’ tomorrow.
In the absence of at least one of these things, detractors claim that Bitcoin lacks a foundation—and so it is effectively worthless. But value does not come only from authority. It comes from trust and is goverend by supply and demand.
In fact, math may be a more trusted ‘authority’ than the directors of your national treasury and reserve board. Supply and demand leads to more tangible value than bankers, especially if the math leads you to believe that the demand will continue to outpace the supply. In fact, this is the primary reason that you are comfortable with a $20 bill in your pocket. You have a pretty good idea, that next week, it will still buy 2 movie tickets or 2 pizzas.
Bitcoin has achieved a “two-sided network effect” (Google the term and the economist “Marshall Van Alstyne”). It has captured the public imagination more than Picasso. It cannot be manufactured. With a reasonable understanding of wallets, it cannot be seized, stolen or lost.
The ability to mine new bitcoins is capped with a total supply of 21 million units, and so there is no opportunity for governments to inflate it through mismanagement of taxation or spending. They cannot even inflate it with good intent (for example, when they need to repair a bridge or provide for the poor). Instead, the ability to pay for these services (and all other government functions) forces them to live within a balanced budget. Spending cannot outpace the revenue generated by taxes and bonds. In a Bitcoin economy, the bonds will more likely be paid back by user fees rather than the future debt of unborn generations.* You get the point: Because governments no longer control the printing press, they cannot make hollow promises and then kick the problem into the next administration. With a limited money supply that everyone recognizes as money, governments are forced to live within their means.
What About Uniqueness?
The last item in the list above decries Bitcoin’s lack of uniqueness. You cannot mint your own bitcoins of course—but you can create an equivalent bitcoin ecosystem yourself. If your name is Bob, you can call it Bobcoin. Many countries and organizations are already doing this.
This is really no different than the US Dollar or your own national currency. The government note is difficult to counterfeit, but so is your own signature when placed on a fancy printed currency (Let’s call it a Bob-Buck). The problem is that the dollar is widely recognized, trusted and accepted, but few people other than your kids are collecting Bob Bucks.
You would face the challenge of spurring adoption. Whether it’s Bob Bucks (paper) or Bobcoin (cryptocurrency), how will you get the world to covet, mine and trade your new currency? That’s the point of a two-sided network. It becomes increasingly more difficult after one method rises to the top—especially if that method is open, transparent and extensible. Bitcoin is open. It is subject to worldwide scrutiny. But this works both ways. Bitcoin can also add incremental improvements that are part of any pretender to the throne.
Bitcoin is not just a transient coin-du-jour. It evolves and so it will not die.
How Can the Value be Measured?
I get this question a lot, and so I am adding the answer here. There is no need to measure the value of Bitcoin or define debt. Its value floats with supply and demand like a true world currency. Because the supply growth is capped and well understood, it is resistant to manipulation. As time goes by, it becomes far less likely to exhibit wild swings in value.
A few years from now, if Bitcoin spikes or tanks by 10% in a short time, you will be more likely to wonder “What is affecting the dollar?” (or Euro), rather than “What is affecting Bitcoin”. Consumers will budget for the cost of a new car or refrigerator in BTC rather than dollars or Euros. You will even see catalogs that print prices in BTC and honor them for the life of the catalog or online sale. After all, in an international market, it makes sense to quote a price in units with no geopolitical boundaries, just as we quote time in UTC (formerly called GMT).
Are these predictions crazy? They are not even bold. For us, here at Lifeboat Foundation, they are rather obvious. If we can be accused of dreaming, it is because we are ahead of the game. Look ahead, yourself. The signs are clear…
If Bitcoin has Value, What is the Value?
As Bitcoin adoption moves past enthusiasts and early adopters, the capped supply of coins (21 million, max) will be spread thinner and thinner. This doesn’t play out like a classic shortage, because unlike a supply squeeze on food or medicine, you can work with a smaller piece of the pie each year. The piece needed to pay for a car or an iPhone simply gets smaller as the unit price floats higher and higher.
Last year, I set up an equation to predict how high Bitcoin will float in 5 or 10 years. It involved a lot of WAGs (wild *ss guesses). Although I am a pundit, I am not a mathematician, and so the attempt was incomplete. No need to rehash that exercise.
As Hysteria Withers, Bold Becomes Mundane
Eventually consumers, banks, brokers, and governments will recognize that Bitcoin is a far greater opportunity than it is a threat. It pulls the world together by decoupling currency controls from national agenda, inflation, manipulation and loss (You can back up your Bitcoin. Try doing that with your paper money or a defunct bank).
Philip Raymond is CEO and Co-Chair of CRYPSA, The Cryptocurrency Standards Association.
_____________ * This is just one reason why an eventual transition to Bitcoin (as currency, and not just as a payment instrument) is in the national interest. It demonstrates to citizens that monetary policy is backed by more than growing debt, inflation or the promises of transient officials. It returns any government or economic entity to a non-inflationary, limited-supply pie. The pieces of pie can grow in value, but the pie cannot be watered down by printing more ingredients, counterfeit or even by enemy action.