Bitcoin has experienced an unprecedented explosion in value over the past eight years. Here Richard Meadows outlines just what it is, and why he doesn't believe the good times will last

Bitcoin has experienced an unprecedented explosion in value over the past eight years. Here Richard Meadows outlines just what it is, and why he doesn't believe the good times will last

By Richard Meadows* (This article was originally published on The Spinoff).

In the winter of 1928, Joe Kennedy stopped to get his wingtips buffed on his way to the office. After the shoeshine boy finished, he offered the businessman an unprompted stock tip. Kennedy mulled this encounter over, then sold off his entire portfolio, just in time to avoid the carnage of the Great Depression. 

Right now, the whispers on the street are all about bitcoin, along with the slew of similar ‘cryptocurrencies’ inspired by its tremendous success. Bitcoin is up 500% this year alone, minting new millionaires from those who have ridden the stratospheric boom.

When shoeshine boys are giving out stock tips, you know it’s probably time to get out of the market. With that in mind, let me present my candidates for the Four Horsemen of the Cryptocurrency Apocalypse:

  1. A claim that an Auckland high school is cracking down on kids using the school WiFi to access Bitcoin sites.
  2. Burger King launches its own version of bitcoin in Russia, called the WhopperCoin.

ACCORDING TO THE RUSSIAN COMMS GUY, ‘EATING WHOPPERS NOW IS A STRATEGY FOR FINANCIAL PROSPERITY TOMORROW’. I PROMISE I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.

  1. A pensioner looking to preserve her carefully saved nest egg asks me if she should transfer it all into cryptocurrencies, because she isn’t sure about the safety of the bank.
  2. Famously famous person Paris Hilton climbs aboard the #CryptoCurrency bandwagon, later deleting her tweets after the eyebrow-raising new coin is embroiled in controversy.

HILTON IS IN GOOD COMPANY: BOXER FLOYD MAYWEATHER AND RAPPER THE GAME HAVE ALSO USED THEIR CONSIDERABLE FINANCIAL ACUMEN TO PROMOTE VARIOUS CRYPTO SCHEMES THIS YEAR.

Could these be harbingers of the Judgment Day that is surely coming?

Amongst the crypto-fever afflicted, these sort of warnings hold about as much interest as a ragged bum on the street corner, proclaiming that the end of the world is nigh. Their gaze glides right on by, quickly returning to the transfixing zeroes and ones dancing before their eyes.

And fair enough, too. It’s hard to even comprehend the staggering return on investment earned by those who have ignored naysayers and held the faith. The first recorded purchase on the Bitcoin network, in 2010, involved the exchange of 10,000 bitcoins for a couple of pizzas. Today those coins are worth $84 million, which means that guy bought the most expensive pizza in the history of the universe (you have to hope he at least got stuffed crust).

Anonymous digital money has long been a tantalising idea for libertarians, but it wasn’t until the early noughties that decades of improvements in cryptography and computer science made it possible. In 2008, a paper authored by someone calling themselves Satoshi Nakamoto outlined a way to make the fantasy a reality – a purely digital currency that would let people privately send money to anyone in the world, that was completely decentralised, free from interference from governments and other third parties, and secured by ingenious collaborative cryptography. And so, Bitcoin was born.

To this day, no-one knows who Nakamoto is. The shadowy founder and Ayn Randian underpinnings didn’t exactly inspire confidence, and for a long time, bitcoin was mostly ignored as the nefarious plaything of hackers and drug dealers doing shady shit on the dark web.

CUE OBLIGATORY STOCK PHOTO OF A HACKER, AS IMAGINED BY AN OLDER GENTLEMAN WHO IS PROBABLY STILL LEARNING HOW TO ‘DO EMAILS’. CREDIT: 123RF

While the stereotype was geeky teenagers buying weed online, the real vision was much, much grander: To vastly reduce transaction costs, not just for rich tech-bros, but for the ‘unbanked’ poor and migrant workers currently charged rapacious remittance fees to send their meagre earnings home. To make credit card fraud a thing of the past. To create self-executing ‘smart contracts’ between total strangers, without meathead humans messing things up. To finally enable cost-effective micropayments for content producers and activists. To shrug off the vampiric layer of banks and financiers with their insatiable mouthpieces latched onto everything, as well as the fickle bureaucrats, central bankers and politicians who can change the value of your coloured pieces of paper at their will. An entirely new system of commerce, by the people, for the people.

If you’re wondering how you missed this techno-utopia springing up around you, well, it hasn’t really happened yet. Transaction volumes are pretty measly, and hardly anyone actually uses bitcoin to buy and sell stuff – they’re too busy hoarding them all. No-one wants to be the guy who accidentally buys a million dollar pizza.

New bitcoins are created roughly every 10 minutes, but the process is getting harder and harder, with the supply programmed to tap out by 2140. The spoils go to ‘miners’, who devote computer resources and electricity to running mathematical problems that check the validity of transactions and create new ‘blocks’ in the chain.

THIS IS WHAT A BITCOIN MINING RIG LOOKS LIKE. NO DWARVES OR PICK AXES INVOLVED.

What the miners are really doing is record-keeping on a scale never seen before: A giant public ledger, stored on millions of computers around the world. It contains every transaction in history, going right back to the very first ‘Genesis’ block, but the whole file could still fit on your old iPod. Every time someone wants to transfer bitcoins, miners check the ledger to see if the sender actually has the money. Like an insect in amber, the successful transaction is preserved for time immemorial, coated in thicker and thicker layers of cryptography which make it increasingly difficult to hack.

The more people who participate in the system, the better for everyone involved. One way of describing this situation is a ‘positive feedback loop’. Another way of describing it is a ‘big fat bubble’.

Bitcoin has no intrinsic value whatsoever. It’s not pegged to any other currency or commodity. It doesn’t carry a guarantee or backing from anyone. It pays no dividends, and grows no wheat.

Instead, its value is whatever the market says it is. That makes it a purely speculative play, and highly volatile – it’s already been through a mini-bust in 2013. While the price has soared over the last year, it hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride:

The only way anyone buying bitcoin can make money is by hoping someone else will pay even more for it tomorrow.

This is concerning, because the hoarders have a massive vested interest in luring in greater and greater fools to keep the bubble from bursting. There are no scruples in Crypto-land, which is infamous for outlandish claims – my personal favourite being bitcoin advocate John McAfee’s promise to “eat his own dick on national television” if the price doesn’t reach $US500,000 within three years.

The more glaring problem is the legion of Bitcoin copycats and alternative coins, which already number over 900 and counting. Jordan Belfort, better known as The Wolf of Wall Street, has described these initial coin offerings (ICOs) as “the biggest scam ever” and “far worse than anything I was ever doing”. When the voice of reason is a fraudster who used to fall asleep on piles of cocaine big enough to use as a pillow, something is probably wrong.

Companies have realised they can raise vast sums of money by conjuring a new currency out of thin air, then selling it to unsophisticated investors who froth their tits over anything vaguely related to crypto. The valuations are out of this world – companies crossing the billion-dollar mark with a handful of staff, and products that don’t even exist yet. While some of these businesses are doing genuinely interesting things, plenty are blatant ‘pump-and-dump’ schemes. ICOs are usually conducted without jumping through the normal regulatory hoops, which has led to predictably farcical situations.

We live in a world where Dogecoin, a deliberately satirical coin based on a meme, was not long ago valued at US$400m. That’s not even close to plumbing the depths of the people playin silly buggers. For sheer brazenness, it’s hard to look past Useless Coin, which billed itself as “the world’s first 100% honest Ethereum ICO. No value, no security, and no product. Just me, spending your money.” (Note that it still managed to take US$91,000 from investors).

This looks a lot like the dot-com boom all over again. In the late 90s, everyone lost their minds about this amazing new ‘world wide web’ thing. Investors tossed money hand over fist into buying any stocks with a cool-sounding name, ignoring the boring old financial metrics of days gone by. This exuberance became a self-fulfilling prophecy which worked brilliantly as an investment strategy – right up until it didn’t.

The Internet was such a wildly exciting and transformative technology that everyone decided the usual rules didn’t apply. In 2017, blockchain and crypto hawks are making the exact same claim. Predicting the future is a dangerous business, but let’s note that every bubble spanning the last eight centuries has been ramped up by people insisting that ‘this time is different’. Every single time, they’ve been wrong.

At some point, the grown-ups are going to take the punch bowl away. There’s no way any of these outrageous claims and non-disclosures would fly, if it weren’t for crypto floating in a weird sort of grey area between geographies and existing securities laws. Regulators haven’t figured out how to handle it yet, but they’re definitely taking a keen interest.

Last week the Financial Markets Authority laid out its compliance expectations for any NZ-based ICOs, and posted some general words of caution for investors. In the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has warned that some ICOs may be classified as securities, and therefore subject to regulation, and also taken action against the most obviously fraudulent schemes. China and South Korea have banned ICOs altogether, and it’s possible that Japan will follow suit.

The longer the world’s regulators sit on their hands, the higher the potential body count grows. While this is going to cause a lot of hurt for a lot of people, the boom and (impending) bust of the ICO bubble is sort of a good thing. The speculative period during the early adoption period of new technologies helps attract a flood of capital, with at least some of the profits reinvested in the platform. Greed is the perfect vector for raising awareness, with a wave of FOMO rippling through society until even your grandma is sending you texts about the price of Ether.

The dot-com boom was one of the biggest bubbles in history, but that didn’t mean the web was not, in fact, a huge deal. Today’s titans of industry – Google, Facebook, Amazon, The Spinoff – are mostly digital companies, and we couldn’t imagine life without the Internet. The hype was real, but there had to be a big painful consolidation before we could unlock the real potential.

The same is true of crypto. The financial system is long overdue for an overhaul, and people are right to be excited about that. It wouldn’t be surprising if some application of blockchain technology became as ubiquitous as the personal computer and the Internet, both of which were originally pooh-poohed by sneering critics who failed to see the writing on the wall.

Right now, the froth and the fury is all-consuming. Eventually, the attention and money will refocus in more productive places – i.e, the actual use cases of the technology – but not before the unpleasant task of lancing the boil.

Perhaps, unlike tulip bulbs, canal mania, railways, the roaring 20s, penny stocks, the US housing bubble, the dot-com boom, and every other sudden explosion of asset prices in history, this time really is different.

If so, I promise I’ll do the honorable thing: which is to say, tuck in a napkin, fetch the Tabasco sauce, and eat my own dick on national TV.


*Richard Meadows is a freelance financial journalist and blogger at The Deep Dish. This article first ran on The Spinoff here and is used with permission.

As this article is published here, the price of bitcoin is US$7,325 or NZ$ 10,642.

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20 Comments

if its not used very often to buy real things, then this is the ultimate perfect ponzy.
Its going to add to the crash. In fact it might even start the "real" crash.

When it crashes only then do we read about some rogue trader has disappeared leaving his red faced employer to front up to explain missing billions and declared insolvent!

Bitcoin is looked upon as a store of wealth like gold. There will be other crypto for every day purchases like buying a coffee. If I had used bitcoin 2 months ago to buy a $5 coffee that coffee really cost me $10 at todays value due to bitcoin doubling. If bitcoin it went down hey I got myself a cheap coffee.

Bitcoin: Currency of choice for drug dealers, tax avoiders, money launderers, and arm's dealers.

And political dissidents.

Gee and I thought they preferred cash deposits with HSBC.

No, That's the USD

It was, not so much now. 125 billion dollar capitalisation for bitcoin alone so some big money being invested.

A few funny home truths about bitcoin from Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer
Bloomberg article: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2017-10-13/dimon-stupid-bitcoin-in...

I like other share the negativity and skepticism around this technology.

But man I wish I bought some, i've been checking the price for a month or two now and seen the price go from US$2000 odd to US$7000 odd.

What if us naysayers are the ones holding onto our seashells thinking they are legit currency whilst that foreign merchant is using that silly shiny gold stuff.

If I could put a small portion of my kiwisaver towards some bitcoin I would. In fact one could make the claim that not having at least a small exposure could be an irresponsible investment strategy.

Fair enough. But taking part in a ponzy with the aim of passing on the poisoned chalice to some sucker just prior to the crash is not something my conscience would allow.
I for example did not put money into South Canterbury Finance when it became govt guaranteed. And I am so glad that I did not given that the money was essentially thrown away and the duped stupid govt effectively had to stump up with the principal and interest.
I like the outcome of the Ross Asset mismanagement ponzy where those who got out early and who thought that they had got away scott free, have not.

Nothing wrong with the concept, but it's hard to see Government's allowing themselves to be sidelined in the business of money creation/control. Besides, it has not achieved anything like enough widespread usage for everyday transactions. Looks super bubbly to me.

Interesting visualisation;
http://money.visualcapitalist.com/worlds-money-markets-one-visualization...

What if this time its the same as when the gold standard was removed? Gold Prices - 100 Year Historical Chart

My adblock's on the blink, and everything i look at is coming with shady ads about a taxi driver (various locations given, including Christchurch) being paid a fare in bitcoin and now he's a millionaire. If that's not a sign of bubblemania, I don't know what is.

There's a lot of ignorance around bitcoin and other cryptos. Even the articles here ignore the risks and the previous bubbles in bitcoin, dogecoin, etc. One thing that happens in bitcoin is that it goes through the "business cycle" at an accelerated rate. The previous big bubble in bitcoin was cause by an exchange run as a ponzi scheme, I'm waiting for the next big disappearance of bitcoin and cash.

Crypto currency is not only about the store of wealth and medium of exchange its also about the development of the blockchain technology that's behind it. At this stage of the game we are at the same level of the brick cell phone now look where we are today with cell phone technology. The future of block chain will allow smart contracts. A day will come when you buy a driverless car and if you default on payment, the car will reposes it's self and drive back to the owner under a smart contract. Crypto is peer to peer smart contracts using blockchain. Some will fly some will die and it's a roller coaster ride and not for the faint hearted but the technology is out the box. This is the next step of the Internet, building trust into the operating systems we have. It is a risk but my paper money is on it succeeding, image a world where I don"t know you but we can have trust to trade money, houses, cars, whatever without using banks, lawyers, dealers as third party because the trust is there in the blockchain.

It sounds great I can 51% attack the car blockchain and transfer ownership of all cars to myself. Trust is not something that is a part of cryptos or the blockchain. Misplaced faith would be more accurate.

Bitcoin mining now consumes 0.12% of world’s electricity supply. Rising by 5 kliowatts per second.
https://digiconomist.net/bitcoin-energy-consumption