Now, pretend you are in Davos sitting among the world’s financial elite. You face a panel made of renowned central bankers. You slowly raise your hand and ask the million dollar question: “Can anyone tell me what Bitcoin is?”. After a moment of stunned silence, the whole audience roars with laughter. As the laughter subsides, the “masters of the universe of debt”, will start the usual tirade: it´s a fraud (J.Dimon), don’t know …but it will end badly (W. Buffett), it´s only a speculative bubble (R. Dalio), it´s a Ponzi scheme, it´s backed up by nothing, it´s nothing at all… and so on.
So what is Bitcoin?
The Position of the Regulators
Here they go, “Bitcoin and similar virtual currencies are not a currency, and are not considered foreign currency and should be viewed as a financial asset”.
For the State of New York, Bitcoin is a “digital unit that is used as a medium of exchange or a form of digitally stored value“.
For the German BaFin it is a “unit of account” and therefore a “financial instrument”.
More comprehensive definitions have been attempted by the EBA in 2014 (European Banking Association) and the Banca d´Italia, which both define Bitcoin as “a digital representation of value that is neither issued by a central bank or public authority nor necessarily attached to a fiat currency, but is used by natural or legal persons as a means of exchange and can be transferred, stored or traded electronically”.
Quite to the contrary, the Bank of England and the English FCA have not taken a position yet. In fact, the FCA has gone as far as to state that it does not regulate digital currencies and has no intention of doing so.
Money and Currency in History
In history, there have been many forms of money, but just looking at modern times, one can identify essentially two forms of money: representative commodity money and fiat money. Throughout history gold and silver, as commodity money, have been the purest form of money. Because they have an intrinsic-use value and they cannot be debased. At the beginning of the 1900s, with the gold standard – commodity money became “representative commodity money” – which was fiat money backed up and redeemable for gold. Our current system instead is based solely on fiat money (from the Latin, fiat – let it be) – which has no intrinsic value and is irredeemable – and whose value is sanctioned by the government which makes it legal tender within a country. Money must have some essential properties, such as being (i) a medium of exchange, (ii) a unit of account and (iii) a store of value. Money must also be fungible, portable, durable and cognizable.
When a money circulates within an economic system and is accepted as a means of payment – through banknotes and coins – then it is also a currency (from Latin currens-entis – in circulation). Which is essentially “a generally accepted system of money which circulates within an economic system”. Therefore you can have a money which is also a currency and moneys that are not currencies. For example, the moneys par excellence – gold and silver – have been also currencies throughout history until Bretton Woods. Today, one can argue that they are not a currency anymore, but still they remain the purest form of money. Although, to be precise, some gold coins are still today legal tender at face value in the US and therefore still a currency. In 1912 J.P.Morgan, when called to testify before the US Congress, said his famous words: “Gold is money, everything else is credit”.
On the other side, you have all the fiat moneys of the last 4 centuries – the Dutch gulden, the Spanish real and the British pound – which were both money as well as reserve currencies at that time and whose value collapsed to zero and do not exist anymore today as forms of money.
Bitcoin´s Money Features
So let’s see how Bitcoin fits in this framework:
– as recognized by the EBA, Bitcoin has the features of money, such as being a unit of account and a medium of exchange. The only doubts are for the store of value and the stability features, more difficult to attribute to Bitcoin given its high volatility. However, one can argue that the same feature can be hardly attributed to any of our fiat moneys, considering our central bank policies´ of debasement and monetary inflation. As evidence suffice to look at a graph of the US dollar vs. gold from 1970 to date, to comprehend that the US dollar is not a store of value (1). Bitcoin´s volatility is also a function of its lack of liquidity, small market, lack of regulation and young age. All those issues will be fixed with time.
– Bitcoin is clearly fungible, portable, durable and cognizable, like money should be.
– Bitcoin is not however commodity money nor fiat money. But the historical definition of money cannot be kept immutable in the face of technological advancements. Clearly, a digital form of money is nowadays recognized. However, if one can easily accept all forms of digital money which are either derived from fiat or derived from commodities, with regard to Bitcoin one must go a step further. Indeed, before Bitcoin no form of money was built solely upon “trust”. Yes, because what stands behind Bitcoin is not a government nor a commodity with intrinsic value. Therefore Bitcoin relies solely upon the trust that users, investors, miners and consumers put into it. For that reason, it is very important to analyze what “trust” means.
The Trust in Money
We have two forms of trust in money: objective or intrinsic trust and subjective or extrinsic trust. The former is the form of trust that one has in commodity money. One trusts that mother nature has made gold scarce enough and costly to extract as to ensure a limited supply. One trusts its scarcity, objectively. This form of trust is intrinsic in precious metals´ nature. Then you have the form of trust in fiat moneys, which is subjective, is extrinsic, meaning that you have to trust groups of individuals or societies – such as governments or authorities such as central bankers – to act in a way that does not jeopardize the governments´ finances and its fiat money. The Bank of England for instance, clarifies that the trust in the fiat GBP is instilled by (i) measures to avoid counterfeiting and (ii) low monetary inflation… Simply put, you trust that the government will not abuse the printing presses and – in short – will be able to pay its debts and remain solvent. If this type of “government instilled trust” is what solely backs up fiat moneys, do then people have more reasons to trust their governments (i.e. fiat money) or a mathematical algorithm (i.e. Bitcoin)? The question is by no means a small one.
One can hardly refute that an objective-intrinsic form of trust is far superior to a subjective-extrinsic trust. The latter can only be rated according to its historical record. Unfortunately, the historical record of fiat moneys is pretty poor. The answer is yet again in Cicero’s magistra vitae. Because history proves ultimately that, when humans have incentives – such as governments, politicians and the financial elites have in creating new money – they will always behave accordingly. The result is that no fiat currency in history has ever survived its inevitable debasement. There will always be another Roosevelt, another Nixon, more LTCM´s, more Lehman, more bailouts, more QE… Let’s not forget that this form of “subjective” trust can be easily lost and when that has happened in history, the results have been the collapses of past empires – or in modern times – the hyperinflations of the Weimar Republic, Argentina, Zimbabwe or Venezuela.
That is the fundamental reason why a mathematical algorithm – which ensures no duplication and double-spending as well as security and transparency in a distributed ledger – is intrinsically objectively trustworthy, while States and their fiat currencies are not. And that is a huge argument in favour of Bitcoin.
If one agrees on this key issue of “trust”, then a digital money like Bitcoin is not only money but it is superior to any fiat money. More recently also Goldman Sachs has changed its opinion and now agrees that Bitcoin is money.
Not Yet a Currency
If Bitcoin is in no doubt money, can it be also considered a currency? Not yet. But it may well become a currency in the future, depending on how much Bitcoin will evolve into a generally accepted system of money within the global economic system. For instance the Ether (ETH), it is not only money just like Bitcoin is, but it is also for all purposes a currency today. For it is in no doubt a generally accepted system of money payments within the Ethereum community. Therefore, it performs both the functions of a (digital) money and of a (private) currency. Bitcoin however – unlike the ETH for the Ethereum community – does not perform a “utility” function within a closed system and for this reason it must be more widely used in the global economy before being considered a (global) currency.
So, if defining Bitcoin as money seems after all quite a straightforward exercise, why (almost) no one says that? The likely reasons are both political and economical, with geo-political implications which are closely connected with the “trust” in fiat money. Indeed, recognizing that Bitcoin is money (superior to fiat) and that it may become an alternative global digital currency in the future, may well pose a threat to the current financial system based on infinite credit creation and money debasement. The one who recognizes that is Christine Lagarde of the IMF, who is said “not to dismiss lightly crypto currencies like Bitcoin because they could give government-backed cash and monetary policy a “run for their money” in the future”. More recently also Rodgin Cohen, the Senior Chairman of the giant Law Firm Sullivan & Cromwell, said more or less the same on Bloomberg TV, “crypto currencies may well in the future pose a direct threat to the Fed and other central bank policies´, as well as to the reserve status of the US dollar globally”.
One cannot agree more with that.
(1) The store of value after 47 years of Monetary (hyper) inflation: how many US$ you would need to buy one ounce of Gold since 1970 (US$36 to $1330). The dramatic loss of purchasing power starts clearly when the US started its massive debasement/credit expansion in the ´70s to finance its wars.
About the Author
Andrea Bianconi is an international business Lawyer with over two decades experience, a scholar of Austrian Economics, Monetary History and Geopolitics, a believer in the future of Blockchain based technologies and an active member of Berlin’s Blockchain Hub, a legal consultant to Blockchain businesses, an investor himself and online trader with interest in commodities, precious metals, currencies, Tech stocks and Cryptos. https://www.linkedin.com/in/andrea-bianconi-blockchain-law/
Featured image from Shutterstock.