Daily transactions add up to $7bn, and Bitcoin is increasingly being used as a recourse in times of political and economic turmoil. Is it time for governments to take action?by Chris Carter / August 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
What are Bitcoin—and is it time for governments to step in and regulate them? Bitcoin has had a spectacular run in recent years. Appearing in a far-flung corner of the world wide web eight years ago, the currency’s rise has been meteoric. Bitcoin is the online currency that can be sent and received by anyone in the world, with computers controlling its transfer and creation securely without need for human intervention. The ecosystem of wallets and exchanges the currency is bought and traded on have creaked under the weight of the stratospheric flurry in activity in recent days. The numbers for this new industry are simply unheard of for a financial market in recent times. Bitcoin and its replicant cryptocurrencies command greater market capitalisation than payment giant, Paypal, with the digital currency universe boasting values in excess of $140bn compared to Paypal’s $70bn. Daily transaction volumes now exceed $7bn and wrack up over 250,000 transactions per day worldwide, totalling 250 million transactions since this nascent currency’s inception. So why has Bitcoin been so wildly successful? According to the Bank of England, there are three functions of money: acting as a store of value, a medium of exchange, and a unit of account which allows measure of the value of an item for sale. Bitcoin does all three of these things reasonably well, or at least better than those who tried to create virtual currency before. Its appearance and ascent into everyday lexicon is impressive: digital currency unusually has slipped, for the most part, beneath the radar of governments and regulators tasked with monitoring financial markets and keeping them in line. The last set of reports for digital currencies from the Bank of England were written in the third quarter of 2014. Clearly much has changed since, with over 800 new currencies having been created—and just the mere matter of $60bn being added to the value of Bitcoin. Suffice to say, were digital currency to continue swelling at present trajectories, it would not be long until many of the dreams for Bitcoin’s enthusiasts could be realised. Notably, those with the greatest interest are Anarchistic or Libertarian politicos who see Bitcoin’s decentralised properties—that is, the fact it’s free from central banks—the means to end centuries of governmental control of currency. This is one of the most controversial elements of Bitcoin’s rise, and the most likely to win the attention of regulators whose feathers would be ruffled by the threat of its mass adoption as a means of exchange. In Venezuela, citizens are forced to acquire Bitcoins to pay for everyday items to protect themselves from the hyperinflating bolivar For another potential future of the cryptocurrency market, behaving as a replacement for traditional currency under normal circumstances would seem unlikely. Bitcoin’s regular price collapses are well-documented, but use as real currency is increasingly common, even amongst some of the world’s incumbent financial services behemoths. When employees of US investment giant Fidelity are able to pay for their lunch in the staff canteen in Bitcoins, we are starting to see an industry categorised for being set in its ways embracing a new future. This notion spreads further than corporates, though. Take Venezuela: so severe has the country’s inflation become, its citizens are forced to acquire Bitcoins to pay for everyday items to protect themselves from the hyperinflating bolivar. Digital coins allow easy escape from currency controls and, for this reason, digital assets are also especially useful on the opposite side of the world for flouting China’s tough capital controls regime. This workaround in difficult economic climates feeds into the worsening international picture. Take, for example, the prospect of a forthcoming Hard Brexit, an American President described by the Economist as “politically inept, morally barren and temperamentally unfit for office,” and a worsening Chinese debt bubble as a chaser sitting somewhat sourly in the mouth. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that situations like these, where economic instability leads to a collateral rise in cryptocurrency, will become more common in future. This poses a challenge to regulators. Cryptocurrency seems a speck in the distance for now, but considering the immediate term in the UK at least, the Financial Conduct Authority has yet to clamp down on “Initial Coin Offering” (ICO) schemes. ICO’s are offers of digital currency in exchange for real world cash, in order to fund new businesses and projects. In July, The Securities and Exchanges Commission (SEC) was swift to neuter the get-rich-quick schemes prevalent in the ICO market, and the Monetary Authority of Singapore deftly followed suit. In order to enforce its will, the SEC defined cryptocurrencies as financial instruments and thus are able to force the issuers of new currencies to abide by existing financial market regulations. A quick fix, so it might seem. Before the SEC acted, nearly $1.8bn was taken from investors by unknown cryptocurrency operators between April and August 2017, claiming to use investor funds for meaningful purpose. This taste for how big the market is signals an immediate problem, as those capable of building new digital currencies know they will profit immensely by launching ICOs. Now all they need to do is move from one jurisdiction to another to escape the clunking fist of the faster-acting International Finance Centres’ regulators. As mentioned, while other national regulators have followed the SEC’s lead, moves to clamp down on these often-surreptitious coin launches have exposed the innate difficulty in regulating digital currency. In the absence of a supranational financial regulator, it ceases to matter how many countries regulate cryptocurrency. So long as one unrefined jurisdiction remains, exchange can legally occur between users who simply register their details and conduct their transactions digitally in their country of choice. Accordingly, the response to the world’s existing cryptocurrency conmen could prove impossible in the absence of an international financial regulator. It seems likely that in this global regulator-free future, if Bitcoin and similar currencies continue to grow at their current pace with this new currency too slippery for governments to handle, we may well live to see digital currency future realised.