As I write this, last Sunday, the value of one Bitcoin had just reached $7,443, over P78,000. A year ago, you would have been able to buy one Bitcoin for less than a tenth of that amount, just over $700. If you’d bought into it then, your money would have grown more than tenfold. Even if you’d bought some just six weeks ago, you still would have doubled your money.
[Update: As I post this, the price has dropped to $6,931 but that's the way of things like this, they fluctuate wildly.]
So does that mean you should buy Bitcoin today? If you do, will your money double again in the next six weeks? Will the exponential growth continue?
|Image c/o Coindesk|
Nobody knows. Honesty, nobody does. Despite what a lot of people will tell you, the future value of Bitcoin can’t be predicted but here are some things that we DO know about Bitcoin.
Bitcoin is a currency, but it’s not like any currency we've seen before. With Bitcoin there are no coins or notes, no bits of metal or paper you can put in your wallet or purse. This currency exists solely in cyberspace. It's a digital currency, sometimes called a virtual currency or more often a cryptocurrency. ‘Crypto’ refers to the fact that Bitcoin transactions are kept encrypted online. That’s one of the reasons Bitcoin has been adopted by
The biggest problem about Bitcoin is that it’s confusing. As soon as you start researching Bitcoin you encounter terms like "blockchain", "distributed ledger" and "Bitcoin mining" and they’re hard to understand for us amateurs. There's also the confusion that your money is "out there" in cyberspace and not in your pocket. That's something new and hard to comprehend.
The "out there" element is very new and innovative. The blockchain, the online database of Bitcoin transactions that records and confirms every transaction ever performed between people using Bitcoin, is hosted all over the world, not in one place. There is no central repository of these transactions, they’re all over the place. That’s the “distributed ledger” you’ll hear people talk about. That idea is truly revolutionary and will probably play a role in many new ideas in the near future, not just cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
An obvious major concern with Bitcoin is security. As we understand it now, the technology underpinning Bitcoin seems highly secure but anyone who says that a particular security protocol is fool-proof hasn't read their history books. All security technologies will be cracked or hacked sooner or later and if a flaw is ever discovered in Bitcoin's security mechanisms it would be instantly worthless. Say goodbye to your money.
But maybe you think this can’t happen with Bitcoin? Bad news. It already has. The “Mt Gox” Bitcoin exchange collapsed in 2014, losing 850,000, allegedly stolen by unknown criminals who had somehow managed to find a way around the security protocols built into the blockchain.
The fact that it’s completely unregulated is another concern. If a conventional currency like the Pula, US dollar or Euro showed signs of failing, central banks would do something to support it. We've seen that happen before in various countries when their currency has been under threat. But with Bitcoin, there's nobody to help you.
What’s more, when you spend Bitcoins instead of conventional banking systems there are fewer payment protection mechanisms available to you. There are no rights to refunds and no chargeback mechanisms. In December 2013, the European Banking Authority warned consumers that "No specific regulatory protections exist that would cover you for losses if a platform that exchanges or holds your virtual currencies fails or goes out of business."
Perhaps more importantly there’s a very dangerous thing happening with Bitcoin right now as you read this. Hysteria.
If you get the chance, go to Wikipedia and look up “Tulip mania” and you’ll see a story of the absurd rise in prices of tulip bulbs in the Dutch Republic in 1637, one of the first examples of what economists call a “speculative bubble”, when the price of a commodity increases rapidly, far beyond what logic and reason suggest is a valid price. That’s what happening with Bitcoin right now. The price people are paying is utterly absurd and has no connection to reality.
[Yes, I DO know that much of the tulip mania story was an exaggeration but the point is nevertheless a good one.]
Economists also talk about an idea they call “greater fool theory”, which according to Wikipedia states that “the price of an object is determined not by its intrinsic value, but rather by irrational beliefs and expectations of market participants”. Unlike in normal circumstances, when investors and speculators know to “buy low, sell high”, sometimes they adopt a different, more high-risk approach. With Bitcoin, many people seem to think “I know I’m a fool to buy something at such a high price, but I’m hoping I’ll find an even greater fool in the future who’ll buy it from me”.
That’s what often happens in economic bubbles. It happened in the property market, it happened with tulip bulbs and it seems to be happening with Bitcoin and some of the other cryptocurrencies. There is simply no justification for their current value. It’s not connected with the value of any real commodity, the performance of any country’s economy or any share price index. Its value is solely determined by whatever the current “fools” will pay for it, hoping that there will be greater fools in the future when they choose to sell.
But there’s bad news about economic bubbles. Like their distant cousins, pyramid and Ponzi schemes, they all eventually burst leaving their investors depressed and poor. I’m certainly not qualified to predict when this will happen but I know that it will happen sooner or later. I doubt that Bitcoin will disappear soon but its value must eventually drop to a value that’s based on reason and genuine market pressures, not just hysteria.
The question is simple. Do you want to be the fool that invested in a bubble or the fool that didn’t but at least didn’t have their bubble burst?
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