Slam Dunk Money

Bitcoin, a Global Reserve (would love feedback)

It feels like we’re about month six into an indefinite branding war with the mainstream financial community and even some of our own over whether bitcoin per se, or blockchain technology (sans deflationary currency) is the winning fintech innovation from 2009. And admittedly, there are good arguments against bitcoin becoming a legitimate currency — or even a rails of payments used by anyone who prefers to keep their bank account intact and stay on the right side of the law.
For instance, there is still institutional fear that the technology is infeasible to use for payments because it’s impossible to reverse charges, and difficult to surveil the bitcoin network for bad actors and black market transactions (both problems seem solvable by bitcoin startups). There is wariness to buy-in to the “bitcoin as a backbone” argument where institutions hide the currency and use the tech and its token behind the scenes, mainly because bitcoin is still (according to its own chief scientist) in a beta release. The security of the network is still relatively weak, and hundred billion dollar multi-nationals aren’t going to invest in a network that might cease to exist in five years without any clear contingency plans.
As a Bitcoin permabull, these short term challenges don’t bother me. But I list them because they are rational concerns and ones that will take years to quell at an institutional level. In the meantime, you’ll see dabbling in alternative protocols like Ripple and Stellar and Ethereum and Hyperledger, and (gasp) these same institutions will even fork open-source code and make it their own. (Michael Lewis writes in Flash Boys about the laughable degree to which Goldman makes open-source code their own “IP”.) I think Tim Swanson’s paper nailed it (for the most part) and that this experimentation with blockchain-not-bitcoin is perfectly fine.
Bitcoin might not ultimately make it as a currency in the world’s largest economies, and it might prove to be a pretty poor store of value if its corresponding tech is relegated to second-tier status in favor of a more government/bank friendly protocol. With that in mind, competition is healthy and new ideas are welcome when it comes blockchain tech, I think.
But there is a huge caveat.
The longer that bitcoin survives, the more likely it is to disrupt a large swath of developing economy currencies. I’m increasingly convinced that Wences et al have been right all along with bitcoin as a value store (reserve) emerging as its hidden-in-plain-sight killer app. In a stroke of irony, we might be looking at 50–50 odds that bitcoin’s character arc goes from cryptoanarchist currency, to commodity that powers 1.0 financial technology, and back to functional currency reserve for much of the developing world. And if that’s where it settles for the medium-term, it would still be a phenomenal outcome.
Consider: Bitcoin inflation slows to ~4% by 2017 — reasonable by most any economist’s modern standards and not too far off of the target thresholds for most central banks. This is also a predictable 4%. Yes, that figure belies the forex swings that bitcoin will inevitably experience as a young currency, but the rate of seignorage will still be quite low. And less new bitcoin money creation will inevitably reduce sell-side pressure from miners as a percentage of total network transactions. That could and probably will help the market stabilize enough to price more and cheaper derivatives to hedge out volatility for those who don’t want it.
Consider: Most developing economy currencies suck, and will be debased into oblivion within two decades, if not much sooner. If you believe your current currency has a 50% chance of being completely destroyed in the next ten years, and think bitcoin has a 50% chance of being alive at all, it makes sense to buy bitcoin with your less sexy currency. It probably only takes one country to start buying bitcoin for their central bank (as if it’s gold), for others to follow suit in rapid succession. (FWIW, Gyft’s Vinny Lingham, who has proven to have an uncanny knack for picking the price trends that matter, agrees with me.)
Consider: Dozens of countries around the world already operate on a two currency system with the US dollar as a viable alternative to their local options. Economists’ dismissiveness of bitcoin as a potential reserve currency on the grounds that “governments and their central banks would never cede that kind of monetary control” ignores pretty much all of the evidence that already exists which shows how it is an extremely rare luxury to live in a country with a central bank that has any flexibility whatsoever with respect to monetary policy. i.e. if a country’s central bank stores dollars and gold, it might like BTC.
Consider: Not even the US dollar is likely to be the world’s reserve currency in 20 years. I have begged on social media for some smart economist to refute this, but none have so far. It’s easy to look at our surging economy and think “we’re still the best”, but China’s economy will dwarf our own by 2040. India will likely eclipse us as well. And its a slam dunk that frontier markets will continue to command a larger chunk of the global GDP pie. (Europe is still probably screwed.) In a world where the US is the second or third largest economy in the world and commands 15% of its GDP rather than 25%, who honestly thinks the greenback is going to be the only currency reserve? (That’s not rhetorical, by the way. Send me a counter-argument and I’ll reprint it.)
If all that is true, then it follows: In a world where even the mack daddy of all fiat reserve currencies is dethroned, and a neutral, stable, predictable alternative exists, some countries are going to start taking a chance on bitcoin. It really only takes one successful experiment to create a domino effect, and those tier II (and III and IV) government currencies will collectively fade to black. The longer bitcoin survives, the longer we have to build the robust infrastructure to support a fully functional bitcoin ecosystem that could swoop in to support an entire small country. All we need to do is stay heads down and wait for one regional storm to brew in a world that is frankly already plagued by currency wars.
In a stroke of irony, policymakers and Keynesian economists might finally see the “bancor” global reserve currency that their idol John Maynard Keynes proposed 80 years ago.
Only it will sneak up on them from the frontier. And it will be completely beyond their control.
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