Is the cryptocurrency bitcoin the biggest bubble in the world today, or a great investment bet on the cutting edge of new-age financial technology? My best guess is that in the long run, the technology will thrive, but that the price of bitcoin will collapse.
If you haven’t been following the bitcoin story, its price is up 600% over the past 12 months, and 1,600% in the past 24 months. At over $4,200 (as of 5 October), a single unit of the virtual currency is now worth more than three times an ounce of gold. Some bitcoin evangelists see it going far higher in the next few years.
What happens from here will depend a lot on how governments react. Will they tolerate anonymous payment systems that facilitate tax evasion and crime? Will they create digital currencies of their own? Another key question is how successfully bitcoin’s numerous “alt-coin” competitors can penetrate the market.
In principle, it is supremely easy to clone or improve on bitcoin’s technology. What is not so easy is to duplicate bitcoin’s established lead in credibility and the large ecosystem of applications that have built up around it.
For now, the regulatory environment remains a free-for-all. China’s government, concerned about the use of bitcoin in capital flight and tax evasion, has recently banned bitcoin exchanges. Japan, on the other hand, has enshrined bitcoin as legal tender, in an apparent bid to become the global centre of fintech.Bitcoin price Photograph: Project Syndicate
The United States is taking tentative steps to follow Japan in regulating fintech, though the endgame is far from clear. Importantly, bitcoin does not need to win every battle to justify a sky-high price. Japan, the world’s third largest economy, has an extraordinarily high currency-to-income ratio (roughly 20%), so bitcoin’s success there is a major triumph.
In Silicon Valley, drooling executives are both investing in bitcoin and pouring money into co...