The rocky upwards ride of Bitcoin continues

One of the features of 2017 has been the extraordinary price volatility exhibited by Bitcoin. This has of course come at a time when many have been mulling exactly the reverse in equity markets although of course the current rhetoric over and from North Korea may well change that. For some perspective let us look back to the 29th of December.

“When I signed off before Christmas I ended with this.

The average price of Bitcoin across all exchanges is 910.16 USD

As you can take the boy out of the city but it is much harder to take the city out of the boy I had noted that it had been further on the move this week and now I note this.

Bid: $972.27 Ask: $972.28

So there has been a push higher and of course we are reminded of two things. The first is simply a factor of the way that we count in base ten meaning that the threshold of US $1000 is on the near horizon and the second is the Bitcoin surge of a bit more than a couple of years ago.”

Back then I pointed out two things. Firstly the chart pattern was of a “bowl” formation so that the price would need to keep rushing higher or it would end up like one of those cartoon characters who run over the edge of a cliff and briefly levitate before the inevitable happens. The next was that it was approaching the price of gold in individual units although later we looked at the fact that as an aggregate it was a long way away as there is much more gold.

What was driving things?

There were various influences. One generic was fear of what plans central banks have for fiat countries in an era of low and indeed negative interest-rates. Partly linked with this was the specific issue of demonetisation in India where some bank notes were withdrawn. Added to this was the continuing demand from wealthy Chinese to move some of their money abroad and the efforts of the authorities to block this so at times Bitcoin gets used.

The surge

Here is Fortune to bring us up to date.

Bitcoin was worth less than $590 a year ago. Then early Tuesday, the cryptocurrency surged to yet another all-time high above $3,500, as investors likely pulled their funds from the new Bitcoin spinoff, Bitcoin Cash or “Bcash,” to invest it in Bitcoin.

Bitcoin pulled back slightly by mid-day, trading at $3,430.

CNBC returned to the comparison with the price of gold although to be fair they did offer some perspective.

That’s nearly three times the price of gold, which settled at $1,262.60 an ounce, up nearly 10 percent for 2017…….That said, the gold market is worth trillions while bitcoin’s market capitalization is only about $57 billion…..Lee pointed out that the overall size of the gold market at about $7.5 trillion dwarfs that of bitcoin.

It didn’t take long from approaching the price of gold to nearly triple it did it? Bloomberg has decided to give us a comparison which will upset central bankers everywhere.

It has increased more than threefold this year, compared with a doubling in the value of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, the best performer in the S&P 500 Index.

At least they didn’t point out that it has gone up (much) more than house prices as there is only so much a central banker can take in one go! Still they were not finished with comparisons.

Here’s some other stuff you could buy for the price of one bitcoin, including but not limited to 100 22-pound boxes of Hass avocados.

 Actually that don’t impress me much to coin a phrase as a PC user who is not especially keen on living solely on avocados and facing the consequences of setting up a stall to sell them all. But we get the idea.

Splitting the atom

The cryptocurrencies have a problem around growth and change and here is the FT Alphaville view on the fork at the opening of this month.

In the next 24 hours, the trust in the bitcoin system is going to be even more severely tested than usual. The community of miners, nodes and developers is initiating a so-called hard fork which hopes to expand the network’s processing capacity, allowing it to scale more effectively. In the process bitcoin will be split in half, and two new systems will emerge.

The hope is that faith will be channelled into the newly evolved, expanded and improved chain, while the old chain will be abandoned. But anyone and everyone who has a bitcoin will via the process suddenly be endowed with two assets instead of one, with a free option to support one and render the other useless. If the effective split makes people feel twice as enriched, it’s worth asking, why they shouldn’t feel inclined to keep hold of both of them? And that too will be an option.

It would appear that investors have sold the new Bitcoin cash to buy more of the existing Bitcoin. It would be amusing if they are rejecting change wouldn’t it? On a more serious note is this how money will be created in the future? We only have a very short time frame to consider but as we stand there has been both money and wealth creation here. Perhaps the central banks are in charge after all……

The only way is up baby

Business Insider seems rather keen.

Arthur Hayes, CEO of BitMEX, a bitcoin derivative exchange, thinks SegWit marks an important milestone for bitcoin’s future.

“At long last, the solution touted to solve bitcoin’s scaling problems, Segwit, is activated,” Hayes said.

“With Segwit implemented, I believe $5,000 Bitcoin is within striking distance,” he concluded.

Comment

Let us look at the functions of money and start with a unit of account. Many people will know of Bitcoin but how many will account in it? Not much I would suggest. The price surge will mean that so far it has performed really rather well as a store of value and indeed quite an accumulator of it but we also need to note that along the way there have been sharp drops. There has been progress in it being a medium of exchange as more places accept it but it is still a very long way away from anything like universal acceptance.

However in continues to survive and in more than a few ways thrive. Fears of central banks blocking bank accounts continue to feed its growth. Frankly the rumours that Euro area bank deposits could be frozen in a banking collapse would have been cunning if started by a Bitcoin fan. There are loads of risks just like there are in any new venture but also care is needed as this from Gadfly of Bloomberg indicates.

There are also fears that big traders are having an undue influence on the price of Bitcoin, with one blogger flagging the actions of “Spoofy” — a nickname for traders who apparently place million-dollar orders without actually executing them. Bitcoin is essentially unregulated, so risks are abundant.

I love the idea that regulation has pretty much fixed risk, what could go wrong? But even more importantly many ordinary or dare I say it regulated markets are being spoofed these days and if the reports that reach me are any guide the regulators seem to have both a tin ear and a blind eye. Along that road we may well find a reality where for some Bitcoin looks rather like a safe haven although these days we need to add the caveat whatever that is?

Also finance regularly provides us with curiousities. Today’s comes from the land of the rising sun as we note that it is clearly in the firing line from North Korea and yet the Yen has strengthened through 110 versus the US Dollar.

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The rise and rise of Bitcoin and the crypto currencies

On Friday the news in the UK was grabbed by the ransom wear attack called Wanna Cry. At first the media concentrated on the impact on the National Health Service but soon news that attacks were happening around the world filtered in as well. It was hard not to think of the large amount of funds that have been poured into NHS IT infrastructure which seemed somewhat at odds with the fact that it was still running Windows XP! Mind you as a person who was sold the Vista system by Microsoft I am someone who still thinks fondly of XP and think it was a better system.

However an intriguing part of the attack was the request to be paid in Bitcoin. Also I have to confess I was curious as to why the individual claims were small. From Wall Street Wires.

For instance, the ransomware is asking for $300 in Bitcoin.

Not much is it? Perhaps they hoped that it would be small enough that people would pay it discreetly and they would avoid publicity. Also if everyone paid up not doubt it would amount to a tidy sum indeed. It did bring Bitcoin back into mainstream news albeit in rather a seedy way. Although for our would be criminals there was something of a draw back which is that it turned out the world could watch them being paid. Indeed @actual_ransom is on the case.

Note: This bot is watching the 3 wallets hard-coded into ransomware. It tweets new payments as they occur, totals every two hours.

In some detail as this from a few minutes ago indicates.

Someone just paid 0.0045 BTC ($7.61 USD) to a bitcoin wallet tied to ransomware.

As of the time I am typing this the total paid is apparently as shown below.

The three bitcoin wallets tied to ransomware have received 151 payments totaling 24.75899797 BTC ($42,640.91 USD).

Of course the real boom will be in online security consultants who seem so far to be selected from a group who wear sunglasses indoors if the output of BBC News is any guide.

An Asset Bubble?

The Financial Times has been on the Bitcoin case.

Sky-high valuations for bitcoin have helped the value of crypto currencies burst through $50bn, raising fears of an asset bubble in the unregulated market.

A sky high valuation?

A sharp spike in the price of bitcoin, which has risen 55 per cent this month and is worth more than gold, pushed it past $1,900 on the Bitfinex exchange on Friday.

So the price has been very strong although I have to say that the idea that it “is worth more than gold” has a few issues with it. What is the unit of comparison for a start? After all gold is a physical commodity whereas Bitcoin is a virtual one. If we move to the aggregate level then if Only Gold is correct then all the gold so far mined is worth some US $7.4 trillion which rather dwarfs the US $50 billion value of the crypt currencies. Presumably they are comparing a singe Bitcoin with a troy ounce of gold. Also it is unusual for the FT to fear an asset bubble is it not?

A lot has been going on in this space including the fact that whilst Bitcoin is the most famous of the crypto currencies it is far from alone.

A growing number of alternative digital currencies — or “alt-coins” — is feeding the speculative frenzy with values in some rocketing as much as 500 per cent in the past week………Aside from bitcoin, there are more than 830 alt-coins ranging from Litecoin, a challenger to bitcoin, to MiketheMug, a coin that promises to make weekly payouts to holders.

There have been quite a few developments along the way.

An increase in initial coin offerings (ICOs) — unregulated issuances of crypto coins where investors can raise money in bitcoin or other crypto currencies — is fuelling the market and drawing attention from lawyers and financial professionals. Many fear ICOs, which are trying to market themselves as an alternative to venture capitalists as a way of raising cash for businesses, breach existing securities law.

Of course quite a lot of ordinary conventional offerings fail which poses quite a few questions for how you regulate such markets. Some seem to be the preserve of city professionals.

Observers say many individuals are trading alt-coins from corporate IT departments, concentrated in the financial sector and falling under the radar of senior executives. Many are sitting on virtual fortunes, but are unable to liquidate their cash as banks clamp down on measures to avoid money laundering.

There is an obvious problem with the phrase “virtual fortune” is there not? If they are legitimate it seems very odd that they are caught up in money laundering regulations so I suspect that there is more to this than meets to eye. After all the financial sector is ridden with financial crime of many sorts. Also I have seen plenty of supposedly bona fide markets where investors have been unable to realise the money they thought they had made. The case a couple of decades ago when investors put money into Italian shares is something of which I am reminded of by this. It was oh so easy to put money but, ahem, considerably more difficult to ever take it out.

Comment

If we step back for a moment we can compare Bitcoin with fiat money. On such a road we can see that the ground for Bitcoin has been fertilised by the way that central banks have been so keen on asset price rises. Compared to these assets which in concrete terms people face with the cost of housing but otherwise in bond and equity markets cash has depreciated in value. On that subject the UK FTSE 100 index has risen to an all time high of 7454 today again depreciating the value of cash money compared to it. Of course consumer inflation numbers look the other way from this.

There are obvious problems with the Bitcoin and crypto currency world. Firstly its role as a medium of exchange is limited as many places will still not accept it as a means of payment. That is why the recent news from Japan was welcomed by price rises. Also in an irony the recent price surge poses a question for its use as a store of value. It is not just the concept of “what goes up must come down” sung about by Blood Sweat & Tears in the song Spinning Wheel but also the issue that the price volatility means that the value is swinging wildly as Bloomberg point out.

Even during the huge run up this year, it has moved more than five percent on 21 different days, with nine of those being moves lower.

In the end it comes to the fact that Bitcoin fans have more faith in blockchain mathematics than central bankers. Of course some prefer the anonymity it provides and some just like the technological aspect. The main danger from authority must be from the likes of Kenneth Rogoff who must be very disappointed that the latest outbreak of financial crime is not being driven by high denomination bank notes. Of course there are other dangers which include it falling out of fashion and being replaced by other alternatives. Whilst there are obvious differences between this and the growth if the railroads back in the day there are similariites and how many succeeded again? Oh and as we stand it poses an increasing challenge to measures of money supply especially in areas where it is widely used.