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The rise and rise of bitcoin! The name Bitcoin evokes a sense of enigma, curiosity, and a possible peep into the future of money.   

Origins of bitcoin can be traced to a blockchain built under an anonymous name – Satoshi Nakamoto. Satoshi was the first to solve the problem of double-spending using peer to peer network. The identity of the brilliant mind who authored the white paper on Bitcoin remains unknown to this day however!

Bitcoin blockchain is a public ledger that records all bitcoin transactions. It is recorded as an addition to the block of transactions without overwriting the earlier blocks. New bitcoins are mined every 10 minutes by generating a code or nonce. Mining of bitcoins refers to solving a computational puzzle and people who solve the puzzle are rewarded with new bitcoins.

Bitcoin has seen a dramatic rise in 2020 – a year marked by events unprecedented both in the real economy and in financial markets. Bitcoin has given a staggering return of 340% in 2020 and 570% from the lows of March 20. Financial markets had a roller coaster ride in 2020 and Bitcoin has been a stellar outperformer beating all asset classes by miles. 

Given the powerful rally and rising investments in the cryptocurrency from traditional investors, there is a growing view that the fair value of one bitcoin will be upwards of 1 mn USD if only 2% of investor wealth in currencies is invested in the cryptocurrency.

Given the advantages of borderless and seamless transactions at nil transaction costs in real-time, a huge influx of liquidity by Federal Reserve in the aftermath of COVID 19, audit trail of all transactions, flawless code with complete transparency of the mining process, added cushion of eventual scarcity in the supply of bitcoins coupled with a rally in the cryptocurrency, the argument that it will gradually replace the hard currencies of today seems a more realistic and likely scenario than it was anytime earlier.

We have attempted to put together our thoughts on whether bitcoin will pass the basic tests for being the next currency of the future or it will fade with the eventual rise of digital currencies backed by sovereign nations –

  • Popularity of bitcoin is partly because it is not regulated by the Federal Reserve or the Central bank of any country. These are free-flowing transactions that are not subject to review and/or approval of any competent authority. What has however led to the popularity of bitcoin is also an obstacle to its adoption and acceptability by a much wider audience. Submission to a sovereign regulation imparts legitimacy and trust to a currency. Higher the trust in the Central bank of a country, more are the savings and funds deposited in that currency. This explains why US dollar despite its flaws is the preferred currency in which Sovereign funds, pension funds, and individuals park their savings. This is the single biggest reason why bitcoin may never be able to become the alternative currency or replace any major currency.  
  • One of the basic features of a good currency is low volatility in its exchange rate. This explains why a lot of currencies are pegged to the dollar or a basket of currencies. Central banks of countries like India who have chosen not to peg their currency maintain huge forex reserves and intervene in money markets regularly to manage volatility. Reserve Bank of India has a plethora of instruments in its arsenal such as Repo rate, swap arrangements, and other policy tools to manage currency volatility. There is no Central Authority that exists to manage volatility in Bitcoin which partly explains the highs and lows in its chart. Banks, businesses, and ordinary people are unlikely to park their savings in a currency that runs a risk of 30% overnight fall in its value/purchasing power.     
  • Existing currencies enable different mediums of payment ranging from online transactions, credit card payments, withdrawal from ATM, and payment of currency notes and coins. Basic feature of a currency is to enable transactions across all these mediums and dimensions. Bitcoin while having certain advantages is not designed for payment via credit card/withdrawal by ATM etc. Though some Bitcoin Credit cards are available, their usage is quite limited due to the limitations cited above.  
  • Deposits in all currencies earn interest which is largely regulated by the Central bank based on inflation, growth rate, etc. One of the basic functions of currency is to drive economic activity by giving loans to consumers, businesses to invest in capacity expansion, etc. Businesses issue Bonds for different terms and a free debt market determines the interest rate or yield based on the credit worthiness of borrower, risk free rate and rates at which comparable bonds are traded in debt market. Bitcoin resembles a dematerialized asset class that earns no interest and has no underlying cash flows to support the high valuations. There is no regulatory authority which can act as an oversight for issuing loans and / or provide a legal recourse to enforce debt servicing in Bitcoin.
  • Bitcoin is also referred as Gold 2.0 with the potential to replace and/or complement the traditional yellow metal as a store of value. Until the Bretton wood system was abolished by President Nixon in 1971, US dollar was redeemable in Gold. Gold has been the store of value for centuries across civilizations as it indicates trust, low volatility, and hedge against inflation. It is extremely unlikely that people would change their mindset or behavior shaped by wisdom passed over several generations to abandon gold in any reasonable measure in favor of bitcoin. 

Buoyancy in financial markets, partly driven by the money printing machine of the Federal Reserve in the aftermath of COVID 19 has led to a rally in cryptocurrencies. In a discussion on cryptocurrencies on a business channel a few weeks ago, an “analyst” expressed the fear that economic growth may be impacted as Indians with 20% of the world population own less than 1% of bitcoins. I would not want to debate such comments but cannot resist drawing similarities to the views expressed by analysts in the build up to dot.com boom who suggested companies should be valued based on the number of clicks and that era of valuing companies based on cash flows is passe. 

Buoyancy in financial markets is a more recent phenomenon. So, what explains the success of bitcoin? For one, it is a Technological Leap. Secondly, it can be explained by the psychology of human nature. We are fascinated by the future and want to be early adopters of new technology. If our forecast of future on the adoption of cryptocurrency turns out to be correct, we would be handsomely rewarded financially and would also stand out among our peers as the ones who “out called” the future. We get carried away by our fascination for the future and in the process overlook that most forecasts are inherently off the mark!

Bitcoin also runs the inherent risk of a clampdown by regulatory authorities should a terror attack be financed by underlying transactions in cryptocurrency or if authorities decide to clamp down on the dark web which is a source of illicit transactions. As per a study, 1548 cryptocurrencies are in vogue today with transactions running into billions of dollars. It is similar to euphoria before the meltdown!!