As of writing, Bitcoin is trading at USD 2,630, having surged from around USD 800 since January 2017. In addition to Bitcoin, other Cryptocurrencies have seen a surge too. Ether, another “digital token” that is intended as a medium for paying transaction fees on the Ethereum computing platform has risen in value from USD 10 to about USD 300 in the same time period. Other Cryptocurrencies such as Ripplecoin, Zcash, and Dash have also seen an explosion in value.
What are people saying?
Public opinion towards Cryptocurrencies has always been divided. However, with the new surge in the market, opinions have become even more polarized. Sceptics hinge on Bitcoin’s first impression as being a black-market currency and call this a bubble, while proponents contend that this is a global currency that is just going mainstream and can indeed go way higher.
So what is actually happening?
A number of market observers are right in noting that Cryptocurrencies are exhibiting bubble-like behavior. For Bitcoin, which isn’t backed by a central bank or doesn’t have a market regulator, this is particularly true, as its value is purely notional. Ether, a digital token that is incorrectly regarded as a Cryptocurrency, has real-world utility, but is still in an early experimental state that does not justify its current market price. In addition, the potential supply of Ether is infinite, unlike the Bitcoin – which has a finite supply hard-coded into its design. Long story short, the critics are right – we ARE in an ebullient Cryptocurrency bubble, and a painful correction is certain – but not imminent.
Why is this happening?
Skepticism notwithstanding, Cryptocurrencies are taking baby steps to going mainstream. In many countries, authorities are actually studying Cryptocurrencies, and exploring ways to regulate them. Even in notoriously conservative regulatory jurisdictions like India, sites like Unocoin are permitting people to buy Bitcoins for cash. Zebpay, another platform, allows you to make small payments using the currency. Each passing day, Bitcoin in particular inches close to mass acceptance and has thousands of new users signing up.
Value as a currency aside, the Blockchain technology that cryptocurrenices are based on has tremendous potential. Ethereum, as a technology platform, has just begun to explore this. A number of Ethereum projects such as the DAO, Akasha, and Gnosis have received an enthusiastic response from the market and have been successful in raising millions of dollars in funding. Today, hundreds of companies, in technology, banking, media, communication, and logistics are looking at ways that Blockchain technology can be leveraged for profit. When these efforts mature, platforms like Ethereum will achieve their true potential, as their Software as a Service (“SaaS”) offering will give users access to obscene computing power at a minuscule cost.
The most prominent factor in this bubble right now, is the Cryptocurrency casino. The utility of the Blockchain and the growing acceptance of Bitcoin do not entirely justify the surge in Cryptocurrency prices. However, millions of people around the world have discovered the speculative opportunities in Cryptocurrencies and have begun to trade them for profit. In fact, all Cryptocurrency trade today may be attributed to speculative trading, as the amount of Cryptocurrency used for actual transactions is microscopic. This is not unprecedented. According to the Bank for International Settlements, global trade in foreign exchange (“FX”) was about USD 5.4 trillion per day in April 2016. Incidentally, the total value of the world’s money – currency and bank deposits – is about USD 81 trillion (Source – CIA World Factbook – 2015). To put this in perspective, money equal to all the notes, coins, and bank deposits in the world changes hands every 15 days on the world’s FX exchanges. This entire market is speculative – run largely by multi-million dollar computers playing against each other. In comparison, the cryptocurrency market, valued at around USD 60 billion, is negligible.
The Cryptocurrency market is gaining in speculative appeal, but this journey is just beginning.
The Japan Factor
Japan is the most mature market for FX speculators in the world. Ordinary Japanese citizens generate a trading volume of hundreds of billions of dollars each week. Starting April 2017, Japanese regulations have made it easier for their citizens to trade Cryptocurrencies, especially Bitcoin, and as the chart below shows, a large part of Cryptocurrency trading today is in Yen. Bitcoin, with its massive swings, is the perfect currency for a bold FX trader. In fact, the mainstreaming of Bitcoin will accelerate now that Governments are taking notice.
The party is just beginning
The number of people trading Cryptocurrencies is increasing. Global events that harm public faith in institutions are accelerating acceptance by lay people. Major moves in cryptocurrencies can be seen after events such as Brexit; the demonetization of high-denomination notes in India; and anti-speculation measures by Chinese regulators. An increasing number of freelancers are accepting Bitcoin for international payments to avoid expensive bank fees. With each passing day, people are finding new use for Blockchain technology and are solving complex technological problems with platforms such as Ethereum.
The market for speculation is growing rapidly, as a number of highly secure and versatile trading exchanges are offering investors the option of trading Cryptocurrencies against regular currencies. These exchanges form strong and influential interfaces with the mainstream financial system. Indeed, a number of derivatives houses are already writing “exotics” pegged to cryptocurrenices. As such activity grows, Cryptocurrencies will attract more investors and the resultant demand will drive prices higher.
The entire market will see expansion. Unlike conventional currencies, Cryptocurrenices are freely traded against each other. This creates arbitrage opportunities between pairs and exchanges. All major Cryptocurrency exchanges permit algorithmic trading by end users. Large scale exploitation of arbitrage opportunities will cause prices to even out in the long term. The wide swings seen in recent years will become increasingly uncommon, and as platforms like Ethereum increase their operational utility, the trends in individual currencies and tokens will lean towards fundamentals.
There WILL be a crash
From Tulip Mania to the Dotcom bust, rabid speculation has always led to devastating crashes. This is likely to happen even with cryptocurrencies. Thanks to platforms like Ethereum, there is now a low barrier of entry to Cryptocurrencies. Today a lay user with minimal experience with solidity – Ethereum’s programming language – can institute his own currency and even make it freely tradeable with minimal effort. Projects like DAO and Gnosis are large-scale examples of this. Additionally, rapid advances in computing, networking, and storage technology will uncover deficiencies in existing cryptocurrencies, leading people to newer products and causing obsolescence of older ones. Many people who trade wildly will be completely wiped out.
And then a resurgence
However, like the Dotcom bust preceded a fundamentally sound expansion in the Hardware, Internet, and Mobile sectors, the fundamental appeal of Blockchain technology WILL drive resurgence in the industry and bring about mainstream businesses in Blockchain. Indeed – a Blockchain-based ERP system would be impossible to manipulate in order to deceive investors, regulators, or tax collectors. Corporate entities structured in “smart contracts” on platforms such as Ethereum could do away with Audit and Compliance functions entirely – saving massive amounts of money that could be better applied to innovation or worker welfare. Cryptocurrencies and Blockchain are here to stay. Will we one day have a global economy where money and services flow freely across international borders free from protectionist measures and oppressive taxation? Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies can deliver – but today, we can merely dream.