In the last one month, many people have asked me a simple question: “But what about bitcoins?”
Between 2013 and now, the price of a single bitcoin has gone from close to zero to more than $19,000. In fact, in 2017, the price of a bitcoin has gone from less than $1,000 to more than $19,000.
This astonishing price rise has been noticed by people. But before we go any further, let’s understand what is a bitcoin? It’s a digital currency that does not use banks or any third party as a medium. It is governed by a string of cryptographical codes that are not easy to break, as they are believed to be of military grade.
The law of demand basically states that demand for something tends to pick up when the prices are low. But this basic law in economics does not tend to apply to various forms of investments. This includes, stocks, real estate etc. A large bunch of people start entering the stock market only once it has rallied significantly. The same is true about real estate.
Along similar lines, the bitcoin has caught the attention of people at large, only after having risen significantly in price. This is a point well worth remembering.
In late 2008, when the investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust, the Western world plunged into a serious recession. In order to come out of this, the Western central banks led by the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, decided to print a huge amount of money and pump it into the financial system.
The idea was to increase the supply of money and make it less costly, that is, drive down interest rates. At lower interest rates, people and corporations were more likely to borrow and spend money, and this in turn would help businesses and the overall economy.
At the same time, this power to create unlimited amount of money out of thin air created a fear that if central banks continued with this strategy, sometime in the future paper money would lose the ‘perceived value’ it had.
There was a fear that with such a huge amount of money being printed, it would unleash consumer price inflation, and money would lose value. While, that hasn’t happened, all the money has led to huge asset price inflation, stock markets and real estate markets have risen across the world, as a large chunk of the printed money has found its way into these markets.
Bitcoin was a response to this phenomenon given that unlike paper money it cannot be created out of thin air. The number of bitcoins is finite and it cannot go beyond a limit of 21 million. Hence, people initially bought into it. But, over the last year or two, at least, the people entering it are largely speculators looking to make a quick buck and that has driven up the price as fast as it has.
The trouble is the history of money essentially shows that, even though, all new forms of money are created by the private sector, they are ultimately taken over by the government. The government basically has three powers: 1) The right to “legal” violence. 2) The right to tax. 3) The right to create money out of thin air by printing it.
And this right to create money out of thin air comes from the basic fact that the people accept government money as money, in the economic transactions that they carry out. In the years to come, if economic transactions, that is the buying and selling of things, move towards bitcoins, the governments all over the world are not going to like it.
No government likes any competition against the pieces of paper that it deems to be money. And given this, the governments all over the world will want to crackdown on bitcoins sooner rather than later. What the believers in bitcoins like to say to this is that the virtual currency has been built with this eventuality in mind. How this plays out, only time will tell.
The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on December 21, 2017.