A lost opportunity for cryptocurrencies

Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are volatile, but could prove useful by injecting a needed element of competition into the realm of monetary policy and finance. Rather than allow this, however, governments will probably step in to regulate them, perhaps under global supervision.

Russian currency exchange in Moscow offers Bitcoin and Sbercoin cryptocurrencies
April 2, 2018: Russia’s first cryptocurrency exchange office, offering Bitcoin for a local cryptocurrency called Sbercoin, at Moscow’s Kursk railway station. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Ordinary people like the anonymity of cryptocurrencies, but governments do not
  • The authorities will use regulations and technology to restrict or kill the new medium
  • Asset-backed cryptocurrencies would allow monetary competition with less volatility

Cryptocurrencies have been making headlines lately. The best known of them – Bitcoin – has made rich those who bought early a few years ago (its price was 30 U.S. cents in 2010) and punished those who came late (it traded near $7,000 in early April 2018, after reaching $19,000 in December 2017).

High volatility is still the name of the game. The question is whether it will keep cryptocurrencies from playing a larger and possibly significant role in the next few years. Or will they continue to be a risky, niche investment and a relatively limited means of payment?

Cryptocurrencies have three basic features. First, they are fiat money, similar to dollars, euros or pounds: they are not backed by anything real (for example, gold or oil) and have value because individuals believe somebody else will accept them as a means of payment in the future. Thus, confidence is an essential component of any successful fiat or cryptocurrency in circulation. A possible exception is Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s project of a gold-backed cryptocurrency, ambiguously called the Petro Oro – but it is not at all obvious that he will keep his word and deliver gold ingots to anybody who shows up at the exchange window.

Second, cryptocurrencies are created by algorithms. While the owner of the algorithm can alter a cryptocurrency’s supply rule (this is what one suspects President Maduro will do), such intervention is unlikely to occur at whim: loss of credibility would destroy a cryptocurrency overnight.

Third, the way cryptocurrencies are created allows virtually anonymous, safe transactions, with minimal risk of fraud. Since controls are exercised by so-called miners (a network of cryptocurrency controllers), even Mr. Maduro would find it hard to sell the same monetary unit more than once.

Natural enemies

That makes cryptocurrencies appealing to those who appreciate security and do not want outside parties – including governments – to snoop around and violate their privacy. By contrast, the authorities do not like cryptocurrencies because they make tracking transactions difficult.

For example, Singapore and South Korea recently proposed measures allegedly aimed at protecting cryptocurrency investors and avoiding money laundering. In fact, these are attempts to crack the wall of anonymity shielding the world of Bitcoins and other virtual currencies. The goal is to prevent cryptocurrencies from becoming a preferred instrument of tax evasion and guarantee that they do not interfere with traditional monetary policymaking.

Governments will move to kill an instrument that could undermine their powers of taxation and monetary policy.

We can therefore expect governments will move to kill an instrument that could seriously undermine their powers of taxation and monetary policy. As a matter of fact, much of the present volatility on virtual currency markets reflects how operators perceive attempts by the authorities to regulate and restrict them.

Technology will play a major role in this context. For example, there is little governments can do to identify a transaction while it is being processed, but they can probably track the machine (computer or server) from which the transaction originates. Monitoring capabilities will certainly become more sophisticated in the future, but so will the barriers to keep intruders at bay.

Thinking differently

Yet, all governments do not necessarily have the same priorities. Those differences can lead to various scenarios. Most governments do not want to lose their taxing power, which today relies heavily on the possibility of tracking money transfers. Others, however, are eager to attract foreign investment and create a favorable environment for economic growth.

Freedom to choose the means of payment is an important way for governments to encourage business activity and relocations from abroad. Of course, these governments must be ready to revamp their tax systems (heavier taxation on consumption and very light or zero taxation on income and wealth) and to apply lower tax pressures.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney and other public officials see cryptocurrencies as a threat
March 2, 2018: Bank of England Governor Mark Carney launched a scathing attack on cryptocurrencies at a speech in London, arguing they should be held to the same standards as the rest of the financial system. © dpa

If and when the demand for virtual currencies steadies, these currencies would also provide monetary stability. For example, quantitative easing and manipulated interest rates would be all but impossible in a world of virtual currencies. Countries that welcome Bitcoin and the other virtual currencies would signal a strong commitment to fiscal and regulatory restraint, monetary rigor and confidence in a free-market economy. This is precisely what most governments abhor, which would make the impact of those that think differently even larger.

Real cryptocurrencies

Another scenario becomes possible if reputable governments accept cryptocurrencies not just as a means of payment, but as a store of value.

As mentioned earlier, the biggest drawback of cryptocurrencies at present is their volatility and price uncertainty. These are the same things that make them attractive to risk-loving investors, as well as people who hold lots of cash and wish to avoid government scrutiny – or even common criminals. Yet this same volatility and uncertainty are enough to scare away ordinary individuals who are looking for a safe place to park their savings.

Now, a real cryptocurrency – one backed by something real – would minimize these difficulties and open new possibilities in monetary policy and global finance. A real cryptocurrency could be backed by commodities such as gold or oil, or even by shares in blue chip companies.

Politicians are more likely to punish innovators than to give up monetary sovereignty or reduce spending.

The collateral would be priced at a fixed parity: so, for example, one cryptoruble for a gram of gold, or a barrel of oil, or 1,000 shares of Gazprom. Having both a fiat currency (e.g. the Russian ruble) and a real cryptocurrency (e.g. the Russian real cryptoruble) would lead to a system of competing currencies, since anybody in Russia could issue cryptorubles.

In this context, the government would play two roles. It could continue to print the paper currency, but also issue its own cryptocurrency backed by real assets (e.g., oil). Furthermore, it could periodically certify other domestic issuers have the collateral necessary to redeem cryptocurrencies in circulation.

Unrealistic hopes

The outcome would be an end to the government monopoly on legal tender. It would introduce alternative and credible means to store wealth, as well as a new source of international financing. Terms of credit would no longer be dependent on the discretionary decisions of monetary policymakers associated with the currency in which the transaction is denominated.

Who would benefit? Large corporations, which would gain access to a new source of rather cheap credit; states that can claim ownership of abundant natural resources; and other countries with the courage to overhaul their tax systems and downsize public expenditure.

But is it realistic to expect governments to seize this opportunity? Not very. Politicians are always reluctant to give up monetary sovereignty, reduce spending or cut back the fiscal burden. They are much more likely to punish monetary innovators. For the time being, there is no need to outlaw them. The volume of cryptocurrencies presently being traded is relatively large (roughly equal to that of the New York Stock Exchange), but only a fraction of this amount is used to buy goods, services and financial assets. Their impact on monetary policies is minimal.

However, should virtual money cease to be a plaything of financial speculators, the authorities will step in to regulate the cryptocurrency market in the name of global governance. This will limit its appeal to aficionados. Bitcoin and its competitors will not disappear. Yet, an important opportunity to make money markets more competitive will have been missed.

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