The crypto currency bitcoin is in the grip of a long running bear market. From a high of nearly $20,000 back in Dec 2017, its now lost over 80% of its value. Which, when you consider how many bitcoins are in circulation (about 17 million), multiply that by the value of bitcoins at their peak, minus the recent losses, you end up discovering that Bitcoin has wiped out about $270 billion from the world economy. And this is merely part of the estimated $700 billion dumpster fire across all cryptocurrencies over the last year or so.
Which raises the question, who took the hit? The vast majority of bitcoin transactions are just speculative trading, as well as some actual use by criminals or terrorists. So in all likelihood most of these losses were endured by these parties, including a lot of libertarian bitcoin bugs who just lost a big chunk of their life savings. In short, its tulip mania all over again… but worse, as tulips are actually something useful in the real world. Which is bad news for these individuals, but doesn’t really effect the rest of us in the real world.
However, just prior to the spike in bitcoin prices there had been some rather aggressive buying of bitcoins by hedge funds and the mainstream financial services companies. Which raises the risk that some of those losses are held on the books of those firms. But due to the unregulated nature of bitcoin, its possible the losses aren’t properly being accounted for (one can envisage a trader, who screwed up but doesn’t want to admit it, recording the bitcoins against the price when it was at its high point, which accounting hasn’t picked up on as they don’t understand how volatile bitcoin prices are). So we’ll only find out about it if a firm suddenly runs out of money and collapses into insolvency. Needless to say, if only a small proportion of these losses is held by a single major financial firm, this could easily bring down that company and trigger another financial crisis.
Which hammers home a point made to me recently by someone who works in the money markets. The thing you often hear from the left is that the financial crisis was caused by banks that were too big too fail (and thus according to Bernie, too big to exist). But that’s not the full story. The main reason for the financial crisis wasn’t that the banks were too big, it was that they weren’t properly regulated. Break up the major banks, re-run the financial crisis and the same scenario will unfold, much like the savings and loan scandals of the early 90’s.
And if you think those CDO’s that caused the whole mess are bad, well cryptocurrencies are a heck of a lot worse. They are not only completely unregulated, but easily prone to price manipulation (potentially by foreign powers, terrorist and criminals). In short, if CDO’s were a match, cryptocurrencies are a fuel-air bomb, a weapon of mass economic destruction. We may have dodged the bullet this time, but sooner or later we won’t. That was the lesson that should have been learnt back in 2009. Which raises the question shouldn’t cryptocurrencies be regulated? And if that’s not possible, should they be banned?
Of course the counter to that is, are fiat currencies any better? A fiat currency’s value is largely dependant on the assumption the government knows what its doing. And I think you could count on one hand the number of people in the UK who’d currently agree with that one. Just look at “Calamity” Chris “failing” Grayling’s greatest hits. This one minister has in the space of a few years blown £500 million of tax payer’s money just through pure incompetence, yet he’s still in his job. Oh and the latest from brexit, who has the government given the contract to ensure the delivery of vital medical supplies in the event of no deal?…the same firm which led to KFC’s running out of chicken last year.
And I’d argue a fatal flaw in our current financial system is how it handles debts. If government’s simply printing money whenever they feels like it isn’t bad enough, its when banks start doing this too. As this German documentary discusses the world has accumulated a massive amount of debt due to the long period of low interest rates. Now while this has benefited all of us, its benefited the rich the most. The trouble is, its not sustainable. Debts have to be paid off eventually.
Interest rates will have to rise at some point and the fear is it will spark another financial crisis when they do. And a lot of that debt is arguably the creation of speculative wealth. Wealth that might be wiped out by, well another financial crisis (or has already been wiped out by the bitcoin bubble), a no deal brexit, a protracted trade war, an actual war, peak oil, a major climate catastrophe, etc. In short, the whole world economy could be following the same economic model as Greece and Italy. Its just going to take a bit longer before the wheels fall off.
So all in all I’d argue the lesson here isn’t that cryptocurrencies are bad, its that any unregulated system will be exploited by those out for a quick buck (or criminals) until it finally collapses. The only difference between bitcoin and the wider economy, is the pool of money available was smaller, so it took less time to implode. But unless we reign in the excesses of the global financial system we could well find the same things happens to the global economy.