What’s happened to the ‘Bitcoin Revolution?’

Last Tuesday PayPal announced partnerships with the three biggest Bitcoin payment processors, BitPay, Coinbase and GoCoin. Merchants can now accept Bitcoin through PayPal’s Payment Hub platform, although the company hasn’t integrated the currency into its system directly.

With over 143m registered users and $125bn worth of transactions last year this is a boon for the digital currency-cum-payments processor, which currently sees up to 80,000 transactions a day.

It’s also a suggestion that the ‘Bitcoin revolution’ (if it is to happen at all) could be less explosive, more incremental, and far more reliant on existing processes than many might believe.

In many ways the last 12 months have been incredible for Bitcoin. It’s gone from an underground obsession to a mainstream curiosity and the darling of the FinTech world. Huge companies such as Overstock and IBM now accept payment in it, and the currency is on track to attract more VC funding in 2014 than the Internet did in 1995.

Yet for some Bitcoin’s performance has been a disappointment. Despite all the investment and media attention, Neither Bitcoin’s price nor its use have seen anything like the exponential rise anticipated by its biggest proponents.

Enthusiasts are prone to making eye-watering predictions of Bitcoin’s value, yet its price has been falling in recent months and is down from a peak of $1,000+ in December to around $400 in recent days. Bitcoin transaction volume has also stagnated around 100,000btc/day, a decline from around 250,000 last November & December.

There’s also been little vindication for the more ideological Bitcoin supporters, who view the protocol as a tool with which to challenge power structures and state legitimacy. Wall Street and the banking sector are more interested in harnessing the power of cryptocurrency and distributed ledgers for themselves than in lobbying to protect themselves from the technology. There’s also little indication that central banks (even privately) consider cryptocurrencies a threat to fiat currency. And whilst Bitcoin fans are quick to proclaim its resistance to state censorship, places like China and Russia have done a good job of suppressing its use within their borders.

Yet none of this renders Bitcoin a failure. Whilst crazy price rises no longer dominate the news and public interest may have waned, the past year has seen significant professionalization within the Bitcoin community and the development of a staggering amount of infrastructure.

Actors like the Bitcoin Foundation have worked hard to safeguard the Bitcoin protocol and to provide the currency with a ‘legitimate’ face. Bitcoin conferences now cater to serious investors and carry hefty pricetags to match. Self-styled crypto-consultants and established law forms vie to provide specialized advice, whilst groups like Google Ventures and Barclays Accelerator have their eyes on crypto-entrepreneurs. Whilst basic problems like securing an UK bank account for Bitcoin businesses persist, financial innovation in areas like Bitcoin derivatives which compensate for the currency’s volatility race ahead.

Lawmakers are also starting to take Bitcoin seriously. The UK Treasury has already offered really very reasonable tax guidance on Bitcoin and has a detailed report on it due out this Autumn. The Bank of England’s most recent Quarterly Bulletin labeled Bitcoin a ‘significant innovation’ and remarked that its underlying protocol has the potential to ‘transform’ the financial system as a whole.

This doesn’t guarantee that governments will make the right decisions or regulatory steps. Indeed, proposed legislation like NYC’s ‘BitLicenses‘ threaten to affect Bitcoin companies across the globe. However, in the UK and the USA at least policymakers are seem interested in understanding Bitcoin technology and how it can contribute to society, rather than in controlling the network completely.

This ‘professionalization’ of Bitcoin invokes the ire of some members of the coin community, who regard it as selling out and the establishment of a new, powerful Bitcoin elite. Certainly, companies which pre-emptively comply anti-money laundering and know-your-customer laws applied to other financial services cannot utilize the full potential of Bitcoin technology. However, it is inevitably these boring, corporatized activities-  not transactions fueled by price speculation or clickbait about the Dark Web- that create the chance of a sustainable future for Bitcoin.

It also looks like Bitcoin’s success will be increasingly related to its integration with established payment, merchant and finance companies such as PayPal, Amazon, Apple and Visa. Bitcoin is a disruptive technology with the capacity to bring about huge changes, even within the confines of today’s regulated industries. However, these changes look likely to come with the help and blessing of today’s commercial giants, rather than by a process of immediate disintermediation.

For instance, Bitcoin is much more than the new PayPal, for it’s simultaneously both a currency and a payment processor. Despite this, Bitcoin’s price rallied significantly after a long period  of decline following the PayPal announcement. Whilst the Bitcoin protocol has absolutely no need for an Apple Pay or a debit card to transmit it (in fact Bitcoin was developed to render such third parties obsolete), there’s no denying that it would also work wonders for user adoption. As the Bitcoin ecosystem grows and seeks increasing legitimacy, integration with established companies is a very realistic route to long-term success. In addition these companies have much to gain from embracing Bitcoin early, rather than risk competing with it later.

Understandably, this doesn’t make the ‘Bitcoin revolution’ seem much like a revolution. But for libertarians and free marketeers there’s still much to celebrate. The fact that Bitcoin can reduce payment transactions fees by a couple of percent isn’t all that sexy, but the fact that it could slash the fees associated with remittances to developing countries certainly is. And if established companies like Western Union or M-Pesa can work with a Bitcoin company to speed up this process, so much the better.

There are also innumerable areas (many of which are still in their infancy) where Bitcoin and blockchain technology can work to make the world richer and freer, such as in providing finance for the unbanked , establishing a decentralized internet, or enabling Decentralized, Autonomous Corporations.

Bitcoin is still an alternative to fiat currency, which is great for those anticipating global monetary collapse as well as those experiencing extreme inflation in countries like Argentina. Bitcoin can still be used to circumvent capital controls, give funds to politically outlawed organizations, and to achieve increased levels of financial privacy.

As Bitcoin ‘legitimizes’ and enters the mainstream it is inevitable that the companies and services interacting with it will become regulated. There’s even demand for the legislation, since businesses tend to prefer regulatory clarification rather than to be stalled by uncertainty. However, the beauty of the blockchain is that whilst companies and specific actions can be restrained by law, the underlying Bitcoin protocol cannot be controlled or regulated. This allows for disobedience and experimentation in the shadows. No matter how Bitcoin is taxed, treated or regulated in the open economy, the possibility of a parallel realm where no interaction with the current political and financial system is required- however small- remains as an enduring idea.

 

Colin Hines and the Magic Money Tree

It had to happen of course: once people started talking about unconventional monetary policy then there was always going to be someone who espied the Magic Money Tree. And it’s Colin Hines who has:

It was heartening to hear Ed Miliband say in his speech that tackling climate change is a passion of his and that solving it could be a massive job-generating opportunity (Report, 24 September). The inevitable question of how to pay for this can be tackled by writing to Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England. He is on record as saying that if the government requested it, then the next round of QE could be used to buy assets other than government debt. Miliband said that the Green Investment Bank would be used to fund green economic activity and so Labour should allow it to issue bonds that could then be bought by the Bank using “Green QE”. Similarly, local authorities could issue bonds to build new energy-efficient public homes funded by “Housing QE”.

The Bank has already pumped £375bn of QE into the economy, but with little tangible benefit to the majority. Imagine the galvanising effect on the real economy of every city and town if a £50bn programme of infrastructural QE became the next government’s priority. This could make every building in the UK energy-tight and build enough highly insulated new homes to tackle the housing crisis. It would provide a secure career structure for those involved for the next 10 years and beyond, massive numbers of adequately paid apprenticeships and jobs for the self employed, a market for local small businesses, and reduced energy bills for all. Such a nationwide programme would generate tax revenue to help tackle the deficit, but in an economically and socially constructive way. Best of all it would not be categorised as increased public funding, since QE spending has not and would not be counted as government expenditure.
Colin Hines
Convener, Green New Deal Group

Wonderful, eh? We can have everything we want, and a pony, without ever having to pay for it!

Hurrah!

The problem being that Hines (and there are others of that ilk out there too) hasn’t grasped the difference between the creation of credit to reduce interest rates (what QE does) and the creation of base money to spend into the real economy. That second has rather different effects: as the Germans found out post WW I, the Hungarians post WW II and the Zimbabweans more recently. It creates hyperinflation, those last having it to such a bad extent that they kept printing until they’d run out of the real money necessary to buy the ink to print the play money.

I do not, note, claim that £1 billion or £50 billion or even £500 billion of this “Green QE” will inevitably produce inflation of 1000 % a day. I do however claim that use of this Magic Money Tree will, given the way that politics works (which politician doesn’t like spending money she’s not had to find through taxation?) will inevitably lead to hyperinflation. For the thing is we’ve tried this experiment before, many a time, and that is always what does happen.

Simply not a good idea.

An independent Scotland should use the pound without permission from rUK, says new ASI report

Today the Adam Smith Institute has released a new paper: “Quids In: How sterlingization and free banking could help Scotland flourish”, written by Research Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman. Below is a condensed version of the press release; a full version of the press release can be found here.

An independent Scotland could flourish by using the pound without permission from the rest of the UK, a new report released today by the Adam Smith Institute argues.

The report, “Quids In: How sterlingization and free banking could help Scotland flourish”, draws on Scottish history and contemporary international examples to argue for the adoption of what it calls ‘adaptive sterlingization,’ which combines unilateral use of the pound sterling with financial reforms that remove protections for established banks while allowing competitive banks to issue their own promissory notes without restriction. This, the report argues, would give Scotland a more stable financial system and economy than the rest of the UK.

According to the report, adaptive sterlingization would allow competitive, private banks to issue their own promissory notes backed by reserves of GBP (or anything else – including USD, gold, index fund shares or even cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin). With each bank given powers to expand and contract its balance sheet relative to demand, this system would be highly adaptive to changes in money demand, preventing demand-side recessions in modern economies such as the ones that led to the 2008 Great Recession.

The report’s author, Sam Bowman, details Scotland’s successful history of ‘free banking’ in the 18th and 19th centuries and the period of remarkable financial and economic stability which accompanied it. Historical ‘hangovers’ from this period, like Scotland’s continued practice of individual bank issuance of banknotes, are still in place today, making Scotland uniquely placed for a simple transition to the system outlined in the report.

The report highlights evidence from ‘dollarized’ economies in Latin America, such as Panama, Ecuador and El Salvador, which demonstrate that the informal use of another country’s currency can foster a healthy financial system and economy.

Under sterlingization, Scotland would lack the ability to print money and establish a central bank to act as a lender of last resort. Evidence from dollarized Latin American countries suggests that far from being problematic, this constraint reduces moral hazard within the financial system and forces banks to be prudent, significantly improving the overall quality of the country’s financial institutions. Panama, for example, has the seventh soundest banks in the world.

The report concludes that Britain’s obstinacy could be Scotland’s opportunity to return to a freer, more stable banking system. Sterilization, combined with reform of Scottish financial regulation that:

  • removed government liquidity provisions to illiquid banks,

  • established mechanisms to ‘bail-in’ insolvent banks by extending liability to shareholders, and

  • shifted deposit insurance costs onto banks and depositors rather than taxpayers,

would improve standards and competitiveness in banking, while significantly reducing the prospect of large-scale bank panics and financial crises.

Commenting on his report, the Research Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman, said:

The Scottish independence debate has repeatedly foundered on the question of currency, but if Scots look to their own history they will find that their country is a shining example of how competition in currency and banking can ensure a stable and effective banking system. Scotland’s free banking era was an economic and intellectual Golden Age, and its system of competitive note-issuance was recognised by such thinkers as Adam Smith as one of the root causes of the country’s prosperity during this time.

The examples of Panama and other dollarized Latin American economies are proof that countries can thrive when they unilaterally adopt another country’s currency. Combined with a flexible, adaptive banking system, the unilateral use of another country’s currency can instill a discipline in a country’s financial sector that neither a national currency nor a currency union can provide. Scotland’s banking system is almost uniquely primed for such a system of ‘adaptive sterlingization’. The path outlined in this paper would go almost unnoticed by the average Scot – until the next big economic shock, when they might just wonder why their system was so much more stable than that of the country they’d left behind.

Two cheers for Mark Carney

Applauding regulators, and especially the financial variety, is rare but maybe the tide is finally changing.  It was a delight to see Ofgem attacked this month by its previous chiefs for reducing competition and thereby contributing to higher prices, i.e. the opposite of what utility regulators are supposed to do.

Likewise it was a delight to read in The Times (“Regulators join bandwagon heading away from Bank”, 18th August) that the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) has lost 160 staff.  That is only 10% of the total and the cynical may believe that they were always lost.  Even so, it is a step in the right direction and the Governor’s “One Bank” plan deserves some of the credit.

The Bank’s present 3,600 staff compares with 2,900 in February 1997, i.e. before Gordon Brown removed banking regulatory and supervisory responsibility.  This compares like with like. In 1974, Bank of England staff numbered 5,500 excluding print workers.  The long term staffing levels are declining but, with the transfer of regulation to Brussels, Mark Carney should still be looking to halve the current number to about 1,800.  For comparison, the Bank of Canada has, according to its latest (2012) Annual Report, 1,239 staff.

The odd thing about The Times report is its sepulchral gloom.  We should be rejoicing that personnel are leaving the PRA and that they are joining trading banks to direct their compliance.  Surely less interference from bureaucrats and more self discipline by banks is just what we want?

Why only two cheers for the Governor?  Things seem to be going in the right direction at last but they have a long way to go.

A bankers’ ethics oath risks being seen as empty posturing

The suggestion put forward yesterday by ResPublica think-tank that we can restore consumer trust and confidence in the financial system, or prevent the next crisis by requiring bankers to swear an oath seems excessively naïve.

Such a pledge trivializes the ethical issues that banks and their employees face in the real world.  It gives a false sense of confidence that implies that an expression of a few lines of moral platitudes will equip bankers to resist the temptations of short-term gain and rent-seeking behavior that are present in the financial services industry.

In fairness to ResPublica’s report on “Virtuous Baking” the bankers’ oath is just one of many otherwise quite reasonable proposals to address the moral decay that seems to be prevalent in some sections of the banking industry.

I don’t for a moment suggest that banking, or any other business for that matter, should not be governed by highest moral and ethical standards.  Indeed, the ResPublica report is written from Aristotelian ‘virtue theory’ perspective that could be applied as a resource for reforming the culture of the banking industry.  ‘Virtue theory’ recognizes that people’s needs are different and virtue in banking would be about meeting the diverse needs of all, not just the needs of the few.

The main contribution of the “Virtuous Banking” report is to bring the concepts of morality and ethical frameworks into public discourse.  Such discourse is laudable but we should be under no illusion that changing the culture of the financial services industry will be a long process. Taking an oath will not change an individual’s moral and ethical worldview or behaviour.  The only way ethical and moral conduct can be reintroduced back into the banking sector is if the people who work in the industry were to hold themselves intrinsically to the highest ethical and moral standards.

Bankers operate within tight regulatory frameworks; the quickest way to drive behavioural change is therefore through regulatory interventions.  However, banking is already the most regulated industry known to man and regulation has not produced any sustainable change in the banks’ conduct.  One of the key problems with prevailing regulatory paradigms is that regulation limits managerial choice to reduce risk in the banking system, rather than focuses on regulating the drivers for managerial decision-making.

Market-based regulations that do not punish excellence but incentivize bankers to seriously think through the risk-return implications of their business decisions, will be good for the financial services industry and the economy as a whole.  A regulatory approach that makes banks and bankers liable for their decisions and actions through mechanisms such as bonus claw-back clauses will be more effective in reducing moral hazard at the systemic level and improving individual accountability at the micro level than taking a “Hippocratic” bankers’ oath.