The bitcoin lottery

March 09, 2021 08:35
Photo:  Reuters

I was recently approached about setting up my own “special purpose acquisition company” (SPAC), which would allow me to secure financial commitments from investors on the expectation that I will eventually acquire some promising business that would prefer to avoid an initial public offering. In picturing myself in this new role, I mused that I could be doubly fashionable by also jumping into the burgeoning field of cryptocurrencies. There have been plenty of headlines about striking it big, quickly, so why not get in on the action?

Being a wizened participant in financial markets, I declined the invitation. The rising popularity of SPACs and cryptocurrencies seems to reflect not their own strengths but rather the excesses of the current moment, with its raging bull market in equities, ultra-low interest rates, and policy-driven rallies after a year of COVID-19 lockdowns.

To be sure, in some cases, pursuing the SPAC route to a healthy return probably makes a lot of sense. But the fact that so many of these entities are being created should raise concerns about looming risks in the surrounding markets.

As for the cryptocurrency phenomenon, I have tried to remain open-minded, but the economist in me struggles to make sense of it. I certainly understand the conventional complaints about the major fiat currencies. Throughout my career as a foreign-exchange analyst, I often found that it was much easier to dislike a given currency than it was to find one with obvious appeal.

I can still remember my thinking during the run-up to the introduction of the euro. Aggregating individual European economies under a shared currency would eliminate a key source of monetary-policy restraint – the much-feared German Bundesbank – and would introduce a new set of risks to the global currency market. This worry led me (briefly) to bet on gold. But by the time the euro was introduced in 1999, I had persuaded myself of its attractions and changed my view (which turned out to be a mistake for the first couple of years, but not in the long term).

Similarly, I have lost count of all the papers I have written and read on the supposed unsustainability of the US balance of payments and the impending decline of the dollar. True, these warnings (and similar portents about Japan’s long-running experiment in monetary-policy largesse) have yet to be borne out. But, given all this inductive evidence, I can see why there is so much excitement behind Bitcoin, the modern version of gold, and its many competitors. Particularly in developing and “emerging” economies, where one often cannot trust the central bank or invest in foreign currencies, the opportunity to stow one’s savings in a digital currency is obviously an inviting one.

By the same token, there has long been a case to be made for creating a new world currency – or upgrading the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset, special drawing rights – to mitigate some of the excesses associated with the dollar, euro, yen, pound, or any other national currency. For its part, China has already introduced a central bank digital currency, in the hopes of laying the foundation for a new, more stable global monetary system.

But these innovations are fundamentally different from a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. The standard economic textbook view is that for a currency to be credible, it must serve as a means of exchange, a store of value, and a unit of account. It is hard to see how a cryptocurrency could meet all three of these conditions all of the time. True, some cryptocurrencies have demonstrated an ability to perform some of these functions some of the time. But the price of Bitcoin, the canonical cryptocurrency, is so volatile that it is almost impossible to imagine it becoming a reliable store of value or means of exchange.

Moreover, underlying these three functions is the rather important role of monetary policy. Currency management is a key macroeconomic policymaking tool. Why should we surrender this function to some anonymous or amorphous force such as a decentralized ledger, especially one that caps the overall supply of currency, thus guaranteeing perpetual volatility?

At any rate, it will be interesting to see what happens to cryptocurrencies when central banks finally start raising interest rates after years of maintaining ultra-loose monetary policies. We have already seen that the price of Bitcoin tends to fall sharply during “risk-off” episodes, when markets suddenly move into safe assets. In this respect, it exhibits the same behavior as many “growth stocks” and other highly speculative bets.

In the interest of transparency, I did consider buying some Bitcoin a few years ago, when its price had collapsed from $18,000 to below $8,000 in the space of around two months. Friends of mine predicted that it would climb above $50,000 within two years – and so it has.

Ultimately, I decided against it, because I had already taken a lot of risk investing in early-stage companies that at least served some obvious purpose. But even if I had bet on Bitcoin, I would have understood that it was just a speculative punt, not a bet on the future of the monetary system.

Speculative bets do of course sometimes pay off, and I congratulate those who loaded up on Bitcoin early on. But I would offer them the same advice I would offer to a lottery winner: Don’t let your windfall go to your head.

Copyright: Project Syndicate
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Jim O’Neill, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management and a former UK Treasury Minister, is Chair of Chatham House.