A new ‘virtual currency’ seems to have taken the financial and technology worlds by storm in recent months.
Google the phrase ‘regulatory response to bitcoin’ and watch the hit counter climb over time, expect this trend to continue as the total traded value of the bitcoin ‘currency’ continues to grow and regulators around the world start to understand the significance of this new decentralised transnational virtual currency.
While bitcoin appears to have solved the double-spending risk problem of purely virtualised currencies it has more problems than positives.
- Being decentralised it has no regulation other than that set initially, so if it is changed over time there is little control for current or future investors. Sure this is unlikely now but once momentum is gathered (as it rapidly is doing) then the temptation for those able to bias the system will grow.
- Being devoid of a home nation (or nations) it is also not under-written, ie if the currency was challenged commercially or the infrastructure eliminated or merely damaged over night those who have purchased the currency will see their investment disappear or drastically reduce instantly. Even though nations with ‘real’ currencies (with economic challenges) abound in the world today, they have the ability to bet-the-country (and the people’s ability to pay taxes in future) to borrow to underwrite their government’s investments and hence their currency.
- The ability to transfer currency cross-border and then exchange bitcoins for traditional currency opens a number of doors for unmonitored or less monitored transfer of funds internationally, while this is probably not illegal in itself in many regulatory environments, it may be illegal in some and it is almost certainly tempting for organised crime to consider using.
- Bitcoin exchanges also do not operate in a regulated environment, there is nothing to say your orders are not subjected to market based manipulation events such as front running.
- It is currently creating currency steadily (ie printing money) and even their own documentation says change is likely, with no regulator, monitoring or democratically empowered crowd how would any changes be sure of benefiting stakeholders fairly?
- Trans-border decentralised systems ‘powered by the crowd’ are capable of many wonderful things, just witness the crowd sourced wonders on many commercial and non-profits sites around the world today.
- But currency is different, it is the foundation of commerce and much of modern life and any government worth their salt will see the risks to their sovereignty if they look even fleetingly at the bitcoin process. That said, a wake-up jolt could actually benefit many of these modern nations that have over borrowed, printed money or allowed capitalism to go a step too far with tiers of inter-dependent collateralised debt few if any people ever understood let alone regulated.
- The difference this time is vested parties are not benefiting from bitcoin, so they will find a way to benefit (tax, fees) or shut bitcoin down (or ‘burden it’ out of any substantial existence).
- As a result of all or some of the above I expect a firm and negative regulatory response to the bitcoin mechanism that will either see burdens placed on the system or on the participants that will make it an unattractive back alley or a completely closed dead end in a fairly short period of time.
- Once these burdens are added and a bleak future is visible the currency will most likely collapse or flat line and transaction costs tied to these burdens will stall growth and possibly outright usage.
- If the above does not happen in the short term, there is a further risk that legitimate institutions accustomed to taking risks will jump on the band wagon and magnify the risks and awareness and need for an urgent regulatory response by individual nations. These include trading banks and merchants banks or investment banks depending on the term you prefer.
- If this occurs the eventual (sad) result will be the same but the pain experienced by traditional mum and dad investors will be much greater and the corresponding reduction in trust by those hurt will impact traditional currency and capital markets even more materially.