Sorry, digital currencies aren’t actual currencies

It’s hard to go a month now without a post from me on cryptocurrencies. I dabbled into this market on July 1st when a client paid me in BitCoin, which worked out to $88.31 at the time of the exchange. Since then its price has increased at a much greater rate than the market in general.

Yesterday I moved it from my digital wallet to BlockFi, a crypto exchange, and it was worth $109.47. So over just one month, I made a 24% return. If I could do this for a whole year, the return would be 288% and it would be worth $254.33. It’s safe to say that there is no other asset that I own that would reap that sort of return.

I can’t see eleven months into the future. You will get a million different opinions about where BitCoin’s value will be going. What I can say is that it fluctuates a lot. Since yesterday, its value dropped to $103.71. Volatility comes with the digital currencies territory.

What doesn’t change that much is the value of the U.S. dollar on a given day. Right now there are innumerable news stories because inflation in the last twelve months has been running in the 5-6 percent range. But if I had planned to spend my BitCoin today on something tangible, I’d be paying 5.26% more for it than yesterday. So in a way my BitCoin inflation rate was 5.26% and this occurred over just one day. Wow! But no one seems to be holding BitCoin to the same inflation standard as the U.S. dollar.

Why is this? To paraphrase The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, I puzzled over this until my puzzler was sore. Both are currencies, right? Well, no. BitCoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin and the rest are not actual currencies. Just because someone slaps a label to it, doesn’t make it an actual currency.

Okay, it is a currency in the sense that you can trade it for things of value, like until recently a Tesla. Right now at least though you can’t buy most things in these “currencies”. In my case, I buy them in U.S. dollars. Given that you can’t buy much with them, they are only currencies in a very limited sense. If you really want to buy something with your BitCoins, you are probably going to sell it to someone who will give you a local currency like the U.S. dollar in exchange for it. That’s what I aim to do with my BitCoin. It will feel real when its value in U.S. dollars hits one of my accounts denominated in U.S. dollars. Until then, it’s funny money. But actually, it’s not money.

So the fundamental premise behind “digital currencies” is false, as except in some very limited cases you can’t use these as money. That could and maybe will change over time, but right now for most practical purposes, they’re not currencies. They are not money.

So what are they? Some call them assets. For me, calling them assets fails the smoke test too. An asset is something you own, and it amounts to something tangible and real. These assets are often denominated in shares, so in that sense they are somewhat virtual. As an ex federal employee, I’m still in its Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), their fancy name for 401K/IRA. I have, for example, 2686.0352 shares in the TSP C Fund, which is a basket of funds. It’s likely that some part of its current value of approximately $203,000 is invested in IBM, so I own part of that company along with lots of others. I can claim my share its capital gains and dividends, at least when I sell them — it’s a tax-advantaged account. I own some part of the buildings that IBM owns and the computers and equipment inside them and in its warehouses.

What can I say about the assets behind my BitCoin? Well, I can say there are no assets. That’s not to say it doesn’t have value. If I can convince someone else to buy my BitCoin and give me U.S. dollars, I can take and spend those U.S. dollars pretty much universally. There is no BitCoin headquarters to go to if the currency goes bankrupt. If it does, I’ve lost the value of my BitCoin. Its value lies merely in its perception.

The same is true with U.S. dollars, of course. Dollars are perceived to have value because the U.S. government stands behind them. You aren’t entitled to your share of the gold in Fort Knox if the U.S. government collapses, but we do know there is an institution, a lot of smart people, and the full faith and credit of the government supporting it. If my bank account is FDIC ensured and my bank goes belly up, the government will give me the value of my account in U.S dollars, up to $250,000.

If for some reason you have an incompetent government, then a currency can collapse too. Venezuela’s currency is just one of many recent examples. So I have plenty of incentive to keep the U.S. government functional. No wonder I obsess over whether certain radicals might succeed in doing away with our democracy and setting up an autocracy. If nothing else, the value of my U.S. dollars would get very iffy.

Those into “digital currencies” are placing faith in them too, mainly that they can’t be hacked or undermined. That’s pretty dubious to my way of thinking. One thing is clear is that they are subject to the laws of supply and demand. If demand ceases because they aren’t trusted, they become effectively worthless. Just like Venezuela’s currency.

These “digital currencies” are actually speculative assets where the asset is basically the successfully operation of an advanced computer algorithm (which spits out a “coin”) and the faith that blockchain-powered servers will be around to certify transactions in these assets. All of them share one fundamental weakness: they require the Internet. Some share another weakness: they depend on governments to allow their use. It’s hard to transact these “currencies” in China because for the most part its government won’t allow it.

Currencies facilitate the exchange of value. But they have one other important asset: they hold their value within a reasonable range of inflation over a long period of time. If they don’t, this money will move toward other currencies that do a better job of retaining their value. In short, they facilitate savings so that their value can be quickly and conveniently spent.

Digital currencies currently do not excel in either easily exchanging value or as a reliable source of savings. To my mind, this tells me they are not a currency.

So don’t treat them as such. With time, it’s likely the U.S. and other governments will create their own digital currencies. The blockchain technology that is the foundation of these “digital currencies” is something of value. It will be leveraged by other more stable entities like the U.S. government to more conveniently, securely, cheaply and transparently exchange value.

It’s hard for me to see a business case for “digital currencies” once governments start issuing their own.

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