A number of readers have asked me to weigh in on Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, whose fluctuations have dominated a lot of market news. Would I please comment on what it’s all about, and what’s going on?
Well, I can tell you what it’s about. What’s going on is harder to explain.
The story so far: Bitcoin, the first and biggest cryptocurrency, was introduced in 2009. It uses an encryption key, similar to those used in hard-to-break codes — hence the “crypto” — to establish chains of ownership in tokens that entitle their current holders to … well, ownership of those tokens. And nowadays we use Bitcoin to buy houses and cars, pay our bills, make business investments, and more.
Oh, wait. We don’t do any of those things. Twelve years on, cryptocurrencies play almost no role in normal economic activity. Almost the only time we hear about them being used as a means of payment — as opposed to speculative trading — is in association with illegal activity, like money laundering or the Bitcoin ransom Colonial Pipeline paid to hackers who shut it down.
Twelve years is an eon in information technology time. Venmo, which I can use to share restaurant bills, buy fresh fruit at sidewalk kiosks, and much more, was also introduced in 2009. Apple unveiled its first-generation iPad in 2010. Zoom came into use in 2012. By the time a technology gets as old as cryptocurrency, we expect it either to have become part of the fabric of everyday life or to have been given up as a nonstarter.
If normal, law-abiding people don’t use cryptocurrency, it’s not for lack of effort on the part of crypto boosters. Many highly paid person-hours have been spent trying to find the killer app, the thing that will finally get the masses using Bitcoin, Ethereum or some other brand daily.
But I’ve been in numerous meetings with enthusiasts for cryptocurrency and/or blockchain, the concept that underlies it. In such meetings I and others always ask, as politely as we can: “What problem does this technology solve? What does it do that other, much cheaper and easier-to-use technologies can’t do just as well or better?” I still haven’t heard a clear answer.
Yet investors continue to pay huge sums for digital tokens. The values of major cryptocurrencies fluctuate wildly — Bitcoin fell 30 percent Wednesday morning, then made up most of the losses that afternoon. Their collective value has, however, at times exceeded $2 trillion, more than half the value of all the intellectual property owned by U.S. business.
Why are people willing to pay large sums for assets that don’t seem to do anything? The answer, obviously, is that the prices of these assets keep going up, so that early investors made a lot of money, and their success keeps drawing in new investors.
This may sound to you like a speculative bubble, or maybe a Ponzi scheme — and speculative bubbles are, in effect, natural Ponzi schemes. But could a Ponzi scheme really go on for this long? Actually, yes: Bernie Madoff ran his scam for almost two decades, and might have gone even longer if the financial crisis hadn’t intervened.
Now, a long-running Ponzi scheme requires a narrative — and the narrative is where crypto really excels.
First, crypto boosters are very good at technobabble — using arcane terminology to convince themselves and others that they’re offering a revolutionary new technology, even though blockchain is actually pretty elderly by infotech standards and has yet to find any compelling uses.
Second, there’s a strong element of libertarian derp — assertions that fiat currencies, government-issued money without any tangible backing, will collapse any day now. True, Britain, whose currency was still standing last time I looked, went off the gold standard 90 years ago. But who’s counting?
Given all this, are cryptocurrencies headed for a crash sometime soon? Not necessarily. One fact that gives even crypto skeptics like me pause is the durability of gold as a highly valued asset. Gold, after all, suffers from pretty much the same problems as Bitcoin. People may think of it as money, but it lacks any attributes of a useful currency: You can’t actually use it to make transactions — try buying a new car with gold ingots — and its purchasing power has been extremely unstable.
So when John Maynard Keynes called the gold standard a “barbarous relic” way back in 1924, he wasn’t wrong. But the metal’s mystique, and its valuation, live on. It’s conceivable that one or two cryptocurrencies will somehow achieve similar longevity.
Or maybe not. For one thing, governments are well aware that cryptocurrencies are being used by bad actors, and may well crack down in a way they never did on gold trading. Also, the proliferation of cryptocurrencies may prevent any one of them from achieving the semi-sacred status gold holds in some people’s minds.
The good news is that none of this matters very much. Because Bitcoin and its relatives haven’t managed to achieve any meaningful economic role, what happens to their value is basically irrelevant to those of us not playing the crypto game.
Before long though, Caspian stopped allowing withdrawals. After three months, it stopped paying interest. Finally, in May, it shut its doors for good — becoming one of the largest in a long series of failures of Iranian financial institutions in recent years.
.. The outpouring of anger was directed not only at President Hassan Rouhani, who won re-election promising to revitalize the economy, but also the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
.. The cascade of defaults, economists say, was not just the result of risky banking practices, but also a case study in official corruption — a major reason Iranians found their losses so infuriating. Adding to their outrage, Iranian officials made a series of statements blaming the victims for not being more careful with their money.
.. Many of the institutions, including those that merged in 2016 to form Caspian, were allowed to gamble with deposits or run Ponzi schemes with impunity for years, in part because they were owned by well-connected elites:
- religious foundations, the
- Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or
- other semiofficial investment funds
in the Iranian state.
.. as many as hundreds of thousands of people lost money because of the collapsing financial institutions. Iranians have a term for the growing class of victims: “property losers,” or “mal-baakhtegan” in Persian.
.. regulators have quietly steered many of the companies into mergers with larger banks to try to absorb their losses, but that has created a worsening problem of bad loans and overvalued assets throughout the banking system.
.. Economists say that as many as 40 percent of the loans carried on the books of Iranian banks may be delinquent.
.. Even Iran’s supreme leader, Mr. Khamenei, has acknowledged responsibility for the growing number of victims of “problematic financial institutions.”
“These appeals must be dealt with and heard out,” he said this month. “I myself am responsible; all of us must follow this approach.”
.. The corruption underlying the bank failures has long been an open secret
.. The loans totaled $1.9 billion, and almost all appeared to be held by well-known insiders.
.. Among them was Hossein Hedayati, a business tycoon and former member of the Revolutionary Guards, whose swift rise was so conspicuous that websites speculated about the sources of his sudden wealth. The document released by the lawmaker showed that Mr. Hedayati owed $285 million, and in a television program discussing the loan, another lawmaker, Mohammad Hassannejad, accused Mr. Hedayati of using a series of front companies to swing the loans and hide his role.
Mr. Hedayati dialed in to the program, sputtering with rage; he denied borrowing from Sarmayeh and threated to “sue everyone,” but has yet to follow through on the threat.
.. Clerics controlled religious foundations, called bonyads, that acquired commercial businesses. The largest of these, under the supreme leader, now makes up “15 to 20 percent” of the Iranian economy
.. All the semiofficial holding companies have major advantages over private businesses in favorable access to capital, tax exemptions and political connections.
.. But under a conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who came to power in 2005, semiofficial bodies controlled by clerics, the Revolutionary Guards or their allies dominated the newly private financial sector.
.. the Revolutionary Guards controlled at least two, while the army, the police, the municipality of Tehran and a giant religious foundation close to the Guards controlled the others.
.. the largest were usually run by individuals close to the same ruling elite
.. They say that made it almost impossible for even the best-intentioned regulators to police the banks.
.. The outsize returns promised by the banks and financial institutions lured capital that might better have gone to more productive uses
.. leaks about the high salaries of executives at state-run companies
.. The government has since tried to block the use of Telegram in Iran