There was plenty of ugliness to be found in the markets this year. Ukranian and Venezuelan sovereign debt. High-yield, energy-related corporate bonds. Argentine pesos. Russian rubles. Greek stocks.
But none of these investments has been as atrociously awful as bitcoin, the heavily hyped crypto-currency that stormed onto the financial scene in the last few years, threatening to disrupt the cornerstone of global finance that is fiat currency.
It hasn’t worked out. Year-to-date bitcoin is down roughly 52% at last glance.
Clearly bitcoin bulls have found themselves on the bleeding edge. But the question is why? One of the clearest answers seems to be that some of the shadier usages of the currency—say for evading taxes and buying drugs—have been tougher to execute as governments increasingly try to clamp down on the “dark web” sites where bitcoin quickly became the cryptocurrency of choice. Collapses of large, unregulated bitcoin exchanges—such as Mt. Gox—have done little to instill confidence in the currency either.
Some of us have argued that bitcoin actually never was a currency, but rather a plaything of speculators. When such playthings start to lose value, speculators have a tendency to abandon them en masse, which they appear to have done in this case.
Now, it’s worth noting that some argue that the value of bitcoin is not in the currency, but in the technology platform. And who knows? Maybe conventional payment systems will come around someday and start incorporating some of the structural advantages that transacting in bitcoins provides.
But in the meanwhile, the saga of relentlessly sagging bitcoin prices—as well as stagnant usage indicators—underscores an unpleasant fact for libertarian technologists. Money derives much of its value from its government support, in that the government has the power to make it legal tender. That is, the government says not only that currency can be accepted, but it must be accepted. That political choice is what ensures that the currency has an actual utility, that is, it can be used widely for actual transactions. That’s what makes a currency useful. Bitcoin bulls are learning this the hard way.