Albert Einstein reckoned the only reason we have time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.
If he was around today, he may have been forced into a rethink. Last year we saw one of the sharpest falls in financial markets ever, followed by one of the quickest recoveries.
Despite the globe still in the grip of a dangerous pandemic, the price of assets, commodities and financial instruments have continued their meteoric rise fuelled by massive amounts of stimulus, from governments and central banks.
The more they inflate, the higher pundits believe they’ll go.
It’s the everything boom. Real estate, stocks, metals, agricultural products; almost anything you care to name. Except for debt instruments like government bonds that collapsed from record highs in February and March. And gold, the ultimate store of wealth during uncertain times for several millennia.
Nothing, however, can quite match the boom in cryptocurrencies. In the past year, led by Bitcoin, they have soared to ever greater levels, despite warnings from monetary authorities about their highly speculative nature, their use in criminal transactions and the ongoing threat of regulation.
They’ve been largely dismissed by the establishment until recently. Lately, there’s been a surge of interest from institutions that have taken a fresh look at Bitcoin and the vast array of competing cryptocurrencies, and a reluctant acceptance. There’s money to be made, after all.
But the vast bulk of the interest, and perhaps the driving force behind the huge price surge in the past year, has come from households; ordinary people who have jumped aboard the rapidly accelerating train in a quest for riches.
Why no one wants to spend Bitcoin
Laszlo Hanyacz became an internet sensation for all the wrong reasons. Back in 2010, he bought two pizzas from a Jacksonville Florida pizza joint and paid in Bitcoin; the first time anyone ever used the electronic currency as payment.
That alone should have been enough to put him in the history books. But his fame extends well beyond being a trailblazer. Poor old Laszlo forked out 10,000 Bitcoin for the doughy delight. In Australian dollar terms, based on yesterday’s price, that would now be worth $753,510,000.
Let’s hope he ordered the supreme. Or at least, the extra anchovies.
But Laszlo’s misfortune has become one of the great obstacles in the acceptance of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies as a medium of exchange.
Consumers are unwilling to spend their Bitcoin; fearful they may end up like Laszlo. And merchants are nervous about accepting payment, given the incredible volatility around its pricing.
Medium of exchange or store of wealth?
He was far from the first, but it was Elon Musk who kicked along the most recent boom when in February, he announced that Tesla, his electric car company, would be accepting Bitcoin as payment for vehicles.
Not only that, Tesla stumped up $US1.5 billion ($1.94 billion) for a slice of Bitcoin. In filings to the New York Stock Exchange last week, that investment now was worth $US2.48 billion.
Increasingly, cryptocurrencies are being seen as an investment, or a store of wealth with other big players adding Bitcoin to their balance sheets.
Payment systems Paypal and Square are exploring the currency as both a payment system and an investment while Twitter has debated whether to hold some on its balance sheet.
With big names dipping into the market, investment banks like Bank of NY Mellon have taken the plunge, forming a crypto division while JP Morgan has dipped its toe into the water in an effort to keep its clients happy.
For much of the past decade, crypto devotees have predicted the demise of fiat currencies; the system by which individual nations run separate currencies. They’ve argued the rise of the internet and the arrival of digital currencies would bypass traditional payment methods and undermine the network of central banks that regulate and run the global financial system.
There’s no doubt the rise of these new cryptocurrencies will radically alter and dramatically improve the way we pay for goods and services. But central banks and governments are more likely to become players than victims of the revolution.
The slow demise of gold
It was exactly 50 years ago that gold was abandoned as the official foundation for global currencies.
For thousands of years, gold was used as a means of exchange, in coins, and as a store of wealth. Up until World War II, most countries fixed their currencies to a specified amount of gold. But the chaos of the period between the wars forced a shake-up and in 1944 the Bretton Woods system was instituted.
The US dollar became the global currency standard and all other currencies were priced against it. Gold, however, remained the foundation as the US dollar was fixed to the precious metal at $US35 an ounce.
Disgraced US president Richard Nixon called an end to the system in1971 and abandoned the gold standard as inflation took hold in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
But gold never really went out of fashion. Central banks continued to hold large stores of it, cementing its reputation as the bedrock for the financial system. Not surprisingly, investors would flock to it at the first hint of inflation or any other political or economic upheaval.
Gold always has been the ultimate store of wealth.
Why? For a start, it is rare. It also is attractive. And it has a relatively rare molecular structure that makes it incredibly stable. That makes it useful, not just in jewellery, but in high level industrial applications including electronics.
Could crypto challenge gold?
There are some uncanny similarities between Bitcoin and gold.
Like gold, Bitcoin is rare. The total supply has been limited to 21 million tokens. And the pace at which the tokens are released periodically is slowed, so that the final coin won’t be minted until around 2140.
As a result, it becomes increasingly more difficult and more expensive to “mine” new Bitcoin. That has raised concerns about the impact on the environment, where the computing power required to “mint” new coins chews through enormous amounts of energy.
Unlike gold, however, Bitcoin is virtual. It exists in the ether and has no utility or use other than as a means of exchange.
What it does have is an underpinning ledger system known as blockchain that enables data storage to be decentralised so that it cannot be controlled or manipulated.
Blockchain technology has applications far beyond cryptocurrency with potential uses in cars, financial services, voting, polling and even healthcare and is being widely adapted and adopted by a range of industries.
It’s not just blockchain that unites cryptocurrencies. In recent months, a vast number such as Ethereum, Ripple XRP and even a joke currency called Dogecoin, all have soared on the back of the huge lift in Bitcoin.
Gold in contrast, has been on the decline since peaking in August last year. Even the chaotic slide on global bond markets in February and March this year failed to fire it up. Government bond prices cratered on fears of a return of global inflation, the kind of news that ordinarily would see gold spike.
The precious metal reacted as expected through most of last year though. It gathered strength from January on as the pandemic rippled around the globe.
Bitcoin, in contrast, tanked as stocks and most risky assets plummeted. It only gathered steam once vaccines were developed and as the US election result lit a fire under global stock markets.
Perhaps cryptocurrencies will replace gold as the ultimate store of wealth at some point. They may even become the currencies of the internet, enabling safe and secure transactions.
Judging from movements over the past year, they remain yet another speculative, volatile and risky investment. But their time may be rapidly approaching.