Bitcoins are forever

This is a story of mania, panic, and crash. It’s not new. 

Today’s market cap is roughly $150 billion. Averaged over, say, 3 million holders, that’s $50,000 each. Peanuts, if you belong to the 1%.

The trick is to kite the price to anywhere from 5 to 20 times the current level of $4,000.

The sales are essentially wash sales, as coins just go round and round. That’s why they’re coins, see.

Spectators – the victims – then want in, and the insiders pump and dump swimmingly, until the 3 million can get out with huge profits, at the expense of the latecomers.

The end is a classic Minsky Moment, when the latecomers try to sell. The algorithms in the trading platforms would ask: ‘To whom?’ And the price spirals to nothing.

Question for economists: Can the end trigger a financial or economic crisis? A dire scenario is that the latecomers’ loss results in bankruptcies and loan defaults, a retrenchment in purchases of housing and consumer durables, or in a general malaise in business and consumer confidence. Banks may fail if they finance bitcoin purchases.

With the benefit of foresight, monetary authorities will likely institute safeguards. Trading platforms are like banks, and will need adequate capital in case of an epidemic of ‘fails,’ which can happen if traders engage in short sales, or in margin trading. The Know Your Customer rule will have to be integrated into the block chain data base, and imposed by banks on customers operating trading platforms. 

Of course, theoretically, since virtual currencies can function as money, all trading can take place outside the banking system. If that were the case, the ponzi won’t work: How would the victims’ money enter into the bitcoin system? The price would go up and down forever, but that’s all. It’s funny money after all.


Virtual currencies and their institutions

Or why Bitcoin and its variants are risky assets.

It’s fair to say that virtual currencies need block chain. Block chain is an essential or necessary innovation behind such currencies. That block chain is not sufficient becomes obvious when we consider the question of how many virtual currencies can exist.

This is pretty much a question in institutional economics. It would be like asking which fiat currency would dominate global transactions.

Ronald Coase’s transaction-cost theory of the firm probably has the answer.

The dominant virtual currency is the one with the least transactions cost. While trust is an unmeasurable element that reduces transactions cost, transaction cost can itself be measured.

There are other factors along with trust that augur well for the dominant virtual currency. Among these factors are:

It should have ‘standing’ with central banks if only because they issue legal tender, whereas virtual currencies are not.

Its value in terms of the dominant fiat currencies must be reasonably stable. For now, the leading virtual currency, Bitcoin, fails.

Also equally important is transparency in its creation and modification. It seems that users of a virtual currency will need at least an unwritten constitution that lays out the fundamental laws of the community of users, even if they wish to be as ‘decentralized’ as possible. Again, here, Bitcoin fails, as can be seen with the ongoing ‘fork’ controversy over Segwit2.

CONCLUSION. It’s too soon right now to say that Bitcoin is here to stay.

SATOSHI 2.0, or how to create a better Bitcoin

Will Bitcoin survive? In what form? These are the two most pressing questions on the most popular ‘virtual’ currency, or crypto currency, today.

Bitcoin emerged along with a computing technology called block chain. Once understood, block chain promises to permit security arrangements for payment and even barter systems that are vastly superior to existing ‘centralized’ systems.

For the use of a virtual currency, the block chain has already proved itself as a solution to the counterfeiting problem while also giving transactors a relative degree of privacy. With the internet, the portability of a cryptocurrency clearly surpasses that of gold. Because of advances in computing technology, the transaction costs of a virtual currency are likely to be smaller than for existing payment systems, including the use of cash. Economists and thoughtful policy makers, including some heads of central banks, consider that virtual currencies have a useful role to play.

But the existing Bitcoin has a fundamental flaw. Its market price is too volatile for anything that aims to be a substitute for fiat money.

The problem can be traced to Bitcoin’s fixed supply (21 million coins) coupled with its lack of a ‘commodity anchor.’ The first means that the market price will be volatile, subject to shifts in demand. The latter – the lack of an anchor – underlies and exacerbates the price volatility problem.

The extreme upside is supposedly when bitcoin could supplant gold, and one calculation suggests that it would do so at $500,000 per coin. This scenario has driven wide-eyed fanaticism and speculators into the Bitcoin ecosystem.

The extreme downside, on the other hand, is that bitcoin holders could for some reason ditch the cryptocurrency and make it worthless.

In between, there could be ‘pump and dump’ scenarios, characteristic of a legal-but-Ponzi-like speculative asset that would occasionally have its Minsky Moments.

A better approach may be to think of a cryptocurrency as a ‘digital’ banknote that at least maintains its real purchasing power. To some extent, the banknotes of central banks with low inflation targets already provide the best protection there is to those who hold their monies. Can there be a better, kinder, saner version of Bitcoin?

Perhaps, if the pricing problem could be solved.

The way out seems to be as follows.

A new virtual currency, to be called, say, the bitdollar, is initially priced at par with the existing dollar. Its initial supply is then set as elastic as can be — the first ‘investors’ in the bitdollar will decide, through the amounts they commit to buy, the initial stock of bitdollars.

From there, bitdollars would go on ‘secondary’ trading just like the current Bitcoin.

If the price of a bitdollar falls below par, the initial investors would realize that they were too optimistic. Nothing else happens, and the crypto currency may fall into disuse.

But the initial stock of bitdollars is fixed, and sooner or later its price would recover if it attains usefulness as an alternative to currencies. It may then be seen as an alternative to banknotes but with a supply that an issuing central bank cannot control or alter.

When the price gets to exceed, say, 20% of the fiat dollar, by prior agreement among bitdollar holders, they would expand the supply by 10%. This should be enough to keep the price from shooting up, and also enough to keep it above ‘par.’ If the price continues to remain above 20% over parity, a sliding scale of new ‘issuance,’ say, 5% of the initial stock is calendared.

If the initial issuance is judged too small relative to (growing) demand, new secondary offerings would be issued at prices close to then market prices.

Over time, the price is likely to fluctuate in a range above par, but perhaps close to 10-15% over par. The stock of bitdollars would naturally rise to meet demand but at a price that is essentially anchored to that of the fiat dollar.

This scheme depends on the soundness of the anchor currency. If the central bank prints too much money, the bitdollar holders can or would decide to slow down issuance with a view to stabilizing the purchasing power of bitdollars. In effect, the fiat and virtual currencies will compete as different but similar moneys.

An important question: What happens to the money paid in by initial investors? I suggest that this be sequestered into essentially risk-free long-term government securities held by an agreed custodian bank. It will be set up as a trust fund to cover the possibility that the bitdollar would be unwound. The same rule can be applied to any new secondary public offerings of the cryptocurrency. This approach sets up the crypto currency as akin to commodity money, with the anchor currency as the underlying ‘commodity.’ (It is also akin to a share of stock in the trust fund holding the backing for the virtual currency.)

How would the block chain system be maintained if there is no ‘mining’ as in the current Bitcoin scheme? The obvious answer is that the computing services needed for validating the block chain will be bidded or contracted out in such a way that their cost can be recovered through fees paid by cryptocurrency holders.

Who will profit from the new scheme? As with the current Bitcoin, competing platforms for validating transactions (‘mining’), trading, and transferring of bitdollars will emerge, and would earn fees for transaction processing. Merchants who accept bitdollars would profit from paying a lower transaction fee than that paid to credit card companies. The trustee holding the backing for the bitdollar earns seigniorage in the same way that issuers of travelers checks do, and some of that seigniorage could be distributed to bitdollar holders.

Although in theory the block chain and efficiencies in computing would minimize the cost of operating the system, any crypto currency remains vulnerable to untoward events that generate mistrust in its operation. Trust in the cryptocurrency will have to be earned, requiring the participants to abide by legislation and guidance from monetary authorities. This is particularly important in combatting money laundering and use of virtual currencies by organized crime or terrorists. New platform providers who might try to cartelize transaction fees could also undermine the demand for virtual currencies.

CONCLUSION. Like Humpty Dumpty, Bitcoin is good but with its fixed supply, it is likely to take holders and speculators on a frenzied ride headed for a great fall. Caveat emptor.

Will Bitcoin crash and resurrect?

NOT BITCOIN but better.

One use of Bitcoin is for anonymous transactions, i.e., as a substitute for ordinary cash or bank notes.

The problem is that the currently available bitcoins fluctuate in value. The ideal is a bitcoin that is stable for at least a certain determinate or even indefinite time against a major currency, such as the US dollar. In short, we want or need an alternative bitcoin that is like a dollar banknote. We imagine this alternative works better than keeping banknotes under the mattress or in a safe deposit box, because it avoids thievery and the transaction costs of going to the safe deposit box.

It can be done. The easiest is for the US Fed to do it. It would allow anyone to buy something we might call the official bitcoin dollar in exchange for a guarantee that bitcoin dollars are exchangeable into US banknotes. If this works, it will be because it would reduce the costs now paid by the central bank for printing currency and going after counterfeits. In this scenario, the blockchain ensures that counterfeit official bitcoins cannot exist.

Another way is for a major private bank to ‘create’ its bitcoin dollar. Imagine that Chase does it, and calls it the Chase bitcoin dollar. All it is is a special debit card account where Chase guarantees to make the Chase bitcoin dollar exchangeable for cash. The guarantee is in effect a promise that Chase will honor Chase bitcoin dollar liabilities ahead of its any other liabilities. To ensure such a guarantee, Chase would enter into a ‘currency board’ arrangement with the US Fed by maintaining Fed fund balances in a separate special account solely for the purpose of redeeming Chase bitcoin dollars. In short, the fractional nature of the private banking system will not apply to bitcoin dollars.  

The blockchain also allows Chase to ensure that no other entity can create Chase bitcoin dollars. The ‘supply’ of Chase bitcoin dollars will always be the same as the demand for such dollars.

Any other private bank would be allowed to participate in a ‘branded’ bitcoin currency. I can imagine HSBC issuing special debit cards for HSBC bitcoin dollars, HSBC bitcoin euros, or HSBC bitcoin yen. They may be allowed to compete through enhancements on convenience of use, allowing for fee-free global transfers, or even the payment of interest.  

One important enhancement would be US consumer protections against fraud now being given to users of credit cards. Any merchant declining to honor a bitcoin debit card would be presumed to be up to no good.

The similarity with bank notes will have to be carried to an extreme that meets certain anonymity and privacy standards. The issuer of a bitcoin dollar will have to honor the bearer of the account provided that said bearer satisfies identity requirements. 

At the same time, the use of such accounts will have to be protected by bank secrecy rules, but subject to money-laundering limits. For example, bitcoin dollar transactions in a particular account cannot exceed $10,000 per day, and a bank cannot allow a depositor more than one bitcoin dollar account. A maximum-balance limit of, say, $100,000 per account, could be imposed, in parallel with limits now applied under existing deposit insurance schemes.
Central banks could also impose limits on how many bitcoin dollar accounts an individual can have. To protect banks from money-laundering, bitcoin dollar accounts would not be available to corporations.

Will the advent of such official or private bitcoin dollars kill the existing bitcoins? It could, especially if bitcoins continue to be more attractive as speculation vehicles than as means of payment.

But bitcoin exchanges could create ‘hybrid’ bitcoins whose ‘mining’ or supply-side arrangements are fully transparent, and whose value could be stabilized in some fashion desired by the bitcoin holder. In short, there could be different bitcoins for different purposes. Caveat emptor and ‘know your customer’ rules would still be needed. However, such bitcoins would remain without guarantees similar to deposit insurance, and they may still be vehicles for speculation.

My best guess: Bitcoins will evolve, i.e., the fittest will survive. The Dutch tulip variety will become extinct. As of now, they’re pretty much as primitive as Dutch tulips.

Pigou vs Coase, as refereed by Demsetz

This is a good summary of the Pigou vs. Coase debate on externalities. I have one comment: That the author should have brought Hayek into the picture. After all, the piece was published in 1996. What follows is a kind of executive summary.

Demsetz sees the debate on externality as one between two ideals: An ideal state (with perfect information) and an ideal market (also with perfect information and zero transaction cost). Taken to the limit, both models do not generally produce identical solutions. It is well known that the initial distribution of wealth and income affects market outcomes. Change that distribution and the economy rests somewhere else. With Pigovian state intervention, one also needs to factor in the initial distribution of wealth and income as a determinant of political process. Still, it is reasonable to imagine that both models arrive at the same end-point if they started with the same initial conditions.

Demsetz then concludes, based only on theoretical considerations, that the choice between the two models is one determined by preferences for freedom and the final (and/or initial) distribution of incomes and wealth.

Once we depart from the ideal to actual governments and markets, the choice between the two solutions would then have to take into account how much information there is (available) in the competing models, and how well they would reduce transaction cost. Here, Hayek would pronounce in favor of Coase, if only because Hayek believes that the market is more capable of ‘discovering’ such phenomena as efficient technologies and consumer preferences. Transaction cost can be seen as another form of externality, so we start to run the risk of arriving at a proverbial slippery slope.

Nonetheless, Demsetz is essentially right. Transaction cost is not at the kernel of Coase; and neither did Pigou ignore transaction cost. What was being debated was who should have the property rights to the externality, a question that economists usually avoid but one that Coase faced head on.

EC 11 HW – Market Structure (wrap-up)

There is no need to submit your answers.  We will discuss them in class.

  1. Classify the following markets as competitive (C), oligopolistic (O), monopoly (M), monopolistic competition (MC) or none of the preceding (N). In your answer, include the possibility of illegal producers or consumers. You should answer N, if the demand side of the market is not competitive, but the supply side is. [6 pts.]

_____ (a) law enforcement services

_____ (b) cell phone service

_____ (c) wives or husbands (aka the marriage market)

_____ (d) kangkong, tomatoes, onions

_____ (e) Nokia cell phones

_____ (f) security guard services

  1. The main difference between perfect competitors and monopolistic competitors is: [choose one only – 3 pts.]

____ (a) There are many perfect competitors, while there are usually only a handful of monopolistic competitors.

____ (b) Product innovation is not important for perfect competitors, whereas monopolistic competition would not exist unless sellers can produce “branded” products by using or adapting new technology.

____ (c) In the long run, there is zero profit in perfect competition, while there is a small positive profit for monopolistic competitors.

  1. Match the concept with the appropriate statement: [4 pts.]
Price leadership, or a market dominated by a large firm A. An agreement to collude, allocating market shares and setting prices.
Contestable market B. Ease of entry or exit
One firm is the only seller C. Small firms behave like perfect competitors because they cannot control the price.
Cartel D. Monopoly
  1. In terms of how they deal with consumer demand, the main difference between oligopoly and monopolistic competition is: [choose one only; 3 pts.]

____ (a) Oligopolists set the price by conspiring with each other to form a cartel, whereas monopolistic competitors do not engage in overt conspiracy (i.e. they set the price by secret means).

____ (b) Oligopolists tend to engage in advertising to steal market share, whereas a monopolistic competitor does not bother to differentiate his product from that of his competitor.

____ (c) Oligopolists face a downward sloping demand curve, whereas monopolistic competitors face a slightly downward sloping demand curve. As a result, monopolistic competitors set price without worrying about the prices set by others, whereas oligopolists cannot set the price independently of each other.

  1. Which of the following are valid justifications for monopoly? [Check as many as there are – 4 pts.]

______Where there are economies of scale (there is a natural monopoly), society is better off because production is at the lowest resource cost.

______Monopoly from patents given to investors encourage innovation that benefits mankind.

______Where there are few barriers to entry, and more-or-less constant-average-cost to produce the given product, the result is a contestable monopoly, and here, the monopolist sets prices as though it was producing in a perfectly competitive market in order not to lose his monopolist status.

______Where there is extreme income inequality, and a generally perceived need to provide low-cost access to the given product, a legislated monopoly through licenses (such as for lawyers, doctors, etc.), makes it possible to provide for mandated low prices for a target group of “needy” consumers.



How to let big banks fail

The idea of “too big to fail” comes from the experience of bank runs in the early 20th century.  The answer then and now is deposit insurance. But such insurance has its limits, just like any insurance contract.

Lawrence White suggests that bank runs can be prevented if we redesign the banking system.  He suggests a money substitute that just might work, except that the big banks will have, perhaps, a hard time making money on fees.

It seems that the idea can be integrated with the emerging market for cryptocurrencies.  How?