“Comical Phil”

How is the groundhog named? Punxsutawney Phil.

We have Missy Mocha, Pluto Panelo, etc.

Source: “Comical Phil”

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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.

EC 23 Homework

Due by email June 27.  Please bring a hard copy to class. You may collaborate in groups of up to three.

1.      Spell out in words an economic problem, the solution for which involves math. Such a solution may involve geometry, graphs, algebra, calculus, or even a use of a property of numbers.
2.      If you have a solution, keep it to yourself. Be prepared to explain whether you understand the solution. It’s ok not to have a solution, but you have to be prepared to challenge your classmates to give their solutions.

Hints: The problem may be a small almost trivial one, but should be interesting enough for class discussion. You may use any materials you can find in books or the Internet. You may seek help from students who have already taken the course on mathematical economics.

Just for illustration, here’s an example of such a problem from consumer theory:

“Define convexity in relation to indifference curves as representations of the utility function of a consumer. What might be the properties of these indifference curves if the goods considered are perfect substitutes? What if the goods are complements? What if the goods are imperfect substitutes?”

Extra credit for valor. You may submit the illustrative problem given above, but only if you have answers that you can defend in class.

Extra credit also for submissions of an easy but very illuminating question that shows the use of math in economics.

EC 12. Pointers No. 3

FAQs on Chs. 4 and 5 of Backhouse – England in 17th Century, France’s 18th Century

  1. The early ideas that became the foundations of political science or the scientific method are also important to economics. There were also contributions to economic data gathering and analysis from the 17th century. Summarize the ideas of: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679); Francis Bacon (1561-1626); Rene Descartes (1596-1650); and Richard Petty (1623-87).
  1. What is Gresham’s Law on money? Explain.
  1. Richard Cantillon (1680-1734?) published a book (An Essay on the Nature of Commerce in General) which some scholars consider as marking the birth of economics. How did Cantillon defend his argument that the source of wealth was land and not labor? (Extra credit: What is the flaw in his argument? Hint: the answer is not given in Backhouse; you have to do some original thinking.)
  1. Summarize the economic thought of the French Physiocrats. Who were they, and why did they think as they did? In what way or ways were they clearly wrong? What did they contribute to economics that survive to today?
  1. How did Turgot (1727-81) define national wealth? What is the modern significance of this definition?
  1. Who are the two French economists who exerted an influence on Adam Smith? Extra credit: Explain. (This can be answered only after you have understood Smith’s contribution to economics.)