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Bitcoin has been on a tear in , doubling in price year-to-date as major companies like PayPal and Facebook have shown an increased interest in cryptocurrencies. But it's also been the target of scrutiny from regulators and bankers due to its use in criminal activities like money laundering. Elliptic and a competitor called Chainalysis have tried to bring some legitimacy to the cryptocurrency industry by selling analytics tools that allow virtual currency exchanges and banks to block potentially dubious transactions.
Skip Navigation. Markets Pre-Markets U. Key Points. Silk Road, an online black market on the dark web, allowed people to sell drugs and other illegal goods. In a similar way, Covid has been good for Bitcoin and for cryptocurrency generally. First, the pandemic accelerated our advance into a more digital word: What might have taken 10 years has been achieved in 10 months. People who had never before risked an online transaction were forced to try, for the simple reason that banks were closed.
Second, and as a result, the pandemic significantly increased our exposure to financial surveillance as well as financial fraud. Both these trends have been good for Bitcoin. I never subscribed to the thesis that Bitcoin would go to zero after it plunged in price in late and Two years ago, I estimated that around 17 million bitcoins had been mined. Even if the millionaires held just 0. What is happening is that Bitcoin is gradually being adopted not so much as means of payment but as a store of value.
Not only high-net-worth individuals but also tech companies are investing. In July, Michael Saylor, the billionaire founder of MicroStrategy, directed his company to hold part of its cash reserves in alternative assets. PayPal just announced that American users can buy, hold and sell bitcoins in their PayPal wallets. This process of adoption has much further to run.
Transactions are grouped together and added to the ledger in blocks, and every node in the network has an entire copy of this blockchain at all times. A node can add a block to the chain and receive a bitcoin reward only by solving a cryptographic puzzle chosen by the Bitcoin protocol, which consumes processing power. This reward will get cut in half every four years until the total number of bitcoins reaches 21 million, after which no new bitcoins will be created.
There are three obvious defects to Bitcoin. As a means of payment, it is slow. The Bitcoin blockchain can process only around 3, transactions every 10 minutes. Transaction costs are not trivial: Coinbase will charge a 1.
Aside from the environmental costs, one unforeseen consequence has been the increasing concentration of Bitcoin mining in a relatively few hands — many of them Chinese — wherever there is cheap energy. But these disadvantages are outweighed by two unique features.
First, as we have seen, Bitcoin offers built-in scarcity in a virtual world characterized by boundless abundance. Second, Bitcoin is sovereign. They can transact without needing governments to enforce settlement. The advantages of scarcity are obvious at a time when the supply of fiat money is exploding. Take M2, a measure of money that includes cash, bank accounts including savings deposits and money market mutual funds. Since May, U. The future weakness of the dollar has been a favorite talking point for Wall Street economists such as Steve Roach.
You can see why. There really are a lot of dollars around, even if their velocity of circulation has slumped because of the pandemic. The advantages of sovereignty are less obvious but may be more important. Bitcoin is not the only form of digital money that has flourished in China has been advancing rapidly in two different ways.
Nowhere in the world are mobile payments happening on as large a scale as in China, thanks to the spectacular growth of Alipay and WeChat Pay. The Chinese platforms are expanding rapidly abroad, partly through investments in local fintech companies by Ant Group and Tencent. The potential for a digital yuan to be adopted for remittance payments or cross-border trade settlements is substantial, especially if — as seems likely — countries participating in the One Belt One Road program are encouraged to use it.
Some economists, such as my friend Ken Rogoff, welcome the demise of cash because it will make the management of monetary policy easier and organized crime harder. In its early years, Bitcoin suffered reputational damage because it was adopted by criminals and used for illicit transactions. Such nefarious activity has not gone away, as a recent Justice Department report makes clear. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation busted the online illegal goods market Silk Road in , it showed how readily government agencies can trace the counterparties in suspect Bitcoin transactions.
Moreover, the Internal Revenue Service is perfectly prepared to demand information on bitcoin accounts from exchanges, as Coinbase discovered in A rumor of new U. Treasury regulations requiring greater disclosures by exchanges caused a sharp crypto selloff over Thanksgiving.
The point is simply that the financial data of law-abiding individuals is better protected by Bitcoin than by Alipay.
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