by James Corbett
December 2, 2017
Bitcoin $10,000? Already? It seems like just a few months ago that I was writing about the price of one bitcoin surpassing the price of one ounce of gold.
Oh wait. I was. "Bitcoin Over Gold: What Does It Mean?" was written in March 2017. Fast forward 8 months and here we are with the price of one bitcoin topping $10,000. $10,138.06 as I type these very words, to be precise.
But what's in a number? By the time you read these words the price could very well have leapt to $15,000 and it could just as easily have plunged to $1,000. (If you're curious you can check the current price here.)
Don't believe me? Then you clearly haven't been watching the bitcoin price at any point over the past 5 years. Exhilarating spikes and dizzying plunges happen all the time. When it comes to crypto trading, volatility is the name of the game.
This, of course, is manna from heaven for the financial press, which can now generate a seemingly never-ending stream of "Oh My God! Bitcoin Is Exploding!" and "Oh My God! It's A Crypto Bloodbath!" stories, just swapping out one story for the other every day or two (sometimes multiple times a day). But all of these stories are a sham.
Case in point: ZeroHedge's story from earlier this week, "Crypto Carnage Continues As The Fed Warns Digital Currencies Could 'Pose Serious Financial Stability Issues.'" They manage to invoke the "bloodbath" description in the very first sentence to discuss the "clawback" from bitcoin's flirtation with $11,000 earlier in the week. As you may have noticed, bitcoin plunged back down to $9,000 on Thursday morning, prompting traders to claim (for the 198th time, in case you're keeping track) that the end was nigh for this silly experiment in internet play money.
To illustrate their point they invoked this chart:
Scary looking, I suppose. Until you put it in context. When you look at the full history of the bitcoin price chart, do you see the tiny blip that was being hailed as a "bloodbath?" Neither do I.
In fact, the article gets even better. It goes on to explain that "there is no immediate catalyst" for this "carnage" and then includes a lengthy section on how the price could hit $20,000 by the end of the year. That's quite a lot of base-covering for a site claiming to have zero hedge.
Now, don't get me wrong: this isn't meant as a hit piece on ZeroHedge. If anything, ZH is one of the few sites that is willing to print a range of stories on bitcoin, from the absurdly bullish to the absurdly bearish and everything in between, so it's not a bad place to hear from both the bitcoin boosters and the crypto critics. But this example article does demonstrate some very important things about the bitcoin phenomenon:
- Anyone's random guess about the future price is as good as anyone else's.
- Spikes and plunges seldom bear any direct relation to any identifiable news stories or events.
- People are so hungry for information that articles will be churned out (and consumed by eager readers) despite the fact that they are devoid of any substance whatsoever.
Here's the fact of the matter: bitcoin is in a speculative bubble right now. The price is being driven up by intense interest from people who are just hearing of cryptocurrencies for the first time, people who have been on the sidelines but can't bear to feel they're missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime, and, more importantly, banksters and fraudsters.
It is the latter two categories of bubble blowers that, unsurprisingly, have a lot of bitcoin watchers (even some dyed-in-the-wool bitcoin die hards) wary.
The banksters are finding their way into the market in the usual way: derivatives. Why waste your time buying and selling bitcoin directly like a regular, day-trading chump when you can be a high-falutin' 21st century Gordon Gekko trading bitcoin derivatives? Well, never fear! The good folks at the CME and CBOE Futures Exchanges are going to be launching bitcoin futures trading later this month in a move that was just approved by the CFTC.
And then there are the fraudsters. If you haven't heard of the tethercoin/Bitfinex disaster-in-waiting, there are any number of resources online to get you up to speed. Suffice it to say, Mt. Gox was not the only super shady exchange scam in bitcoin history and it certainly won't be the last.
Combine all of this with the inevitable (and not undeserved) Tulipmania comparisons and the stage seems perfectly set for yet another installment of the quarterly bitcoin crash.
But every quarterly crash in the past has been followed by exponential growth that has brought bitcoin to new heights. Will this time be any different? Are we about to see another +20% "correction" and another period of exponential growth? Or the bursting of the bubble altogether? Or no correction at all on the way to $20,000?
Well, here's my controversial answer: It doesn't matter.
That's right, it doesn't matter. If you're investing in bitcoin because you want to make some quick bucks, you're an idiot. Now to be sure, there are a lot of millionaire idiots out there, and if all you want in life is lots of zeroes in your bank account, then have fun. Maybe you'll buy low, sell high, cash out with a lot of Federal Reserve Notes and live "happily" ever after (by which I mean "until the Federal Reserve Notes become toilet paper"). Or maybe you'll buy in at the top and lose everything. Again: it doesn't matter.
Why not? It's like saying that the story of the internet revolution was the story of what happened to this or that trader during the dot-com bubble. Yes, maybe Trader A made a fortune and Trader B lost it all and Trader C broke even, but on the world-historical scale, it doesn't matter. What matters is that the world has transitioned from a pre-World Wide Web economy to a World Wide Web economy, and we are still dealing with the ramifications of that. The first bubble of speculative investment surrounding that transition and its inevitable popping is now a footnote in that history, just as the daily price movement of bitcoin (measured in fiat dollars) will be a footnote in future history.
The main story is the transition from the pre-cryptocurrency economy to a cryptocurrency economy. Given the lingering and still unresolved question of the scaling debate and the many forks and splits it has caused so far, it is by no means certain that bitcoin will even survive at all, or that the crypto that emerges with the "bitcoin" name will bear any resemblance whatsoever to the central bank-less, borderless, instantaneous and practically-free medium of exchange that was originally promised to bitcoin's (mostly libertarian) early user base. Again: it doesn't matter.
What matters is that the cryptocurrency idea will survive this period, whatever happens with the bitcoin bubble, just as the World Wide Web didn't go away when the dot-com bubble burst. Now you might love that fact or you might hate that fact, but it's a fact.
As with everything else, it's a question of what we do with this fact. Can a cryptocurrency that lives up to the "pirate money" ideal be created, or is the idea destined to be neutered, co-opted and wrestled back into the service of the banksters?
Now that is the question that matters. But that is a question for another day. In the meantime, better prepare some popcorn. This is going to be one hell of a ride.