Life is Like a Box of Bitcoin

By: Michael Ashton | Tue, Feb 25, 2014
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Whether the evaporation of popular Bitcoin marketplace Mt. Gox (which may have nothing to do with the Gox in Dr. Seuss's beloved One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish[1]) is due to fraud, hacking, incompetence, or some combination of all three - it appears it may have been hacked three years ago, and have been insolvent since then before vanishing from the Internet last night - doesn't really matter. Either way, investors/speculators with money at Mt. Gox got MFGlobaled. The money wasn't segregated (if it was money at all, and if it can be segregated at all), there was no audit (if there can be an audit trail for something that doesn't have a known origin or destination), and the firm was not overseen in any fashion (if it is even possible to oversee something that exists mainly because it is difficult to oversee).

Like Schrödinger's cat, it was kinda there, until someone actually looked and discovered it was dead.

I have carefully eschewed writing about Bitcoin in the past, though people have asked me to do so. I chose not to write about it because I had no wish to be filleted by one side or the other in the argument. But what I would have said would have been a series of simple observations that have nothing to do with how Bitcoin is mined, managed, or mishandled:

  1. This is hardly the first currency that has been outside of government control. Currencies existed outside of government control before they existed under government fiat.
  2. Historically speaking, there is a reason that government-sponsored currencies won, and it wasn't because they were backed with gold. It was because people trusted the government when it said the currency was backed with gold.
  3. Trusted banks were issuers of currency for a long time. The coin of the realm has always been trust - and even if a currency is limited, or backed by limited metal, or whatever, you still need trusted institutions through which the coin flows, or it doesn't work. Where is the trusted institution in Bitcoin's case?
  4. So what's the big deal?

This isn't schadenfreude. I don't care if Bitcoin succeeds or not; I don't think its success or failure has anything to do with whether fiat currencies succeed or blow up. I don't think Bitcoin is a "safe haven" any more than gold is a safe haven.

But at least I can touch gold. At least I know that gold will have some value in exchange, whereas I don't know that Bitcoin will, tomorrow. And now, indeed it may not. Surely no institutional investor can now invest in Bitcoin deposits without answering the following question to the satisfaction of its board: "How can we be sure that our money won't go the way of Mt. Gox?" And institutional acceptance is a huge hurdle for the future success of this substitute currency. Ditto firms using Bitcoin for transactions - a daylight overdraft that can go to zero overnight is a big risk for a bank.

And so, what I think was always the not-so-subtle problem for Bitcoin or any crypto-currency remains: for it to succeed, a trusted institution needs to be involved. Trust can't be distributed across a network. And if an institution is involved, then the idea of a "people's currency" loses weight. Bitcoin wasn't the first of these attempts, and it won't be the last, but in my mind that is the challenge. You can't make money that only is used by the credulous and the gullible. It must be used by the incredulous and the suspicious. It is adoption by those people which defines the success or failure of a currency.

(Unfortunately, this puts certain elements at my alma mater in the former category. In our January 2014 alumni magazine was an article on Bitcoin. In the information bar "Bitcoin Dos and Don'ts", the first point was "Do your research first! More information is available on Bitcoin.it, a wiki maintained by the bitcoin community. For Americans, the most popular and trustworthy place to buy and sell Bitcoins has historically been mtgox.com." Whoops! Do your research first - popular does not imply trustworthy unless the thing is popular with people whose trust is hard to win!)

 


[1] "I like to box. How I like to box! So, every day, I box a Gox. In yellow socks I box my Gox. I box in yellow Gox box socks."

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Michael Ashton

Author: Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton, CFA
E-Piphany

Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton is Managing Principal at Enduring Investments LLC, a specialty consulting and investment management boutique that offers focused inflation-market expertise. He may be contacted through that site. He is on Twitter at @inflation_guy

Prior to founding Enduring Investments, Mr. Ashton worked as a trader, strategist, and salesman during a 20-year Wall Street career that included tours of duty at Deutsche Bank, Bankers Trust, Barclays Capital, and J.P. Morgan.

Since 2003 he has played an integral role in developing the U.S. inflation derivatives markets and is widely viewed as a premier subject matter expert on inflation products and inflation trading. While at Barclays, he traded the first interbank U.S. CPI swaps. He was primarily responsible for the creation of the CPI Futures contract that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange listed in February 2004 and was the lead market maker for that contract. Mr. Ashton has written extensively about the use of inflation-indexed products for hedging real exposures, including papers and book chapters on "Inflation and Commodities," "The Real-Feel Inflation Rate," "Hedging Post-Retirement Medical Liabilities," and "Liability-Driven Investment For Individuals." He frequently speaks in front of professional and retail audiences, both large and small. He runs the Inflation-Indexed Investing Association.

For many years, Mr. Ashton has written frequent market commentary, sometimes for client distribution and more recently for wider public dissemination. Mr. Ashton received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Trinity University in 1990 and was awarded his CFA charter in 2001.

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