A currency by any other name ….

Crypto currencies

With all the traction that crypto-currencies have been gaining in the media, it would be rude for me not to weigh in. One observation I would make is that since even my cousin has been invited to speak as an expert on the subject, we can probably safely assume that it is a bubble of the highest order – as alluded to by Charles Schwab in their recent analysis of similar phenomenon.

Cryptocurrency_and_bubbles

Source: Charles Schwab & Co.

On a more serious note however, I remain skeptical mainly because Bitcoin, Ethereum and the rest cannot fulfil one of the three primary functions of money. Yes, they can be used as a medium of exchange, and already are. Yes, I could see a point at which they could become a unit of account. But there is currently no pathway to being a store of value other than the value confidence ascribes to it. This is because it has no central bank or a state to back it up.

Proponents of “cryptos” like to mock conventional money by labelling them “fiat” currencies – in other words, money which has artificial value only on the orders of the government issuing them. “Look,” some gleefully point out, “most money today is not even backed by physical assets such as gold!” By doing so, they miss the point on two levels. First, the very purpose of money is to be an instrument of the state through its national treasury or central bank. In this resides the stability of the economy and society at all levels. Secondly, therefore, the official backing of recognisable assets such as gold is helpful but ultimately irrelevant. A functional government has the resources of an entire country at its disposal, which is why it has the power to issue, or at least back, legal tender in the first place.

At the heart of this lies a necessary understanding of the concept and role of “recourse”. In 2013 I wrote a paper on the why the dollar, despite pessimism from those seeing the end of American dominance, will likely remain the global reserve currency for a long time. Faith in a currency is more than just a confidence trick; it is more even than just the backing by specific collateral. What belief in a given currency rests on is belief in the power of a government to mobilise the totality of its resources in an extreme circumstance, for instance war. To wit:

Eichengreen has nowhere identified a much more substantial reason as to why institutions across the world, from central banks to investors, choose a given reserve currency: namely, the ability of the issuing party to hold recourse over actual assets. Whether these assets are physical (in the form of industrial facilities or natural resources) or financial, it is a government’s ability to ultimately take control over them – to mobilise them in support of government policy and national necessity – that is the final arbiter of how safe that country’s currency is to you as a holder. This is particularly true of non-resident holders abroad, since they do not suffer downside from asset seizures but are instead a totally arms-length counterparty.”

I went on to explore the concept of Total Resource Mobilisation (TRM) capacity as a mainstay of how a country – and with it, its currency – is supported. I noted that one  the interesting historical example was the delayed decline of the Sterling Area well after Britain had ceased to be the primary global trader – because of a perception that Westminster still held recourse over an empire. For all the contemporary fears of American decline – in trade, hard and soft power and its institutions – the dollar has been unmoved as a reserve currency, as shown by the statistics.

Dollar reserves

Source: Bank of International Settlements

The same lessons are true of the new virtual currencies. A form of money without a form of state will render the inherent value of that money limited to only supply, demand and confidence –  all fine, but these do not offer a store of value. With no central bank, and no government to back it, there is no recourse for comfort – no “liquidation value” to act as the backstop as it currently does for all real currencies.

On a side note, I also wonder if those pushing the new currencies are being rather too geeky about the whole thing. I have no doubt that in many ways, the technology behind cryptocurrencies are superior to conventional ones. But being more perfect does not necessarily mean it will supersede the less perfect product – indeed history is littered with examples of inferior inventions which did not end up “winning”, not least because its backers were too worried about theoretical perfection: Microsoft vs Unix, for instance; Betamax vs VHS; even arguably the internal combustion engine vs diesel. The dollar is easily forged, and stolen, and inflated; but it is good enough, and that is good enough.

This is not to say that I see no use for Bitcoin and its ilk. I accept that they can perform a useful function, particularly as a cross-border payment system – which, incidentally, is what many of those currently inside the industry currently see it as. These currencies have the benefits both of allowing anonymity and, potentially, offering greater security of online transfer. But then the real competitors for cryptocurrencies are not so much the Dollar, Euro or RMB, but rather the nexus of Visa / Mastercard, UnionPay and even Western Union. I can also accept that since we are only at the beginning of the cycle,  the ultimate level of valuation of these currencies may still grow. However, short of finally moving into a post-national world, I do not believe they will replace national currencies. The eschatological nature of these crypto-evangelists concerns me.

As ever, it is a lack of awareness about macro historical trends which concerns me – a deficiency which would always see good money thrown after bad. I am going to stick my neck out and short this – and if anyone has any clever ways of shorting the whole sector, let me know!

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