I hereby make a prediction: Bitcoins will go down in history as the most spectacular private Ponzi scheme in history. It will dwarf anything dreamed of by Bernard Madoff. (It will never rival Social Security, however.)
To explain my position, I must do two things. First, I will describe the economics of every Ponzi scheme. Second, I will explain the Austrian school of economics’ theory of the origin of money. My analysis is strictly economic. As far as I know, it is a legal scheme — and should be.
First, someone who no one has ever heard of before announces that he has discovered a way to make money. In the case of Bitcoins, the claim claim is literal. The creator literally made what he says is money, or will be money. He made this money out of digits. He made it out of nothing. Think “Federal Reserve wanna-be.”
Second, the individual claims that a particular market provides unexploited arbitrage opportunities. Something is selling too low. If you buy into the program now, the person running the scheme will be able to sell it high on your behalf. So, you will take advantage of the arbitrage opportunity.
Today, with high-speed trading, arbitrage opportunities last only for a few milliseconds seconds in widely traded markets. Arbitrage opportunities in the commodity futures market last for very short periods. But in the most leveraged and sophisticated of all the futures markets, namely, the currency futures markets, arbitrage opportunities last for so brief a period of time that only high-speed computer programs can take advantage of them.
The individual who sells the Ponzi scheme makes money by siphoning off a large share of the money coming in. In other words, he does not make the investment. But Bitcoins are unique. The money was siphoned off from the beginning. Somebody owned a good percentage of the original digits. Then, by telling his story, this individual created demand for all of the digits. The dollar-value of his share of the Bitcoins appreciates with the other digits.
This strategy was described a generation ago by George Goodman, who wrote under the pseudonym of Adam Smith. You can find it in his book, Supermoney. This is done with financial corporations when individuals create a new business, retain a large share of the shares, and then sell the stock to the public. In this sense, Bitcoins is not a Ponzi scheme. It is simply a supermoney scheme.
The Ponzi aspect of it comes when we look at the justification for Bitcoins. They were sold on the basis that Bitcoins will be an alternative currency. In other words, this will be the money of the future.
The coins will never be the money of the future. This is my main argument.
THE AUSTRIAN SCHOOL’S THEORY OF MONEY’S ORIGINS
The best definition of money was first offered by Austrian economist Carl Menger in 1892. He said that money is the most marketable commodity. This definition was picked up by his disciple, Ludwig von Mises, who presented it in his book, The Theory of Money and Credit, published in 1912.
In that book, Mises argued, as Menger had before him, that money arises out of market transactions. That which did not function as money before, now functions as money. Something that was valuable for its own sake, most likely gold or silver, becomes valuable for another purpose, namely, the facilitation of exchange. People move from barter to a monetary economy. This increases the division of labor. As more and more people use the money commodity in order to facilitate exchanges, the division of labor extends, and as a result, people’s productivity increases. They can specialize. This specialization produces increased output per person, and therefore increased income per person.
In this scenario, something that had independent value becomes the focus of traders, who find that their ability to buy and sell increases as a result of the use of this commodity. Money develops out of market exchanges. Money was not used for its own sake initially, but it becomes widely used as money as a result of innumerable transactions within the economy. (I discuss this in my chapter in Theory of Money and Fiduciary Media, published by the Mises Institute in 2012.)
Here is the central fact of money. Money is the product of the market process. It arises out of anunplanned, decentralized process. This takes time. It takes a lot of time. It spreads slowly, as new people discover it as a tool of production, because it increases the size of the market for all goods and services. No one says, “I think I’ll invent a new form of money.”
Note: any time you see a proposal of a new form of money, hold on to your old form of money.
The central benefit of money is its predictable purchasing power. A monetary commodity is not easy to produce. The cost of mining is high. Money is slowly adopted by a large number of participants. These participants use money as a means of exchange. Why? Because it was valuable the day before. They therefore expect it to be valuable the next day. Money has continuity of value. This is not intrinsic value. It is historic value. So, a person can buy money by the sale of goods or services, set this money aside, and re-enter the markets in a different location or in a different time, in the confidence that he will probably be able to buy a similar quantity of goods and services.
Money is not accumulated for its own sake. It is accumulated to buy future goods and services. It is useful in the facilitation of exchange precisely because its market value varies little over time. It is the predictability of money’s market exchange rate that makes it money.
BITCOINS ARE NOT MONEY
Now let us look at bitcoins. The market value of one bitcoin has gone from about $2 to $1,000 in a year. This is not money. This commodity is not being bought for its services as money. It is unpredictable to a fault.
Admittedly, those who got in early on this Ponzi scheme are doing very well. They will probably continue to do well for a time. As more people hear about this investment, which is justified in terms of its future potential as money, more people will buy it. Late-comers are not buying it because they understand its potential as future money, any more than the late investors in Charles Ponzi’s scheme thought they were buying into the arbitrage potential of foreign postage stamps. They are buying Bitcoins because we are in the midst of a Ponzi scheme mania. They will continue to buy because they think this time it’s different.
This digital so-called money will not be used to facilitate exchange. Nobody is going to be getting rid of an asset that has moved from $2 to $1,000 in one year in order to buy pizzas. People want to hang onto it, refusing to sell, in the hopes that it will go to $2,000. This is the classic mark of Ponzi scheme psychology.People do not buy the investment for the benefits that the investment provides as an investment, in other words, because it is a capital asset. They buy it only because it has gone up in price. They expect this to continue.
Here is the Austrian school’s theory of money. People buy money because it has not fallen in price. But it has also not gone up in price much, either. It is predictable. Why? Because it is held in reserve by a large number of people over a large geographical area. It has become money through tradition, through experience, and through endless numbers of exchanges on a voluntary basis. It has proven itself in the marketplace as a means of facilitating exchange, and thereby as a means of preserving value over time. This is not the characteristic feature of a Bitcoin. People are not buying it to serve as money; they are buying it because they are in the midst of a mania, and they are gambling that the number of buyers will continue upward forever.
Here is an economic fact: the number of fools is limited. They are a scarce economic resource. As the price of bitcoins rises, more fools will be lured into the market. But this is a finite market.
In other words, bitcoins cannot possibly fulfill their supposed purpose: to serve as an unregulated currency unit. Bitcoins are not an alternative currency. They are something you buy in the midst of a mania, and you will sell at some point in order to get back your money. You are thinking of buying Bitcoins, not because Bitcoins will serve as a means of exchange, as originally argued, but because you want to get back lots more money than you paid for them. In other words, Bitcoins are not money; dollars are money. There has been no challenge from Bitcoins to the reign of the dollar.