Looking at charts showing the price of bitcoin over time is like looking at a child’s crude attempt to draw the world’s craziest roller-coaster. It has certainly been a wild ride for the brave few early adopters with the courage to hold a significant portion of their money in btc.
Since its earliest days, predicting the price of bitcoin next week, let alone next month or year, has largely been a fool’s game. Whilst 10 plus swings in a day would be exceptional events for any other currency or asset, it’s virtually the norm in the cryptocurrency world, and much larger fluctuations have not exactly been uncommon. This tendency for the price to change radically in a short space of time is known in financial circles as ‘volatility’. Something with a very stable price which doesn’t change much is said to have low volatility, whereas something like bitcoin is said to have high volatility.
Although day traders may revel in high volatility, as these price swings are where they make their money, it’s generally not seen as a good thing for everyone else. Personally, I have always thought that this high volatility is one of the main barriers to mass adoption of bitcoin by the general public. The average man or woman on the street simply isn’t going to want to convert any significant part of their wages into bitcoin if there is such a high risk that their value could so easily drop dramatically overnight. With rent and bills to pay, kids to feed and clothe, and so little extra cash, most people simply can’t take a risk like that with their money, even if they may want to. Of course there are services which aim to combat this by allowing people to ‘lock in’ a certain fiat value of bitcoin in their wallet, having a balance of say $400 worth of BTC instead of a balance of 1 BTC. But although these services may help more people to use bitcoin, they do little to increase the number of people who own bitcoin and in any case they take away some of the natural benefits of cryptocurrency as you have to trust your coins to a centralized financial service provider and, of course, they stop you benefiting from any increases in price over time, just the same as they ameliorate any risk from any sudden falls.
Volatility is also a problem for most businesses which may want to work with bitcoin. With fixed costs in fiat and a volatile bitcoin price most businesses must avoid holding any coins. As a result of this, retailers, for example, must sell their coins instantly as soon as their customers pay with them – which again reduces the number of people holding coins. Some commentators have even speculated that this sell-off by retailers has been partly responsible for this year’s price decline.
Fortunately, it does seem that volatility is decreasing over time. For example, this chart, which shows volatility calculated using a 30-day rolling window, appears to show a long term down trend since 2010:
There are some good reasons to think that this will continue. One reason may be that as more time passes people have a clearer idea of what they think each coin should be worth, and are more confident in their valuation. In other words, as we get more and more information about the use of bitcoin, uncertainty gradually decreases, taking volatility with it. But this can only take us so far. Ultimately it is unlikely that the price will be as stable as the fiat currencies of today, because there is nothing behind the price of bitcoin – as people have often said, there are no fundamentals ‘backing’ the price.
The answer to the question of what a bitcoin is worth is the same as the question of what a dollar is worth (if we consider it to be a currency, to be used for buying things). The answer is, simply, it is worth whatever you can buy with it. If you can buy a loaf of bread for a dollar then the value of a dollar = 1 loaf of bread. Of course dollars aren’t valued exclusively in bread – the value is equal to anything which can be bought for a dollar. This may sound like I’m pointlessly stating the obvious, but this is a major part of the inertia behind the value of any currency which can be freely traded. That’s because if the value of a dollar changes against other currencies, without there being a corresponding change in the fundamentals of the US econonomy and how it interacts with the global economy, then everything priced in dollars is effectively ‘the wrong price’. If the dollar is too cheap then, unless everyone re-prices everything they sell, American products are all too cheap, and the world buys dollars to buy the products, but if the dollar is too expensive then people stop paying for American products and services so demand for the dollar declines and the price must fall. What that means is that the value of the dollar should only fluctuate with the fundamentals of the US economy, and any additional volatility coming from traders should be dampened by underlying economic forces. This is an oversimplification of course, because politicians and bankers routinely engage in practices which distort the markets (google ‘petrodollar’ for the most infamous example), but the general principle is sound and this remains a significant part of the way foreign currency markets work.
These powerful forces, which dampen a currency’s volatility, can only operate if products or services are actually priced in that currency, otherwise nothing could ever end up being ‘the wrong price’. One big reason why bitcoin is so volatile compared to, say, the dollar, or the euro, is therefore the fact that very few things are actually priced in dollars. This is becomes a vicious circle: businesses can’t price their products in BTC because of the volatility, so they price them in dollars and simply use Bitcoin as a payment solution, which in turn contributes to that same volatility.
In many ways this is a real shame, because the use of national fiat currencies by internationalized internet businesses with customers all over the world often doesn’t make much sense. Our use of these national currencies is a very real drag on the growth of successful businesses and digital currency could well be the answer. One of the great advantages of Bitcoin is that it is fundamentally an international currency, independent of national government – the Esperanto of money. The use of Bitcoin for international pricing could, therefore, one day be one of its biggest growth drivers. But for that to happen, the vicious circle needs to be broken, and volatility needs to give way to steady price growth.
Although very few things are priced in bitcoin at the moment (even the Bitcoin Foundation prices its memberships in USD) there are some things. In particular other crypto currencies, or ‘alt coins’, and tokens issued as part of crowd-funding initiatives. In many cases these things can only be bought with BTC, and as a result an increase or decrease in price is measured in BTC.
Alt coins don’t always have the best reputation amongst Bitcoin purists. They may be seen as reducing Bitcoin’s network effect before it has even had a chance to hit the big time by competing unnecessarily. They harbour many scams and often fail, leaving their supporters out of pocket and perhaps disillusioned with the whole idea of cryptocurrency. But it may be that they are actually providing Bitcoin with the most valuable service possible: they may be the beginning of a newly emerging economy priced in BTC.
Despite a slow down in the number of new alt coins being launched, this is still a growth area, too. With projects springing up every day to introduce novel uses of the blockchain using tokens that are sold for bitcoin, there is an ever growing number of things whose price or value must change whenever the bitcoin price changes if they are to avoind being ‘the wrong price’. For example, Patrick Byrne’s Medici is seeking to build a legally compliant stock market on top of the Bitcoin protocol using the Counterparty protocol (which itself hasn’t always been popular with Bitcoiners). In the future it may not only be new coins and small software projects which are priced in BTC, but also large international businesses such as Overstock. And what could be more natural than a company doing business with Bitcoin, whose success is at least partially linked to the success of Bitcoin, being valued in bitcoin?
Alt coins, then, may just be the foundation and beginning of a new economy in which Bitcoin is not just a payment technology, but a transnational unit of value – the first truly international currency.