Speaking at the Paris Fintech Forum in June 2021, Francois Villeroy de Galhau, the Governor of the Bank of France, said that there is no such thing as a cryptocurrency, only crypto-assets. I understand what he means. Brett Scott, who is always thoughtful about such things, wrote making a similar point. He said that just as a child trading an action figure for a football (or whatever) “does not undermine the Federal Reserve (which issues dollars that both are priced in)” so “swapping a dollar-priced Bitcoin collectible for dollar-priced goods does not fundamentally alter the structure of the monetary system”.
I have to say, I agree with them. While some people (quite rightly, in my opinion) saw Bitcoin as more of a protest movement than a viable alternative to the Bretton Woods world and while other people saw it as a replacement for a rotten the international money and financial system, I’ve been pretty consistent in my view that Bitcoin (to take the obvious example) is not money but a new form of digital asset that might, in certain circumstances, exhibit money-like characteristics.
In the very early days of Bitcoin, I met a number of people who saw crypto-assets as the basis for an alternative system of money and finance, a kind of trustless base layer for a universal “internet of value” that would sweep away the sclerotic institutions of global corporatism and unleash a new wave of capitalism. These people often talked about a new gold standard, although I’m not sure why, because society had long ago decided that a gold standard was not the best way to run modern economies. I don’t see any evidence that this alternative system is emerging. On social media we see what Concoda calls “ a non-stop stream of ‘freedom porn’” yet in reality the crypto-asset markets are thin, opaque and manipulated.
So if it is not money, what is it for?
In other words, why do people buy and sell crypto? I have often wondered whether most people dabbling in the leading cryptocurrencies see it as a protest movemement, an alternative financial system, digital gold or something else and now the question has been answered. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) Monetary and Economic Department have just published a working paper (no. 951) Raphael Auer and David Tercero-Lucas called “Distrust or Speculation? The Socioeconomic Drivers of U.S. Cryptocurrency Investments”, which is a fascinating analysis of the market drivers in that space. What they find, using data from the U.S. Survey of Consumer Payment Choice, is that there no evidence at all that (despite the cacophony on Twitter and the ranting observed at cryptocurrency gatherings) cryptocurrency investors are motivated by distrust in fiat currencies or regulated finance. None. In fact crypto investors (speculators?) are no different to the general population with respect to security concerns over cash and commercial banking services.
Ultimately, then, people trade crypto-assets because (as David Gerard has consistently observed) “number go up”. This is essentially a post-modern digitally-turbocharged version of the greater fool theory that all you need to profit from an investment is to find someone willing to buy the asset at an even higher price, no matter whether the asset is worthless or not. A friend of mine, who recently made tens of thousands of pounds from buying and then selling a single NFT told me (I paraphrase) “maybe someone understands this, but I don’t”.
The crypto-asset market just like any other market. This is an important and serious conclusion of the BIS work, which implies that since the objectives of investors are the same as those for other asset classes, so should be the regulation. Cryptocurrencies are not sought as an alternative to fiat currencies or regulated finance, but instead are a “niche digital speculation object”. Quite. This is why I have always been much more interested in the world of digital assets, tokens and decentralised finance than the cryptocurrencies themselves. From this perspective, I can see that Circle (going public through a SPAC with a $4.5 billion valuation) makes sense: they provide the market with a token, the USDC “stablecoin”, that can be used in decentralised finance markets to execute trades through smart contracts. This has real utility and a window into a future of markets in which bots engage in complex trades around instruments that are too complicated for human traders to understand!The crypto-asset market just like any other market. Click To Tweet
Unfortunately, the last time we let human traders loose on instruments they didn’t understand (mortgage-backed securities) they blew up the financial system. So what’s to stop the bots from doing the same? Well, it may be that we can make bots follow rules, whereas we can’t make human traders behave ethically no matter what the sanctions. I was interested to read in the BIS report that one “promising option” for supervisory and regulatory agencies to pursue is what the authors refer to as “embedded supervision”. In other words, embedding the supervisory framework for the trading of digital assets in the smart contracts themselves. This is a useful confirmation of the applicability of “ambient accountability” — a concept set out in detail in a paper by Richard Brown (now CTO of R3), Salome Parulava (then with Consult Hyperion) and me in our 2016 paper for the Journal of Payments Strategy and Systems — and reinforces the value of my “glass bank” metaphor for a more transparent and stable financial system.
Just to be clear, by the way, I am not saying that because as crypto-assets aren’t currencies they are not useful. Quite the contrary. In this respect I agree with the economist Tyler Cowen, who said in a recent podcast that “I don’t think of crypto as a currency. I think of it as a new set of institutions”. If these institutions can reduce the costs of financial intermediation (largely by reducing the costs of regulation, compliance and auditing) then they will make a very significant contribution to improving the lives of all.
(An edited version of this article first appeared on Forbes, 12th July 2021.)