At first glance, it looks like it’s been a pretty good spring for the folk who would have the world believe that the virtual currency bitcoin is finally happening, especially where it matters most, on Wall Street.
In March, a New York-based start up called Noble Markets did a deal with NASDAQ to help create a bitcoin trading platform. The hope is that this will reinforce bitcoin’s legitimacy.
Next, the NASDAQ announced a full blown experiment using bitcoin (there’s bitcoin and there’s Bitcoin, but we’ll get to that in a moment) to run a tiny market for initial public offerings (IPOs). The hope is that it is more efficient and less costly than the backroom work currently done on paper by hand.
Finally, this week, the NYSE announced the launch of a bitcoin price index. It intends publish the daily U.S. dollar value of bitcoin in its—usually paid for by subscription—Global Index Feed (GIF).
However, as with all things bitcoin, what you see is not necessarily what you get.
In 2008, someone, or some people, calling himself/themselves Nakamoto Satoshi published a white paper on an obscure cryptography mailing list describing a decentralized, trustless system for transferring value. Seven years later, there is Bitcoin the blockchain (capital B, essentially a new kind of software database) and bitcoin (small b, a volatile virtual currency, essentially backed by thin air).
That database is a real-time, permanent, indelible ledger of assets being bought and sold, much like a bank or credit card statement, except that it’s set in stone. Once an entry is made, it cannot be edited or erased. It is there, and visible, forever.
To avoid any possibility of manipulation, before a transaction is recorded, it is broadcast on a worldwide peer-to-peer network of independently operated computers.
John is sending money from his bitcoin wallet (account) to Mary’s bitcoin wallet.
To prove the transaction has been completed—known as “Proof of Work”—the computer owners on the peer-to-peer network, who are known as “miners,” must compete with each other to bundle a group of similar transactions into a chain and then add them as a block, which is an entry on the ledger. The first miner to do it—he manages it by solving an enormously difficult mathematical problem—is rewarded with a prize of newly “mined” bitcoins. Currently it is 25 bitcoins, worth $232 each, for a total of $5,800.
If it sounds complicated, it is. Made all the more confusing by the hype, misinformation, spin, outright lies and snake oil salesmen that populate the eco-system.
Granted, Bitcoin, the technology, has been exciting some serious folk in finance for the past few years. But bitcoin, the virtual currency, is traded in a paper thin market that is easily manipulated, not to mention having quickly become the coin of the realm for illegal activities in the dark web. It is also the money of Internet gambling sites, but not much else.
The bitcoin faithful claim there are now more than 100,000 businesses around the world “accepting” bitcoin. But, Coinometrics in the UK, a think tank that looks at these figures unemotionally, notes that there only around 1,000 bitcoin transactions a day involve the buying and selling of goods and services, meaning that virtually none of those businesses regularly sees bitcoins.
The faithful also boast of 8 million bitcoin wallets, without explaining that wallets does not equate to people, and most of those wallets are empty. Coinometrics, again, reports that the actual number of wallets holding more than one bitcoin is around 250,000, which translates to less than 250,000 people. That means there are fewer people around the world holding bitcoins than there are members of the Kuwait Airways frequent flier club.
As a currency, bitcoin can’t stand toe to toe with the non-convertible Cuban peso. Weighted against real currencies, bitcoin barely comes in a distant second to the Uzbekitan som.
With that in mind, a closer look at the three recently announced bitcoin deals puts them into a different perspective.
Noble Markets CEO John Betts has announced that his company’s involvement with NASDAQ should nullify doubters’ concerns that trading in the virtual currency is risky. His exact quote was, “They can say, ‘These are sophisticated organizations; they have done their due diligence, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.’”
It mirrors the same marketing ploy that makes teenagers believe that if they buy Air Jordans, they will be able to jump like Michael.
Reached by phone in New York, Betts is slightly more circumspect. “The last five years were about the proof of concept,” he told The Daily Beast. “The next five years are about rolling out adoption. And the next five years are about building the killer apps. If you look at the timeline of the Internet, it’s the same thing.”
It worked with the Internet, ergo it will work with bitcoin. That’s a frequently heard argument justifying bitcoin.
Meantime, at the NYSE, while other price indices listed on its Global Index Feed are compiled from multiple sources, at least for the time being, the GIF is publishing what the San Francisco-based bitcoin exchange Coinbase decides the price is.
Not by coincidence, earlier this year, Intercontinental Exchange—parent company of the NYSE—invested in Coinbase. Is the GIF listing bitcoin’s price really any different than Whole Foods postering their windows with the price of chicken? It certainly has never done much for chickens.
The one to watch is the NASDAQ experiment.
One news story heralded the announcement with, “Bitcoin is inching closer to legitimacy.” Except, it’s the blockchain that’s inching closer to legitimacy at the expense of the currency.
Each bitcoin is broken down into minute pieces known as “satoshis.” (For the record, there are 100 million satoshis in a single bitcoin, which makes each one of them effectively worthless.) But, by attaching a piece of data to it, saying, this represents one share of stock in a company, the sale of the share can be verified by the miners and successfully recorded on the blockchain.
Ideally, not having anything to do with the currency or the miners would be a better still. Consider that most of the bitcoin mining is done in China. Which is why other companies, such as Eris, have come up with a variation on the theme, called “smart contracts.” This allows banks and finance companies to stay in dollars, sterling, euros, etc., and also eliminates the risk of anonymous miners or other bad actors possibly interfering.
As Tim Swanson, one of the most respected observers and bloggers (OfNumbers) on bitcoin, has observed, “No bank’s going to want to put a billion dollars of value (on a ledger) if it can be destroyed by anonymous validators (miners).”
There are also projects in the works to create closed, or centralized, blockchains, which are based on the premise that banks moving money between themselves can trust each other and, therefore, no proof of work is required. In this case, the blockchain eliminates backroom costs without any exposure to bitcoins and miners.
If the NASDAQ experiment succeeds, a worthless bitcoin world might be the future.
If the NASDAQ experiment fails, smart contracts and no proof of work blockchains will undoubtedly fill the void.
In either case, as far as Wall Street will be concerned, the currency comes off second best.