By Peter Šurda
Economics of Bitcoin
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Patrik Korda recently published an critique of Bitcoin: http://seekingalpha.com/instablog/7761841-patrik-korda/1616371-bitcoin-bubble-2-0.
I get agitated when I disagree with others, so I wrote a rebuttal.
Competition under the network effect
Korda’s first argument is that because it is easy to create a new
cryptocurency, they will compete each other out of the market, kinda
“race to the bottom”, ending up with a hyperinflation and a collapse.
However, he does not seem to understand the network effect, one of the
most important aspects of money. The network effect both allows that
money actually exists in the first place, as well as creates switching
costs. As JP Koning said, “liquidity is sticky”.
The problem with Korda’s argument becomes more apparent because he
himself shows a counterexample. He quotes Mises in explaining that
silver has been replaced by gold and this demonetised silver. This
explains how competition works under the presence of a strong network
effect: the expected long term state is where a small number (maybe even
one) media of exchange are the dominant ones, and other market players
are far less liquid. For the same reason, a situation where there is a
large number of competing cryptocurrencies without clear dominant
players is not a stable state, rather a small number of dominant players
will emerge. The network effect is recognisable in particular with
immaterial goods: there are a small dominant number of general purpose
operating systems (Windows, iOS, Linux), a small dominant number of languages
(Mandarin and English dominate, then Spanish and Hindi follow after a
gap, and those four account for about half of the world population (I’m
approximating, as people can speak more than one language)), there is
only one dominant general purpose communication protocol (what we
commonly call “the internet“),
and so on. Surely, the composition of the dominant players can change,
but it is a relatively slow process that does not magically happen
overnight. Surely, there are a myriad of minor players, but there always
tend to be a low number of dominant players.
If I said that everyone can create their own language, therefore without
barriers to entry, everyone would end up with their own language and
the ability to communicate would collapse, you’d surely think that I’m a
Another important factor related to the network effect is
path dependence. This means that the order in which choices are made
influences the end result. This can mean, for example, the first mover
advantage. Bitcoin is the first practically usable cryptocurrency, so it
has a head start against others. And surely, JP Koning has a useful infographic showing
that the market capitalisation of Bitcoin, the first mover, far
outstrips the market capitalisation of others (by a factor of 100, at
the time of making the graphic). This is also consistent with my claim
from above that there typically is a small number of dominant players.
Even though there is government interference in the choice of media of
exchange (what we call fiat monies), international trade is affected
significantly less than national, and we still have a small amount of
major players (the USD and Euro).
I’m not arguing here that Bitcoin can’t be replaced by something else, but that the scenario described by Korda makes no sense.
and smart phone, but this is incorrect. Bitcoin is the first
form-invariant medium of exchange, and can be used in almost any
imaginable form, without having to rely on a middleman. Something like
this never existed before in the history. People that criticise Bitcoin
from this point of view tend to confuse implementation with the
Mises’ Regression theorem
becomes a medium of exchange. It does not say what happens between a
medium of exchange becoming a medium of exchange and it becoming money,
and it does not say what happens after it becomes money. It also does
not talk about the scope of usage as a medium of exchange, how many
people use it for something else than a medium of exchange, which media
of exchange are sustainable, or any such invention that is frequently
ascribed to it in particular by critics of Bitcoin. So unless Korda
decides to mimick Smiling Dave and
claim that Bitcoin is not a medium of exchange (and neither are gold,
blue chip stocks or US bonds), the objection with respect to regression
theorem is methodologically flawed.
Can Bitcoin become money?
conflates medium of exchange (whatever is used in indirect exchange) and
money (the most liquid good, and thus by implication, the most liquid
medium of exchange). I consider the question of Bitcoin becoming money
irrelevant for the near future. I have the same opinion as Vijay Boyapati, I think that if Bitcoin becomes money, that would be an unprecedented success. It would be the end of fiat money, and possibly also the state. But the implied criticism of Korda is a false dichotomy: either Bitcoin is money, or it’s useless. I dub this fallacy money or nothing (and chicks for free).
Contrary to this dichotomy, there is a wide range on the liquidity
scale which is called “secondary media of exchange” (Mises) or “quasi
monies” (Rothbard), that do provide, through liquidity, useful services.
Bitcoin’s further advantage is the decrease of transaction costs, which
can be practically utilised as long as some level of liquidity
persists. It already can be utilised now. There already are plenty of situations where the switch to Bitcoin improves utility.
The criticism is like saying that unless everyone learns English, it
makes no sense to learn it. Or even better, that it makes no sense to
get an email address unless everyone uses email already.
Classification according to ToMC
As I wrote in my thesis, as Bitcoin is not money (yet), merely a medium
of exchange, it is impossible to use the classification system of Mises
to classify Bitcoin. If it becomes money, then we would have a
classification problem. How to solve it I leave open in this post, as I
consider it merely a theoretical question with no practical relevance.
In my thesis I present options for solving it.
Now, Korda claims that Bitcoin is token money. However, going upwards from the bottom of the graphic in Mises’ ToMC Appendix B,
Bitcoins are not token money, because they are not fiduciary media,
because they are not money substitutes. The Austrians use two
definitions of money substitutes (I explain the difference between the
two in my thesis):
- absolutely secure and immediately payable claims to money (in the narrower sense)
- things that act as full substitutes to money (in the narrower sense) from economic point of view
clearly, are neither, as there is no underlying “money in the narrower
sense”. So the attempt of Korda to provide a classification of Bitcoin
unclarities. While some information about Bitcoin transactions is
recorded in the blockchain, and publicly available, this information
does not include any references to the identity of the parties involved
in the transaction. While a vector analysis can reveal some relationships hidden upon first look, there are on the other hand many other things that can be done to obfuscate this. Examples are mixers (either explicit ones or ones that can do that function indirectly, e.g. Satoshi Dice), and some features that have not been fully implemented yet, e.g. transaction rewriting, or proposals for new opcodes.
From economic point of view, the “perfectness” of Bitcoin’s anonymity is
not the relevant question. The relevant question is whether this is
significantly (from the point of view of users) better than the
alternatives, and if it presents a significant cost increase for the
attacker (e.g. the state). I’ll leave this one open too, I’ll just add
that for transactions that do not involve a physical meeting of the
trading parties, anything else than cryptocurrencies is highly unlikely
to provide a comparative advantage over Bitcoin from the perspective of
bubble is important. I on the other hand consider it completely
irrelevant. The relevant question is if Bitcoin decreases transaction
costs, and the answer is that it does. Whether the price changes are a
bubble or not does not change the answer to the question whether it has
a comparative advantage against other media of exchange. The price is irrelevant (thanks
for the slogan, Tony). Emphasising the bubble is kind of like saying
that when the dot com bubble burst, this must mean that the internet is
unsustainable and must collapse.
Almost all critiques of Bitcoin entirely ignore transaction costs. It’s
like arguing that there’s no point in internet if we already have the
library, the post office and the TV. According to the logic of these
critiques, the businesses will decide to forego a highly profitable
opportunity of providing services that increase the efficiency of social
interaction and their potential customers are going to forego a
reduction of costs of these interactions. Instead, the arbitrary
judgement of these critics concludes that the target market is somewhere
entirely elsewhere (in barter in a village, for example), and at the
same time that arbitrary target market is not a good match for Bitcoin.
It baffles me all the time. But I hear it all the time too. People have
fixed ideas about what they think money should do, and when Bitcoin
doesn’t fit into that scope, they don’t understand it. It is difficult
to recognise a paradigm shift while it’s happening, but it is always
obvious after it already has taken place. I guess some people just have
to endure having their brains in an ignorant state while the market
structure changes around them and those with more foresight are able to
increase the efficiency of their business operations (and increase their
My recommendation for serious economic analysis of Bitcoin is to ignore
the price as much as possible, as long as there is one (i.e. the price
is higher than zero). It’s simply not relevant.
to address them. My most important argument is that one should be
careful to avoid mixing theoretical and empirical issues. To summarise
- Due to network effect, the market structure will move towards a
small number of dominant cryptocurrencies, so there’s no hyperinflation
- Whether Bitcoin can become money is not important, as using it is
already advantageous now, as a medium of exchange. If it ever becomes
money, that would really rock though.
- Non-economists do not understand the regression theorem and invent their own versions of it which are nonsensical
- Bitcoin is not token money as it never was a money substitute
- Bitcoin is pseudonymous, and has a comparative advantage against competitors from this point of view
- The price of Bitcoin is irrelevant
Reprinted with permission.
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