The FTX scandal has thrown the future of cryptocurrencies into doubt. Supporters of bitcoin, which has proved to be remarkably robust at a time when the whole cryptocurrency ecosystem is threatened by scandal and a systemic collapse, are still asserting that it is the future money.
This article addresses a number of issues that next year will make or break bitcoin’s claim over gold. Besides the interest of governments to prevent it having any monetary role, hodlers ignore the legal status of gold as money, and the different treatment likely to be accorded to bitcoin in criminal law. Furthermore, bulls of bitcoin are mainly only that: speculators hoping for a profit measured in their fiat currencies.
This is not to deny bitcoin’s virtues: only to question its monetary future relative to gold at a time when the period of declining interest rates, which played a large part in fuelling the cryptocurrency phenomenon, appears to have ended. Furthermore, the financial considerations in the geopolitical context centre on the dollar’s relationship with gold, leaving cryptocurrencies as wallflowers in the financial conflict between east and west.
If there is one uncontroversial fact in the science of economics, it is that the central issue is the inflation of currency and credit and has been increasingly so since the First World War. The debasement of the circulating medium has always been western governments’ principal monetary policy. The last British attempt to stand in the way of the inflation steamroller ended in 1931, when economists, such as Keynes, pointed out that a gradual and automatic lowering of real wages that results from a reduction of the currency’s purchasing power would be less strongly resisted “than attempts to revise monetary wages downwards”.
This statement was economical with the reality. The error was found in the difference between pre-war and post-war gold standards. It should be remembered that the UK’s 1925—1931 gold standard was a bullion standard, as opposed to the sovereign coin standard which existed prior to 1914. From 1925 when the new standard was introduced, the issue of sovereign coin was no longer at the option of banknote holders, but at the Bank of England’s. The Bank was not interested in redeeming its own notes for coin. Therefore, only the very wealthy would be able to redeem currency and credit sufficient to obtain 400-ounce bars, which valued in today’s sterling is about £586,000 ($714,000). The ordinary person was disenfranchised by this arrangement, compared with the pre-war coin standard when a single sovereign could be obtained for a single paper pound. The result was that abandoning the bullion standard in 1931 was the political option of least resistance.
Instead of a bullion standard, if the British government had resurrected the pre-war coin standard, public opposition to inflationism would have most probably ruled against monetary debasement; and crucially, the government’s room for economic intervention would be severely restricted. But so entrenched is the ideology of interventionism that no British economist today would agree with this analysis.
Not only can inflationism not be easily refuted today, it is lionised as being an essential policy. Nearly a century of inflationism has conditioned establishment economists to reject the restrictions of gold as money and as the sheet anchor for the valuation of credit. But the few of us conscious of the true cost of monetary debasement are increasingly aware that the commitment to inflation of fiat currencies and credit is rushing us all towards a final crisis. It is this awareness that has also fuelled speculation in cryptocurrency alternatives to gold. But as interest rates began to rise thereby expected to stabilise fiat currencies, the cryptocurrency bubble has deflated.
An interesting debate is whether cryptocurrencies, particularly bitcoin, can secure advantage over government currencies if their purchasing power continues to diminish at an accelerated rate. Bitcoin and those of its stablemates claiming a currency role will have to overcome the consequences of a reversal of falling interest rate trends towards higher levels in future. The debate will almost certainly intensify between parties for and against, none of which have a life experience of sound money, of its role as a stabiliser of credit values, and how this might be achieved under a cryptocurrency regime.
Assuming the reader of this article is aware that after a near four-decade decline to the lower bound, interest rates may have entered a new phase of rising rates, we should address the gold versus cryptocurrencies debate first, before looking at the consequences of rising interest rates for currencies, and therefore gold and bitcoin in 2023.
The problem with bitcoin as money
The supreme cryptocurrency standard is widely acknowledged to be bitcoin. It is bitcoin which is currently promoted as the private sector replacement for government currencies. But even to talk of bitcoin as a currency is to mislabel it. A currency is a form of credit, where there is a counterparty risk. This risk is absent when a bitcoin is both owned and possessed by a person or business. It is therefore a competing form of money, which legally is physical gold and silver coin, the international legal position for which is laid out in the Appendix to this article. If it is anything, then bitcoin is not currency but a competing form of money.
Theoretically, as opposed to the legal position, it is not up to an economist to choose what is money. Ultimately, it is the public that decides. Undoubtedly, for some enthusiasts, bitcoin might be money to be hoarded, and spent as a last resort. This is precisely the established role which gold coin fulfils. But there is good reason to believe that the majority of devotees are in it for speculative profits. In other words, they do not intend to ever spend bitcoin, but to sell it for national currency. Now that interest rates have risen from the zero bound, the test will be whether bitcoin turns out to be no more than a speculative counter, aping the performance of high-flying technology stocks, and correlating more with the Nasdaq index instead of discounting the inflation of state currencies and associated bank credit.
To its credit, through all the cryptocurrency scams and collapses, bitcoin has retained its integrity. There is no doubt that in its construction bitcoin is remarkably robust. And for the international traveller it retains the advantage of not yet being subject to extensive regulations and restrictions on capital transfers. But the belief that it is a realistic form of money must be based on either the ability of bitcoin to work alongside the fiat currency system or in the event of a total breakdown of the monetary system that it will be replaced by bitcoin. And supporters seem to think that the established international legal definitions of money can be ignored.
Where this is a particular problem is in the different property rights accorded to money and currency from other forms of property. In criminal law, if, say, a painting is stollen from you and you manage to trace it to a new owner, you can reclaim it as your property, even if the current possessor acquired it in good faith. This is what allows Jewish families to recover artwork stolen from them in the Second World War.
If, however, someone steals money, currency, or access to your bank account and transfers your property in them to another party, so long as that party was not acting in concert with the criminals, you cannot reclaim this form of property. But when we consider the case of bitcoin, it does not appear to fall into the categories of money and credit for the purpose of the law. Through the blockchain, the trail of previous owners is recorded pseudonymously, so property rights can be established.
This means that the authorities can also trace the ownership of bitcoin. If you have left them on an exchange wallet, they can be identified as having come into your possession. Even if you have moved them into your own wallet (pseudonymous ownership) the know-your-client and anti-money laundering regulations which would have been completed by you before you opened an account on an exchange would trace possession to you.
If the authorities know or suspect that at an earlier stage of its ownership, your bitcoin were the proceeds of crime, then they can be confiscated. This means that unlike the possession of money, cash, or bank credit you cannot be certain that you do indeed own your bitcoin acquired in all innocence.
It might not be beyond the bounds of possibility for the state to use this criminal law to attack bitcoin as a rival to its own currency. So far, this form of attack has not been deployed, but the threat remains….