These two theories explain why we should be bullish on the future of cryptocurrencies

The bitcoin phenomenon is a reflection of a loss of faith in – and indeed outright disdain for – the world’s political and economic elites

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 January, 2018, 10:42am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 January, 2018, 10:35pm

Last week was not a profitable one for investors in bitcoin, the world’s largest cryptocurrency by market capitalisation.

The digital asset fell 17.5 per cent to just under US$13,600 on Sunday, leaving it 31.5 per cent down from its all-time high set on December 17 following the launch of futures contracts on bitcoin by the Chicago Board Options Exchange and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

The leading cryptocurrencies, which have been on a roller-coaster ride over the past month amid warnings from a clutch of regulators that investors should be wary of the dangers posed by exceptionally volatile and mostly unregulated markets for the digital tokens, are incurring the wrath of officialdom.

A clampdown on trading in crypto assets, which began in China early last year due to concerns about money laundering and capital flight, is gaining momentum. Last week, the justice minister of South Korea (the world’s third-largest bitcoin market after Japan and the US) proposed to ban local cryptocurrency exchanges while Beijing went a step further by ordering provincial governments to shut down bitcoin mines, the energy-intensive computing process that allows transactions with the digital currency to take place.

The mounting regulatory hostility towards cryptocurrency trading on the part of some of the countries that gave rise to the bitcoin frenzy is fuelling volatility in the prices of the digital tokens.

Yet it is also feeding into the compelling narrative of cryptocurrencies and the decentralised Blockchain technology which allows them to operate without the need for third-party intermediaries or banking networks.

In a revealing post on January 4, Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, put his finger on what attracts consumers – in particular male millennials who are mainly responsible for bitcoin’s 1,550 per cent rise over the past year – to cryptocurrencies. Zuckerberg said that “with the rise of a small number of big tech companies – and governments using technology to watch their citizens – many people now believe technology only centralises power”. Cryptocurrencies’ encryption technology, by contrast, “take[s] power from centralised systems and put[s] it back into people’s hands”.

He is spot on.

The bitcoin mania is not just part of a backlash against big tech, it is a reflection of a loss of faith in – and indeed outright disdain for – the world’s political and economic elites.

The frightening victory of a demagogue in the US presidential election and, just as importantly, the enduring legacy of the global financial crisis (which includes the massive distortions in financial markets created by a decade of ultra-loose monetary policy and the mounting concerns about the consequences of unwinding quantitative easing) provide fertile ground for cryptocurrencies and their blockchain technology.

Millennials’ deep mistrust of governments and banks and their worries about the dire state of global politics – particularly in the US – are the real forces propelling the rise of cryptocurrencies.

Make no mistake, bitcoin is in tune with the times.

While Trump’s victory is partly attributable to the anti-establishment mood in the US and elsewhere, “Trumpism” – a mixture of authoritarianism, rabble-rousing, attacks on the media and dangerous provocations at home and abroad – is, in the eyes of bitcoin devotees, one of the strongest reasons to use and own cryptocurrencies.

A powerful explanation of the bitcoin phenomenon comes from Scott Galloway, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and a leading expert on technology.

“Crypto is a chaos proxy,” Galloway said In an article published last month. “A pretty easy correlation is the election of Trump, the ensuing chaos and the 2,000-plus percentage gain in bitcoin.”

While linking the price of bitcoin to Trump’s crisis-ridden presidency is a dubious proposition, the broad thrust of Galloway’s argument has merit.

Cryptocurrency believers are likely to become more enamoured with the nascent asset class as the outlook for global politics and finance becomes more uncertain. Indeed the more governments and regulators crack down on digital currencies – scrutiny will increase further next month when the heads of the US Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission are due to testify before Congress about the risks posed by the currencies – the stronger the appeal of crypto assets.

This does not mean that bitcoin is a screaming buy if Trump’s presidency implodes.

It does signify, however, that the forces behind cryptocurrencies should not be underestimated.

Nicholas Spiro is a partner at Lauressa Advisory