The rise of Bitcoin (BTC), and other cryptocurrencies, into a market worth over $500 billion has everyone rushing to make sense of it and get their share of the boodle.
This week, with Bitcoin fighting to hold $10,000, half its December high, debate over its future rages fiercely.
The fact is no one knows anything about Bitcoin. That’s the way markets are supposed to work. It’s the wisdom of crowds, and crowds can be stupid.
Meanwhile, remembering that it was people like Levi Strauss who made the big money in California’s Gold Rush, Samsung Electronics (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) is getting into the business of selling Bitcoin “mining gear.” That’s even while China tries to discourage the practice because mining’s power drain is now as big as Ireland’s total power demand.
China Cashes In
The most important moves being made are being made by governments. And they are deeply divided on how to handle the rise of a commodity with no physical existence that claims to threaten their ability to control their economies.
China has been at the center of both the Bitcoin boom and the Bitcoin bust. It’s where most of the Bitcoins are mined. It’s where most of the trading takes place. And it’s where government policy has the greatest impact.
That policy blows hot and cold. On the one hand, China is said to have banned Initial Coin Offerings. It wants to crack down on mining. But the largest miner on the planet, Bitmain, continues operating as normal. And so do most Bitcoin exchanges — those that aren’t closing one step ahead of the law
Governments are focused on collecting taxes, controlling their financial borders and on catching criminals. The Wild West of Bitcoin might be called a “target rich environment” for them. Criminals appear to be one step ahead of the cops, dropping Bitcoin for the more privacy-friendly Monero and fueling a $600 million crime wave in Korea.
Against this, China’s actions start to make sense. For the Chinese government, every policy decision is about growth with control, in a system where liberty of all kinds – economic, social, political, religious – is a scarce good to be carefully rationed. The libertarian dreams of the Bitcoiners are thus an existential threat. But there are also an opportunity to let out an overheated economy’s animal spirits.
The Rise of Ethereum
The other big cryptocurrency news of January has been the rise of Ethereum, whose price is up 46% for the month while Bitcoin has dropped by 25%.
Ethereum was one of the first Bitcoin alternatives. A 19-year old Russian programmer, Vitalik Buterin, designed it to be more liquid, more decentralized, and more like the Internet itself.
Ethereum’s programming language supports “smart contracts,” useful in the course of any business. That’s why Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM), and Intel Corp. (NASDAQ:INTC) helped form the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance last year, giving the currency Wall Street credibility.
Right now, that means traders are coming to believe that Ethereum has a long-term future while Bitcoin may not, allowing Ether to weather the China-induced regulatory storm that has engulfed Bitcoin.
But investors should understand the difference between Ether, the digital currency, and Ethereum, the language. Smart contracts don’t have to measure assets in Ether. They can use fiat currency as well as cryptocurrency.
Ethereum’s rise, in other words, means there is confidence in the blockchain technology, even while the future of “currencies” created with it remains highly uncertain.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of a mystery novella involving Bitcoin, The Reluctant Detective Saves the World, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned shares in MSFT. To follow the value of crypto currencies bookmark https://coinmarketcap.com/