Why do we, as an industry, look for validation from the finance industry we are trying to disrupt? It’s difficult for most to ignore statements from two of the most powerful financiers of our age: Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan and Ray Dalio of Bridgewater.
Jamie felt the need to distract the crowd away from his bank’s disastrous quarterly trading revenue results by launching a diatribe on Bitcoin. He called it a fraud and said he would fire employees who traded it. Ray said that Bitcoin was in a bubble because it provided no utility; it is too volatile to be used as a currency in everyday commerce.
One of the most common criticisms of Bitcoin is that it is too volatile to be used as anything but a tool of speculators. Bitcoin cannot be a store of value like gold because its value fluctuates too wildly.
But why is gold put forward as the epitome of stability? Yes, it has over a thousand years of history as the symbol of wealth and international commerce. However, at one point in time using gold as a currency was revolutionary and possibly heresy.
A Gold Thought Experiment
Imagine yourself part of a early human civilisation thousands of years ago, before gold was accepted as money. Your tribe or village uses shells as money. The shells are sufficiently rare that they hold value. They are easily recognised and hard to counterfeit. However, it is hard to store the shells in vast quantities, and over time the shells degrade. Carrying a large quantity of shells is also quite difficult. Elon Musk hasn’t been born yet. Few of these shells are self-driving.
One day you discover specks of a yellow metal. Its lustre entices you to pick up a few small rocks and study them. Unlike many rocks and metals you deal with, gold is quite soft. Over a hot fire, you melt some of these gold nuggets together and find it is quite easy to work with this new metal.
The next day you tried to remember where you discovered the gold. After a few weeks of searching you were able to locate another few nuggets. Another thought: perhaps gold is rare.
As a civic-minded person, you arranged a meeting with the village leaders and showed them your new discovery. You asked if possibly gold could replace shells as the accepted currency. They laughed at you. A gold rock as money, how silly. Everyone knows that shells are money, and shells will always be money. You feel deflated but not defeated.
Yet – a woman at the meeting thought the gold would make good jewelry. It was very shiny and looked much better than the drab trinkets townspeople wore. She asked where you acquired the gold and if you could help her fashion it into jewelry.
You were able to find a location where if you dug, gold appeared fairly regularly. It was a hit. Everyone loved their new gold jewelry, it looked much better, and it held its form over time.
Given the primitive tools at your disposal, it was very difficult to find large quantities of gold. Gold jewelry began to function as a proto currency. Those who wore it were richer, as it required more and more shells each year to purchase a standard bauble.
At this point the village elders began to worry. Their wealth was stored in the form of shells. In the face of a better monetary instrument, gold, the shells depreciated in value every year. Even worse, because gold is rare, inert, impossible to counterfeit, and easy to transport, some merchants preferred to sell goods for gold rather than shells.
Because the village had a limited history handling gold, its value fluctuated wildly. No one know what it should be valued at vis-a-vis real goods and services so it still wasn’t as stable a monetary instrument as shells. The elders used this fear and price volatility to warn the plebes not to consider gold as money. Why should gold be money, it was just a shiny rock used for beautification purposes.
Overtime the village could not ignore that gold and metallic monetary instruments in general were technologically superior. Slowly then quickly, the value of gold vs. real goods and services skyrocketed. Those who had “invested” in gold, saw their purchasing power increase dramatically as the society switched to a better monetary technology.
From barter, to commodity money (gold), to paper fiat money, to cryptographic money, each one of these transitions features extreme volatility then stability. The new form of money at one point will not be able to purchase any goods and services, then all of a sudden its purchasing power increases quickly. The network effect ensures that the transition between different forms of money is chaotic.
A monetary instrument can only have value if a sufficient percentage of the network will price their goods and services in said instrument. However, no one wants to be first. The chicken and egg problem of monetary adoption ensures that once the switch happens it occurs quickly.
For savvy speculators, properly positioning oneself in front of a monetary shift is extremely profitable. Because money has no value without its network, it essentially goes from being worth nothing to something. Bitcoin is no different.
From Zero to Pizza
Bitcoin Pizza Day (May 20th 2009) is the first time Bitcoin was exchanged for a real good. Since then, as the network grew and people valued the characteristics that make Bitcoin a possible monetary instrument, its price vs. real goods and services increased dramatically.
If Bitcoin were not volatile then we would not be experiencing a monetary system transition. As traders, investors, and speculators participating in such a transition is the privilege that most humans will never experience given their infrequency.
Monetary transitions are zig zags not straight lines. Also these transitions take time. No monetary instrument completely replaced its predecessor in under a decade. Therefore it is foolish to pooh pooh Bitcoin because of volatility that is entirely due to a phase shift in monetary instrument preferences of a society.
Becoming the CEO of a multinational bank is incredibly difficult. CEOs like Jamie Dimon dedicated their lives to the organisations they lead and have made many personal sacrifices. Being human, it must irk them that youngins have become worth $100 million plus in a few years due to a belief in a different way of transferring value.
It also is annoys senior financiers that these same pups’ stated goal is to dismantle the monetary system that they sacrificed everything to lead. The smart financiers are busy buying crypto assets while they publicly deride them. The dumb ones double down on the supremacy of central bank printed fiat denominated assets.
The world is more connected than ever. A move from analog to digital cryptographic money will be chaotic and volatile. I consider myself lucky to be alive, and fortunate to be able to stake my personal fortune betting against the old and for the new.