Can bitcoin be a transformational, technology-based, currency and be in a bubble at the same time? Uh, yeah!
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon created a bit of a stir in the market for Bitcoins on Tuesday by claiming the cryptocurrency is a fraud and is in a valuation bubble that will burst, while adding that he'd fire any employee in his trading division who speculates in that currency market.
Critics say Dimon is just protecting his entrenched financial market turf, while others, like myself, voiced their agreement with his core premise.
There is so much to "unpack" when it comes to discussing transformational, or disruptive, technologies that have become highly speculative that it's hard to compress it into a mere 750 words or so. But here goes:
Most disruptive developments in technology and finance eventually inflate into speculative bubbles as investors and traders assume that the intrinsic value of these new vehicles will expand forever.
The Tulip Mania in Holland in the 1630s to which Dimon alluded notwithstanding, history is replete with examples of how transformational technologies enter a highly speculative phase, leading to the creation of great riches for early investors but great risks for those who arrive at the party far too late.
Here, one looks back to history to identify the various and sundry bubbles that brought both great risks and rewards to investors and suckers alike!
The exploration of the New World led to the catastrophic "South Sea Bubble" in Great Britain in the 18th century, along with the "Mississippi Scheme" in France at roughly the same time.
Isaac Newton lost a fortune in the former while the French government nearly collapsed in the latter.
Of more domestic vintage, turnpike and canal bonds were the subject of great speculation in early American history. So were railroad bonds, electric utility stocks, auto companies, radio firms, the electronics industry, color TV companies, Japanese conglomerates, computer, bio-tech, and internet shares, and real estate, and all crashed when excessive optimism far outweighed the more rational expectations normally associated with prudent investing.
So too will be the case with bitcoin.
The price of a single bitcoin has gone up parabolically and at a faster pace than any other speculative vehicle in market history, as investor enthusiasm for the new medium has reached a fever pitch.
However, its adoption as a global currency is suspect, partly for regulatory reasons, and partly because creating a world currency from scratch, especially given the mandatory limitations on bitcoin creation, is no mean feat.
There have been a scant three reserve currencies in the history of the Western World: The British pound, the French franc (however briefly) and the U.S. dollar.
Today, the dollar accounts for roughly two-thirds of all financial and economic transactions globally. The daily value of foreign exchange trading tops $5 trillion, alone, while bitcoin does a mere fraction of that.
As yet, bitcoin also fails as a currency in several ways. Money is defined by three characteristics:
It's hard to determine if bitcoin is a storehouse of value. Daily volatility tops 5 percent to 10 percent while its "value" has skyrocketed. If it crashes, it will fail to meet criteria No. 1.
It is a unit of account, but for whom?
It may be a medium of exchange, but for now that is only for a very few users.
Convertibility is suspect in some nations where bitcoin exchanges have been banned, creating some confusion as to how the currency can be used going forward.
Complicating all that is the use of cryptocurrencies in the "dark web" for a wide variety of illicit activities, from money laundering to drug dealing to prostitution, among others.
Additional issues involve sovereign nations and their desire to maintain control of their respective currencies and money supplies that make widespread use of bitcoin unlikely in the very near term.
I've studied bubbles, written extensively about them and have covered no shortage of speculative events in my 33-year career.
Bitcoin is in a bubble, make no mistake. The episode, for some, will end badly while others reap the rewards of getting in on the action early and, more importantly, getting out before the bust.
But as in the case of many prior breakthrough technologies, the transformation will, indeed, be disruptive and extremely important even if the first mover fails to survive.
The two, as history has shown, are not at all mutually exclusive.