The price of bitcoin is a capricious thing. Imagine that you've saved enough bitcoin to take your significant other out to a fancy restaurant. When the bill comes you discover to your horror that the price of bitcoin has crashed sometime between main course and desert. For the next few hours you're both stuck doing the restaurant's dishes. Far less embarrassing to choose dollars as your payment media at the outset given the unlikelihood of a dollar crash. This has always been one of bitcoin's main problems. The burden that a consumer must endure in absorbing bitcoin's incredible volatility until the time of payment outweighs any reduction in transaction fees that they might enjoy.
Or maybe not. Marc Andreessen recently posted a number of thoughts on twitter. The most interesting ones are #9 to 17, namely that bitcoin's fabled volatility needn't deter regular folks from using it as a cheap and fast payments mechanism.
15/For example, payment applications of BItcoin don't require users/merchants to hold BTC for any period of time. All benefits still gained.
— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) January 5, 2015
In effect, it's possible to enjoy all of bitcoin's benefits without having to hold an inventory of the schizophrenic stuff. Consider that when merchants currently receive bitcoin in exchange for their product, their payments processor (say Bitpay or Coinbase) will instantaneously convert those coins into US dollars, thus sparing the merchant the risk of holding volatile bitcoin. As for shoppers, a service that allows them to purchase bitcoin in the instant prior to paying for a good would preclude them from having to bear the risk of a bitcoin crash. (1)
It's the "never-hold" approach to bitcoin. As long as just-in-time bitcoin purchases and sales are possible, shoppers and merchants can avoid bitcoin's worst feature, its volatility, while enjoying all of its best features, low fees and speed. These just-in-time services aren't free. Bitpay and Coinbase extract a fee for providing merchants with protection from bitcoin hyper-volatility, and a provider of shopper volatility protection would also expect to be compensated. Now I'm not sure how large these two fees would come out to. However, as long as the total cost is less than the fees levied by competing mechanisms like credit card networks, then bitcoin provides a net benefit to society. (2)
Touché, Andreessen. En Garde!
I've been talking about the potential for bitcoin to be displaced by stable-value cryptocoins as media of exchange for a while now. But if Andreessen is right (and I'm inclined to think he is) then who really cares if bitcoin suffers from +/-50% daily price changes? Whether it's worth $100 or $100,000, either way it serves regular folks as a superior last-second value transfer mechanism (subject to the above cost condition). We may not need stable-value cryptocoins after all.
But Andreessen is missing one of the larger points of the volatility criticism, which I'll call the zero value problem. Granted, we needn't care whether bitcoin is worth $100 or $100,000, but we do care if it is worth $0. While no categorical difference exists between any two given positive bitcoin prices, a categorical difference *does* exist between a positive price and a price of zero. Bitcoin works smoothly at any positive price, but it breaks down as value-transfer mechanism when it's worth nothing.
A key pillar of the volatility critique is that bitcoin's price earthquakes arise because the only players in the market are speculators. A more fancy way to say this is that bitcoin has no non-monetary demand. By non-monetary demand, I'm referring to that portion of an asset's total demand that would remain if prospective owners were notified that they could never sell that asset after purchasing it. Given this imposition, I sincerely doubt anyone would be willing to buy bitcoin. By and large, people only want the stuff because it can be got rid of in the future.
By way of comparison, gold has both monetary and non-monetary demand. There are consumers who will purchase the yellow metal knowing that they can never sell it again, say as jewelry or ornamentation. Same with an IOU like a stock or banknote. Because an IOU offers dividends (or a promise of cancellation at an attractive price), investors will be content to hold that IOU knowing that they can never resell it. This is the Warren Buffett approach to holding an asset, whereby one's favorite holding period is forever.
With the only folks holding bitcoin being future sellers, i.e. speculators, enter the zero value problem. An object whose value is purely speculative has no equilibrium price. In economics-speak, its price level is indeterminate. A $10,000 price is as good as a $10 price, or a $0 price. And that last price will inevitably arrive—maybe in 2015, maybe in 2020, maybe not till 2025—when for some reason or other speculators all begin to get antsy at the same time. It could be something as innocuous as the belief that everyone else is about to sell (because they expect everyone else to sell, because they expect everyone to sell, etc). When a reflexive process like this begins, the only way for the bitcoin market to accommodate everyone's desire for an exit is for the price of bitcoin to hit zero.
For illustrative purposes, gold isn't subject to the zero value problem because if a speculative panic begins, consumption demand kicks in to anchor gold's price at some lower level. The same goes for central bank money.
At $1, bitcoin still works. But at zero, bitcoin breaks down as a payment mechanism. Since bitcoin no longer has a positive purchasing power, regular shoppers can no longer make just-in-time bitcoin purchases in order to consummate a transaction. Merchants will quickly pull bitcoin price quotes from their websites, unwilling to trade something (their wares) for nothing (bitcoin). Since the financial reward to mining will have disappeared, the process for verifying the blockchain may become tenuous. All the hard work put into building a payments mechanism will be gone in a few moments of speculative fervour. And what happens to all of the other "use cases" that Andreessen describes, like bitcoin apps and sidechains, when bitcoin hits zero?
Even if bitcoin hits $0 for an hour or two, won't the inevitable dead cat bounce fix the problem? Not necessarily. The best theory for how bitcoin rose above zero back in 2009 is the 'bootstrapping theory.' A small clique of insiders conspired to trade what was then an intrinsically-useless token among each other, generating a long enough history of positive prices so that bitcoin began to be accepted by naive outsiders at a non-zero price. From nothing, otherwise worthless tokens had pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Andreessen admit as much in his eleventh tweet.
11/Bitcoin was specifically designed to use speculation early on to overcome the normal chicken/egg boostrapping problem for new networks.
— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) January 5, 2015
The point I'm trying to make here is that if bitcoin were to fall to zero, a dead cat bounce isn't the natural next step. Rather, as in 2009, an outlay of time and resources would be required to fabricate a positive price. In essence, bitcoin would need to be re-boostrapped. But how to go about this process? Who would be willing to join the front line and risk their capital trying to trick the market into valuing bitcoin at a positive price again? Surely not all the former bitcoin millionaires. Keep in mind that it might take multiple efforts to jump start the system. And with bitcoin being so much more widely known than before, the re-bootstrapping process might take significantly more resources than it did in 2009. Finally, even if the system is successfully kickstarted after a few days, what about the damage that is incurred in the interim thanks to a period of inactivity? Could it do irreparable damage to bitcoin's reputation as a payments mechanism, in the same way that Visa would suffer if it went down for a few days?
How to overcome the zero problem
Luckily, there's a pretty easy fix to the zero problem. Set bitcoin's minimum price at US$1 so that it never has to go through a re-bootstrapping process.
To set a minimum price, bitcoin believers like Andreessen should consider donating US$21 million to a bitcoin stabilization fund. The fund will have a standing bid to purchase all bitcoin at $1. Since there will never be more than 21 million bitcoin in existence, the fund will have the financial resources to credibly support this price. In an extreme scenario in which all speculators run to the exits, the stabilization fund will be left holding 21 million bitcoin and no dollars. The good thing is that no harm will be done to bitcoin as a just-in-time value transfer system. The fund will make a market in bitcoin at $1, providing shoppers with an avenue to acquire the requisite bitcoin from the fund (say at $1.01) just prior to consummating a purchase, and providing merchants with a right to sell bitcoin at $1 in the moment after a sale.
The core idea here is that if speculators are for the moment unwilling to set a positive value for bitcoin, then someone else needs to. At some point after hitting the fund's $1 floor, speculators will likely gain enough confidence to once again take up the baton and drive bitcoin's price above $1. The roller coaster ride begins anew. If so, the stabilization fund's job is done, for the time being at least. It can start selling its hoard of bitcoin into the rally, replenishing its dollar reserves so that it can once again enforce the $1 floor should that necessity arise.
Think of the provisioning of a bitcoin stability fund as a public service. If bitcoin's promise is as enormous as folks like Andreessen believe, then the fund's $21 million price tag is a small cost to ensure that said promise isn't destroyed in a zero-value bitcoin scenario.
(1) I was going to point out that I don't think anyone is offering this service, but now I see that one is: Cryptosigma.
(2) If the combined cost of merchant protection and shopper protection + bitcoin transfer fees are higher than the costs that banks and the card networks earn on transactions, then bitcoin may not be the panacea that everyone makes it out to be.