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Spectator Money - Features

Is bitcoin a safe haven against mainstream money mayhem?

We unlock the mystery of the digital currency with a cult following

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

 
bitcoin/ n. A type of digital currency in which encryption techniques are used to regulate the generation of units of currency and verify the transfer of funds, operating independently of a central bank.
 
Eh? No wonder so many people are confused about bitcoin. What you see above is the Oxford Online Dictionary definition of what is probably the most fashionable currency in the world. I realise that’s not saying much: currencies don’t usually have cult followings. But if the euro is the nerd no one wants to be seen with, bitcoin is the coolest kid in the class.

Perhaps part of the attraction of bitcoin for techie types is the very fact that it’s such a mystery to everyone else, accustomed as we are to traditional currencies. That makes the bitcoin club very exclusive.

So what is a ‘digital currency’ anyway? How can any kind of real money exist only in a digital form? Well, the two things that enable it to work are a) the fact that there are a finite number of bitcoins in existence, and b) the clever bit of technology that underpins it: the blockchain.

The blockchain is, in a way, the best thing about bitcoin. Safe to say that whatever may happen to bitcoin in the ephemeral world of digital fads, blockchains have a serious future in the technology of payments and money transmission: central banks are already working on what that future might be. Essentially, a blockchain is a record of digital events: in the case of bitcoin, any change in ownership of any one ‘coin’. This record is impossible to change, so it can’t be edited after it has been confirmed. The only way of altering the blockchain is by adding to it, rather than erasing previous entries. And the record is not stored in just one place, but shared across hundreds or thousands of networked computers, making it harder to hack.

The other interesting thing is that the system is anonymous. Unlike a bank or Paypal, which request all sorts of personal details from you, bitcoin doesn’t care who you are. That makes it popular with people who don’t want their financial activities traced, whether because they are extreme libertarians or because they have something to hide. Many users feel a political affinity with the bitcoin concept of a currency that functions independently of any bank, government or institution full of men in suits. As one user told me: ‘Bitcoin doesn’t have a CEO; it has no ability to care either way about who uses it or why.’

But beyond those who want to hide, is bitcoin flourishing among everyday consumers? Well, it’s certainly a growth market. Plenty of people have given it a shot to see what the fuss is about, but it’s the drug-dealing and cybercrime fraternities that allegedly make up a large proportion of bitcoin turnover.

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When, for example, the first Silk Road online market-place (a site which mostly sold drugs on the ‘dark web’, the part of the internet inaccessible through normal search engines) was shut down in 2013 by the FBI, the price of bitcoin saw a short-term crash because so many coins had been seized by the US authorities.

But one aficionado who has lived off bitcoin trading for the last two years told me: ‘It’s very convenient to paint the whole [bitcoin user] group as one homogenous entity. But I’ve met people from all sides of the political spectrum in bitcoin forums on the internet.’

What else is bitcoin good for? Charities are keen to use it, especially when transferring money to, say, Africa, because the transaction costs are much smaller than with services such as Western Union. A number of places and websites also accept bitcoin payment (full list at www.wheretospendbitcoins.co.uk), including the Pembury Tavern in Hackney, which was the first British pub to join this new marketplace.

But bitcoin, as with any other currency, is still at the mercy of exchange-rate fluctuations. Even the most dedicated bitcoin users agree on this point: it’s no more reliable than any other currency, and possibly less so. In the past, bitcoin prices against US dollars have fluctuated massively in short spaces of time — and with no central authority in control, its market is vulnerable to manipulation.

The same applies to bitcoin as an investment: will it stand the test of time? One benefit — so it is said — is that once 21 million bitcoins have been released, production will stop, meaning that your virtual cash could hold its value, on grounds of scarcity, more than a traditional currency. But some devotees have already raised the question of removing or raising that cap.

Meanwhile, Wall Street has also been showing more interest in the currency, with a bitcoin index introduced on the New York Stock Exchange last year. It also has been gaining traction in countries with unstable currencies or weak banking systems. If the mainstream financiers who brought the world to its knees in 2008 decide to embrace bitcoin, who knows what will happen to it.

So how about bitcoin as a hedge against the Brexit result, or a safe haven in the current round of financial turmoil? Whichever way the EU vote goes, it looks like sterling is in for a torrid time in the short to medium term, and shares have already gone into a bear market. So if you’re looking for somewhere safer to keep your cash, is bitcoin an option?

It’s certainly a volatile proposition: you might make money if your timing is exactly right but if there’s a sudden panic over bitcoin’s future, the bottom could fall out of this market very quickly indeed. There’s always a risk of cyberattack too, especially given that so many bitcoin users tend to be high-level techies.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that this is the first digital currency to go large — and just look at the fate of other web firsts. Few of the earliest social media networks are still going today; everyone in the digital arena is always looking for the new, new thing.

Bitcoin is an intriguing phenomenon, for sure, but its fate hangs in the balance. Would I risk putting my savings into such a mysterious thing? No, probably not. But a small punt? Well, in an uncertain world, it’s got to be worth a try.

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