It would seem that Bitcoin is no longer in its burbling infancy, when serious analysts used to say “isn’t that cute,” pinch its cheeks and move on. Now in its awkward, self-righteous adolescence, it spends a lot of its time railing against sinister grown-up conspiracies: fiat currencies, banks—don’t get it started on central banks—and the governments that prop them all up.
But as Bitcoin grows up, people are beginning to acknowledge that the kid has a point. Manifesto rhetoric aside, the blockchain is as intriguing a technological innovation as they come, promising a decentralized, nigh-unhackable way to transfer almost any form of information or value. And given the suffocating role central banks have assumed in financial markets since 2008, it’s hard to love them—or, for that matter, the private-sector banks whose mess they stepped in to clean up.
But Bitcoin’s identity crisis can’t go on forever (neither, I acknowledge, can this metaphor). It’s high time the cryptocurrency found a niche and made a productive contribution to the financial ecosystem. In short, Bitcoin, get a job.
As it turns out, that might be happening.
Greece Votes “No”
In a Sunday referendum, Greek voters overwhelmingly rejected the terms of a renewed bailout deal with international creditors. The “no” vote ushers in a period of gnawing uncertainty for Greece, the eurozone and indeed the whole world, since the fallout could lead to a “Grexit” from the single currency and, in the worst-case scenario, a domino effect that precipitates another global financial crisis.
If that doesn’t qualify as a gold bug’s dream—ie, everyone else’s nightmare—what does? And yet, while stocks and the euro predictably swooned when the votes came in for the “no” side, gold hardly budged. Neither did it respond to Greece’s missed payment to the IMF on June 30. The commodity has actually fallen slightly in the past month. Greece, of all places, seems to lack the Midas touch.
In response to this lack of panic, Barry Ritholtz wrote that perhaps the “catastrophe metal” narrative has finally lost its steam, that jumpy investors have fallen out of love with their old safe haven.
Perhaps he’s right, but just because gold is no longer the perceived fiscal bunker, it doesn’t mean the to-the-bunker mentality is dead. As early as June 16, Reuters noted an apparent correlation between a rally in Bitcoin prices and the spread of Granxiety (sorry) through the media. On Monday, following the Greek referendum, Sky News noted that the cryptocurrency had surged about 20% since June 8.
But does this correlation imply causation, or is the Greek connection just an overhyped media narrative?
The New Safe Haven
Unsurprisingly, lying as it does at the pugnacious nexus of finance and the internet, everyone is arguing over this question a lot. Some observers have called the price move purely coincidental. Others have suggested that the increased demand is coming not just because of Greece, but from within Greece, as panicked citizens move their savings into the digital currency. Greece’s one Bitcoin ATM, however, has seen zero activity since capital controls were imposed on June 28: no one who's managed to get euro bills is about to convert them.
Drawing connections between market movements and the headlines is necessarily an exercise in armchair psychology, but the hypothesis that a potential Greek default would drive nervous capital into Bitcoin is perfectly plausible. And when viewed alongside the gold price’s lack of movement, things get interesting.
Bitcoin is the new safe haven.
This may not be what fans have in mind when they call for a more prominent role for the cryptocurrency. Most would likely be disappointed to see it relegated to the status of a panic-purchase. In a way, however, it’s preferable to the previous state of affairs, when Bitcoin’s price movements were largely uncorrelated to anything.
There are exceptions, such as the surge in Bitcoin’s price following the 2013 Cyprus bailout. But the currency's famous volatility has just as often responded to speculation, rumors and hype as the sort of developments that move established markets.
Even the whims of a single nameless individual could pose a serious threat, as when the infamous “Bear Whale” decided to dump a $9 million stake all at once last October. The community “HARPOONED” the resulting sell wall, and the price actually rose about 13% as a result, but the incident highlights the risks of trading in such a volatile asset.
It’s No Moon…
If, going forward, we see demand for Bitcoin swell when benchmark currencies appear to be threatened, we can arguably take it as a sign that the asset is coming into its own. Rather than buying it solely because it might one day go “to the moon,” topple the global financial infrastructure or any number of other speculative scenarios, people are now using it as they would another risky alternative to fiat currencies—gold, for example. In short, Bitcoin is beginning to make sense.
The more it becomes compatible with real-world, here-and-now investment strategies, the more likely Bitcoin is to achieve wider adoption and play a role in ordinary people’s financial lives. Jumpy, ex-goldbug play today, slice of the average portfolio allocation tomorrow. To the roof, if you will.