As Bitcoin soared to above $28,000 over the weekend, talk resumed about the promising and dramatic future of cryptocurrency. The chief global strategist of Morgan Stanley Investment Management even suggested that Bitcoin could replace the dollar as a global reserve currency.
Cryptocurrency serves some useful purposes. But there are some pretty wild speculations going around. One of the more fundamental problems is that crypto assets can be either useful hedges or useful forms of payment, but not easily both.
There is a demand for a non-intermediated, direct payment asset, and crypto can serve that function. That is why stablecoins, such as crypto assets pegged to the dollar, have proven of enduring interest. People want to transfer something dollar-denominated but with crypto-like features. Yet the very stability of these coins means they have to create institutional layers to preserve their value. For the foreseeable future, the institutions building dollar-linked stablecoins will be riskier, less transparent and more difficult to deal with than the dollar-based system itself, including the surrounding banks.
If you hold or trade with a stablecoin, you incur several risks. First, the stablecoin peg to the dollar may someday be broken, an old problem with pegged exchange rates that Milton Friedman often warned about. Second, to the extent stablecoins and other crypto assets become a major part of the financial system, they will attract more regulatory interest. That in turn will limit many of their advantages over the traditional bank sector. The US government does not want a financial system that evolves outside the purview of the Federal Reserve, FDIC and other regulatory institutions.
Third, the formal banking sector will improve, for instance by moving to more rapid clearing, or by introducing electronic reserve currencies. With the latter, you could transfer your electronically-based dollars within the accounting system of the central bank, and achieve a non-intermediated transfer without resorting to crypto. It is not obvious that cryptocurrencies will be market winners once more mainstream institutions learn some lessons from their success.
Alternatively, consider crypto assets, such as Bitcoin or Ether, which are not pegged to major national currencies. They are useful hedges and speculation vehicles, but you probably would not want to use them as your dominant means of purchase. If they can go up in value so rapidly, they can fall too, sometimes precipitously. That’s okay if you’re using crypto assets for a modest portion of your purchases. But it’s too risky to make them the bulk of your checking and savings accounts. The dollar, euro or, for that matter, the Mexican peso are not nearly so volatile.
Imagine that virtual reality takes off, and there are economies inside virtual reality, spanning many nations. A crypto asset might be a more convenient means of payment within those networks than the dollar, if only because of the cumbersome reporting requirements for larger dollar transfers. Still, the motive for using that same crypto asset to purchase your next Toyota, or to borrow from your bank to start a restaurant, is less than clear.
Some enthusiasts postulate a world where crypto transactions are not transparent to governments, allowing buyers and sellers to live outside the tax system. Such anonymity is technologically possible, and the current black- and grey-market uses of crypto (for instance, getting funds out of China) are likely to continue.
But if most of your economic life is in the physical world, and if you own wealth within a country, such as real estate and registered equity shares, the idea that you would be able to evade most taxes is a myth. If anything, the trend is for major technology companies to cooperate with tax collection, and at any rate governments can always change from taxing transactions to taxing wealth. Crypto tax evasion is better suited to be a fringe rather than mainstream endeavour.
The recent run-up in crypto values seems to be driven by the possibility that major corporations will start adding them to their balance sheets. If you imagine crypto being treated like gold, and constituting , say, 0.5% of many balance sheets, that would imply a high price for the major crypto assets. Yet these corporations will want institutionalized, mainstream crypto assets, and they will not mind the notion of more heavily regulated crypto assets and crypto-linked financial institutions.
The more utopian scenarios for crypto, whether its proponents realize it or not, rely on the notion that it remains simultaneously fringe and mainstream. That will be a hard trick to pull off.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and professor of economics at George Mason University.