In the short time that Bitcoin has existed the amount of press, controversy and debate that it’s managed to stir up has been quite staggering. Back at its inception many jumped on it as a way to make a few bucks on the side without having to actively participate in anything but it soon quickly grew from there into a stable little economy that had a mix of both wealth seekers and believers in the idea. The start of this year saw Bitcoin undergo a massive meteoric rise to fame, drawing the critical eye of economists and arm chair financials like myself. The speculative bubble soon burst sending millions of imaginary worth into the digital ether and the confidence in the currency was shaken. Still I saw this as a Bitcoin coming of age as if it could survive this it could potentially become the currency everyone was hoping it to be, once it had some stability.
Since then it appears that the Bitcoin market had hit the bottom of the bursting bubble, tapping out around the US$2 range. It’s since then recovered a little more to be around the US$4 range which, whilst still not being the dizzying heights we saw back in June, is still quite respectable and lot higher than it’s value in years past. What’s truly interesting however is Bitcoin’s transaction volume over the past couple months, it’s actually remained quite high:
Looking at that graph you can draw the conclusion that whilst the value of a Bitcoin has dropped significantly it’s actually still seeing quite a lot of use as a transactional currency. The trading volumes of some of the days in recent months dwarfs that of the speculative bubble and yet the Bitcoin price has remained somewhat steady. This graph would then indicate that the speculators which drove the bubble to it’s crazy highs have well and truly left the market and the majority of currency conversions are from people actively using it as a commodity rather than an investment.
This was one of the biggest challenges facing Bitcoin: it’s liquidity with other currencies. Whilst it’s all well and good to think that we could do all our transactions in this new medium the fact is we can’t and thus Bitcoin’s utility is directly linked with our ability to exchange it for real world currencies. Indeed Ars Technica gives a good view on how Bitcoin’s could market itself as a better wire transfer service and this new found liquidity definitely plays a part in making such an idea come into reality. There is one nagging problem however and that’s the underlying volatility of a commodity with such a small trade volume.
The chart above would lead you to believe that the Bitcoin price had been relatively stable for the past 2 months but that’s just a function of how the graph is presented. Instead of showing the daily average price and transaction volume over the past year if we instead take hourly price and transaction volumes we see a very different picture:
What we can see here is just how volatile the value of the price really is. Whilst it’s nothing compare to the speculative bubble you can still see that transaction volumes on the order of 20K to 40K can swing the price of a Bitcoin considerably, on the order of US$1 or more. Granted there does appear to be periods of low transaction volume with steady growth (between the 17th of November and 1st of December) but the only time that Bitcoin enjoys true value stability is when the transaction volumes are below 10K per hour, and that’s got to change if Bitcoin can be considered as a stable currency. Right now anyone with $120,000 could swing the market one way or another, which is chump change for almost any investment firm.
The takeaway from all this then is that whilst Bitcoin has definitely taken a step forward in terms of liquidity it’s still far too volatile to be considered as a good transactional currency. Whilst I believe the actual value of a Bitcoin is largely irrelevant what does matter is how stable it’s value is over a long period of time. Right now Bitcoin still has the same inherent instability that allowed speculators to create the huge bubble back in June and until it manages to stabilize itself I can’t see getting past the technical novel stage. Whether it’s capable of doing this I can’t comment on as whilst it’s a technically elegant solution economically the challenges it faces are quite large and I’m not sure they have a simple solution.
At the time that I wrote that the BitCoin bubble was bursting I wasn’t really sure just how far the digital currency’s value would decline. Well here we are 3 months on and the value of a BitCoin has slumped to approximately US$3, an order of magnitude less than the dizzying highs it was on all those months ago. I made the prediction back then that once everyone stopped treating BitCoins as an investment vehicle the nascent currency could actually become what it strived to be rather than a speculator’s wet dream. So since one half of my prediction came true (the arguably easy to predict part) one has to wonder, how is BitCoin doing as a currency now?
Image used under a Creative Commons license from BitCoinCharts
The chart above details the dramatic rise and fall of the BitCoin price over the past year. As you can see whilst the value (the line graph) of a BitCoin may have tanked significantly it is still higher than that of what it was a year ago, by a large factor. What’s interesting to note though is the trade volume (the bar graph) which you can see in the months preceding the speculative bubble was quite low, almost non-existent for some months. The trading volume after the peak however as been far more active than it has been previously from which we can draw some conclusions about the BitCoin market.
Now the first conclusion I drew from this graph was that the market is becoming far more liquid with more buyers and sellers entering the market. Of course this high level of market activity could also be people attempting to sell down their BitCoin holdings, but that just favours the buyer side of the equation which is what is driving the price down. The volatility in the price is still very much at odds with its aspirations to become a real currency however so until the price hits a floor and stays there for a couple months BitCoin will struggle to be more widely adopted as a transaction medium.
The biggest impact that the drop in price will have though is the drop in free infrastructure it was getting from people mining for BitCoins. Whilst GPU mining was very profitable in the $15+ range when you’re getting down around these price levels it’s really not economically viable to mine coins. Thus the only people who will still do it are the ones who believe in the idea and want to help out or those who are running BitCoin services like Mt.Gox. Whilst that’s far from the BitCoin infrastructure just up and disappearing it does mean that many people who flocked to the BitCoin idea because of the financial feasibility of it will drop it in favour of greener pastures, whatever they might be.
Thus the burst BitCoin bubble is something of a mixed bag. Whilst the increased liquidity and speculator free market is definitely a great help to BitCoin becoming a serious currency the continued price instability and loss of supporters negates those benefits completely. The price crash also hasn’t addressed the early adopter problem either, leaving swaths of easily had BitCoins in the hands of a small collective of users.
Summing these all up together it seems that, as a currency at least, BitCoin is still just another alternative currency that’s struggling to achieve the goals it set out to accomplish. Technically it’s a masterful system that’s remained resistant to nearly all attempts to break it with all the problems coming from external parties and not the BitCoin system itself. However the economics of BitCoin are the real issue here and those things can’t be overcome with technical genius alone. BitCoin still has a long, long way to go before anyone can seriously consider it as a currency and there’s no telling if it’ll last long enough for it’s teething problems to be overcome.