While Bitcoin has failed in its stated objectives, it has become a speculative investment. This is puzzling. It has no intrinsic value and is not backed by anything. Bitcoin devotees will tell you that, like gold, its value comes from its scarcity — Bitcoin’s computer algorithm mandates a fixed cap of 21 million digital coins (nearly 19 million have been created so far). But scarcity by itself can hardly be a source of value. Bitcoin investors seem to be relying on the greater fool theory — all you need to profit from an investment is to find someone willing to buy the asset at an even higher price.
Despite their high valuations on paper, a collapse of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is unlikely to rattle the financial system. Banks have mostly stayed on the sidelines. As with any speculative bubble, naïve investors who come to the party late are at greatest risk of losses. The government should certainly caution retail investors that, much like in the GameStop saga, they act at their own peril. Securities that enable speculation on Bitcoin prices are already regulated, but there is not much more the government can or ought to do.
Bitcoin is not innocuous. Transactions are processed by “miners” using massive amounts of computing power in return for rewards in the form of Bitcoin. By some estimates, the Bitcoin network consumes as much energy as entire countries like Argentina and Norway, not to mention the mountains of electronic waste from specialized machines used for such mining operations that burn out rapidly.
Whatever Bitcoin’s eventual fate, its blockchain technology is truly ingenious and groundbreaking. Bitcoin has shown how programs running on networks of computers can be harnessed to securely conduct payments, within and between countries, without relying on avaricious financial institutions that charge high fees. For migrant workers sending remittances back to their home countries, for instance, such fees are a major burden. Technologies that make payments cheaper, quicker and easier to track would benefit consumers and businesses, facilitating both domestic and international commerce.
Eulogy made by Eswar Prasad