As we saw in the previous article, Bitcoin offers an efficient means of transferring money over the internet and is controlled by a decentralized network with a transparent set of rules, thus presenting an alternative to central bank-controlled fiat money.
Bitcoin and other digital currencies have been touted as alternatives to fiat money. But what gives any type of currency value?
Why Currencies Have Value
Currency is usable if it is a store of value, or, put differently, if it can reliably be counted on to maintain its relative value over time and without depreciating. In many societies throughout history, commodities or precious metals were used as methods of payment because they were seen as having relatively stable value. Rather than require individuals to carry around cumbersome quantities of cocoa beans, gold or other early forms of currency, however, societies eventually turned to minted currency as an alternative. Still, the reason many examples of minted currency were usable was because they were reliable stores of value, having been made out of metals with long shelf lives and little risk of depreciation.
In the modern age, minted currencies often take the form of paper money which does not have the same intrinsic value as coins made from precious metals. Perhaps even more likely, though, individuals utilize electronic currency and payment methods. Some types of currencies rely on the fact that they are “representative,” meaning that each coin or note can be directly exchanged for a specified amount of a commodity. However, as countries left the gold standard in an effort to curb concerns about runs on federal gold supplies, many global currencies are now classified as fiat. Fiat currency is issued by a government and not backed by any commodity, but rather by the faith that individuals and governments have that parties will accept that currency. Today, most major global currencies are fiat. Many governments and societies have found that fiat currency is the most durable and least likely to be susceptible to deterioration or loss of value over time.
Scarcity, Divisibility, Utility and Transferability
Aside from the question of whether it is a store of value, a successful currency must also meet qualifications related to scarcity, divisibility, utility and transferability. Let’s look at these qualities one at a time.
Key to the maintenance of a currency’s value is its supply. A money supply that is too large could cause prices of goods to spike, resulting in economic collapse. A money supply that is too small can also cause economic problems.
Successful currencies are divisible into smaller incremental units. In order for a single currency system to function as a medium of exchange across all types of goods and values within an economy, it must have the flexibility associated with this divisibility. The currency must be sufficiently divisible so as to accurately reflect the value of every good or service available throughout the economy.
A currency must have utility in order to be effective. Individuals must be able to reliably trade units of the currency for goods and services. This is a primary reason why currencies developed in the first place: so that participants in a market could avoid having to barter directly for goods. Utility also requires that currencies be easily moved from one location to another. Burdensome precious metals and commodities don’t easily meet this stipulation.
Currencies must be easily transferred between participants in an economy in order to be useful. In fiat currency terms, this means that units of currency must be transferable within a particular country’s economy as well as between nations via exchange.
To assess Bitcoin’s value as a currency, we’ll compare it against fiat currencies in each of the above categories.
Bitcoin Compared Against Fiat Currencies
When Bitcoin was launched in 2009, its developer(s) stipulated in the protocol that the supply of tokens would be capped at 21 million. To give some context, the current supply of bitcoin is around 18 million, the rate at which Bitcoin is released decreases by half roughly every four years, and the supply should get past 19 million in the year 2022. This assumes that the protocol will not be changed. Note that changing the protocol would require the concurrence of a majority of the computing power engaged in Bitcoin Mining, meaning that it is unlikely.
As part of their monetary policy, most governments maintain some flexible control over the supply of currency in circulation, making adjustments depending upon economic factors. This is not the case with Bitcoin. So far, the continued availability of more tokens to be generated has encouraged a robust mining community, though this is liable to change significantly as the limit of 21 million coins is approached. What exactly will happen at that time is difficult to say; an analogy would be to imagine the U.S. government suddenly ceased to produce any new bills. Fortunately, the last Bitcoin is not scheduled to be mined until around the year 2140.
21 million Bitcoins is vastly smaller than the circulation of most fiat currencies in the world. Fortunately, Bitcoin is divisible up to 8 decimal points. The smallest unit, equal to 0.00000001 Bitcoin, is called a “Satoshi” after the pseudonymous developer behind the cryptocurrency. This allows for quadrillions of individual units of Satoshis to be distributed throughout a global economy.
One of the biggest selling points of Bitcoin has been its use of blockchain technology (details in previous article). Blockchain is a distributed ledger system which is decentralized and trustless, meaning that no parties participating in the Bitcoin market need to establish trust in one another in order for the system to work properly. This is possible thanks to an elaborate system of checks and verifications which is central to the maintenance of the ledger and to the mining of new Bitcoins. Best of all, the flexibility of blockchain technology means that it has utility outside of the cryptocurrency space as well.
Thanks to cryptocurrency exchanges, wallets and other tools, Bitcoin is transferable between parties. While it takes vast amounts of electricity to mine Bitcoin, maintain the blockchain and process digital transactions, individuals do not typically hold any physical representation of Bitcoin in the process.
Thus we saw that Bitcoin is well suited to be a currency or a medium of exchange for goods and services. While this digital money is in its early stage of adoption, it is already picking up pace. Currently, there are more than 300,000 transactions being done per day on the Bitcoin blockchain. The average transactions has been on a steady rise since the invention of Bitcoin in 2009 by Satoshi Nakamoto. While it might be a few years till your next door grocery door will accept Bitcoin, many early adopters of this incredibly powerful technology has already started accepting payments in Bitcoins, case in point, Starbucks, Nordstorm and Whole Foods.
So we saw here why Bitcoin holds value as a currency. In my next article, I will share my thoughts in detail on why bitcoin holds tremendous potential as an investment asset. Please share the link to my website and blog posts with your family and friends if you like my articles and want me to share more here. Cheers!