Hyper-monetization: Questioning the "Bitcoin bubble" bubble

What is the opposite of this? Sweeping up in 1946 after the hyperinflation of the Hungarian pengő. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum Történeti Fényképtára, Budapest.

What is the opposite of this? Sweeping up in 1946 after the hyperinflation of the Hungarian pengő. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum Történeti Fényképtára, Budapest.

Many observers have likened the rise of Bitcoin to an asset bubble. It is so customary today to use the “bubble” word in articles about Bitcoin that there may in fact be a sort of “bubble” bubble.

Another less common word introduced in this context is hyper-deflation. Some say such a thing is horrible, others that it is great. I suggest a quite different possible interpretation of these events and a word to label them: hyper-monetization.

I first heard the term “hyper-deflation” (used in a positive sense) when Bitcoin was rising rapidly from the low thirties to the high thirties over a few days in early March (Yes, this was only a month ago). While a few specialists of a certain persuasion understand “deflation” to be a great thing for ordinary people (see, for example, my 30 March 2013 post, “A short Bitcoin commentary on Deflation and Liberty”), the word still has a public-relations problem. Along with some technical issues from its several possible definitions (price level changes versus quantity of money changes, for example), and negative interpretations in conventional economics circles, it just sounds depressing, regardless of the stated technical sense in which one attempts to use it.

The word “hyper-monetization” first occurred to me around that time as a more positive term, and perhaps a more accurate antonym for the catastrophic hyperinflations that have repeatedly killed off fiat paper monies throughout their history. A related term, “de-monetization,” denotes the process of a widely used medium of exchange ceasing to function as such.

A total hyperinflationary collapse is one way de-monetization can happen. Another type of historical example of de-monetization is “bimetallist” legal tender price-fixing schemes driving one precious metal, say silver, out of circulation in favor of another metal, say gold. Yet another historical example is when a pure fiat paper standard is created after monetary authorities permanently “suspend redemption” of their legal tender notes into the precious metals they had promised to deliver.

The opposite process of “monetization” denotes something that was not a money beginning to function as one. When euros took over the respective jobs of various European national currencies, euros monetized and the previous national currencies de-monetized. Now they are historical paper relics, but no longer function as monies.

In contrast to such a legal tender conversion/transition, however, something that gains exchange value from scratch on the open market (rather than taking up exchange value through a conversion)—and does so at a logarithmic pace—might then reasonably be described as being in a process of “hyper-monetization.”

The trouble with the “bubble” bubble

Bitcoin’s high historical and current price volatility is unquestioned. However, one problem with the “bubble” analysis is that in an asset bubble, certain fundamental matters are quite different. In a business cycle mania phase, prices of the most popular asset classes for that particular cycle are bid up as people pile their freshly printed fiat money and freshly produced fiat bank account digits into booming fields. Each party in this rush competes with all the others to acquire some of the bubbling assets. These people are misled by artificially low interest rates to bid up certain asset prices unsustainably, and this all eventually collapses, as described in Austrian business cycle theory.

However high the prices of bubble assets go, they do remain the same goods. In the case of a monetization event, though, the practical use-value of the trading unit (not only its price in terms of other goods or monies) actually does rise with the number of people using it and the depth of the market. To imagine how different this is from a classic asset bubble, it would be as if not only the price of bubble-era houses were rising, but also that their actual sought-after qualities as houses were improving spontaneously at the same time. Such houses might sprout new rooms with no one building them, with new paint jobs appearing mysteriously overnight without any painters having visited.

In this way, quite unlike the case of an asset bubble, the more people “pile into” a medium of exchange, the more valuable it actually is in its function as a medium of exchange from the point of view of its users. This is a separate matter from its price, as a few astute observers out there have so far already been noting.

This type of value has been likened to the use-value of a language rising the more people there are who can speak it. Another analogy would be to the use-value, from the point of view of each user, of a given social networking site rising the more people join it and the more they use it.

These are called network effects. In this case, the exchange value of the unit for each holder is directly related to each holder’s expectations of being able to use the unit in future exchanges (much like the value of knowing a language relates to one’s expectation of being able to communicate with it). This is in turn related to how many people accept the unit, how readily, and for what. It is important here to note, due to long-standing and common economic misconceptions, that the “future” in this sense is any future time—from five seconds from now to however many vaguely numbered years into the future a particular acting person might happen to have in mind.

When it comes to network-effect growth, the more the merrier. An analogy can be made not only to the rising stock price of a growing social networking site, but also, and more importantly, to the number of users of that site and how much it is used.

Check this box for a perspective shift

Yesterday, I saw a tweet from the insightful Bitcoin watcher Jonathan Waller. He wrote (enthusiastically, I think) that, “The bitcoin all-time chart is not even slightly sensible,” and linked to a chart [showing logorithmic growth shown on a linear scale].

This tweet got me thinking (yes, this is also a possible function of tweets). How can we make sense of this trend? Might taking some other perspective help?

This chart struck me as looking quite similar to a hyperinflation. However, instead of the exchange value of a trading unit plummeting toward the abyss as in an archetypal fiat paper-money collapse, Bitcoin has been doing the opposite.

Checking the log-scale box on the bitcoin price chart reveals a different picture. It shows a (so far) intuitively ascertainable long-term historical course with a large bump or two and some curves in the road. In this longer-term view, the exchange rate has been growing, not so much from one to two to three to four, as on a linear scale, but from 0.1 to 1 to 10 to 100. It has grown by several orders of magnitude during these couple of years.

Of course, the usual caveats must be quickly noted. “If present trends continue” can and often is infamously followed by them not doing so. But what might nevertheless be observed about this trend?

If one were somehow witnessing a phase in the first “hyper-monetization” in history, is this not more or less what one would expect to see?

Mark my words

The value of a paper money at the tail end of a hyperinflationary event is mainly the direct value of the physical paper (burning, wall-paper, etc.), but there is a more gradual build-up before the final collapse. The following chart is the price of Goldmarks in terms of Papiermarks from 1918–1923 in the Weimar Republic. This includes a steady logarithmic trend from 1918 to mid-1922. The exchange rate also moves from roughly 1 to 100 during those few years.

After that, however, the 1923 portion looks incomprehensible even on a log scale. As monetary authorities run the presses full speed and add new zeroes to denominations, a point is reached toward the end when the primary objective of market participants is to rid themselves of paper as quickly as possible before the last shred of exchange value evaporates.

The USD/BTC trend shows the price of Bitcoin against (also steadily depreciating) US dollars. This bears a certain similarity to the pre-1923 phases of the Weimar Papiermark/Goldmark chart. One difference is that the trend for Bitcoin from autumn-2010 to spring 2013 is the inverse of the trend for the ill-fated Papiermark from 1918 to mid-1922. In other words, for the years in question, the rise of Bitcoin’s relative exchange value shows a statistical pattern with similarities to the decline of the exchange value of the paper mark. Of course, the specific factors behind these events are quite different. In one case, the destruction was driven by ever increasing, arbitrary production of more units. In the other, the growth appears to be driven by voluntary adoption (with all its various motivations) and network effects.

If we were now actually witnessing early stages of an unprecedented hyper-monetization event, what might the top of such an event look like eventually? This is a fantastic and entirely speculative question and certainly invites the ever risky “if present trends continue” types of thinking. Looking toward the future should never be confused with looking into the past.

That said, during such a singularity-like event, were such a thing to be occurring, one might at some fairly early stage expect to see an Epic Rap Battles of History installment called, “Bitcoin vs. Fiat Money.” The key question would then soon become:

“Who won? You decide.”


For additional articles on this topic, visit my Bitcoin Theory page on this site.

[UPDATE: Seven months later, a new article including revised highlights of this article along with new material appeared: Hyper-monetization reloaded: Another round of bubble talk (7 November 2013).]

Open letter to Bloomberg reporters on "economists of all stripes" claim

Since the following letter to two Bloomberg reporters concerning a statement in their article has elicited no response for about two weeks, I will publish a slightly condensed version here as an open letter. I note that the article has gone through two updates since I wrote to these reporters, but the unsupportable claim I pointed out to them remains unaltered.

Dear Ms. Goldman and Mr. Miller,

I sometimes read Bloomberg news articles and come across statements that leave me scratching my head. A few such statements, though, strike me as sufficiently incorrect that I feel an obligation to take a moment to bring them to the attention of their authors.

In your article, "Obama Warns of Prolonged Crisis Without Stimulus Plan," you wrote, "... economists of all stripes agree that aggressive government action is needed."

This is problematic because an entire school of professional economists argue that such government actions as "stimulus" programs will clearly worsen conditions, prolong and deepen the recession, and generate further impoverishment of our society. Many of these same economists also predicted the coming of the financial collapse years in advance of its arrival, and explained why it would occur.

Thus, I suggest amending statements such as the one I quoted to, for example, "most economists, with the notable exception of those of the Austrian school, agree that aggressive government action is needed."

In addition, if you sought comments and opinions directly from economists of "stripes" who do not hold the view you suggest they do, it would offer your readers a more critical and balanced understanding of the issues. From my own studies in political economy, I could recommend many scholars, but two come to mind right now for the combination of the depth of their scholarship in economic history and theory and the incisiveness of their analyses of current issues based on this foundation. They are:

Robert Higgs, senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute, and author of many important academic books on economic history, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between government policy and recurring crises.

Joseph Salerno, a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, professor of economics at Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.

I find both of these economists clear communicators with a strong grasp of the relationship between government policy and economic cycles. Beyond them stretches a long and growing list of economists who would be very unlikely to "agree that aggressive government action is needed," certainly not the types of actions now being proposed.

Best regards,

Konrad Graf

What can one person do?

To start with, one person is the only one who can do anything, ever. So get over it.

This one person is getting toward the end of reading Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles (pdf) by Huerta de Soto.

This book cannot be recommended too highly. For what it's worth, reading this enables one to understand the exact manner in which the financial elite, the state, and their pet money-crank academic economists are entirely responsible for manufacturing economic crises, including the current particularly disastrous one.

They should know better because the economic theories driving current policy in the banking industry have been refuted either decades or centuries ago, depending on the particular issue. It is special interests which have the big stake in maintaining popular falsehoods for their own benefit.

Understanding is the first step in change. If all you can do is understand, do start by doing that please. It's not that hard anymore. Just turn off that non-sense machine, the media, and start reading a decent book.

Admittedly, an easier introduction to start with would be The Mystery of Banking (pdf), but it is also really worth it to take the whole 812-page ride with the Man from Madrid if you can manage it. Another brand new book in this field is The Ethics of Money Production (pdf). Although I have not had the opportunity to get too far into it yet, I'm venturing a guess that it will be going onto my recommended list after I do.