Hyper-monetization reloaded: Another round of bubble talk

‘Tis the season again when the Bitcoin exchange rate rises fast and “bubble” talk resumes among some journalistic and other Bitcoin skeptics. Around the height of the previous most dramatic Bitcoin exchange rate movements of March and April 2013, I posted an article called “Hyper-monetization: Questioning the ‘Bitcoin bubble’ bubble,” which was widely circulated at the time and still referenced now. What follows is a blend of brand-new material and thoroughly revised highlights from the earlier article.

The objective was, and is, not to give advice or make predictions, but to draw on theory to develop alternative perspectives on what exactly a “bubble” may or may not be in relation to the distinctive case of a brand-new rising-value medium of exchange. “Medium of exchange” is fancy economic jargon for something one can pay for goods and services with. I define a money as the common unit of pricing and accounting in a given context (see my “Bitcoin as medium of exchange now and unit of account later: The inverse of Koning’s medieval coins,” 14 September 2013).

Behind popular price-bubble discourse often lies a thinly or not-at-all veiled general debate on whether Bitcoin is a valid system. Some degree of bubble-talk functions as a pop proxy for this. In April, some Bitcoin critics were citing rapid price movements in support of the contention that Bitcoin, as such, was only a bubble. When this bubble popped, the story went, Bitcoin units would supposedly return to their “inherent” value, which they claimed to be…nothing.

Of course, Bitcoin failed to oblige them once again. Yet each time Bitcoin does not fulfill this pop empirical prediction, and instead eventually goes much higher in price later on, one nevertheless hears the same prediction repeated the next time around. In contrast, there are several ways to take a much longer-term view, one that is able to both account for price manias and also acknowledge the possibility that Bitcoin could be a valid system, and an ever more reliable one in the making.

Hyper-monetization reloaded

Many observers have likened the rise of Bitcoin to an asset 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 interpretive concept to apply in addition: hyper-monetization.

I came across the term hyper-deflation, intended in a positive sense of rapidly rising value, when Bitcoin’s exchange rate was climbing fast from the low thirties to the high thirties over a few days in early March 2013. While a few specialists of a certain persuasion understand “deflation” to be a great thing for ordinary people, the word still has major problems. It has several possible definitions. It can refer to price-level changes or to quantity of money changes, depending on who is talking or when. It is assigned a quite negative interpretation in most conventional economics circles. Finally, it has a general public-relations problem. It just sounds depressing as a word. Whatever its real net effects on society might be, “deflation” just sounds like a bad thing no matter what. Which child most wants a deflated balloon?

The word hyper-monetization occurred to me as a more positive alternative to hyper-deflation, one that also provides an antonym to the catastrophic hyper-inflations that have repeatedly killed off fiat paper monies throughout history. The exact opposite of the death of an old money at the debt-dripping hands of state/bank alliance managers would be the birth of a new medium of exchange at the creative hands of the market.

The term de-monetization denotes the more general concept of a widely used medium of exchange ceasing to function as one. A total hyper-inflationary collapse is one way this can happen. Another is bimetallist legal-tender price-fixing schemes driving one precious metal, say silver, out of circulation in favor of another, say gold, or vice versa. Yet another historical example is when a pure fiat paper standard is created after monetary authorities permanently “suspend redemption” of legal tender notes into the precious metals that had been promised in exchange for such notes (that is, note-issuer default is “legalized”). Paper and account entries then remain as money, while the metals that had formerly “backed” them are de-monetized and trade as commodity assets, bought and sold in terms of what replaced them in the actual role of money. The rhetorical line from some well-meaning sound-money promoters that “gold is money” is simply untrue, except, of course, in regard to those times and places where it actually was.

The opposite process, “monetization” in this sense, denotes something that was not a money beginning to function as one. When euros took over the jobs of various European national currencies, euros were monetized and the previous national currencies de-monetized. The French franc and Italian lira do not now function as monies; they are historical relics.

Something that gains its own exchange value from scratch on the open market contrasts sharply with any such forced legal conversions. When a freely chosen unit monetizes through market processes, and does so quite rapidly, it might then reasonably be described as being in a process of “hyper-monetization” (for a detailed treatment of origin-of-money issues, see my recent paper, “On the origins of Bitcoin: Stages of monetary evolution,” revised version, 3 November 2013, PDF).

A problem with the “bubble” bubble

Bitcoin’s high price volatility is unquestioned. However, it is unsurprising for at least two reasons. First, it is not widely understood as a technology and is in a very early stage of development. Second, its exchange value (market price) tends to react to news that highlights regime uncertainty. It should be noted that this is a type of “government failure” in that the scope and variability of policy uncertainty across multiple jurisdictions greatly increases market uncertainty.

Something else to consider in relation to the eternally-recurring “Bitcoin is a bubble” claim is that in a normal asset bubble, certain key factors differ. To whichever height the prices of typical bubble assets such as houses climb, a given house remains the same good in a physical sense as when it exchanged for less money. In the case of a monetization event, in contrast, the actual utility of the trading unit—which is mainly its utility as a trading unit—may actually rise. This is due to monetary network effects, named in reference to the value that comes from the extent of the network of people willing and able to deal in a particular trading unit.

To imagine how this special case of medium-of-exchange utility growth might differ from an ordinary asset bubble in, for example, housing, it would be as if not only the prices of houses were rising during a buying rush, but in addition, their actual sought-after qualities as physical houses were improving as well. Such fantastic houses might sprout new rooms with no one building them. New paint jobs might appear mysteriously overnight without any painters having visited.

For a medium of exchange, a rising general usability for facilitating the purchase of goods and services (separate from the relative value of each unit) is not directly tied to its exchange rate against other monetary units. Still, this aspect is likely to positively influence such exchange rates. Conversely, rising exchange rates, if they generate news and wider attention, can then lead to enhanced network effects through increased recognition, creating a network-growth cycle.

For those who have been following Bitcoin news closely, for months on end there have been seemingly daily announcements of new ways and places for consumers to spend bitcoins, new or improved wallet services to manage bitcoins, new or improved payment processor services to receive bitcoins, and new exchanges at which to buy and sell bitcoins—all on a global basis. Bitcoin payment processor BitPay announced in September that it had 10,000 merchant customers, up 10x from 1,000 a year earlier. In the past 12 months, the number of wallet accounts listed at the popular Blockchain.info My Wallet service has risen 13.9x from 38,460 to 534,575. These are just two specific services and do not reflect horizontal expansion in the number of competing services or the direct use of the Bitcoin network to facilitate transactions on the part of consumers and merchants using directly controlled software without intermediated assistance from service companies.

“Is” a bubble versus “is in” a bubble phase

Bitcoin does have its manias and crashes. The hyper-monetization concept seems useful especially in a longer-term perspective for addressing the view that Bitcoin is nothing more than a speculative bubble. The most insistent proponents of this view elaborate along these lines: “Bitcoin has no ‘intrinsic’ value and is therefore ultimately destined to fall to its ‘inherent’ value, which is zero.

However, claiming that Bitcoin is a bubble (total dismissal of the system as such) is quite different from claiming, perhaps helpfully, that Bitcoin’s exchange rate may be showing signs of being in a temporary bubble phase or mania at a given point in time. That said, every significant rise in price cannot just be reflexively attributed to a mania. There is certainly more to this story and there are many specific matters of degree and interpretation. Among these is recognizing that a young currency such as this would naturally vary in price quite a bit more as it is being discovered in waves than later after it has gained more widespread adoption.

At a theoretical level, unlike a simple asset bubble mania, the more people begin using or expanding their use of a particular medium of exchange, the more its actual utility rises, and the more valuable it actually is in this function from the point of view of its users. The exchange value of a medium of exchange unit is related to, among other things, each holder’s expectations of being able to use the unit in future exchanges. How many people will accept the unit, how readily, and for what?

At least when it comes to the aspect of monetary network-effect growth in any season, ‘tis the more the merrier.

Another bump on the road: Bitcoin and bubbles revisited

Japanese “bumpy road” sign for MtGox. 路面凹凸ありOverload, delays, and the temporary closure of the MtGox exchange seem to have been proximate triggers for a sharp Bitcoin correction on April 10–12 from dizzy highs.

As trading graphs fell freely, some Bitcoin critics appeared gleeful to believe that their prophecies of the Bitcoin phenomenon being nothing more than a delusional bubble might be coming true. Commenters promptly took to the internet to gloat at the short-term losses of naïve traders and bask in their own contrasting wisdom.

In this new context of short-term sentiment, it may be useful to revisit and refine my recent critique of the dismissal of Bitcoin as being nothing more than a bubble or even a sort of Ponzi scheme. In Hyper-monetization: Questioning the “Bitcoin bubble” bubble (6 April 2013), I offered an alternative to the popular interpretation of the long-term rise of Bitcoin’s exchange value relative to fiat money. This was especially intended to address the view that Bitcoin is nothing more than a bubble. The most insistent proponents of this view elaborate along these lines: “Bitcoin has no ‘intrinsic value’ and is therefore ultimately destined to fall to its ‘inherent’ value, which is zero, completely wiping out any true believers still left around for its inevitable and welcome extinction from the universe.” Or something like that.

“Is” versus “in”

A more subtle approach to calling a “Bitcoin bubble” is also available, and has long been advanced by several people with more nuanced understandings of the system. First, Gavin Andresen, lead developer of the open-source Bitcoin Project, wrote nearly three years ago in a short post Bubble and crashes (9 July 2010) that he expected multiple recurring bubbles over the course of several years.

Bitcoin will get mentioned someplace with lots of readers, a bunch of those readers will like the idea and try to buy Bitcoins, their price will rise, which will draw even more people to “invest”, which will drive the price up even more…until people decide that the price isn’t going to rise any more and everybody rushes to sell before the price drops. I predict there will be between one and five Bitcoin bubbles (price will double or more and then crash back down below the starting price) in the next four years…I think it will be impossible to tell if a bubble & crash is “natural” or “the men in black helicopters” manipulating the system.

Second, Rick Falkvinge, who had also called a short-term bubble and a correction to $60–$65, has long identified currency exchange services as a weak link in the wider Bitcoin “ecosystem.” See his 12 April post What we learn from this Bitcoin correction. A commenter on that post wrote, “I would not call an 80% move a correction…” to which Falkvinge replied, “It is not the downslope that is abnormal, it is the upslope. A value that reverts to where it was two weeks ago is normally a mild correction.”

Finally, Peter Šurda who steadily focuses on the importance of liquidity, infrastructure development, and scaling over price, re-summarized in a 12 April Facebook comment that:

My empirical research shows a correlation between media frenzy and price, and between liquidity and price volatility, while my theoretical research concludes that the price will fluctuate more rapidly than with more liquid media of exchange (i.e. what we are accustomed to as money, or even highly liquid goods such as stocks or commodities). The fluctuations will continue until Bitcoin’s liquidity increases significantly.

Such approaches have essentially been warning that, “Bitcoin may well be in a bubble phase,” adding, “one of several large ones, just as we expected to occur along the way.” As a commentary on the price trend in late March and early April, this appears to have been a valuable assessment. These observers recognized in advance that the price seemed to be rising at a pace unlikely to be sustainable, driven perhaps by events in Cyprus and then a flood of popular media attention.

In sum, saying that “Bitcoin is a bubble” (total dismissal of the system as such) and that “Bitcoin is (or was) in a bubble phase,” are quite different claims. Now that another correction has arrived, this distinction can come into better focus.

The Bitcoin system is not the same as the peripheral trading services

The core of the Bitcoin system itself, which few people seem to grasp is something entirely different from the more visible currency exchanges and their price charts, seem to have been relatively untroubled. This includes nodes, mining pools, the blockchain, wallets, and even informal and P2P markets. Besides MtGox, with its 12-hour mini-holiday, from what I noticed, only some of the exchanges and data chart services were heavily challenged and went offline intermittently. Bitcoincharts, for example, reported a 25x spike in concurrent online users from 2,000 to 50,000, requiring “tweaking the backend” systems in response.

The primary proximate cause of the crash, then, seems to have been the inability of a (currently) key exchange service provider to keep up with demand fed by sudden media attention and buy-in frenzy in the run-up, triggering a classic emotional wave of panic selling, most likely the corollary of the previous heat of emotional buying. The existing trading infrastructure (which is not the same as the Bitcoin system infrastructure) was not ready to scale to such a rapid demand spike. This sharp correction might be viewed in part as the rather ungentle method by which the market realigned itself with the current real-world state of scaling capabilities and business planning skills at exchanges that have been working to build themselves from the ground up.

Creation versus destruction

In the case of a classical terminal hyperinflationary event, the authorities orchestrating it are better equipped and prepared. Ink and paper are ready. Printing presses run and are up to their tasks. More importantly, printing plate engravers are standing ready to carve additional integers, a relatively simple task of creating higher and higher denominations of notes. The technical infrastructure is in place for state money monopolists to completely destroy the value of a paper currency, using “zeroes” to drive it all the way to “zero” and extinction.

Building a new kind of media of exchange for a community of all-volunteer users from scratch through peaceful cooperation, entrepreneurship, coordination, debate, and market ecosystem building would appear considerably more challenging than destroying a paper currency. After all, being constructive often seems more challenging than being destructive; it requires greater ingenuity and long-term persistence and perspective.


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