A cryptocurrency is a digital currency that is created and managed through the use of advanced encryption techniques known as cryptography. Cryptocurrency made the leap from being an academic concept to (virtual) reality with the creation of Bitcoin in 2009. While Bitcoin attracted a growing following in subsequent years, it captured significant investor and media attention in April 2013 when it peaked at a record $266 per bitcoin after surging 10-fold in the preceding two months. Bitcoin sported a market value of over $2 billion at its peak, but a 50% plunge shortly thereafter sparked a raging debate about the future of cryptocurrencies in general and Bitcoin in particular. So, will these alternative currencies eventually supplant conventional currencies and become as ubiquitous as dollars and euros someday? Or are cryptocurrencies a passing fad that will flame out before long? The answer lies with Bitcoin.

The Future of Cryptocurrency

Some economic analysts predict a big change in crypto is forthcoming as institutional money enters the market. Moreover, there is the possibility that crypto will be floated on the Nasdaq, which would further add credibility to blockchain and its uses as an alternative to conventional currencies. Some predict that all that crypto needs is a verified exchange traded fund (ETF). An ETF would definitely make it easier for people to invest in Bitcoin, but there still needs to be the demand to want to invest in crypto, which some say may not automatically be generated with a fund.

Understanding Bitcoin

Bitcoin is a decentralized currency that uses peer-to-peer technology, which enables all functions such as currency issuance, transaction processing and verification to be carried out collectively by the network. While this decentralization renders Bitcoin free from government manipulation or interference, the flipside is that there is no central authority to ensure that things run smoothly or to back the value of a Bitcoin. Bitcoins are created digitally through a “mining” process that requires powerful computers to solve complex algorithms and crunch numbers. They are currently created at the rate of 25 Bitcoins every 10 minutes and will be capped at 21 million, a level that is expected to be reached in 2140.

These characteristics make Bitcoin fundamentally different from a fiat currency, which is backed by the full faith and credit of its government. Fiat currency issuance is a highly centralized activity supervised by a nation’s central bank. While the bank regulates the amount of currency issued in accordance with its monetary policy objectives, there is theoretically no upper limit to the amount of such currency issuance. In addition, local currency deposits are generally insured against bank failures by a government body. Bitcoin, on the other hand, has no such support mechanisms. The value of a Bitcoin is wholly dependent on what investors are willing to pay for it at a point in time. As well, if a Bitcoin exchange folds up, clients with Bitcoin balances have no recourse to get them back.

Bitcoin Future Outlook

The future outlook for bitcoin is the subject of much debate. While the financial media is proliferated by so-called crypto-evangelists, Harvard University Professor of Economics and Public Policy Kenneth Rogoff suggests that the “overwhelming sentiment” among crypto advocates is that the total “market capitalisation of cryptocurrencies could explode over the next five years, rising to $5-10 [trillion].”

The historic volatility of the asset class is “no reason to panic,” he says. Still, he tempered his optimism and that of the “crypto evangelist” view of Bitcoin as digital gold, calling it “nutty,” stating its long-term value is “more likely to be $100 than $100,000.”

Rogoff argues that unlike physical gold, Bitcoin’s use is limited to transactions, which makes it more vulnerable to a bubble-like collapse. Additionally, the cryptocurrency’s energy-intensive verification process is “vastly less efficient” than systems that rely on “a trusted central authority like a central bank.”

Increasing Scrutiny

Bitcoin’s main benefits of decentralization and transaction anonymity have also made it a favored currency for a host of illegal activities including money laundering, drug peddling, smuggling and weapons procurement. This has attracted the attention of powerful regulatory and other government agencies such as the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the SEC, and even the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In March 2013, FinCEN issued rules that defined virtual currency exchanges and administrators as money service businesses, bringing them within the ambit of government regulation. In May that year, the DHS froze an account of Mt. Gox – the largest Bitcoin exchange – that was held at Wells Fargo, alleging that it broke anti-money laundering laws. And in August, New York’s Department of Financial Services issued subpoenas to 22 emerging payment companies, many of which handled Bitcoin, asking about their measures to prevent money laundering and ensure consumer protection.

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  • Alex

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