For some, cryptocurrency is the medium of exchange for the future and for others a disaster waiting to happen. While its supporters think its redeemable qualities have the power to transform financial services, its detractors view it as just another investing fad. When it comes to cryptocurrency, the consensus is anything but clear.
The popularity of cryptocurrencies, especially Bitcoin, can be attributed to their perceived security and no-to-low transaction fees. There is no central authority and money can be sent anywhere in the world at any time. Conversely, it is still in its growth and development phase and has proven to be highly volatile. There are also questions about its scalability.
In recent weeks, concerns around volatility have risen to the surface. Bitcoin reached a high of $3,025 on June 11th before cooling dramatically to approximately $2,272 on July 12th.
Bitcoin is not the only blockchain-based technology to see big swings. Ethereum was trading over $400 in early June only to hit an inter-day low of $192 across major exchanges the following month. Many have tied Ethereum’s fall with that of Bitcoin, linking the success of one open blockchain system with that of the entire market. Ethereum features smart contracts and allows users to create digital tokens that can be used to represent virtual shares.
Despite volatility concerns, cryptocurrency can offer stability in times of economic uncertainty. In Venezuela, which has been gripped by hyperinflation and economic turmoil since late 2014, bitcoins have helped consumers desperately in need of goods.
The IMF predicts inflation in Venezuela will hit 1,600 percent this year amid political turbulence. Venezuelans can shop at government-run grocery stores (that are suffering from severe shortages) only on designated days of the week aligning with their national identity cards.
Some Venezuelans have turned to Bitcoin mining in order to meet their needs. Bitcoin miners make their computing power available to transactions. Miners who excel in efficiency can earn bitcoins. And Venezuelans abroad are mining bitcoins and sending them to friends and family back home.
Bitcoin owners and miners have some tough choices to make however. It appears the most popular cryptocurrency is splitting in two: Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash. For the past couple of years, two factions of core developers, investors and entrepreneurs, have sparred over the direction of Bitcoin. Now, unable to reach a consensus, Bitcoin Cash is set to separate to a different blockchain.
The departing faction wants to change the rules of the Bitcoin network to speed up transactions. However, increasing the amount of data in each block goes against the traditionalist crowd’s desire. They think it would make it harder for individual users to partake and easier for a group to seize control of the network.
Every owner of Bitcoin will have the same amount of Bitcoin Cash to begin with. What comes of the other side of Bitcoin remains unclear. Will Bitcoin Cash take the ascendancy? Will it crash and burn? Will the division take down both blockchains?
But while questions abound over Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general, they have the potential to fundamentally restructure the global financial fabric. Central banks and governments would have less control under a system dominated by cryptocurrency, with the cyber money supply unable to be adjusted to meet monetary policy goals. After the 2008 financial crisis, low interest rates and quantitative easing provided a much-needed boost for the economy. But in a stateless and digital system, no one government, group, company or person would have such a deciding influence.
Further, cryptocurrency enables owners to bypass those charges and delays inherent in the banking world and especially internationally. But rather than resisting change, banks and other financial services companies are looking to harness the technology behind Bitcoin to their advantage.
Blockchain — the technology underlining Bitcoin — is looking to make its mark regardless of cryptocurrency’s ultimate fate. JPMorgan, for example, is developing a blockchain system, Quorum, atop of Ethereum. Quorum is slightly different than traditional blockchain platforms in that it looks to split public and private blockchains to provide traders with privacy and regulators with appropriate overview. Meanwhile, Deloitte and ConsenSys are partnering to create a digital bank.
Rather than feeling threatened by the new wave of technological innovation, financial services firms should embrace it and look to innovate. Regulation has yet to catch up with the new realities presented by blockchain, but it seems only a matter of time before new legislation will be drafted. In Delaware, the governor recently signed a supportive blockchain regulation bill into law.
While widespread consumer adoption of bitcoins may be some way off, it is proving especially useful for those needing fast international payment processing or for those seeking privacy in their purchases.
Cryptocurrency’s true disruptive power has yet to truly materialize. But when it does, it could transform the financial system and banks and governments alike must be prepared.