Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency developed in 2009 by Satoshi Nakamoto, the name given to the unknown creator (or creators) of this virtual currency. Transactions are recorded in a blockchain, which shows the transaction history for each unit and is used to prove ownership.
Buying a bitcoin is different than purchasing a stock or bond because bitcoin is not a corporation. Consequently, there are no corporate balance sheets or Form 10-Ks to review. And unlike investing in traditional currencies, bitcoin it is not issued by a central bank or backed by a government, therefore the monetary policy, inflation rates, and economic growth measurements that typically influence the value of currency do not apply to bitcoin. Contrarily, bitcoin prices are influenced by the following factors:
- The supply of bitcoin and market demand for it
- The cost of producing a bitcoin through the mining process
- The rewards issued to bitcoin miners for verifying transactions to the blockchain
- The number of competing cryptocurrencies
- The exchanges it trades on
- Regulations governing its sale
- Its internal governance
- Buying a bitcoin is different than buying a stock or bond because it’s not a corporation. Consequently, there are no corporate balance sheets or Form 10-Ks to review.
- Unlike investing in traditional currencies, bitcoin it is not issued by a central bank or backed by a government, therefore the monetary policy, inflation rates, and economic growth measurements that typically influence the value of currency do not apply to bitcoin.
- Bitcoin pricing is influenced by factors such as: the supply of bitcoin and market demand for it, the number of competing cryptocurrencies, and the exchanges it trades on.
Supply and Demand
Countries without fixed foreign exchange rates can partially control how much of their currency circulates by adjusting the discount rate, changing reserve requirements, or engaging in open-market operations. With these options, a central bank can potentially impact a currency’s exchange rate.
The supply of bitcoin is impacted in two different ways. First, the bitcoin protocol allows new bitcoins to be created at a fixed rate. New bitcoins are introduced into the market when miners process blocks of transactions and the rate at which new coins are introduced is designed to slow over time. Case in point: growth has slowed from 6.9% (2016), to 4.4% (2017) to 4.0% (2018).1 This can create scenarios in which the demand for bitcoins increases at a faster rate than the supply increases, which can drive up the price. The slowing of bitcoin circulation growth is due to the halving of block rewards offered to bitcoin miners and can be thought of as artificial inflation for the cryptocurrency ecosystem.
Secondly, supply may also be impacted by the number of bitcoins the system allows to exist. This number is capped at 21 million, where once this number is reached, mining activities will no longer create new bitcoins. For example. the supply of bitcoin reached 18.1 million in December 2019, representing 86.2% of the supply of bitcoin that will ultimately be made available. Once 21 million bitcoins are in circulation, prices depend on whether it is considered practical (readily usable in transactions), legal, and in demand, which is determined by the popularity of other cryptocurrencies. The artificial inflation mechanism of the halving of block rewards will no longer have an impact on the price of the cryptocurrency. However, at the current rate of adjustment of block rewards, the last bitcoin is not set to be mined until the year 2140 or so.
While bitcoin may be the most well-known cryptocurrency, there are hundreds of other tokens vying for user attention. While bitcoin is still the dominant option with regard to market capitalization, altcoins including ether (ETH), XRP, bitcoin cash (BCH), litecoin (LTC) and EOS are among its closest competitors as of January 2020.2 Further, new initial coin offerings (ICOs) are constantly on the horizon, due to the relatively few barriers to entry. The crowded field is good news for investors because the widespread competition keeps prices down. Fortunately for bitcoin, its high visibility gives it an edge over its competitors.
Cost of Production
While bitcoins are virtual, they are nonetheless produced products and incur a real cost of production – with electricity consumption being the most important factor by far. Bitcoin ‘mining’ as it is called, relies on a complicated cryptographic math problem that miners all compete to solve – the first one to do so is rewarded with a block of newly minted bitcoins and any transaction fees that have been accumulated since the last block was found. What is unique about bitcoin production is that unlike other produced goods, bitcoin’s algorithm only allows for one block of bitcoins to be found, on average, once every ten minutes. That means the more producers (miners) that join in the competition for solving the math problem only have the effect of making that problem more difficult – and thus more expensive – to solve in order to preserve that ten-minute interval.
Research has shown that indeed bitcoin’s market price is closely related to its marginal cost of production.
Availability on Currency Exchanges
Just as equity investors trade stocks over indexes like the NYSE, Nasdaq, and the FTSE, cryptocurrency investors trade cryptocurrencies over Coinbase, GDAX, and other exchanges. Similar to traditional currency exchanges, these platforms let investors trade cryptocurrency/currency pairs (e.g. BTC/USD or bitcoin/U.S. dollar).
The more popular an exchange becomes, the easier it may draw in additional participants, to create a network effect. And by capitalizing on its market clout, it may set rules governing how other currencies are added. For example, the release of the Simple Agreement for Future Tokens (SAFT) framework seeks to define how ICOs could comply with securities regulations. Bitcoin’s presence on these exchanges implies a level of regulatory compliance, regardless of the legal gray area in which cryptocurrencies operate.
Regulations and Legal Matters
The rapid rise in the popularity of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has caused regulators to debate how to classify such digital assets. While the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) classifies cryptocurrencies as securities, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) considers bitcoin to be a commodity. This confusion over which regulator will set the rules for cryptocurrencies has created uncertainty—despite the surging market capitalizations. Furthermore, the market has witnessed the rollout of many financial products that use bitcoin as an underlying asset, such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs), futures, and other derivatives.
This can impact prices in two ways. First, it provides bitcoin access to investors who cannot afford to purchase an actual bitcoin, thus increasing demand. Second, it can reduce price volatility by allowing institutional investors who believe bitcoin futures are overvalued or undervalued, to use their substantial resources to make bets that bitcoin’s price will move in the opposite direction.
Forks and Governance Stability
Because bitcoin is not governed by a central authority, it relies on developers and miners to process transactions and keep the blockchain secure. Changes to software are consensus driven, which tends to frustrate the bitcoin community, as fundamental issues typically take a long time to resolve.
The issue of scalability has been a particular pain point. The number of transactions that can be processed depends on the size of blocks, and bitcoin software is currently only able to process approximately three transactions per second. While this wasn’t a concern when there was little demand for cryptocurrencies, many worry that slow transaction speeds will push investors towards competitive cryptocurrencies.
The community is divided over the best way to increase the number of transactions. Changes to the rules governing the use of the underlying software is called “forks”. “Soft forks” pertain to rule changes that do not result in the creation of a new cryptocurrency, while “hard fork” software changes result in new cryptocurrencies. Past bitcoin hard forks have included bitcoin cash and bitcoin gold.
Should You Invest in Bitcoin?
Many compare the rapid appreciation of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to the speculative bubble created by Tulip mania in the Netherlands in the 17th century. While it is broadly important for regulators to protect investors, it will likely take years before the global impact of cryptocurrencies is truly felt.