My goal for this column is to provide a variety of business news, viewpoints and information that readers might find useful, thought-provoking or entertaining.
This week’s column fails miserably.
That’s because my sole focus is on cryptocurrency, something I believe most readers will find to be mostly useless, wholly irrational and a fairly tedious read.
It’s a subject I never really wanted to address. My attitude toward cryptocurrency has been this: If I could ignore it long enough, it would – like so many other bad ideas – just fade into obscurity. But much like Amy Schumer, cryptocurrency is obviously going to be around for a while.
After years of summarily deleting hundreds of cryptocurrency-related PR pitches from my inbox, what prompted me to come face-to-face with the topic was a recent analysis by RewardExpert, which said Georgia was one of the top three states for “cryptocurrency infrastructure.”
The web-based navigator of frequent-flier and affinity card programs arrived at this conclusion because the Peach State has 24 Bitcoin ATMs. “Georgia has the most locations where you can automatically convert cryptocurrency into cold hard cash,” the company said.
If one of these 24 machines is in the Augusta area, I certainly haven’t seen it. And I’m willing to bet none have been seen outside the Interstate 285 loop. But the firm’s study illustrates just how much attention is being paid to something that 75 percent of people have never heard of, 85 percent don’t understand and 99.9 percent haven’t used.
I sometimes think the only reason we keep talking about virtual money is because the 0.1 percent of Americans who write for techie magazines and blogs are obsessed with the notion that an unregulated and borderless digital currency will transform the global economy. Or at least let them buy drugs online.
Decide for yourself by taking a closer look at Bitcoin, the oldest and most well-known cryptocurrency. It has had a lot of press in recent months because its “value” famously skyrocketed from 6 cents a coin in 2009 to more than $16,000 last year.
First off, Bitcoins are not real coins – those photos of shiny, metallic coins you see on the internet are promotional gimmicks. Bitcoins are not “legal tender for all debts, public and private,” unlike real coins and dollar bills that the U.S. government backs as its “fiat” currency.
In other words, you can’t pay your taxes in Bitcoins. You can’t use Bitcoins for many things for that matter. Most companies don’t accept them, and those that do are mostly online companies such as Expedia and Overstock.
What, exactly, is a Bitcoin? It is a 256-bit string of encrypted data stored on a computer (which really means it’s a bunch of ones and zeros).
This Bitcoin data gets used in an open-source software called “blockchain,” which acts as a decentralized and largely anonymous digital ledger in alt-currency transactions. Its anonymous creator preprogrammed the system to create 21 million Bitcoins.
Why 21 million? Because, hey, why not?
There are currently about 17 million Bitcoins in circulation. The rest are being, ahem, “mined” by people using the free software and computers to brute force trillions of number combinations to unlock new Bitcoins. If this all sounds a bit outlandish, it’s because it is.
The only thing that gives Bitcoin tokens any value is that people are using actual money to buy them. Hence the 2017 bubble. Because there is no cryptocurrency central banking system (which is part of its allure), there is no reliable way to value a Bitcoin. Cryptocurrency is backed by exactly $0.00 in assets. Thus, its value depends on whatever someone is willing pay for it.
That is why Bitcoins are primarily purchased by speculators for resale, rather than used like currency in a transaction.
But wait – there’s more. Once you get a Bitcoin, you need a “wallet” – an encrypted online bank account – in which to hold it. But because these banks are not “real” (not in an FDIC sense) there is no way to get your Bitcoins back if your wallet is hacked and your data is stolen. Same thing if your computer system crashes and erases all your Bitcoin data.
I suppose that’s a risk one must take when making anonymous and untraceable financial transactions.
The libertarian in me actually likes the idea of decentralized and unregulated money that governments and large institutions can’t control. And I’m OK with the notion Uncle Sam doesn’t deserve to get his greedy fingers on every single dollar that comes my way. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to start investing in Bitcoins or its rivals, such as Ethereum or Ripple. Sorry, but I prefer my money rooted in reality.
And a sense of reality is what seems to be lacking among those in the crytocurrency herd. Consider this: the market value of the entire crypto industry supposedly could top $1 trillion this year. That’s three times bigger than ExxonMobil, a real company with real, income-producing assets. That’s twice as big as Microsoft and roughly the same size as Apple.
None of this seems rational to me. It feels like I’m drinking a Zima in 1999 while watching a Pets.com commercial and reading about how AOL purchased TimeWarner.
Cryptocurrency, in and of itself, is not an asset. It doesn’t produce anything and its value is predicated solely on the idea it can be sold to someone else for more money in the future, much like a Ponzi scheme.
Yes, the Bitcoin bubble made millions for some people. But its also created a lot of losers, similar to other irrational and highly speculative gambles throughout history. Have we already forgotten the Beanie Babies bubble and dot-com boom?
While billionaires like Warren Buffett and investment gurus such as Vanguard’s Jack Bogle won’t touch cryptocurrencies with a 10-foot pole, there are no shortage of near cultish crypto crusaders and blockchain backers who will dismiss critics as stodgy geezers who “just don’t get it.”
Put me in the geezer camp.
I’m willing to concede blockchain might someday be able to do to financial transactions what Amazon did to e-commerce or what Facebook did to social media. But I’m not about to put a dime of real money into a highly speculative and intangible asset that could disappear with a few keystrokes.
Cryptocurrency is one party I’m happy to skip because I think the morning-after hangover is going to be a doozy.