How much do you know about cryptocurrencies? Even if you don’t know much you are very likely to have heard about the most popular member of the family: Bitcoin. Bitcoin (BTC) has been around for some time now (see the blog Bubbling Bitcoin). It was first released in 2009 by its inventor (the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, whose real identity still remains unknown), and since then it has gradually increased in popularity.
According to the Bitcoin Market Journal (a specialised blog, commenting on trends in digital currencies – primarily Bitcoin), there are currently about 29 million digital wallets holding at least 0.001 BTC, although some individual users may own multiple wallets.
Although BTC is the most popular digital currency (and the first one to become widely recognisable), it is certainly not the only one. There are currently more than 400 recognisable cryptocurrencies traded in special digital exchanges (twice this number if you count smaller, less successful ones) with a total capitalisation of $700 billion at its peak (January 3, 2018) – although since then the market has lost a significant part of this value (but it’s still worth 100s of billion of US dollars).
If you have heard about Bitcoin before, chances are you first searched for it sometime between December 2017 and January 2018; that is when the value of Bitcoin soared to $20 000 a piece. A search on Google Trends (a Google utility that shows how many people have searched over a period of time for a certain term – in this case “Bitcoin”) shows this very clearly.
So what do people do with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? The truth is that the majority of users use them for speculative purposes: they buy and sell them, in the hope of making a profit. Due to its extreme volatility (it is very common for the price of the larger cryptocurrencies to fluctuate by 10–20% daily) and the unregulated nature of the cryptocurrency market, it is hardly surprising that most users treat them as very high-risk commodity. This is also why digital currencies tend to attract attention (and new users) when their price soars.
However, cryptocurrencies are not only used for speculation. They can also be used to facilitate transactions. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, there are currently more than 100 000 merchants accepting BTC as a form of payment (online or offline with wallet readers). Financial technology (‘Fintech’) is catching up with this market and some new companies try to compete with the traditional payment networks (Mastercard, Visa and others) by launching plastic cards linked with crypto-wallets (primarily Bitcoin).
Santander bank has expressed an interest in exploring this market further. It is certain that if the market for cryptocurrencies keeps growing at this pace, there will be a lot more challenger fintech firms launching new products that will make it easier to use digital currencies in everyday life.
Cryptocurrencies, therefore, are likely to have a significant impact on the way we pay for our transactions. They can be used to lower transaction costs (e.g. by simplifying the process of sending money abroad), speed up the processing of payments, facilitate microfinancing and transactions in some of the poorest places on earth – where the closest bank may be 50 miles away or further from where people live).
But there is a dark side to these products. They have been linked to tax-evasion for instance, as many people who trade digital currencies fail to declare capital gains to national tax authorities. They can be used to overcome capital controls and other restrictions imposed by national governments (the case of Greece comes to mind as a recent example).
They have also been blamed for facilitating illegal trading activities, such as in drugs and weapons, due to the anonymity that some of these coins are thought to offer to their users – although quite often they are much easier to trace than their users believe.
Cryptocurrencies do have the potential to change the way we live. They also have the potential to become the biggest Ponzi scheme in the history of mankind.
Over the next few months, I will write a number of blogs to explore the literature on the economics of cryptocurrencies, and discuss some of the major challenges that needs to be overcome if this technology is to become mainstream.
Articles and information
- How much do you know about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? When did you first find out about them and what triggered your interest?
- Would you be willing to accept payment in BTC? Why yes? Why no?
- Identify five ways in which the use of cryptocurrencies can benefit or damage the global economy.
On 8 February, the Bank of England issued a statement that was seen by many as a warning for earlier and speedier than previously anticipated increases in the UK base rate. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, referred in his statement to ‘recent forecasts’ which make it more likely that ‘monetary policy would need to be tightened somewhat earlier and by a somewhat greater extent over the forecast period than anticipated at the time of the November report’.
A similar picture emerges on the other side of the Atlantic. With labour markets continuing to deliver spectacularly high rates of employment (the highest in the last 17 years), there are also now signs that wages are on an upward trajectory. According to a recent report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, US wage growth has been stronger than expected, with average hourly earnings rising by 2.9 percent – the strongest growth since 2009.
These statements have coincided with a week of sharp corrections and turbulence in the world’s largest capital markets, as investors become increasingly conscious of the threat of rising inflation – and the possibility of tighter monetary policy.
The Dow Jones plunged from an all-time high of 26,186 points on 1 February to 23,860 a week later – losing more than 10 per cent of its value in just five trading sessions (suffering a 4.62 percentag fall on 5 February alone – the worst one-day point fall since 2011). European and Asian markets followed suit, with the FTSE-100, DAX and NIKKEI all suffering heavy losses in excess of 5 per cent over the same period.
But why should higher inflationary expectations fuel a sell-off in global capital markets? After all, what firm wouldn’t like to sell its commodities at a higher price? Well, that’s not entirely true. Investors know that further increases in inflation are likely to be met by central banks hiking interest rates. This is because central banks are unlikely to be willing or able to allow inflation rates to rise much above their target levels.
The Bank of England, for instance, sets itself an inflation target of 2%. The actual ongoing rate of inflation reported in the latest quarterly Inflation Report is 3% (50 per cent higher than the target rate).
Any increase in interest rates is likely to have a direct impact on both the demand and the supply side of the economy.
Consumers (the demand side) would see their cost of borrowing increase. This could put pressure on households that have accumulated large amounts of debt since the beginning of the recession and could result in lower consumer spending.
Firms (the supply side) are just as likely to suffer higher borrowing costs, but also higher operational costs due to rising wages – both of which could put pressure on profit margins.
It now seems more likely that we are coming towards the end of the post-2008 era – a period that saw the cost of money being driven down to unprecedentedly low rates as the world’s largest economies dealt with the aftermath of the Great Recession.
For some, this is not all bad news – as it takes us a step closer towards a more historically ‘normal’ equilibrium. It remains to be seen how smooth such a transition will be and to what extent the high-leveraged world economy will manage to keep its current pace, despite the increasingly hawkish stance in monetary policy by the world’s biggest central banks.
Dow plunges 1,175 – worst point decline in history CNN Money, Matt Egan (5/2/18)
Global Markets Shed $5.2 Trillion During the Dow’s Stock Market Correction Fortune, Lucinda Shen (9/2/18)
Bank of England warns of larger rises in interest rates Financial Times, Chris Giles and Gemma Tetlow (8/2/18)
Stocks are now in a correction — here’s what that means Business Insider, Andy Kiersz (8/2/18)
US economy adds 200,000 jobs in January and wages rise at fastest pace since recession Business Insider, Akin Oyedele (2/2/18)
- Using supply and demand diagrams, explain the likely effect of an increase in interest rates to equilibrium prices and output. Is it good news for investors and how do you expect them to react to such hikes? What other factors are likely to influence the direction of the effect?
- Do you believe that the current ultra-low interest rates could stay with us for much longer? Explain your reasoning.
- What is likely to happen to the exchange rate of the pound against the US dollar, if the Bank of England increases interest rates first?
- Why do stock markets often ‘overshoot’ in responding to expected changes in interest rates or other economic variables
The UK is a productivity laggard. Compared to many developed countries over the recent past it has experienced weaker growth in output per worker and output per hour worked. This is detrimental to our longer-term well-being and to peoples’ living standards. An important contributory factor has been the weakness of growth in (non-financial) capital per worker. Recent ONS figures show that UK experienced a decline in capital per worker from 2012 to 2015, which was only ended in 2016.
Non-financial capital assets (also known as fixed assets) are defined as already-produced, durable goods or any non-financial asset used in the production of goods or services. This includes items such as dwellings, buildings, ICT, machinery and transport equipment.
Chart 1 shows the value of net capital assets in the UK since 1995. ‘Net’ figures account for the depreciation of assets and so reflect the market value of the capital stock. At the end of 2016 the net capital stock was estimated at £7.54 trillion (at 2015 prices) compared to £4.94 trillion (at 2015 prices) in 1995, an increase of 53 per cent or about 2.4 per cent per year.
However, as the chart shows, the rate of growth slowed markedly following the financial crisis of the late 2000s, averaging a mere 0.8 per cent per year since 2010. (Click here for a Powerpoint of the chart).
Capital intensity can be measured by the amount of capital per employee. Capital intensity is important because the growth in net capital per employee impacts on productivity. Its growth has an impact on the current effectiveness of capital and labour in production and on the future growth in potential output per employee.
Chart 2 shows that, following the financial crisis, falling employment levels temporarily boosted the growth in net capital per employee. Then, as employment levels recovered and began growing again, the weakness in investment meant that net capital per employee began to fall.
In 2016, as employment growth slowed, the now stronger flows of investment meant that, for the first time since 2011, net capital per employee was finally rising again. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
The persistent weakness experienced by UK in the growth of capital intensity in the 2010s is a drag on productivity and on supply-side growth. The weakness of UK productivity growth looks like remaining for some time one of the biggest economic challenges facing policymakers. Productivity needs its capital.
UK business investment on ice until more Brexit progress, warns BCC The Guardian, Richard Partington (11/12/17)
Budget 2017: Can Digital Plug The UK’s Productivity Gap? Hufttington Post, William Newton (27/11/17)
UK productivity estimates must be ‘significantly’ lowered, admits OBR The Guardian, Richard Partington and Phillip Inman (13/12/17)
UK productivity sees further fall BBC News (6/10/17)
Capital stocks, consumption of fixed capital in the UK: 2017 ONS
- How might we measure productivity?
- Compose a list of items that are examples of non-financial (or fixed) capital.
- How can the growth of non-financial (or fixed) capital affect productivity?
- What is meant by capital intensity? Why is this concept important for long-term growth?
- What factors might affect the rate of capital accumulation? Are there interventions that governments can make to impact on the rate of capital accumulation?
- Discuss the possible reasons why the UK has become a productivity laggard.
What do tulips, nickel mining in Australia, South Seas trading, Beanie Babies and cryptocurrencies have in common? The answer is that they have all been the subject of speculative bubbles. In the first four cases the bubble burst. A question currently being asked is whether it will happen to bitcoin.
Bitcoin was created in 2009 by an unknown person, or people, using the alias Satoshi Nakamoto. It is a digital currency in the form of a line of computer code. Bitcoins are like ‘electronic cash’ which can be held or used for transactions, with holdings and transactions heavily encrypted for security – hence it is a form of ‘crytocurrency’. People can buy and sell bitcoins for normal currencies as well as using them for transactions. People’s holdings are held in electronic ‘wallets’ and can be accessed on their computers or phones via the Internet. Transfers of bitcoins from one person or organisation to another are recorded in a public electronic ledger in the form of a ‘blockchain‘.
The supply of bitcoins is not controlled by central banks; rather, it is determined by a process known as ‘mining’. This involves individuals or groups solving complex and time-consuming mathematical problems and being rewarded with a new block of bitcoins.
The supply of bitcoins is currently growing at around 150 per hour and the current supply is around ₿16.7 million. However, the number of new bitcoins in a block is halved for every 210,000 blocks. This means that the rate of increase in the supply of bitcoins is slowing – the number generated being halved roughly every four years. The supply will eventually reach a maximum of ₿21 million, probably sometime in the next century, but around 99% will have been mined by around 2032.
The bitcoin bubble
The price of bitcoins has soared in recent months and especially in the past two. On 4 October, the price of a bitcoin was $4226; by 7 December it was nearly four times higher, at $16,858 – a rise of 399% in just nine weeks. Many people have claimed that this is a bubble, which will soon burst. Already there have been severe fluctuations. By December 10, for example, the price had fallen at one point to $13,152 – a fall of nearly 22% in just two days – only to recover to over $15,500 within a few hours.
So what determines the price of bitcoin? The simple answer is very straightforward – it’s determined by demand and supply. But what has been happening to demand and supply and why? And what will happen in the near and more distant future?
As we have seen, the supply is limited by the process of mining, which allows a relatively stable, but declining, increase. The explanation of the recent price rise and what will happen in the future lies on the demand side. Increasing numbers of people have been buying bitcoin, not because they want to use it for transactions, whether legitimate or illegal over the dark web, but because they want to invest in bitcoin. In other words, they want to hold bitcoin as an asset which is increasing in value. These people are known as ‘hodlers’ – a deliberate misspelling of ‘holders’.
But this speculation is of the destabilising form. The more prices have risen, the more people have bought bitcoin, thus pushing the price up further. This is a classic bubble, whereby the price does not reflect an underlying value, but rather the exuberance of buyers.
The problem with bubbles is that they will burst, but just when is virtually impossible to predict with any accuracy. If the price of bitcoins falls, what will happen next depends on how the fall is interpreted. It could be interpreted as a temporary fall, caused by some people cashing in to take advantage of the higher prices. At the same time, other people, believing that it is only a temporary fall, will rush to buy, snapping up bitcoins at the temporary low price. This ‘stabilising speculation’ will move the price back up again.
However, the fall in price may be seen as the bubble bursting, with even bigger falls ahead. In this case, people will rush to sell before it falls further, thereby pushing the price even lower. This destabilising speculation will amplify the fall in prices.
But even if the bubble does burst, people may believe that another bubble will then occur and, once they think the bottom has been reached, will thus start buying again and there will be a second speculative rise in the price.
The crash could be very short-lived. This happened with the second biggest cryptocurrency, Ethereum. On 21 June this year, the price at the beginning of the day was $360. It then began to fall during the say. Once its price reached $315, it then collapsed by 96% to $13 with massive selling, much of it automatic with computers programmed to sell when the price falls by more than a certain amount. But then, on the same day, it rebounded. Within minutes it had bounced back and was trading at $337 at the end of the day. It is now trading at around $450 – up from around $300 four weeks ago.
Whether the bubble in bitcoin has more to inflate, when it will burst, and when it will rebound and by how much, depends on people’s expectations. But what we are looking at here is people’s expectations of what other people are likely to do – in other words, of other people’s expectations, which in turn depend on their expectations of other people’s expectations. This situation is known as a Keynesian Beauty Contest (see the blog, A stock market beauty contest of the machines). Perhaps we need a crystal ball.
Is Bitcoin a bubble? Here’s what two bubble experts told us Trade Online, Timothy B. Lee (8/12/17)
Bitcoin and tulipmania have a lot more in common than you might think Business Insider, Seth Archer (8/12/17)
Bitcoin ends dramatic week with 20% slump followed by recovery The Guardian, Jill Treanor (8/12/17)
Putting a price on Bitcoin The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (8/12/17)
Is Bitcoin a Bubble Waiting to Pop? InvestorPlace, Matt McCall (8/12/17)
Bitcoin bubble follows classic pattern of investment mania Financial Times, John Authers (8/12/17)
The Bitcoin bubble – how we know it will burst The Conversation, Larisa Yarovaya and Brian Lucey (6/12/17)
Bitcoin isn’t a currency – and unless it becomes one it could be worthless The Conversation, Vili Lehdonvirta (6/12/17)
How Bitcoin futures trading could burst the cryptocurrency’s bubble The Conversation, Nafis Alam (13/12/17)
Op-ed: Bitcoin Is Not a Bubble; It’s in an S-Curve and It’s Just Getting Started Bitcoin Magazine, Brandon Green (8/12/17)
Bitcoin vs history’s biggest bubbles: They never end well CNN Money, Daniel Shane (8/12/17)
The 10 Most Ridiculous Price Bubbles In History Business Insider, Vincent Fernando and Anika Anand (11/10/10)
After bitcoin’s wild week, traders brace for futures launch Reuters, Saqib Iqbal Ahmed (10/12/17)
Cryptocurrencies current market prices
Bitcoin live exchange prices and volumes ($) CryptoCompare
All cryptocurrencies – live market prices Yahoo Finance
- To what extent does Bitcoin meet the functions of money?
- Why is bitcoin unsuitable for normal transactions?
- To what extent is bitcoin like gold as a means of holding wealth?
- How would you advise someone thinking of buying bitcoin today? Explain why.
- Does a rapid rise in the price of an asset always indicate a bubble? Explain
- To what extent is the current rise in the price of bitcoin similar to that of the tulip, Poseidon and Beanie Baby bubbles?
- If bitcoin is appreciating relative to the dollar and other currencies, does this mean that the price of goods and services valued in bitcoin are falling? Explain.
- Explain and comment on the following sentence from the first Conversation article: “Like any asset, Bitcoin has some fundamental value, even if only a hope value, or a value arising from scarcity.”
- How might the introduction of futures trading in bitcoin impact on its price and the volatility of price swings?
- Explain and assess the argument that the price trend of bitcoin is more likely to be an S curve rather than a roller coaster
In delivering his Budget on 22 November, Philip Hammond reported that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility had revised down its forecasts of growth in productivity and real GDP, and hence of earnings growth.
Today, median earnings are £23,000 per annum. This is £1500 less than the £24,500 that the median worker earned in 2008 in today’s prices. The OBR forecasts a growth in real household disposable income of just 0.35% per annum for the next four years.
With lower growth in earnings would come a lower growth in tax revenues. With his desire to cut the budget deficit and start eventually reducing government debt, this would give the government less scope for spending on infrastructure, training and other public-sector investment; less scope to support public services, such as health and education; less scope for increasing benefits and public-sector wages.
The normal measure of productivity, and the one used by the OBR, is the value of output produced per hour worked. This has hardly increased at all since the financial crisis of 2008. It now takes an average worker in the UK approximately five days to produce the same amount as it takes an average worker in Germany four days. Although other countries’ productivity growth has also slowed since the financial crisis, it has slowed more in the UK and from a lower base – and is now forecast to rebound less quickly.
For the past few years the OBR has been forecasting that productivity growth would return to the trend rate of just over 2% that the UK achieved prior to 2008. For example, the forecasts it made in June 2010 are shown by the grey line in the chart, which were based on the pre-crash trend rate of growth in productivity (click on chart to enlarge). And the forecasts it made in November 2016 are shown by the pale green line. Yet each year productivity has hardly changed at all. Today output per hour is less than 1% above its level in 2008.
Now the OBR believes that poorer productivity growth will persist. It is still forecasting an increase (the blue line in the chart) – but by 0.7 of a percentage point less than it was forecasting a year ago (the pale green line): click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.
We have assumed that productivity growth will pick up a little, but remain significantly lower than its pre-crisis trend rate throughout the next five years. On average, we have revised trend productivity growth down by 0.7 percentage points a year. It now rises from 0.9 per cent this year to 1.2 per cent in 2022. This reduces potential output in 2021-22 by 3.0 per cent. The ONS estimates that output per hour is currently 21 per cent below an extrapolation of its pre-crisis trend. By the beginning of 2023 we expect this to have risen to 27 per cent.
Why has there been such weak productivity growth?
Weak productivity growth has been caused by a mixture of factors.
Perhaps the most important is that investment as a percentage of GDP has been lower than before the financial crisis and lower than in other countries. Partly this has been caused by a lack of funding for investment as banks have sought to rebuild their capital and have cut down on riskier loans. Partly it has been caused by a lack of demand for investment, given sluggish rates of economic growth and the belief that austerity will continue.
And it is not just private investment. Public-sector investment in transport infrastructure, housing and education and training has been lower than in other countries. Indeed, the poor training record and low skill levels in the UK are main contributors to low productivity.
The fall in the pound since the Brexit vote has raised business costs and further dampened demand as incomes have been squeezed.
Another reason for low productivity growth has been that employers have responded to weak demand, not by laying off workers and thereby raising unemployment, but by retaining low-productivity workers on low wages. Another has been the survival of ‘zombie’ firms, which, by paying low wages and facing ultra-low interest rates, are able to survive competition from firms that do invest.
Why is weak productivity growth forecast to continue?
Looking forward, the nature of the Brexit deal will impact on confidence, investment, wages and growth. If the deal is bad for the UK, the OBR’s forecasts are likely to be too optimistic. As it is, uncertainty over the nature of the post-Brexit world is weighing heavily on investment as some businesses choose to wait before committing to new investment.
On the other hand, exports may rise faster as firms respond to the depreciation of the pound and this may stimulate investment, thereby boosting productivity.
Another factor is the effect of continuing tight Budgets. There was some easing of austerity in this Budget, as the Chancellor accepted a slower reduction in the deficit, but government spending will remain tight and this is likely to weigh on growth and investment and hence productivity.
But this may all be too gloomy. It is very difficult to forecast productivity growth, especially as it is hard to measure output in much of the service sector. It may be that the productivity growth forecasts will be revised up before too long. For example, the benefits from new technologies, such as AI, may flow through more quickly than anticipated. But they may flow through more slowly and the productivity forecasts may have to be revised down even further!
The OBR’s productivity “forecast” Financial Times, Kadhim Shubber
U.K. Faces Longest Fall in Living Standards on Record Bloomberg, Simon Kennedy and Thomas Penny (23/11/17)
Britain’s Productivity Pain Costs Hammond $120 Billion Bloomberg, Fergal O’Brien (22/11/17)
OBR slashes Britain’s growth forecast on sluggish productivity and miserly pay The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (22/11/17)
Budget 2017: Stagnant earnings forecast ‘astonishing’ BBC News (23/11/17)
Economists warn Budget measures to lift productivity fall short Financial Times, Gavin Jackson and Gill Plimmer (22/11/17)
Why the economic forecasts for Britain are so apocalyptic – and how much Brexit is to blame Independent, Ben Chu (24/11/17)
Growth holds steady as economists doubt OBR’s gloom The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (23/11/17)
Britain’s debt will not fall to 2008 levels until 2060s, IFS says in startling warning Independent, Lizzy Buchan (23/11/17)
Philip Hammond’s budget spots Britain’s problems but fails to fix them The Economist (22/11/17)
Debunking the UK’s productivity problem The Conversation, Paul Lewis (24/11/17)
Budget 2017: experts respond The Conversation (22/11/17)
Autumn Budget 2017 Forecasts Mean ‘Longest Ever Fall In Living Standards’, Says Resolution Foundation Huffington Post, Jack Sommers (23/11/17)
It May Just Sound Like A Statistic, But Productivity Growth Matters For All Of Us Huffington Post, Thomas Pope (24/11/17) (see also)
UK prospects for growth far weaker than first predicted, says OBR The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (22/11/17)
UK faces two decades of no earnings growth and more austerity, says IFS The Guardian, Phillip Inman (23/11/17)
Age of austerity isn’t over yet, says IFS budget analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/11/17)
Summary of Budget measures
Budget 2017: FT experts look at what it means for you Financial Times (24/11/17)
Autumn Budget 2017 HM Treasury (22/11/17)
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2017 Office for Budget Responsibility (22/11/17)
Autumn Budget 2017 Institute for Fiscal Studies (23/11/17)
- What measures of productivity are there other than output per hour? Why is output per hour normally the preferred measure of productivity?
- What factors determine output per hour?
- Why have forecasts of productivity growth rates been revised downwards?
- What are the implications of lower productivity growth for government finances?
- What could cause an increase in output per hour? Would there be any negative effects from these causes?
- What policies could the government pursue to increase productivity? How feasible are these policies? Explain.
- Would it matter if the government increased borrowing substantially to fund a large programme of public investment?