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
Project Syndicate is an organisation which produces articles on a range of economic, political and social topics written by eminent scholars, political and business leaders, policymakers and civic activists. It then makes these available to news media in more than 150 countries. Here we look at four such articles which assess the outlook for the European and global economies and even that of capitalism itself.
The general tone is one of pessimism. Despite unconventional monetary policies, such as quantitative easing (QE) and negative nominal interest rates, the global recovery is anaemic. As the Nouriel Roubini articles states:
Unconventional monetary policies – entrenched now for almost a decade – have themselves become conventional. And, in view of persistent lacklustre growth and deflation risk in most advanced economies, monetary policymakers will have to continue their lonely fight with a new set of ‘unconventional unconventional’ monetary policies.
Perhaps this will involve supplying additional money directly to consumers and/or business in a so-called ‘helicopter drop’ of money. Perhaps it will be supplying money directly to governments to finance infrastructure projects – a policy dubbed ‘people’s quantitative easing‘. Perhaps it will involve taxing the holding of cash by banks to encourage them to lend.
The Hans-Werner Sinn article looks at some of the consequences of the huge amount of money created through QE and continuing to be created in the eurozone. Although it has not boosted consumption and investment nearly as much as desired, it has caused bubbles in various asset markets. For example, the property market has soared in many countries:
Property markets in Austria, Germany, and Luxembourg have practically exploded throughout the crisis, as a result of banks chasing borrowers with offers of loans at near-zero interest rates, regardless of their creditworthiness.
The German property boom could be reined in with an appropriate jump in interest rates. But, given the ECB’s apparent determination to head in the opposite direction, the bubble will only grow. If it bursts, the effects could be dire for the euro.
The Jean Pisani-Ferry article widens the analysis of the eurozone’s problems. Like Roubini, he considers the possibility of a helicopter drop of money, which “would be functionally equivalent to a direct government transfer to households, financed by central banks’ permanent issuance of money”.
Without such drastic measures he sees consumer and business pessimism (see chart) undermining recovery and making the eurozone vulnerable to global shocks, such as further weakening in China. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Finally, Anatole Kaletsky takes a broad historical view. He starts by saying that “All over the world today, there is a sense of the end of an era, a deep foreboding about the disintegration of previously stable societies.” He argues that the era of ‘leaving things to the market’ is coming to an end. This was an era inspired by the monetarist and supply-side revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s that led to the privatisation and deregulation policies of Reagan, Thatcher and other world leaders.
But if the market cannot cope with the complexities of today’s world, neither can governments.
If the world is too complex and unpredictable for either markets or governments to achieve social objectives, then new systems of checks and balances must be designed so that political decision-making can constrain economic incentives and vice versa. If the world is characterized by ambiguity and unpredictability, then the economic theories of the pre-crisis period – rational expectations, efficient markets, and the neutrality of money – must be revised.
… It is obvious that new technology and the integration of billions of additional workers into global markets have created opportunities that should mean greater prosperity in the decades ahead than before the crisis. Yet ‘responsible’ politicians everywhere warn citizens about a ‘new normal’ of stagnant growth. No wonder voters are up in arms.
His solution has much in common with that of Roubini and Pisani-Ferry. “Money could be printed and distributed directly to citizens. Minimum wages could be raised to reduce inequality. Governments could invest much more in infrastructure and innovation at zero cost. Bank regulation could encourage lending, instead of restricting it.”
So will there be a new era of even more unconventional monetary policy and greater regulation that encourages rather than restricts investment? Read the articles and try answering the questions.
Unconventional Monetary Policy on Stilts Project Syndicate, Nouriel Roubini (1/4/16)
Europe’s Emerging Bubbles Project Syndicate, Hans-Werner Sinn (28/3/16)
Preparing for Europe’s Next Recession Project Syndicate, Jean Pisani-Ferry (31/3/16)
When Things Fall Apart Project Syndicate, Anatole Kaletsky (31/3/16)
- Explain how a ‘helicopter drop’ of money would work in practice.
- Why has growth in the eurozone been so anaemic since the recession of 2009/10?
- What is the relationship between tightening the regulations about capital and liquidity requirements of banks and bank lending?
- Explain the policies of the different eras identified by Anatole Kaletsky.
- Would it be fair to describe the proposals for more unconventional monetary policies as ‘Keynesian’?
- If quantitative easing was used to finance government infrastructure investment, what would be the effect on the public-sector deficit and debt?
- If the inflation of asset prices is a bubble, what could cause the bubble to burst and what would be the effect on the wider economy?
Many Chinese people have taken to investing on the Chinese stock market, seeing it as a way of making a lot of money quickly. From October 2014 to June this year the market soared, rising by 126% from 2290 to 5166.
More and more people used their savings to buy stocks and China now has over 90 million individual investors. And it was not just savings that were invested. Increasingly people have been borrowing money to invest, seeing it as an easy way of making money. Unlike stock markets in developed countries, where the majority of shares are held by financial organisations, such as pension funds, holdings by individuals account for about 80% of stocks on the Chinese market.
But since mid-June, share prices have plummeted by 32% (see chart). People have thus seen a huge fall in the value of their savings, while many others have found their shareholdings worth less than their debts. The fall, like the rise that preceded it, has been driven by speculation, fuelled by first optimism and then pessimism.
The Chinese government is worried that the fall might dampen investment and economic growth. It has thus has been supplying liquidity to various institutions to buy shares, but this has had little effect and is dismissed by many as meddling. What is more it could expose companies which take advantage of the liquidity to greater risk.
So serious has been the rout, that over 50% of listed companies have halted trading on the mainland Chinese stock exchanges.
So just why has there been this bubble and why has it burst? What implications will it have for (a) China and (b) the rest of the world? The following articles explore the issues.
China’s stock market fall hits small investors BBC News Magazine, John Sudworth (7/7/15)
China Stocks Plunge as State Support Fails to Revive Confidence Bloomberg (8/7/15)
Chinese stocks are crashing Business Insider UK, Myles Udland, David Scutt (8/7/15)
Shanghai stocks plunge, over 1,200 Chinese companies halt trading Economic Times of India (8/7/15)
Everyone freaking out about China’s stock-market crash is missing one thing Business Insider UK, Elena Holodny (7/7/15)
China’s stock market has lost nearly a third of its value in a month Vox, Timothy B. Lee (8/7/15)
Chinese leaders may be undermined as investors suffer stock market slide The Guardian, Emma Graham-Harrison (8/7/15)
Opinion: China’s stock-market crash is just beginning MarketWatch, Howard Gold (8/7/15)
What does China’s stock market crash tell us? BBC News (22/7/15)
- What is meant by a ‘bubble’? Has the recent performance of the Shanghai Stock Market been an example of a bubble?
- Is the current fall in share prices in China an example of overshooting? Explain how you would decide.
- Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation. Why does destabilising speculation not go on for ever?
- What is meant by the ‘stock market wealth effect’? How is the fall in the Chinese stock market likely to affect consumption and investment in China? How does the proportion of assets held in the form of shares affect the magnitude of the effect?
- What are the likely implications of the fall in the Chinese stock market for the rest of the world?
- Why has the Hong Kong stock market not behaved in the same way as the Shanghai market?
- What have the Chinese authorities been doing to arrest the fall in share prices? How likely are they to succeed?
Each day many investors anxiously watch the stock market to see if their shares have gone up or down. They may also speculate: buying if they think share prices are likely to go up; selling if they think their shares will fall. But what drives these expectations?
To some extent, people will look at real factors, such as company sales and profits or macroeconomic indicators, such as the rate of economic growth or changes in public-sector borrowing. But to a large extent people are trying to predict what other people will do: how other people will react to changes in various indicators.
John Maynard Keynes observed this phenomenon in Chapter 12 of his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money of 1936. He likened this process of anticipating what other people will do to a newspaper beauty contest, popular at the time. In fact, behaviour of this kind has become known as a Keynesian beauty contest (see also). Keynes wrote that:
professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgement, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practise the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.
When investors focus on people’s likely reactions, it can make markets very unstable. A relatively minor piece of news can cause people to buy or sell in anticipation that others will do the same and that others will realise this and do the same themselves. Markets can overshoot, until, when prices have got out of line with fundamentals, buying can turn into selling, or vice versa. Prices can then move rapidly in the other direction, again driven by what people think other people will do. Sometimes, markets can react to very trivial news indeed. As the New York Times article below states:
On days without much news, the market is simply reacting to itself. And because anxiety is running high, investors make quick, sometimes impulsive, responses to relatively minor events.
The rise of the machine
In recent years there is a new factor to account for growing stock market volatility. The Keynesian beauty contest is increasingly being played by computers. They are programmed to buy and sell when certain conditions are met. The hundreds of human traders of the past who packed trading floors of stock markets, have been largely replaced by just a few programmers, trained to adjust the algorithms of the computers their finance companies use as trading conditions change.
And these computers react in milliseconds to what other computers are doing, which in turn react to what others are doing. Markets can, as a result, suddenly soar or plummet, until the algorithms kick the market into reverse as computers sell over-priced stock or buy under-priced stock, which triggers other computers to do the same.
Robot trading is here to stay. The articles and podcast consider the implications of the ‘games’ they are playing – for savers, companies and the economy.
The Beauty Contest That’s Shaking Wall St. New York Times, Robert J. Schiller (3/9/11)
Speculative bubbles don’t just pop – they may deflate and reflate The Guardian, Robert Shiller (19/7/13)
A dark magic: The rise of the robot traders BBC News, Laurence Knight (8/7/13)
Stock markets under computer control BBC News, Robert Peston
Eunuchs of the Universe: Wall Street Today The Daily Beast, Tom Wolfe (4/1/13)
- Give some other examples of human behaviour which is in the form of a Keynesian beauty contest.
- Why may playing a Keynesian beauty contest lead to an undesirable Nash equilibrium?
- Does robot trading do anything other than simply increase the speed at which markets adjust?
- Can destabilising speculation continue indefinitely? Explain.
- Explain what is meant by ‘overshooting’? Why is overshooting likely to occur in stock markets and foreign exchange markets?
- In what ways does robot trading (a) benefit and (b) damage the interests of savers?
With many countries struggling to recover from the depression of the past few years, central banks are considering more and more doveish moves to kick-start lending. But with short-term interest rates in the USA, the UK and Japan close to zero, the scope for further cuts are limited. So what can central banks do?
The first thing that can be done is to adopt a higher inflation target or to accept inflation above target – at least for the time being. This could be accompanied by explicitly targeting GDP growth (real or nominal) or unemployment (see the blog from last December, Rethinking central bank targets).
The second option is to increase quantitative easing. Although in a minority at the last MPC meeting, Mervyn King, the current Bank of England Governor, argued for a further £25 billion of asset purchases (bringing the total to £400bn) (see MPC minutes paragraph 39). It is highly likely that the MPC will agree to further QE at its next meeting in March. In Japan, the new governor of the Bank of Japan is expected to include asset purchases as part of the policy of monetary easing.
The third option is for the central bank to provide finance at below-market rates of interest directly to the banking sector specifically for lending: e.g. to small businesses or for house purchase. The Bank of England’s Funding for Lending Scheme is an example and the Bank is considering extending it to other financial institutions.
One other approach, mooted by the Bank of England’s Deputy Governor before the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, is for negative interest rates paid on Banks’ reserves in the Bank of England. This would, in effect, be a fee levied on banks for keeping money on deposit. The idea would be to encourage banks to lend the money and not to keep excessive liquidity. As you can see from the chart, three rounds of quantitative easing have led to a huge increase in bank’s reserves at the Bank of England. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The following articles consider these various proposals and whether they will work to stimulate lending and thereby aggregate demand and economic recovery.
Central banks: Brave new words The Economist (23/2/13)
Phoney currency wars The Economist (16/2/13)
Analysis: Global central banks will keep taking it easy Reuters, Alan Wheatley (22/2/13)
Quantitative easing: the markets are struggling with a serious drug habi The Guardian, Larry Elliott (24/2/13)
Negative interest rates idea floated by Bank’s Paul Tucker BBC News (26/2/13)
Bank of England mulls negative interest rates Independent, Ben Chu (26/2/13)
BoE floats extending Funding for Lending to non-banks Mortgage Solutions, Adam Williams (26/2/13)
Funding for Lending Scheme failing to get banks lending Left Foot Forward, James Bloodworth (26/2/13)
Mortgage market boosted by lending schemes, says Redrow BBC News (26/2/13)
Widespread quantitative easing risks ‘QE wars’ and stagnation The Guardian, Nouriel Roubini (28/2/13)
- Consider each of the methods outlined above and their chances of success in stimulating aggregate demand.
- Go through each of the methods and consider the problems they are likely to create/have created.
- How important is it that monetary policy measures affect people’s expectations?
- What effects do the measures have on the distribution of income between borrowers and savers?
- What are annuities? How are these affected by policies of monetary easing?
- How has actual and anticipated Japanese monetary policy affected the exchange rate of the Japanese yen? How is this likely to affect the Japanese economy?
- Explain the sub-heading of the final article above, “When several major central banks pursue QE at the same time, it becomes a zero-sum game”. Do you agree?