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.
If you asked virtually any banker or economist a few years ago whether negative (nominal) interest rates were possible, the answer would almost certainly be no.
Negative real interest rates have been common at many points in time – whenever the rate of inflation exceeds the nominal rate of interest. People’s debts and savings are eroded by inflation as the interest due or earned does not keep pace with rising prices.
But negative nominal rates? Surely this could never happen? It was generally believed that zero (or slightly above zero) nominal rates represented a floor – ‘a zero lower bound’.
The reasoning was that if there were negative nominal rates on borrowing, you would effectively be paid by the bank to borrow. In such a case, you might as well borrow as much as you can, as you would owe less later and could pocket the difference.
A similar argument was used with savings. If nominal rates were negative, savers might as well withdraw all their savings from bank accounts and hold them as cash (perhaps needing first to buy a safe!) Given, however, that this might be inconvenient and potentially costly, some people may be prepared to pay banks for looking after their savings.
Central bank interest rates have been hovering just above zero since the financial crisis of 2008. And now, some of the rates have turned negative (see chart above). The ECB has three official rates:
||The interest rate on the main refinancing operations (MRO), which provide the bulk of liquidity to the banking system.
||The rate on the deposit facility, which banks may use to make overnight deposits with the Eurosystem.
||The rate on the marginal lending facility, which offers overnight credit to banks from the Eurosystem.
The first of these is the most important rate and remains above zero – just. Since September 2014, it has been 0.05%. This rate is equivalent to the Bank of England’s Bank Rate (currently still 0.5%) and the Fed’s Federal Funds Rate (currently still between 0% and 0.25%).
The third of the ECB’s rates is currently 0.3%, but the second – the rate on overnight deposits in the ECB by banks in the eurozone – is currently –0.2%. In other words, banks have to pay the ECB for making these overnight deposits (deposits that can be continuously rolled over). The idea has been to encourage banks to lend rather than simply keeping unused liquidity.
In Nordic countries, the experiment with negative rates has gone further. With plenty of slack in the Swedish economy, negative inflation and an appreciating krona, the Swedish central bank – the Riksbank – cut its rates below zero.
Many City analysts believe that the Riksbank will continue cutting, reducing its key interest rate to minus 0.5% by the end of the year [it is currently 0.35%]. Switzerland’s is already deeper still, at minus 0.75%, while Denmark and the eurozone have joined them as members of the negative zone.
But the nominal interest rate on holding cash is, by definition, zero. If deposit rates are pushed below zero, then will more and more people hold cash instead? The hope is that negative nominal interest rates on bank accounts will encourage people to spend. It might, however, merely encourage them to hoard cash.
The article below from The Telegraph looks at some of the implications of an era of negative rates. The demand for holding cash has been increasing in many countries and, along with it, the supply of banknotes, as the chart in the article shows. Here negative interest are less effective. In Nordic countries, however, the use of cash is virtually disappearing. Here negative interest rates are likely to be more effective in boosting aggregate demand.
How Sweden’s negative interest rates experiment has turned economics on its head The Telegraph, Peter Spence (27/9/15)
Central bank and monetary authority websites Bank for International Settlements
Central banks – summary of current interest rates global-rates.com
- Distinguish between negative real and negative nominal interest rates.
- What is the opportunity cost of holding cash – the real or the nominal interest rate forgone by not holding it in a bank?
- Are there any dangers of central banks setting negative interest rates?
- Why may negative interest rates be more effective in Sweden than in the UK?
- ‘Andy Haldane, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) … suggested that to achieve properly negative rates, the abolition of cash itself might be necessary.’ Why?
- Why does Switzerland have notes of SF1000 and the eurozone of €500? Should the UK have notes of £100 or even £500?
- Why do some banks charge zero interest rates on credit cards for a period of time to people who transfer their balances from another card? Is there any incentive for banks to cut interest rates on credit cards below zero?
Market trading has existed for centuries and in many respects it hasn’t changed very much. One thing that has developed is the means of exchange. Goods used to be traded for other goods – for example 1 pig for 4 chickens! But then money was developed as a means of exchange and then came cheques and plastic.
However, for many market traders, accepting credit and debit cards is relatively costly. It involves paying a monthly contract, which for many traders is simply not worthwhile, based on the quantity and value of the transactions. But, for many customers using debit or credit cards is the preferred method of payment and the fact that some traders only accept cash can be a deterrent to them making purchases and this therefore reduces the sales of the market traders.
But, with advances in technology a new way of paying has emerged. Small card readers can now be plugged into iphones, ipads, other tablets and smartphones. By putting a customer’s card into this device customers can then pay by card and either sign for their purchase or use the phone to enter their security details. There are plan for these companies to offer chip and pin technology to further ease payment by card on market stalls. The traders pay a small commission per transaction, but aside from that, the initial start-up cost is minimal and it is likely to encourage more customers to use markets. Jim Stewart, the Director of a firm that has begun using this technology said:
I think it’s definitely going to take off, the world is going that way … The money has always appeared in my bank account, no transactions have been declined, my accountant is happy, it’s all been good.
Some customers have raised concerns about the security of these transactions, as they have to put their cards into someone else’s ipad. However, traders have said that there are no risks and that customers can be sent a receipt for their purchase. The following few articles look at this latest (and other) technological developments.
Smartphone card payment system seeks small firms BBC News, Rob Howard (19/1/13)
POS Trends: What’s new for 2013 Resource News (17/1/13)
Payments by text message service to launch in UK in Spring 2014 BBC News (15/1/13)
- What are fixed cost and why does having a traditional card payment machine represent a fixed cost for a firm?
- How might this new technology affect a firm’s sales and profits?
- Will there be an increase in the firm’s variable costs from adopting this technology?
- Using a cost and revenue diagram, put your answers to questions 1 – 3 into practice and show how it will shift them and thus how the equilibrium may change for a market trader.
- What are the properties of money that allow it to be a good medium of exchange?
- How will this increased use of debit and credit cards affect the demand for money? Use a diagram to illustrate your answer.
As a resident of Bristol it is with considerable interest that I’m following the development of the Bristol pound, due for launch in September 2012. One Bristol pound will be worth one pound sterling.
The new currency will be issued in denominations of £1, £5, £10 and £20 and there is a local competition to design the notes. Participating local traders will open accounts with Bristol Credit Union, which will administer the scheme. It has FSA backing and so all deposits will be guaranteed up to £85,000.
The idea of a local currency is not new. There are already local currencies in Stroud in Gloucestershire, Totnes in Devon, Lewes in East Sussex and Brixton in south London. The Bristol scheme, however, is the first to be introduced on a city-wide scale. The administrators are keen that use of the currency should be as easy as possible; people will be able to open accounts with Bristol Credit Union, pay bills online and pay shopkeepers by mobile phone text message (a system used in many countries, but not in the UK).
As the money has to be spent locally, the aim is to help local business, of which more han 100 have already signed up to the scheme. Bristol has a large number of independent traders – in fact, the road where I live is off the Gloucester Road, which has the largest number of independent traders on one street in the UK. The organisers of the Bristol pound are determined to preserve the diversity of shops and prevent Bristol from becoming a ‘clone town’, with high streets full of chain stores.
But how likely is the scheme to encourage people to shop in independent shops and deal with local traders? Will the scheme take off, or will it fizzle out? What are its downsides?
The Bristol pound was duly launched on September 19 and there has been much local interest. The later videos and articles below look at reactions to the new currency and at its chances of success in driving local business.
Videos and webcasts
The town printing its own currency [Stroud] BBC News, Tim Muffett (22/3/10)
Brixton launches its own currency BBC News (17/9/09)
Local currency BBC Politics Show (30/3/09)
Local currency for Lewes BBC News, Rob Pittam (13/5/08)
The Totnes Pound transitionculture.org on YouTube, Clive Ardagh (21/1/09)
Local Currencies – Replacing Scarcity with Trust Peak Moment on YouTube, Francis Ayley (8/2/07)
Videos and webcasts: update
Bristol Pound Launches ITV News, West, Tanya Mercer (19/9/12)
Can Bristol Pound boost local trade? BBC News, West, Jon Kay (19/9/12)
The Bristol Pound BristolPound on YouTube, Chris Sunderland (11/6/12)
Bristol Pound feature on BBC1 Inside Out BBC One in the West on YouTube, Dave Harvey (30/6/12)
Bristol Pound launched to keep trade in the city BBC News, Dave Harvey (19/9/12)
Bristol pound launched to boost local businesses BBC Radio 5 Live, Ciaran Mundy (19/9/12)
The Bristol Pound set to become a flagship for local enterprise The Random Fact, Thomas Foss (7/2/12)
What is the point of local currency? The Telegraph, Rosie Murray-West (7/2/12)
The Bristol pound: will it save the (local) economy? Management Today, Emma Haslett (6/2/12)
‘Bristol Pound’ currency to boost independent traders BBC News Bristol, Dave Harvey (6/2/12)
We don’t want to be part of ‘clone town Britain’: City launches its own currency to keep money local Mail Online, Tom Kelly (6/2/12)
British Town Prepares To Launch Its Own Currency — Here’s How That’s Going To End Business Insider, Macro Man (7/2/12)
They don’t just shop local in Totnes – they have their very own currency Independent, Rob Sharp (1/5/08)
Bristol banks on alternative pound to safeguard independent retailers Guardian, Steven Morris (21/9/12)
Bristol launches city’s local currency The Telegraph, Rachel Cooper (19/9/12)
The Bristol Pound is launched to help independent retailers Independent, Rob Hastings (20/9/12)
Banknotes, local currencies and central bank objectives Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin (Q4/2013)
Bristol Pound official site
Bristol Pound: Our City, Our Money Bristol Pound
- What are the advantages of having a local currency?
- What are the dangers in operating a local currency?
- What steps can be taken to avoid the dangers?
- Can Bristol pounds be ‘created’ by Bristol Credit Union? Could the process be inflationary?
- What market failures are there in the pattern of shops in towns and cities? To what extent is the growth of supermarkets in towns and the growth of out-of-town shopping malls a result of market failures or simply of consumer preferences?
- Are local currencies only for idealists?
- What benefits are there for shoppers in Bristol of using Bristol pounds?
Will we soon live in a world without cash? More and more payments are being made electronically: whether by credit card or debit card, or by direct debit or bank transfer, or by cash loaded cards. For many people cash is now largely used only for small transactions.
But even here, things are changing. Direct transfers via mobile phone apps are increasingly being used for small transactions. Mobile phone companies, banks and others are busy developing such apps and more and more are being released onto the market.
And it’s not just in developed countries. Many developing countries are finding that mobile phones are an ideal way of transferring money for a whole range of transactions. For example, in Kenya, under 20% have a formal bank account, only 1% have a landline and yet more than 70% have a mobile phone, and this percentage is still rising. In 2007, a system known as M-Pesa (see also) was launched:
The user can create a free account and deposit money into it for free with registered agents at retail outlets. They may be gas stations, supermarkets, banks or micro-finance providers or small and medium-sized businesses. No minimum account balance is required.
The user can then transfer up to $440 from the account to someone else — including someone who doesn’t have a cellphone. The recipient provides identification and picks up the cash from another registered agent.
Users can deposit and withdraw cash, pay water and electricity bills, pay their children’s school fees, get paid by their employers or buy extra airtime for their phone.
Other developing countries are introducing similar systems. The second webcast link below gives an example from South Africa.
So how long will it be before cash disappears as a medium of exchange? Or will people continue to prefer to carry cash around with them – especially given the convenience of having cash machines readily available which do not charge for use.
Life in a cashless society BBC News Magazine, David Wolman (14/6/12)
FNB Introduces Cashless Payment App ABNDigital on YouTube (14/5/12) (see also FNB launches new geo-payment system IT News, Africa
PayPal leads mobile payments push Reuters (4/6/12)
Are We Moving Towards a Cashless Society? TheAlyonaShow on YouTube (14/3/12)
More than 70 per cent of Canadians ready to go “cashless” CNW (13/6/12)
Is a cashless society on the way? Westfair Online, Janice Kirkel (18/5/12)
Mobile money misery BBC News, Rory Cellan-Jones (16/5/12)
Cellphones transform Kenyan commerce CBC News (27/10/10)
For a PowerPoint of the above chart, click here.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of using cash?
- To what extent can mobile phone technology replace cash? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such technology?
- To what extent can mobile phone technology fulfil the various functions of money?
- Private-sector holdings of cash have been rising as a proportion of (nominal) GDP – see above chart. Is this consistent with a decreased use of cash? Explain.
- Why may mobile phone transactions be particularly useful in developing countries?
- What proportion of your own expenditure is conducted by cash? Has this changed over the past couple of years? If so, explain why.