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
- 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
Your Americano, Latte or Cappuccino may soon be more expensive. This is because coffee bean prices are rising. A combination of continuing growth in demand and poor coffee harvests in various parts of the world have led to a rise in both Arabica and Robusta prices, with the International Coffee Organization’s Composite Indicator price (in US dollars) having risen by over 30% since mid-January this year (see chart below: click here for a PowerPoint)
Supply has been affected by droughts in Brazil and Vietnam, two of the world’s biggest coffee producers, and by pests (the Coffee Berry Borer) in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania and in other East African countries. Global exports of coffee in July 2016 were 22% down on the same month in 2015.
The growing shortage and rising current (spot) prices is reflected in future prices. These are prices determined in the market now for trading at a specified future date (e.g. in three months’ time). Future prices depend on predictions of the balance of demand and supply in the future. According to the MarketWatch article below, “Analysts at Société Générale in a note predicted that prices could climb about 30% further by the end of next year”. The current (mid-September) spot price of robusta coffee beans is around $0.96 per lb. The December 2016 future price is around $1.48.
So what effect will this have on the prices in Starbucks, Costa or Caffè Nero? And what effect will it have on ground or instant coffee in supermarkets? To quote the MarketWatch article again:
A research report from the US Department of Agriculture found that, on average, a 10% increase in green-coffee-bean prices per pound would yield a 2% increase in both manufacturer prices and at the register in places like Starbucks Corp.
This is because the cost of coffee beans is just one element in the costs of coffee roasters and coffee shops. Also these companies use futures markets to smooth out the prices they pay. They hold stockpiles of coffee, which they build up when prices are low and draw on when prices are high. This helps to reduce fluctuations in retail prices.
So don’t worry too much about the price of your morning coffee – at least, not yet.
Why a surge in coffee-bean prices may not hit the Starbucks set—yet MarketWatch, Rachel Koning Beals (9/9/16)
Wired coffee prices may not slip far News Markets, David Cottle (9/9/16)
Late-harvest woes prompt Brazil coffee harvest downgrade Agrimoney (7/9/16)
Look Out, Latte Lovers: Brazil Drought Hurts Espresso Beans Bloomberg, Fabiana Batista and Marvin G. Perez (13/9/16)
Why Your Morning Coffee Is About to Become Even More Expensive Fortune (28/7/16)
Climate change brews a storm for East Africa coffee farmers Business Daily (East Africa), Paul Redfern (4/9/16)
Coffee Market Report ICO (August 2016)
Commodity Prices Index Mundi
Historical Data on the Global Coffee Trade ICO
ICO’s Coffee Trade Statistics Infographic for July 2016 ICO blog (31/8/16)
- What determines coffee futures prices?
- How are the price fluctuations of coffee in coffee shops related to the price elasticities of demand and supply? What determines these elasticities?
- Why does a strengthening (an appreciation) of the currency of a coffee exporter affect (a) the price of coffee to producers in the country; (b) international coffee prices in dollars?
- Are poor coffee harvests on balance good or bad for coffee producers? How does this depend on the market price elasticity of demand? Does the answer vary from producer to producer?
- How does speculation affect coffee prices (both spot and future)? Is such speculation of benefit to (a) the coffee consumer; (b) the coffee grower?
Over the past three months oil prices have been falling. From the beginning of September to the end of November Brent Crude has fallen by 30.8%: from $101.2 to a four-year low of $70.0 per barrel (see chart below: click here for a PowerPoint). The fall in price has been the result of changes in demand and supply.
As the eurozone, Japan, South America and other parts of the world have struggled to recover, so the demand for oil has been depressed. But supply has continued to expand as the USA and Canada have increased shale oil production through fracking. As far as OPEC is concerned, rather than cutting production, it decided at a meeting on 27 November to maintain the current target of 30 million barrels a day.
The videos and articles linked below look at these demand and supply factors and what is likely to happen to oil prices over the coming months.
They also look at the winners and losers. Although falling prices are likely in general to benefit oil importing countries and harm oil exporting ones, it is not as simple as that. The lower prices could help boost recovery and that could help to halt the oil price fall and be of benefit to the oil exporting countries. But if prices stay low for long enough, this could lower inflation and even cause deflation (in the sense of falling prices) in many countries. This, in turn, could dampen demand (see the blog post, Deflation danger). This is a particular problem in Japan and the eurozone. Major oil importing developing countries, such as China and India, however, should see a boost to growth from the lower oil prices.
Some oil exporting countries will be harder hit than others. Russia, in particular, has been badly affected, especially as it is also suffering from the economic sanctions imposed by Western governments in response to the situation in Ukraine. The rouble has fallen by some 32% this year against the US dollar and nearly 23% in the past three months alone.
Then there are the environmental effects. Cheaper oil puts less pressure on companies and governments to invest in renewable sources of energy. And then there are the direct effects on the environment of fracking itself – something increasingly being debated in the UK as well as in the USA and Canada.
Oil price at four-year low as Opec meets BBC News, Mark Lobel (27/11/14)
Opec losing control of oil prices due to US fracking BBC News, Nigel Cassidy (4/12/13)
How the price of oil is set – video explainer The Telegraph, Oliver Duggan (28/11/14)
How Oil’s Price Plunge Impacts Wall Street Bloomberg TV, Richard Mallinson (28/11/14)
Oil Prices Plummet: The Impact on Russia’s Economy Bloomberg TV, Martin Lindstrom (28/11/14)
Oil prices plunge after Opec meeting BBC News (28/11/14)
Crude oil prices extend losses Financial Times, Dave Shellock (28/11/14)
Oil price plunges after Opec split keeps output steady The Guardian, Terry Macalister and Graeme Wearden (27/11/14)
Falling oil prices: Who are the winners and losers? BBC News, Tim Bowler (17/10/14)Hooray for cheap oil BBC News, Robert Peston (1/12/14)
Russian Recession Risk at Record as Oil Price Saps Economy Bloomberg, Andre Tartar and Anna Andrianova (28/11/14)
Rouble falls as oil price hits five-year low BBC News (1/12/14)
Brent Spot Price US Energy Information Administration (select daily, weekly, monthly or annual: can be downloaded to Excel)
Spot exchange rate of Russian rouble against the dollar Bank of England
- Use a diagram to illustrate the effects of changes in the demand and supply of oil on oil prices.
- How does the price elasticity of demand and supply of oil affect the magnitude of these price changes?
- Explain whether (a) the demand for and (b) the supply of oil are likely to be relatively elastic or relatively inelastic? How are these elasticities likely to change over time?
- Distinguish between the spot price and forward prices of oil? If the three-month forward price is below the spot price, what are the implications of this?
- Analyse who gains and who loses from the recent price falls.
- What are the effects of a falling rouble on the Russian economy?
- What are likely to be the effects of further falls in oil prices on the eurozone economy?
Your favourite chocolate bar or your drink of hot chocolate could soon be much dearer. Since March, the price of cocoa has risen by 34% and much of this increase remains to be passed on to the consumer. The price of cocoa butter is up 70% since the beginning of the year.
On the demand side, sales of luxury cocoa-rich chocolate and hot chocolate have been rising and chocolate manufacturers, with relatively low forward purchases of cocoa, are likely to have to buy more in spot markets. What is more, there is growing speculative demand as traders anticipate higher prices to come.
On the supply side, dry weather in West Africa, where 70% of cocoa beans are produced, has led to a fall in output. Estimates suggest that cocoa production in the 12 months to end-September 2013 will be 2.7% down on the previous 12 months. Supply is expected to be 60,000 tonnes less than demand, resulting in a fall in stocks from 1,833,000 to 1,773,000.
The following articles look at the ‘crisis’ for chocoholics and at the market conditions that lie behind it.
Craving for a chocolate fix? Prepare to pay more Reuters, Lewa Pardomuan and Marcy Nicholson (15/9/13)
Hot chocolate demand sends cocoa prices soaring Financial Times, Emiko Terazono (15/10/13)
Price of chocolate ‘to triple’ The Telegraph (8/10/13)
Paying more for chocolate? You will be CNN Money, Alanna Petroff (14/10/13)
Chocolate Prices Soar in Dark Turn The Wall Street Journal, Leslie Josephs and Neena Rai (22/9/13)
Chocolate prices could increase as cocoa costs soar BBC News, Nigel Cassidy (21/10/13)
… and on a lighter note: Rising Prices Signal A ‘Devastating’ Global Chocolate Crisis: Should Government Act To Save Us? Forbes, Doug Bandow (14/10/13)
Cocoa beans: monthly price Index Mundi
ICCO daily prices of cocoa beans International Cocoa Organization (click on calendar to select month)
Production of cocoa beans International Cocoa Organization (click on Statistical Data links in right hand panel
Monthly review of the market International Cocoa Organization
- What happened to cocoa prices from January 2009 to March 2013? Explain this movement in prices.
- Why have cocoa prices risen so much since March 2013? Illustrate your analysis with a supply and demand diagram.
- If the demand for luxury chocolate fluctuates considerably with the state of the business cycle, what does this suggest about the income elasticity of demand for luxury chocolate?
- How would you establish whether or not cheap chocolate is an inferior good?
- If cocoa prices rise by 34%, what determines the percentage by which a bar of chocolate will rise?
- What determines the difference between cocoa futures and spot prices?
- How realistically could government intervention improve the lot of chocoholics?
‘Farm-gate’ milk prices (the price paid to farmers) have been rising in the UK. In July they reached a record high of 31.4p per litre (ppl). This was 5.1ppl higher than in July 2012. There were further price rises this month (October). Sainsbury’s increased the price it pays farmers by nearly 2ppl to 34.15ppl and Arla Foods by 1.5ppl to 33.13ppl. Muller Wiseman is set to raise the price it pays to 32.5p per litre.
And yet many farmers are struggling to make a profit from milk production, claiming that their costs have risen faster than the prices they receive. Feed costs, for example, have risen by 2.12ppl. On average, farmers would need over 38p per litre just to cover their average variable costs. What is more, exceptional weather has reduced yields per cow by some 7%.
Meanwhile, in the USA, supply has risen by some 1.3% compared with a year ago. But despite this, the prices of dairy products are rising, thanks to strong demand. Cheese and butter prices, in particular, are rising rapidly, partly because of high demand from overseas. Demand for imported dairy products is particularly high in China, where supply has fallen by some 6% in the past couple of months.
The problem for dairy farmers in the UK is partly one of the power balance in the industry. Farmers have little or no market power. Supermarkets, however, have considerable market power. As large oligopsonistic buyers, they can put downward pressure on the prices paid to their suppliers. These are mainly large processing firms, such as Robert Wiseman Dairies, Arla Foods and Dairy Crest. They, in turn, can use their market power to keep down the price they pay to farmers.
Dairy farmers renew protests over milk prices Farmers Weekly, Philip Case (5/9/13)
Dairy farmers ‘lost more than 1p/litre last year’ Farmers Weekly, Philip Case (2/10/13)
South West farming businesses and producers still making a loss on milk South West Business (3/10/13)
Q&A: Milk prices row and how the system works BBC News (23/7/12) (note date of this)
Positive Dairy Trend: Rising Milk Production and Strong Demand The Farmer’s Exchange, Lee Mielke (27/9/13)
Chinese supply crisis to delay dairy price adjustment Rabobank (25/9/13)
China milk ‘crisis’ fuels world dairy price rise Agrimoney (1/10/13)
UK milk prices and composition of milk ONS
Combined IFCN world milk price indicator IFCN
- Give some examples of (a) variable costs and (b) fixed costs in milk production.
- Why may farmers continue in dairy production, at least for a time, even if they are not covering their average variable costs?
- What factors determine (a) the price of milk paid to farmers; (b) the retail price in supermarkets?
- Explain how dairy futures markets work.
- Could the milk processors use their market power in the interests of farmers? Is it in the interests of milk processors to do so?
- Why is there a Chinese “dairy supply crisis”? What is its impact on the rest of the world? What is the relevance of the price elasticity of demand for dairy products in China to this impact?