To predict future scenarios for cryptocurrencies, it may be useful to consider what happened in the past and clarify a few key points. First, the world of blockchain consists of cryptocurrencies and crypto derivatives. For example, Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency while stablecoins Tether and TerraUSD are crypto derivatives. These are “derived” from cryptocurrencies and/or pegged to a widely recognized and centralized currency, like the dollar. Put simply, a financial investor hands out dollars to a company and receives a derivative in return. The company converts the dollars into cryptocurrencies and lends them to global borrowers. At the same time, the company promises the financial investor to exchange the derivatives on demand for a fixed amount of a given cryptocurrency, possibly pegged to the dollar, or backed by dollars.
The upshot is that if you have bought Bitcoins or other cryptocurrencies, you win/lose following the exchange rate of the cryptocurrency in your portfolio. If you have bought a derivative, however, you may find out that it is not really backed by an adequate quantity of cryptocurrencies or that the dollar-convertibility guarantee is porous, to say the least. If so, the derivative turns out to be all but worthless. This is what happened during the past few months with several crypto derivatives. Companies issuing such products are very active on the market and contribute to making the underlying assets volatile, especially if they promise stellar returns, which boost the demand for cryptocurrencies and crypto derivatives. If the derivatives products are poorly collateralized, investors are scared away in bad times.
A second key point is that cryptocurrencies are currently considered both a speculative instrument and a store of wealth, rather than a means of payment for ordinary transactions. For example, more than 60 percent of the total bitcoins in circulation are held in accounts (“wallets”) with more than 100 Bitcoins each, and are rarely traded on the market, other than to adjust portfolios: in late July 2022, only about 250,000 Bitcoins were traded daily and it is likely that just a small portion related to commercial transactions. Moreover, cryptocurrency holders seem to have a long-term view. For example, both “shrimps” and “whales” (accounts with less than 1 and over 1,000 Bitcoins each, respectively) have taken advantage of the recent sell-off to buy the dip in large amounts.
Three preliminary conclusions follow: (1) the long-run approach of the typical cryptocurrency holder suggests that the cryptocurrency project is not an easy kill, and survives dramatic volatility; (2) volatility has been driven by crypto derivatives, the activity of which has been magnified by the relatively small amount of cryptocurrencies traded on the market; (3) the 2022 crash in the crypto market has hit the world of derivatives, possibly eliminating a major source of volatility by killing some market movers, hitting short-run speculators and offering opportunities to long-run crypto investors.
Based on ‘nothing’ but worth something
Central bankers and policymakers in general do not miss a chance to warn the public that cryptocurrencies are a scam. European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde recently declared that cryptocurrencies are “based on nothing” (correct) are “worth nothing” (incorrect) and that regulation is required to prevent inexperienced investors from losing all the money they put into cryptos (incorrect).
Ironically, central bankers offer digital currencies, which in President Lagarde’s view are “vastly different” from cryptocurrencies. Central bankers’ digital currencies are certainly different from blockchain-based cryptocurrencies, but not for the reason Ms. Lagarde probably has in mind. The key issue is that decentralized currencies with a supply cap would eliminate the very notion of monetary policy and transform central bankers into an agency regulating commercial banking and producing statistics. Understandably, the world of central banking is not pleased with the prospect.
In other words, central bankers are not hostile to cryptocurrencies because they are allegedly fraudulent. If fraud means “based on nothing,” then all central bankers should be taken to court. Rather, their hostility comes from the fact that widespread acceptance of cryptocurrencies will eventually undermine the privileges of central banking, with repercussions, say, on the financing of public indebtedness.