As an early investor in Bitcoin, I have come to the conclusion that in the long run Bitcoin won't work for its originally intended purpose. Understanding this simple fact is a potential source of wealth as it allows you to comprehend what will replace Bitcoin, or at the bare minimum a way to avoid a catastrophic loss of wealth by investing in Bitcoin. I'll explain the most important problem Bitcoin suffers from today.
Bitcoin's value derives at least in part from the guarantee that only 21 million coins will come into existence. If people could change this number, it would significantly undermine the credibility of the currency. To remain decentralized, the protocol needs a method through which it can determine in a decentralized fashion who is allowed to determine which transactions will be acknowledged by the network as valid.
The band-aid solution its inventor came up with was to invent an arbitrary computer puzzle contest. Anyone who comes up with a solution to the puzzle is allowed to declare a number of transactions are valid and receives new coins as a reward and as an incentive for people to participate in the puzzle. If a lot of people manage to solve the puzzle using their mining equipment, the puzzle is made harder to decrease the rate at which new coins are generated.
The inevitable result of this solution is that participants in the Bitcoin scheme will make an investment in solving this computer puzzle roughly equal to the amount of value the newly generated bitcoins have. If a million dollar worth of bitcoins were awarded per day, Bitcoin miners would be willing to spend a million dollar per day on solving the arbitrary computer puzzle underlying the scheme. Most of those dollars will be spent directly on electricity, but some will be spent on other factors such as taxes and personnel cost.
It's remarkable how well this scheme has held up in the years since 2009, but the parameters intrinsic to the protocol ensure it will come to an end. The reason is because the reward awarded to those who solve the puzzle decreases every four years to ensure a finite number of bitcoins will come into existence, while the incentive for bad players to damage the protocol increases as its value grows.
When the block reward decreases, the incentive to secure the network decreases. The incentive to mine remains however, for people who have motives to mine, other than receiving new coins. A credit card company might feel threatened by Bitcoin. Environmentalists might feel threatened by Bitcoin. Governments might want to block certain transactions. Participants in competing cryptocurrencies might have an incentive to damage Bitcoin.
Today it's expensive for these groups to interfere with Bitcoin. Eventually however, you'll receive less than 0.01 Bitcoin per block you mine. The current mining farms won't be able to sustain themselves, unless someone else decides to pay them. It could be bad actors, it could be good actors with a stake in the ecosystem.
However, this doesn't solve the problem, because now somebody else needs to pay indirectly, to secure the network. Actors who want to keep Bitcoin functional, will need to pay money on a continual basis, to keep Bitcoin functional. Actors who want to damage Bitcoin, will only need to pay during a brief period.
A 51% attack that permanently damages Bitcoin's credibility as a payment option can take place within a few hours and undo years of hard work to deliver Bitcoin credibility as a payment option. Right now Bitcoin spends an estimated 3 million dollar per day on electricity. Visa could cough up this money if it felt threatened, but can Bitcoin companies cough up this money on a daily basis, to secure the network?
It's clear that this is not a realistic option. An alternative option, is one where the users pay through transaction fees. How much electricity is needed to secure the Bitcoin network? We don't have a clear answer to this question, but we know the network currently uses 700 KWh per transaction. Assuming we're paying 12 cents per kWh, this means you as a user would have to be paying for 84 dollar worth of electricity per transaction, just to secure your transaction against malicious actors.
This is merely the electricity cost of solving the puzzle. I'm not counting the cost of manufacturing the hardware, cooling the hardware, paying personnel to maintain the Bitcoin mining farms, etcetera. We can imagine a scenario where the cost is distributed over more transactions, but this is no solution. It merely increases the value of the currency and thus the incentive to attack the currency, thereby increasing the money required to defend the protocol from attack.
The reality is that Bitcoin came up with a very expensive answer to the question: Who do we trust when it comes to validating transactions? The answer "anyone willing to throw enough electricity at the problem" is a bad answer, because it means you're requiring people to continually spend large amount of money to secure the network. That price tag will somehow find its way back to the customer who uses the network.
A much more logical answer to the question would be: "We trust people who have a direct stake in the continued functioning of the network." Those who own a large amount of Bitcoin, are people we trust when it comes to making sure transactions are properly processed. If they wanted to damage Bitcoin, they would lose a lot of money themselves.
No company on the planet chooses to let its affairs be decided by those willing to solve difficult puzzles. Imagine the kind of world we would live in, if Shell or Microsoft insisted that the first guy to solve their annual crossword puzzle gets to distribute their budget. Every company on the planet ultimately lets its affairs be decided by those who have an economic interest in the continual proper functioning of the company, who in turn appoint people to manage its daily affairs.
If Bitcoin will ever be used as a payment system, rather than a speculation vehicle, it will be at a tremendous disadvantage to competing payment systems, that don't choose to arbitrarily waste resources in a permanent struggle to determine who is allowed to control the protocol.
Right now, the costs of securing the network are hidden from the customer, in the form of inflation. Competing protocols are able to pass on their savings directly to the customer, in the form of dividends rewarded for their participation. Whatever economic niche Bitcoin may seek to occupy as a payment processor will inevitably be conquered by a competing protocol instead, assuming that participants are rational actors in pursuit of their own economic self-interest.
You might wonder why you don't notice any of this, if it's so expensive to run the Bitcoin network. The answer to this question lies in the inflation the network undergoes. You think that Bitcoin is worth 180 billion dollar today, but it's not. To start with, anywhere around a quarter of coins have actually been lost. The remaining market cap has been brought about through just a few billion dollars worth of investment. If everyone sought to take their paper wealth out, the scheme would collapse.
For this reason, the practical inflation rate of Bitcoin is much higher than the rate you imagine you're dealing with. When 18 million dollar worth of new coins are produced per day, you need new entrants into the scheme to buy those coins from the miners. Current participants in the scheme who became wealthy through Bitcoin generally can't buy those coins, as their wealth is already locked up in Bitcoin. The miners can't keep their bitcoins either, as they need to pay for their costs. To prevent devaluation from the high inflation rate, Bitcoin needs a continual influx of new users. Whenever this influx stops, the price collapses, as has been witnessed many times in the past. If an investment needs a growing influx of new investors to maintain its value, you're dealing with a pyramid scheme. Or, as others have suggested, the term "Nakamoto scheme
" might be more suitable.
So how is it possible Bitcoin hasn't fallen apart yet? Well, imagine you own bitcoins. You want your coins to maintain their value, but you don't have money to buy new bitcoins with once they're released onto the market. So what do you do? You use your bitcoins as collateral, to borrow money. This is what a lot of bitcoin users have done. They have bitcoins stored on an exchange somewhere, that are then used as collateral to borrow money with, to buy more bitcoins. They do this, because they expect the price to go up.
But what if this proves to be insufficient to keep the scheme going? Well, in that case, as an exchange operator you can take the next step. If people deposit bitcoins on your exchange, you could use the bitcoins of your customers as collateral, to issue money that can then be used to buy new bitcoins with. This is what seems to be happening
, through the Tether scheme. People deposit Bitcoins on Bitfinex to gamble with, which then leads Bitfinex to issue new Tethers, which people use as if they were dollars, to buy more Bitcoins with.
Back in late 2013, something similar happened. The Mt. Gox exchange that ran most of the Bitcoin economy didn't have all the bitcoins its users had deposited any longer. They decided to set up two bots that endlessly traded back and forth with each other, to generate fake volume and thereby attract new people and keep the scheme going despite functioning as a fractional reserve. Analysts believe that this is what triggered the late 2013 price rise
So, how does the scheme come to an end? There are a number of different ways in which this could happen. Remember that bitcoins have to be mined, but the rate at which new bitcoins are produced gradually decreases. A few years from now, the rate will suddenly drop by 50%, during an event known as the block halving that happens once every four years. The last block halving took place in 2016. In 2020, it will happen again.
For Bitcoin miners, this is a potentially catastrophic event, for a simple reason. If you're spending 80 cents for every dollar worth of Bitcoin you mine, a sudden halving in the number of new bitcoins awarded destroys your business model. If enough of your peers decide to stop mining, the puzzle you're solving is made easier, but this doesn't solve your problem, as the market you were competing for has simply halved. In other words, you now have an incentive to seek to play against the rules. This is perhaps the most important thing to understand: Those who ultimately run the Bitcoin economy have a disincentive to keep the system functional, because their planned obsolescence is programmed into the system.
There are different things you might do as a Bitcoin miner. Because you sell your bitcoins once you acquire them, you have no genuine stake in the proper functioning of the system. If someone's willing to pay you to borrow your mining machines, you might as well rent them out. On the other hand, you could force bitcoin users to start paying money to compensate your expenses. If users don't pay enough transaction fees, you decide to ignore or reverse their transaction. But what if this causes the bitcoin scheme to fail? Well, if you're a smart miner, you have bet against Bitcoin and set up a competing cryptocurrency, perhaps one with permanent inflation. Bitcoin developers are beginning to realize this problem
, which is why some of them are now arguing for changes to the way the system works, as they notice the miners seem to try to sabotage the project.
What's the solution to this situation? Well, to start with, Bitcoin is highly unlikely ever to be salvaged. You could try change Bitcoin, but the required changes would have to be so thorough and pervasive that we would never see consensus emerge around them. In other words, Bitcoin is a ticking timebomb, the only recommendable thing is to flee far from it while you still can. I would recommend against trying to figure out the exact moment when the scheme will fail, as markets have a habit of staying irrational for longer than you expect them to.
Finally, we notice that although Bitcoin doesn't properly function, cryptocurrencies do deliver some genuine use. The solution is thus to seek out cryptocurrencies where the incentives are properly aligned. Those who are allowed to decide which transactions are valid should not be chosen through an arbitrary computer puzzle, but rather, should be chosen from those who already have a stake in the system. This is how Proof of Stake cryptocurrencies function. There are many different currencies out there that use a Proof of Stake system, we can expect all of them to grow in value relative to Bitcoin as it runs into the consequences of its flawed design. My personal suggestion would be to take a good look at Gridcoin.
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