A lot of news stories make a claim for my attention, and most of them don’t get much traction.
Usually, my instincts are pretty good, but they have let me down. My initial reaction to hearing that a few hundred people in Wuhan, China, had fallen sick with a pneumonia-like infection was “China is a big country.”
So when I heard that people had developed a way to transfer money all around the world, I grunted. And when I heard that some of the same people were buying these computer-generated “coins” in the hopes that they would increase in value, I had to laugh.
I admit, I don’t know much about technology, business, the internet or economics, but I know that betting on the value of a thing that somebody else just made up is dumb.
Since there’s no way I would be buying some computer code with the money that I get from working every day, I devoted my limited attention span elsewhere. But I’m starting to get the impression that I don’t have to believe that crypto is real for it to have a real effect on my life.
Lately, the crypto headlines I’d been trying to ignore are starting to sound like the ones about the housing bubble of 2007, when people were packaging worthless mortgages into securities that infected the whole financial system.
The cryptoasset market has grown from $16 billion five years ago to $2.3 trillion today. Consider that the subprime mortgage market was only $1.2 trillion in 2008, you have to wonder what would happen to the economy if all that value suddenly disappeared.
And what is this thing that is driving people to invest?
It’s a way to transfer funds between individuals anywhere in the world without the hassle of banks or government oversight. It promises to lower the frictional costs of financial transactions, enabling money to move around the world more freely.
That seems like a really valuable tool for running a criminal enterprise or any other business that wants to avoid financial regulators or nosy tax inspectors.
Great. If you like what social media has done for politics, you’re gonna love what cryptocurrency does for the world financial system.
When I read about these instruments, I think about baseball cards. In both cases, you have something that is intrinsically worthless except for the value attributed to it by buyers and sellers. In both cases, you have a commodity that’s scarce, either because it requires massive computer power and energy expenditure to create new ones, or because everybody’s mother made them throw away their collection back before the market for them existed.
It’s entertaining to see a baseball card sell for $1 million, but mainly because you know that it’s just an old piece of cardboard. Cryptocurrencies seem like the same thing – a subjective value placed on a worthless thing that can be exchanged among people who are willing to pretend that it’s real.
I know, that’s true of all money. J.P. Morgan said, “Gold is money. Everything else is credit,” but even gold is valuable only because people say it is. Trying to figure out what’s real and what isn’t sends you down a philosophical mineshaft you don’t really want to explore, unless you are a first-year college student or have a lot of time on your hands.
Let’s just say we can be confident that money has value because it’s a story that so many people believe and need to be true. Without it, we have to go back to hunting and gathering, and most of us aren’t equipped for that.
But most people don’t even know that cryptocurrencies exist, so they don’t even know the story of its value, let alone believe it. Even a small number of big investors could come to their senses one day day, sell off and crash the crypto market. Would that be a big enough shock to do the damage caused by the housing market crash in 2008, or the stock market crash in 1929?
That’s why regulators here and in Europe are trying to figure out, and they better hurry up. Before the next crash, let’s make it safe to ignore cryptocurrency again.