Satoshi Nakamoto’s original vision for the use of Bitcoin has certainly evolved over the last decade, with mainstream adoption and the widely-believed “inevitable” entry of institutional investors giving it a place at the table with the likes of Goldman Sachs and Bank of America.
Once dismissed as some libertarian fantasy, Bitcoin has certainly come a long way in the last ten years, but will it truly ever manage to find a sustainable place in the mainstream financial sector?
The original use case
As Nakamoto imagined it in the white paper, Bitcoin would be ”a purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash [that] would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution”, citing the weaknesses of the trust-based model of which third-party mediators are required. Because of the double spending problem that arises from this model, Nakamoto recognized that merchants and banks would be required to ”hassle [clients] for more information than they would otherwise need”.
Bitcoin was created as a new electronic payment system that provided an alternative solution to the double spending problem by publishing all transactions on the blockchain publicly with a timestamp that means the first transaction that took place can always be checked. This is a way for customers to retain their personal data while giving people financial freedom to transact if they did not, for example, have the required identification to open a bank account or simply did not want to share that information. It also removes their requirement of dealing with central banks, of whom Nakamoto had expressed concerns over the way they managed peoples’ capital.
The idea of Bitcoin was revolutionary (a description its creators never used yet one hundreds of cryptocurrencies claimed), rebellious and, given that it meant anonymity of transactions, not something that central banks or governments looked upon favorably in the early days.
However, money talks, and after the Bitcoin bull run of 2017, the financial sector was forced to legitimize it at the very least as a potentially profitable investment option.
The move into the mainstream
CNBC, Forbes and Bloomberg have all featured positive reports on Bitcoin as an investment tool in 2018, with Henrik Andersson, chief investment officer of Apollo Capital Fund claiming, ”the coming year we will see a gradual adoption from institutions.” Andersson sees the growing number of US university endowments investing in funds as one major indicator of his claim. Goldman Sachs’ awaited cryptocurrency trading desk should also launch this year, while Nasdaq already supports cryptocurrency exchanges.
All of these factors indicate a real move of Bitcoin into mainstream finance, and into the highly-regulated world of identity checks and third-party mediators that it was created to avoid.
2018 closed with the banking sector in a bear market and the worst annual performance of the stock market in the last decade, with reports attributing this to the slowdown of the Chinese economy and concerns in the European market over the economic impact of the UK leaving the European Union.
While the cryptocurrency market did not perform well itself and Bitcoin indeed finished the year with its worst annual performance to date, there are still many questions over what impact the mainstream financial sector has, and will have in the future, on the performance of cryptocurrency.
As more institutional investors enter the market and an increasing number of established banks offer digital asset investment options, will more money be moved into cryptocurrency when stocks fall and traditional investment choices become less attractive? Or will Bitcoin’s move into the mainstream mean it is negatively impacted by poor performance in mainstream finance?
It is still early days to know for sure, but one study conducted by Yale University in August 2018 claims that the price of Bitcoin is not affected by macroeconomic factors or familiar stock market factors. Rather, they say, the drivers of cryptocurrency prices are unique to the market itself, with they two key predictors being market sentiment, investor attention and a ‘momentum effect’ that see patterns in price fluctuations.
Although, if predictions are correct in estimating an influx of institutional investors in 2019, how their influence will play out in Bitcoin’s market performance may change the conclusions of the Yale study.
Can Bitcoin succeed if it is primarily viewed as a tool for investment?
Bitcoin benefits from its resource scarcity as commodities such as oil and gold do, but nowhere in its white paper does it promise “high returns, no risk” as you can find in many initial coin offering white papers in circulation.
Major centralized cryptocurrency exchanges such as Coinbase that require identity authentification surely go against what Nakamoto originally envisioned for Bitcoin. With global regulators focused cracking down on the industry, can Bitcoin survive without exchanges complying with know-your-customer regulations?
2019 should be a year to set the pace for understanding where Bitcoin will find itself in the foreseeable future of finance.
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