Is Bitcoin a store of value?

Bitcoin has many characteristics of a currency. It is portable, fungible, divisible, resistant to forgery, and it clearly has value. Today, that value came close to $20,000 per coin. Whether it has ‘intrinsic value’ is somewhat of a moot question, because the US dollar hasn’t exhibited this trait since 1972. Today, economists don’t even recognize the intrinsic value of gold—beyond a robust, international, supply-demand network.

Lately, Bitcoin is failing as a viable currency, at least for everyday consumer transactions. The settlement of each transaction is bogged down with long delays and a very high cost. The situation has become critical because of squabbling between miners, users and developers over how to offer speed transactions or lower the cost of settlement. Bitcoin forks and altcoins such as Dash and Bitcoin Cash demonstrate that these technical issues have solutions. Since Bitcoin is adaptable, I believe that these issues are temporary.

But an interesting question is not whether Bitcoin will eventually become a consumer currency. It is whether Bitcoin can distinguish itself as a store of value, rather than just an instrument for payment or debt settlement. After all, a Visa credit card, a traveler’s check and an Amazon gift card can all be used in retail payments, but none of them have value unless backed by someone or something. US Dollars on the other hand are perceived as inherently valuable. They carry the clout and gravitas of institutions and populations, without users questioning from where value arises. (This is changing, but bear with me)…

What about Bitcoin? Does owning some bitcoin represent a store of value? Yes: It absolutely does!

Bitcoin is a rapidly maturing two-sided network. Despite a meteoric rise in exchange value and wild fluctuations during the ride, it is the epitome of a stored value commodity. Regardless of government regulation, adoption as a consumer payment instrument, or the cost and speed of transactions, it has demonstrated stored value ever since May 22 2010, when Laszlo, a Bitcoin code developer, persuaded a restaurant to accept 10,000 BTC for 2 pizzas.

The “currency” accepted by the pizza parlor wasn’t a gift card. It was not backed by a government, a prior deposit, dollars, gold, the promise of redemption, or by threat of force or blackmail. When a large community of individuals value, exchange, and can easily authenticate something that has none of those underpinnings, that thing clearly has stored value.

In this case, value arises from its scarcity and a robust supply-demand-network. Because its value is not tied to a government or to other commodities, its exchange rate with other things will be bumpy, at first. But as it is recognized, traded and adopted as a stored value token, the wild spikes will smooth out.

A tipping point will precipitate rapid adoption when…

  • when some vendors begin to quote prices in Bitcoin (rather than national currency)
  • when some of these vendors retain a fraction of their bitcoin-revenue for future purchases, payments or debt settlements—rather than converting revenue to fiat/national currency with each sale

Bitcoin is clearly a store of value, and it is beginning to displace gold and the US dollar as the recognized reserve currency (it is gradually becoming the new gold standard). But before Bitcoin can serve as a widely adopted everyday currency (i.e. as a payment instrument—with or without the stored value of a currency unto itself), it must first incorporate technical improvements that speed transactions and lower cost.

This is taking longer than many enthusiasts would have liked. But, that’s OK with anyone who keeps their eye on the big picture. Democracy is sometimes very sloppy.

Ellery Davies co-chairs CRYPSA, publishes A Wild Duck and hosts the New York Bitcoin Event. Last month, he kicked off the Cryptocurrency Expo in Dubai. Click Here to inquire about a live presentation or consulting engagement.

Big insight from tiny fraction of bitcoin owners

Quick—Take a guess: How many individuals own at least 1 BTC?

I was asked this question today at Quora, a popular Q&A blog covering a variety of technical and economic disciplines. Under my alias “Ellery”, I am the most viewed author on Bitcoin and the blockchain.

While this question may sound like a factoid for a trivia game, the answer has far reaching impact on your pocketbook and your future. It goes to the heart of a debate between warring factions: In the 2nd half of this answer, I address a more pressing question:

Is Bitcoin a pyramid scheme? Or are we still early on the adoption curve?

But, let’s start with the question at hand…

There is no certain answer to the number of people who own Bitcoin or how many own more than 1 BTC. We know that tens of millions of wallets have been created, but this certainly doesn’t help. Although the value of every single wallet is publicly disclosed on the blockchain (most have a zero balance), there is no way to determine who owns each wallet. Some may be controlled by organizations or custodians on behalf of many individuals, while others may be just one of many wallets with a single owner.

Most of my Bitcoin is in a wallet or a vault hosted by Coinbase, the San Francisco exchange. When I log into my account to view my wallet ID, I see that I have dozens of wallets—all valid. The large number of wallets is not related to my wealth. Rather, it a byproduct of my many small transactions. Coinbase creates a new wallet each time that I buy, sell, or purchase something with BTC. There are good reasons for this practice, but it certainly muddies the correlation between wallets and number of owners.

There are 16.6 million coins in circulation today (a bit less, since some have been irretrievably lost). That puts a cap answering the question. There cannot be more than this many people with a full BTC—currently worth about USD $5900.

But, we know that the number of individuals with a full coin is considerably less. After all, many people in my own circles own dozens of coins, and Satoshi is very likely to hold 1 million BTC. Coinbase and Bitstamp are just two of very many custodial exchanges (i.e. they offer a cloud wallet or vault service to their clients). They host many hundreds of wallets with more than 50 coins. In almost each case, the client has provided single-user taxpayer information to these services, and so it is very unlikely that a significant fraction of these wallets belong to more than a single person or family.

And, let’s not forget that a far greater fraction of exchanges fly under the covers. That is, they don’t collect taxpayer information or report the wallets that they administer to any authority—nor to analysts or journalists like me.

So, while no one can accurately estimate the number of individuals who own 1 or more BTC, the answer is very likely under 2.5 million, worldwide. 1

The number of people who have heard of Bitcoin is growing rapidly. In the United States, fewer than one in twenty people were aware of Bitcoin just 2½ years ago (at the beginning of 2015). By September 2017, almost one in four USA adults has a reasonable idea what it is—and many of them have an opinion about its future. 2

There will never be more than 21 million bitcoin. This is a mathematical upper limit. Compare this with the current US population of 323 million. So even if all Bitcoin owners are in America (they are not!) and if no one owns more than 1 BTC, fewer than 1 in 19 Americans could own a full Bitcoin today and fewer than 1 in 15 after all bitcoin are mined.

If we consider the global population of 7.6 billion, fewer than 1 in 458 people could own a full Bitcoin today. Since most early adopters have more than 1 BTC, the actual fraction is probably much smaller than 1 in 25,000 individuals.

In the introduction, above, I said that the question about how many people own more than 1 BTC leads to a more profound question. In fact, this innocent trivia question, leads to insight about adoption and the economics of investing in a deflationary instrument as it spreads beyond speculators, into commerce and all sorts of institutions.

Moral of the story…

The original question asks for a simple number. It doesn’t ask for editorial perspective. But it’s tough to resist. With fewer than 1 in 25 thousand people owning a bitcoin, a reasonable question is:

Will adoption increase, even if interest is limited to only one sector?

For example, what if Bitcoin falters in all but one of these venues?… Bleeding edge geeks, collectors, investors, p2p payments, interbank transfer, debt settlement, or treatment in some regions as a full-fledged currency.

Answer: Even if Bitcoin continues to show strength in just one of these areas, it will eventually be used or accumulated by millions of new users—even if they don’t realize it!

Do you see where I am going with this? Even if you believe that Bitcoin will…

  • never be treated as a store of value (this is nonsense of course),
  • only be used on one continent (nonsense, again),
  • never erode payment & settlement services such as Visa or PayPal (it already has),
  • that governments can successfully block payments or deter growth (they cannot—and they are gradually realizing that it does not interfere with taxing or spending or sovereignty),
  • that another digital coin will overtake Bitcoin (it cannot—the reasons are subtle, but they are well understood)…

Even if you believe in all of these limiting factors, the overall demand for Bitcoin has barely begun. We have not even started climbing the hockey-stick curve toward limited adoption as an occasional, alternative payment mechanism.

At conferences and in my own classroom, I am often asked: Should I still acquire Bitcoin? —Or is it too late? After all, it has risen from a fraction of a penny to $6,000 in just a 7 years. And from under $1000 to $6,000 this year alone!

I am not a financial advisor. I often speculate, but never offer guidance. I embrace the wisdom that past performance is never an assurance of future gains. But, I ask students to look at the assumptions and at the math: Unlike US dollars, shares in Apple, pork bellies or gold pressed latinum, Bitcoin is firmly capped. There will never be more than a paltry 21 million coins. That means that each coin absolutely, positively must increase in value with even a modest adoption scenario.

The Argument Against Bitcoin

Bitcoin is a pure supply-demand commodity. Since the supply is fixed and well understood, the only argument against acquiring Bitcoin arises from a belief that demand will dwindle. This is the argument of someone who believes that Bitcoin will fail to gain any further traction in any sector.

Perhaps you believe that something else will displace it, or that governments will find a way to effectively defeat it. If you have been reading my Blog (or my Quora answers) for more than a few months, then you already know that neither scenario is realistic.

I believe that investment in Bitcoin a speculative asset retards adoption. I defend this opinion in many interviews and articles. Although I hope for fewer speculators and more ‘legitimate’ users, I own an outsize share of the world’s future value store, transfer media and fungible, liquid asset. I am guilty of the speculation that I seek to deter.

1 & 2 CRYPSA Research, Feb 2015 and Oct 2017, Cryptocurrency Standards Association. Polls conducted at Rein’s New York Deli in Vernon CT and Spectrum Center, Irvine CA.

Ellery Davies co-chairs CRYPSA, publishes Wild Duck and hosts the New York Bitcoin Event. He sits on the New Money Systems board at Lifeboat Foundation and kicks off the Cryptocurrency Expo in Dubai this month. He frequently consults and presents.

What Fraction of Bitcoin Value is Driven by Speculators?

At Quora, I occasionally play, “Ask the expert”. Several hundred of my Quora answers are linked at top right on this page. Today, I was asked “How much of Bitcoin’s value is driven by speculation”. This is my answer…

This is a great question! While the value of any commodity is determined by supply and demand, speculation is one component of demand. Another is the unique utility value inherent in a product or process. This is sometimes called ‘intrinsic value’.

It’s ironic that when a high fraction of value is driven by speculation, short-term value becomes volatile and long-term value becomes less certain—and less likely to produce returns for those same speculators.

Editor’s Note: In the past few weeks, a significant spike in Bitcoin’s value and trading volume relates to a pending regulatory decision expected at the end of next week. This activity is certainly driven by speculation. But for this article, I am considering periods in which the demands of individual events are less clear.

The value of Bitcoin is influenced by:

  • Day traders who buy and churn
  • Long-term speculators who buy and hold. This includes me.
  • Criminals who hope that cryptocurrency transactions can be more easily hidden than government backed currencies
  • Early adopters who use Bitcoin as a payment instrument or to send money
  • Vendors who accept the coin in exchange for products and services
  • Vendors who retain a fraction of revenue in Bitcoin (rather than exchanging to Fiat). To avoid a round trip, they seek to purchase materials, pay staff or settle debts with the Bitcoin they earned.

Here’s the rub: Bitcoin will not become a store of value unto itself (i.e. a currency), and it will not gain a significant fraction of the payment instrument market until the transaction volume of the first to user categories in the above list are overtaken by the the ones further down. Likewise, Bitcoin will not enter its biggest growth spurt until the last two items swamps the others as the largest motive for acceptance and use.

Put another way: Long term value must ultimately be driven by organic adoption from actual users (people who buy and spend Bitcoin on other things).

In another article, I expand on the sequence of events that must take place before Bitcoin grows into its potential. But make no mistake. These things will happen. In tribute to the brilliance of Satoshi, the dominoes are already falling.

In response to the question, I estimate that at the beginning of 2017, 85% of Bitcoin value is still driven by speculators. I have not analyzed wallet holding periods compared against the addresses of known vendors. Furthermore, it would be difficult to understand the relationship between the number of speculative transactions and the overall effect on value. Therefore, my figure is more of a WAG than an calculated estimate. But it’s an educated WAG.

The fraction of speculative transactions will drop significantly in the coming months—even as late speculators jump on board. That’s because uptake from consumers and businesses is already taking off. The series of reactions that lead toward ubiquitous, utilitarian applications has begun. Bitcoin’s value will ultimately be driven by use as a payment instrument and in commerce.

Because it is a pure supply-demand instrument, Bitcoin will eventually be recognized as currency itself. That is, it needn’t be backed by precious metal, pegged convertibility or a redemption promise. When that happens, you will no longer ask about Bitcoin’s value. That would be a circular question, since its value will be intrinsic. Instead, you will wonder about the value of the US dollar, the Euro and the Yen.

As a growing fraction of groceries, gasoline and computers that you buy are quoted in BTC, you will begin to think of it as a rock, rather than a moving target. One day in the future, there will be a sudden spike or drop in the exchange rate with your national currency. At that time, you won’t ask “What happened to Bitcoin today? Why did it rise in value by 5% this morning?” Instead, you will wonder “What happened to the US dollar today? Why did it drop in value by 5%?

Post Mike Hearn: Can Bitcoin still Reign?

Beyond this first paragraph, I won’t mention Mike Hearn—despite invoking his name in the title. Enough has been written about the disillusioned core developer who, in January 2016, publicly declared Bitcoin a failed experiment, even as it continues to garnish adoption and increasing VC investment. Mr. Hearn points to a lack of leadership among the p2p community, dwindling incentives, and a seemingly intractable architecture disagreement among the miners who validate distributed transactions. Mr. Hearn is a terrific engineer, but I suspect that he is not a sociologist or market visionary.

As I began researching the potential for collapse or success, I collected my notes about Bitcoin’s future under the working title: “Market Traction: Clinching an emergent sector” . But this seems rather obtuse and sleep inducing. A good subtitle for this post would be “Random Thoughts About Bitcoin Growth Pains”.

As such, I won’t bother illustrating it with cute or pithy graphics. It’s just a justification and clarification of my continued confidence in a ‘failed experiment’.

A Bitcoin skeptic has asked me to justify my optimistic view of Bitcoin. After all, there is trouble in Dodge City: Dwindling financial incentives, a transaction volume that is straining the architecture and infighting amongst miners about forking and block size.

You might think that being first to a new market—or first with a radically new method—increases the chance of success. Alas, it isn’t so. Even if it were a maxim, Bitcoin is not the first digital currency.

Yet, Bitcoin is virtually assured of success. Not because it’s first, but because it is better/cheaper/faster, it has a two-sided market, and it can be extended by the features and benefits of its rivals.


Bitcoin isn’t the first digital currency. Numerous instruments have moved cash across the Internet and in the 150 year mail-order era that preceded the Internet. In addition to credit and debit cards, there was Western Union, DigiCash, E-Gold, Flooz, beenz, Cybercash, Cybermoola, PacketPass, PayPal, and more. There are also institutional and B2B mechanisms for payment or settlement, like wire transfers, letters of credit, SWIFT, EFT and ACH (also known as ‘paperless checks’).

A lot has been said about Bitcoin and what sets it apart from everything that came before. Is Bitcoin truly revolutionary? Heck, yes! It has many unique qualities. It differs from antecedents in three important ways:

  • Pure, Capitalist Dynamics
    Bitcoin is not backed by a government, organization or the promise of redemption for fiat currency. Instead, value is derived from supply and demand. Since the supply is well understood and capped with mathematical certainty, its long term value will be closely tied to growth in recognition, circulation and adoption.
  • Decentralized & Permissionless
    Bitcoin trade and settlement has no nexus or central authority. Transactions are completely decentralized and peer-to-peer. In the past, a decentralized coin had to be made of something valuable or it had to be backed by a stable government and difficult to counterfeit. Bitcoin is a new breed of currency—a decentralized, permissionless, peer-to-peer currency built on the blockchain.
  • Not so Anonymous—but traded and stored with impunity
    Unlike cash, its use is not truly anonymous—at least not if you intend to ever convert it to cash or pay for something in the real world. But it is easier to hide then cash and so it can be stored and spent with impunity. That is, no government can force you to turn over your wallet without your cooperation. And the only way you can be prevented from spending or receiving Bitcoin is to be locked in solitary confinement with no visitors, no phone, no mail and no Internet. Since Bitcoin is just a string of numbers, a payment channel can be opened via carrier pigeon or by simply blinking a flashlight with Morse code.

Bitcoin is the first of a new breed of crypto currencies—decentralized, permissionless, peer-to-peer instruments built on the blockchain. That’s because Bitcoin is the original demonstration platform of the blockchain. The blockchain and the payment instrument were described together by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto in 1998.

Does creating the table and getting the first seat guaranty success? Of course not! Just ask Sony. The Betamax was beaten by VHS. And there were others before it, like the Sony U-Matic and Quasar Time Machine. But Bitcoin has two things under its wings that Betamax didn’t have…

  1. Adoption of a ‘networked’ service by both buyers & sellers faces a significant entry barrier. The value of any payment network is in its recognition and ubiquity. Yet, even with popular adoption at less than 2%, Bitcoin has achieved a robust two-sided market. Nothing else comes close. A two-sided market results in utility that buids from the ground up. With each passing week, the market clout of adoption shuts out new competitors. (Just ask anyone that has tried to compete with Mastercard–Visa–Amex).* As of this publication date, an altcoin would need to bring a whopping advantage.
  2. But what if something better comes along? Something clever, faster, more robust or with improved privacy. What then?

    No problem. Bitcoin can freely add any improvement proposed or demonstrated by others. Why? Because unlike payment networks of the past, cryptocurrencies are open-source projects. There are no IP protections or licensing requirements. If an altcoin were closed, proprietary or protected by copyright or patent, no one would trust it. After all, no one could verify who has the coins, how many were pre-mined, what is the monetary cap, and who controls code evolution. Those are each deal-stoppers.Overcoming these obstacles was as much the genius of Satoshi as overcoming the double-spend problem. Bitcoin is free to evolve . It can add improvements or solve its own problems. That’s what is happening right now, as it is forced to address its own growing pains.

Final Thought

One coin, Ethereum, may be an exception. It might achieve the same entrenched and ubiquitous status as Bitcoin. But Ethereum represents another major step in Blockchain evolution. It is not just a coin, it is a contract consensus and enforcement mechanism. As such, it is not just a currency.

Bitcoin has a similar feature (called “Smart Contracts”), but Ethereum is like Smart Contract on steroids … and it has been crafted in a way that makes it easy for anyone to jump on board and create their own contracts. Like Bitcoin, Ethereum has a compelling backstory and a very young, visionary inventor.

* Discover Card is the only entrant into consumer POS credit instruments in the past three decades—and it had a rocky road to recognition and acceptance, passing through multiple owners. During this same time, Carte Blanche and Air Travel Card disappeared.

Bitcoin Adoption: Series of reactions

What is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin-05Sure—You know the history. As it spread from the geeky crypto community, Bitcoin sparked investor frenzy. Its “value” was driven by the confidence of early adopters that they hitched an early train, rather than commercial adoption. But, just like those zealous investors, you realize that it may ultimately reduce the costs of online commerce, if and when if it becomes widely accepted.

But what is Bitcoin, really? To what class of instruments does it belong?

  • The most ardent detractors see it as a sham: A pyramid scheme with absolutely no durable value. A house of cards waiting to tumble. This is a position of my close friend, JD, a former IRS auditor and the first to comment on this post below.
  • Many people recognize that it can be a useful transaction medium—similar to a prepaid gift card, but with a few added kicks: Decentralized, low cost and private.
  • Or is it an equity asset, traded by a community of speculative investors, and subject to bubble psychology? If so, do the wild swings in its exchange rate diminish its potential to be used as a payment mechanism?
  • Does Bitcoin have the potential to be a full-fledged currency with a “real value” that floats based on supply and demand? Can something that lacks intrinsic value or the backing of a bank or government replace national currency?

Regardless of your opinion about Bitcoin, it does one thing that few pundits dispute: Although the exchange value fluctuates, it reduces transaction costs to nearly zero. This characteristic, alone, is a dramatic breakthrough. It was achieved by virtue of its designer overcoming the “double-spend problem”.

Peering Into the Future?

Removing friction is certainly what it is all about. As a transaction medium, Bitcoin achieves this, but so does any debit instrument, or any account in which a buyer has retained house “credit”.

Bitcoin_pullback-sCurrently there is a high bar to get money exchanged into and out of Bitcoin. It’s a mess: costly, time consuming and a big hassle. Seriously! Have you tried using an exchange? Even the most trusted one (Coinbase of San Francisco) makes it incredibly difficult to get money in and out of BTC. Fortunately, this situation is gradually improving.

Where Bitcoin really shines (or more accurately, when it will shine), occurs at the time when more vendors choose to leave revenues in BTC, pending their own purchases from suppliers, shareholder payouts, or simply as retained savings.

When this happens, all sorts of good things will follow…

  • A growing fraction of sellers leave their bitcoin in their wallets, realizing that they will need to spend it for their own labor and materials.
  • Gradually, wild exchange-rate gyrations diminish—not because fewer people are exchanging money, but because the Bitcoin supply/demand value is driven more by actual commerce than it is by speculation.
  • Sellers begin pricing merchandise in Bitcoin rather than legacy units (i.e. national currencies)—because they are less anxious to exchange out of BTC immediately after each sale.

When sellers begin letting a fraction of bitcoin revenues ride—and as they begin pricing goods and services in BTC—a phenomenal tipping point will follow…

  • If goods and services are priced in BTC, then everyone involved saves money and engages in transactions more efficiently.
  • If goods and services are priced in BTC, then the public will begin to perceive exchange rate volatility as a changing dollar rather than a changing bitcoin.
  • Eventually, vendors will begin spending the BTC that they acquire in commerce (or paying staff in BTC), rather than converting quickly back to national currency. More than anything else, this will transform Bitcoin into a stored value unto itself, and not just an exchange chit. This may seem to be a subtle footnote to adoption, but the ramifications are great. That earthquake is the world gradually moving away from centralized treasury-issued bank notes and toward a unified and currency that we can all trust.

People, everywhere, will one day place their trust in a far more robust and trustworthy mechanism than paper promissory notes printed by regional governments. A brilliantly crafted mechanism that is fully distributed, p2p, transaction verified (yet private), has a capped supply and is secure.

What Then?

O.K. So we believe that Bitcoin is the future of money and not just a replacement for credit cards. But what does this really mean? Can the series of cause-and-effect be extrapolated beyond widespread user adoption? Absolutely! …

Adoption of Bitcoin as a stored value (that means as a currency) leads to the gradual realization among governments that Bitcoin is not a threat to sovereignty nor even to tax policy. Instead it presents unbounded opportunity: The opportunity to stabilize markets, eliminate inflation, reduce costs and restore public trust. In short, Bitcoin will ultimately level the playing field, revive entire economies, transform the role of government, and save consumers and businesses billions of dollars each year.

Did I mention that Bitcoin is the future of commerce and a very possible successor to legacy currencies? Aristotle must be smiling.

Lease rooms in the US Treasury to pay off some of the debt brought about by inflation

Uncle Sam can lease the US Treasury building to pay off debt brought about by inflation