Week 9: What You Need To Know About Bitcoin

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Week 9

What You Need To Know About Bitcoin

Bitcoin threatens to radically change the way financial transactions are facilitated in the future and whilst it remains inherently volatile and subject to wild swings in value… investors are well advised to keep up to date with developments as bitcoin seeks to establish its role in the global financial industry.

The invention of Bitcoin has been credited to a group using the alias Satoshi Nakamoto and was released as open-source software in 2009 as an alternative digital payment system, which has no intermediaries or banks. The U.S. Treasury has categorized it as a decentralized virtual currency though some believe it is best described as a “cryptocurrency”, which can be defined as “a digital currency in which encryption techniques are used to regulate the generation of units of currency and verify the transfer of funds, operating independently of a central bank.

Bitcoin uses blockchain technology to record its transactions. Essentially, the blockchain is a publicly distributed ledger for certain financial transactions. It is currently mostly used for bitcoin, but many believe it could be used in a wide variety of financial applications in the future.

As used in bitcoin, blockchain is a public ledger of all bitcoin transactions that have ever been made. When a transaction is completed, it is recorded on a new “block.” When the block is full of such transactions, it is added to the end of the “chain” in sequential order, and a new block is created. Full blocks are a part of the blockchain’s permanent database. Each node — a computer connected to the bitcoin network for the purpose of verifying transactions — automatically gets a downloaded copy of the blockchain upon joining the network. The blockchain records information like the time and amount of each transaction, but it does not store any personal information on the parties involved.

Even industry experts who believe that bitcoin is not a sustainable monetary unit think blockchain technology could radically change the way financial transactions are facilitated in the future. The benefits of this system are that it is transparent, secure, and streamlined, so that there are less parties involved in facilitating each and every transaction. Even as the existing payments system in developed countries becomes ever more convenient and secure, the space is still littered with middle parties taking a small amount from each transaction. These players include payment processors, payment networks, issuing banks, and acquiring banks. The dream of bitcoin and other monetary systems based on blockchain technology is for payers to be free of these inherent costs of exchanging currency for goods.

There are a few primary concerns surrounding bitcoin that potential investors should be aware of. First, it is not backed or regulated by the good faith of a government or other entity. This stands in stark contrast to the dollar, yuan, pound, and other forms of currency used around the globe. So, many people view bitcoin as something akin to Monopoly money, because it is neither a fiat currency nor is it based on something of tangible value like gold. In other words, a bitcoin is worth exactly what people perceive its worth to be. While, in a sense, this is true of any currency, the value of a bitcoin is much more fickle than other forms of currency because of its unregulated nature.

Second, bitcoins are not traded on Wall Street. They cannot be bought or sold through a brokerage. Instead, one must set up a bitcoin “wallet,” which can probably best be thought of as a bank account exclusively for bitcoins. Once this account is set up, its holder can link to a traditional banking account and use those funds in local currency to buy and sell bitcoins. If this process sounds a bit cumbersome, it is. This means bitcoin is much less liquid than traditional equities, creating more volatility and wild swings. And there has been some very volatile trading in Bitcoin with the value of one bitcoin changing in value by upwards of 25% or even higher in one week of trading, something virtually unheard of with any other type of currency.

Finally, the unique way of buying and selling bitcoins not only contributes to its illiquid nature, but has also contributed to higher rates of fraud and theft through uninsured bitcoin exchanges. While these problems were far more prevalent in years past, it should still be mentioned that none of the bitcoin exchanges have yet established a long business track record.