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The Federal Reserve Explains Bitcoin

Posted on by Corey CoinCrack

Here’s how David Andolfatto VP Federal Reserve Bank of St. Loius explains bitcoin. Clearly an avid supporter, if his colleagues at The Fed can can understand this then anyone can.


  1. Bitcoin and Beyond: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Virtual Currencies
    • by David Andolfatto VP Federal Reserve Bank of St. Loius
    • March 31, 2013
  2. Noble Spirit
    • “We have elected to put our money and faith in a mathematical framework that is free of politics and human error.” – Tyler Winklevoss
    • “I think the fact that within the Bitcoin universe an algorithm replaces the functions of [the government]…is actually pretty cool.” – Al Gore
  3. Outline
    • What is Bitcoin and what does it offer?
    • How Bitcoin works: Nuts and bolts.
    • Is Bitcoin a bubble? A good investment? A good money?
    • The “nominal exchange rate indeterminacy” problem.
    • Bitcoin and the underground economy.
    • Can Bitcoin be regulated? Can it be taxed?
    • The evolution of money; competing protocols.
    • Whither central banks?
  4. What is Bitcoin
    • Bitcoin is a set of rules written down as a computer program designed to:
      1. Create and manage a supply of digital currency units called bitcoins
      2. Process payments between anonymous users by debiting/crediting digital accounts with bitcoins.
  5. Who Invented Bitcoin
    • Identity is unknown
    • A programmer known only by the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto.”
    • A problem? Not necessarily. Caveat utilitor.
  6. An Evolving Ope-Source Code
    • Volunteer programmers work to patch and improve the code over time (e.g., Linux OS).
    • Open-Source: Anyone is free to go read it.
    • Downside: It’s big and written in a language that almost nobody understands.
    • About 17 MB of source code (500 phone books). About the size of a typical bill coming out of D.C. lately?
  7. How Things Work
    • Money supply = Fed paper + digital dollars.
      • Managed by banking system.
      • Fed paper = legal tender status.
      • Bank accounts insured by FDIC.
    • Payments are processed in one of two ways:
      • Bilaterally (cash, private), or
      • Through an intermediary (digital, recorded).
  8. Common Complaints
    • We hate banks…
      • Digital networks remain highly disconnected.
      • Charge too much for processing payments.
      • A lack of privacy (they keep records!).
    • And we especially hate central banks…
      • Diminish the purchasing power of money by printing too much of it -> they create inflation.
  9. How Bitcoin Is Different
    • A virtual currency with zero intrinsic value and no legal backing.
    • Absence of any central authority:
      • No central bank to manage the money supply.
      • No select intermediaries to process payments.
    • Hope is to:
      1. achieve long-run price-level stability
      2. drive transaction costs to zero.
  10. The Wallet
    • Acquire a “computer wallet” (free).
      • Wallet is an encrypted computer file where bitcoins are stored.
      • Wallet can live in almost any physical device.
      • Your identity is disguised (users employ pseudonyms).
      • The content of every wallet is publicly observable.
  11. Security Concerns
    • Your bitcoins are subject to loss/theft just like cash.
    • A serious concern for rich wallets.
    • Solutions entail use of “trusted” intermediaries.
      • Coinbase will secure and manage your wallet.
      • Elliptic Vault will store/insure your wallet (Lloyd’s of London).
  12. The Blockchain
    • A public ledger containing the historical record of all bitcoin transactions.
      • Lives in a global network of computers.
      • A communally shared record of which wallets own which bitcoins.
    • For the system to work, participants must trust the integrity of the blockchain.
      • The power to alter/fabricate history is the power to steal.
  13. The Miners
    • Transfer of bitcoins from one wallet to another works just like online banking.
      • Except that there is no single agent or bank to process the payment!
    • Record-keeping (how wallets are debited and credited) is performed by “volunteers” drawn from the community called miners.
  14. Miners Must Reach A Consensus
    • Pending transactions are cleared and added to the blockchain only after a “majority vote” approves them.
  15. The Miners
    • Note: Communal record-keeping of a public data bank of “virtual credits” is an ancient practice.
    • The most critical and difficult-to-understand part of the Bitcoin protocol is how it prevents the miners from exploiting the system.
    • Need a PhD in computer science, cryptology and game theory!
  16. He’s mining for bitcoins again…
  17. Mining: A Misleading Analogy
    • Gold miners are rewarded for producing gold.
    • Bitcoin miners are not rewarded for producing bitcoins; they are rewarded for their record-keeping services.
    • They just happen to get paid, in part, with newly-created bitcoins (seigniorage).
      • But they are also paid, in part, with service fees.
    • Upshot: BTC can function w/o increasing the money supply (mining can be financed entirely with fees).
  18. Summary
    • A stroke of genius — a monetary system governed by a computer algorithm.
      • Low-cost banking available to anyone in the world.
      • A digital cash supply free of political manipulation.
    • Drawbacks:
      • Decentralized structure implies “slow” processing.
      • Trust is still needed—location of trust is different.
  19. How Big Is It?
    • Currently, $7 billion BTC in circulation.
      • $1,200B USD in circulation.
    • About 40 transactions per minute.
      • About 200,000 Visa transactions per minute.
    • Average transaction size about $2,000.
      • Average Visa transaction about $80.
  20. Bitcoin Price Skyrockets
  21. Is Bitcoin a Bubble?
    • Yes…if bubble is defined as a liquidity premium:
      • Bubble = Market Price – Intrinsic Value
    • Since intrinsic value of BTC = 0, market price consists purely of a bubble.
    • But most assets likely have a “bubble” component to their price, e.g., gold, UST.
  22. Is Bitcoin a Good Investment?
    • Warning: Theory tells us that asset price changes are difficult to forecast.
    • Outlook depends on a host of factors:
      • How rapidly and extensively will it penetrate the market?
      • How might government regulations evolve over time?
      • How easy is it to replicate the product? What sort of competing products might emerge?
  23. Bitcoin and the Failure of Mt. Gox
    • A bitcoin foreign exchange center and wallet service.
    • The wallets were “stolen” – not Bitcoin’s fault.
  24. Is Bitcoin a Good Money?
    • A good money should maintain a stable purchasing power over short periods of time.
    • Price-level stability depends on both money supply and money demand.
      • Advocates of Bitcoin (and gold) want a rigid supply, but neglect demand volatility.
      • Money demand can fluctuate violently in the short run (Re: BTC price chart).
      • An “elastic” supply of money is needed to stabilize purchasing power.
  25. Purchasing Power of Currencies (is diminishing)
  26. Purchasing Power of Bitcoin and USD
  27. Purchasing Power of Gold and USD
  28. Nominal Exchange Rate Indeterminacy
    • What determines the market exchange rate between two intrinsically useless objects?
  29. Nominal Exchange Rate Indeterminacy
    • Evidence is that exchange rates are “excessively volatile.”
    • Problem: No “fundamental” economic force pins down the relative price of two intrinsically worthless objects.
    • This explains why fixed exchange rate regimes (or common currency areas) are so popular.
    • What would happen in a world of multiple, unregulated, competing digital currencies?
    • Likely outcome is excess ER volatility and a need to hedge.
  30. Does Bitcoin Facilitate Illegal Trading?
    • Sure, but so does USD, gold, etc.
    • Remember, BTC transactions travel wallet-to-wallet, where wallet identities are disguised.
      • In this sense, BTC is like USD cash in facilitating illegal trades.
      • On the other hand, wallet histories are publicly available (unlike USD cash transaction histories).
    • In any case, BTC also facilitates legal trading.
  31. Can Bitcoin Be Regulated?
    • Some countries have issued an outright ban on the use of bitcoin (and other currencies).
    • But how does one slay the Hydra?
  32. Can Bitcoins Be Taxed?
    • In the U.S., the IRS has recently ruled that, for tax purposes, bitcoins will be treated as property and not a currency.
      • I.e., when you buy then sell bitcoins, you must report the resulting capital gain/loss.
      • Compliance means added record-keeping costs.
    • The effect of this and similar rulings serve to diminish the attractiveness of bitcoins as a currency. (Ripple a winner?)
    • But enforcing an outright ban is close to impossible.
  33. The Evolution of Money
    • A long tradition of new currencies competing with old.
      • Hundreds of local currencies exist in U.S. alone.
      • New wave is an extension of this idea, combining the science of cryptology with the power of the Internet.
    • Partial list of Bitcoin competitors: Ripple, Litecoin, Auroracoin, Peercoin, Dogecoin, Nxt, Mastercoin, Namecoin.
    • Probably the most important aspect of this technology revolution is the threat of entry into the money and payments system.
      • Will force traditional institutions to adapt or die.
  34. Whither Central Banks?
    • Well-run central banks should welcome the emerging competition.
    • There is (in my view) room for beneficial coexistence; for example:
      • A politically independent Fed operating an “elastic” currency supply with congressionally assigned mandates (e.g., price-level stability).
      • Together with Ripple, a currency-agnostic P2P payment system to facilitate low-cost payments.
  35. A Match Made in Heaven?
  36. The End

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