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Can Bitcoin Win the Digital Payments ‘Gauge War’?



Simon Johnson is a Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship, MIT Sloan School of Management.

The following article originally appeared in Consensus Magazine, distributed exclusively to attendees of CoinDesk’s Consensus 2019 event.

The promise and potential of bitcoin as a technology is frequently described in terms of a platform. On top of bitcoin’s permissionless blockchain, the argument goes, all kinds of things could be built to reduce the power and profit of trusted intermediaries. If you fear and resent monopolies, particularly those that are becoming more obnoxious as the digital age progresses, this is an alluring future.

It may also be an illusion. Not only are the use cases so far rather limited, but increasingly implementations – upon closer inspection – turn out to be “permissioned” blockchains, which are actually some form of relatively centralized shared database controlled by trusted intermediaries.

The terminology and rhetoric may have changed, for activities such as organizing supply chains or clearing financial transactions, but the reality looks remarkably similar to what existed before bitcoin was invented. Bitcoin’s arrival, and the disruptive potential it vaguely represented seemed to goad various industries into exploring an old form of distributed database technology. But this is hardly a revolution.

Will bitcoin ever have a more meaningful impact on society than this?

Before we ponder that more deeply, let’s pause and reflect on what definitely already exists. Bitcoin has proved to be a remarkably robust means of making certain kinds of payments. It is also a store of value, albeit one that is highly volatile. Of course, bitcoin has also spawned a variety of other cryptocurrencies, which range from being reasonable propositions to completely unappealing.

In speculating on whether bitcoin and its imitators can progress beyond these modest beginnings, one important historical analogy is useful: the development of railways in the UK. Some initial railways were highly profitable (e.g., the Liverpool-Manchester line) and others were miracles of engineering (the Great Western) but in various senses less successful. Many of them were more humdrum. There was excessive competition in what became known as “The Gauge War,” as well as crazy moments of speculation and plenty of outright fraud. It was the first big capitalist boom, and it set the tone for pretty much everything else that followed.

A case study in disruption

What did railways really accomplish? There were three major impacts, some but not all of which were clear at the beginning.

First, railways broke the grip that canals had on the movement of heavy goods. Turnpikes, or toll roads, were fine for small-scale movement of passengers, but anything heavier needed to go by barge. Not surprisingly, canal owners were generally opposed to railway development, spawning fights that went on for years. This pitched battle was obvious to everyone who understood the transportation element in the pricing of coal and other traded goods.

Second, railways encouraged people to travel. The number of people traveling by rail, for example between Liverpool and Manchester, quickly surpassed the number who had been brave enough to take a stagecoach.

Third, railways created new jobs, but they also destroyed livelihoods. The people who ran and otherwise benefited from turnpikes did not do well. Over several decades, railways were a net positive on the jobs front – including many occupations that were relatively well-paid (although other jobs were most definitely dangerous and underpaid by any reasonable metric). The scale and scope of the economic and social impact was impressive – and likely a surprise to most people.

Most canals eventually went out of business, but what’s striking is how long it took. Some waterways remain financially viable at least until the end of the nineteenth century – roughly 60 years after the railway proof of concept was fully established – even though canal owners had done nothing new or clever to assure their survival.

A canal is a canal; there’s not much you can do to invest or upgrade this kind of physical infrastructure. The response on the side of the roads was quite different.

Over time, road surfaces improved a great deal. And the internal combustion engine, which gave rise to the automobile, proved to be a technological shift just as profound as putting a steam engine on wheels. Nothing lasts forever, as the owners of railway company stock discovered.

Take all of this back to bitcoin and assume that only the narrow version survives – solely a payments system. This could still be a major potential competitive threat to all forms of financial gatekeeper, but only insofar as bitcoin can outcompete its rivals among other means of digital payments. Various companies in this arena are trying to build railroads – some focused on functionality, others aiming for more elegant solutions.

But for the customer, it’s just about getting from A to B fastest at the lowest cost.

You really don’t care how Venmo works, or what happens when you use Apple Pay in a cab or receive a confirmation from PayPal, or even how your credit card works in a foreign chip & PIN sign system. All you care about is: did you know what the price was going to be, and could you settle in a way acceptable to both the payee and you. Various entities are holding risk within that payments system, but not you – at least not in a way that gives you any concern.

Bitcoin’s opportunity lies in how well it too can enable more seamless, low-cost digital transactions for people. (I don’t see bitcoin as a rival for cash, which will rise or fall in various societies, depending on whether people like immediate anonymous settlement – and how they feel about carrying around physical bundles with that characteristic.)

We go with what works

How will this shake out? Let’s take a lesson from Isambard Kingdom Brunel, builder of the Great Western Railway. Impressive engineering is good, but interoperability trumps it.

Brunel’s railway had a broader gauge than most other British lines, but it was eventually forced to adopt those standard gauges to connect with other lines. In the end, the network effect prevails – we go with what works more often and in more places.

Bitcoin may have helped spark the railroad age but there is no guarantee it will win. In fact, currently, it looks more like the Great Western – gets the job done, but at relatively high cost in a small community of users, and with features that can only be regarded as strange.

(The oddest part of the Great Western operation was a century-long contract (!) that required all London-Bristol trains to stop in Swindon, where there were monopoly providers of refreshments to that line. Lesson for crypto developers: long confirmation times and erratic spikes in transaction fees may seem attractive to some engineers; to ordinary customers these are discouraging.)

Bitcoin could still win the competition to provide better, cheaper, more reliable payments. Recent steps promised by Bakkt, for example, can be regarded as encouraging if they bring bitcoin closer to being used in mainstream commerce (e.g., for Starbucks). And every time I hear about the Lightning Network from a colleague at MIT, I also feel that the system is moving in the right direction toward low-cost, peer-to-peer payments.

Still, remember, the railway customer does not care if the railway will strengthen or undermine existing landowners or shake up the structure of power. Similarly, whether particular intermediaries will rise or fall is generally a matter of some indifference.

All that matters is: will the trains run on time, and how much does it cost to buy a ticket?




Bitcoin trades dangerously close to $10,000 mark



  • Bitcoin’s (BTC/USD) rebound from August lows remains short-lived.
  • Satoshi Nakamoto is said to reveal identity later on Sunday. 
  • A break below $10,000 could attract more sellers. 

Bitcoin (BTC/USD) dropped to its lowest level since late July at $9,467 on Thursday and brought in bargain shoppers to help the BTC/USD retake the critical $10,000 handle. With markets reacting positively to New York Financial Regulator approving Bakkt to provide custody services for Bitcoin, the pair’s rebound extended to $10,540 late Friday. However, investors seemed reluctant to add to their positions while trying to asses what this announcement means for Bitcoin’s future.

Although many see that this development attracting more institutional investors and opening the door for the introduction of altcoin futures, the market sentiment hasn’t turned positive yet. With the exception of Ripple, the top-ten cryptocurrencies with regards to market capitalization closed the day in the negative territory on Saturday and are now having a tough time gaining traction. 

Meanwhile, in a press release on Friday, Globe Newswire said Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious person behind Bitcoin, will reveal his identity and vision for Bitcoin on Sunday. “After a decade of anonymity, Satoshi Nakamoto will break his silence in Part I of his “My Reveal” Sunday, Aug. 18, at 4 p.m. EDT on the Satoshi Nakamoto Renaissance Holdings website, and the Ivy McLemore & Associates website,” the statement read. “In addition to his real-life identity, Nakamoto will use “My Reveal” to divulge such facts as his country of origin, education, professional background, and why he has yet to move any of his 980,000 bitcoins.”

Technical outlook

After erasing 1.4% on Saturday, Bitcoin continues to edge lower on Sunday and was last seen trading at $10,174, down 0.8% on a daily basis. On the daily chart, the Relative Strength Index (RSI) continues to inch lower and is now at 43, confirming the near-term bearish outlook. Moreover, the 20-day Moving Average (DMA) fell below the 50-DMA today to support that view.

$10,000 (psychological level/Fibonacci 61.8% retracement of June rally) is seen as a critical support level and a drop below that level could cause the selling pressure to gather momentum. $9,500 (Aug. 15 low) and $9,000 (psychological level/Jul. 17 low/Fibonacci 78.6% retracement of June rally) could be targeted on the downside. On the other hand, a strong dynamic resistance seems to have formed at $10,800/$10,900 region (20-DMA/50-DMA/Fibonacci 50% retracement of June rally) ahead of $11,500 (Fibonacci 38.2% retracement of June rally).

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Bitcoin as protest: Hong Kong demonstrators withdraw their money from banking system



Protesters in Hong Kong have taken to a new non-violent tactic, withdrawing cash in mass from ATMs and banks and converting it to U.S. dollars—foreshadowing things to come for Bitcoin.

On Aug. 16, protesters in Hong Kong announced plans to withdraw their cash from the banking system in protest of overreach from mainland China, reported Business Insider. Bitcoin may play a key role in these kinds of protests in the near future.

The demonstration, said organizers, is meant to protect people’s wealth from the possibility of devaluation following a mainland military crackdown while reasserting the freedom of Hong Kong’s independent financial regime.

Background on the Hong Kong extradition protests

Protests began in response to an extradition bill ordered by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam. The bill would have allowed case-by-case transfers of fugitives to jurisdictions without extradition treaties with the city—including mainland China.

The inclusion of mainland China in the treaty is a major concern for pro-independence activists. In part, people fear that Hong Kong’s judiciary would be abused by the Communist party via the treaty, potentially using the treaty to eliminate political opponents and dissidents who were previously out of reach in Hong Kong.

And, those fears are not unsubstantiated. When Xi Jingping rose to power in 2012 the space for dissenters shrunk substantially. Human rights activists say forced ‘disappearances’ have been on the rise, while the BBC described the Communist Party’s control becoming “tougher and more systematic.”

As a result, there is a very real concern that the inclusion of an extradition treaty could lead to more overreach from the mainland.

However, as protests turned into clashes with police, mainland China started to flex its military strength—seemingly to intimidate Hongkongers into submission. State run media outlets ran videos of military vehicles amassing near the border of the city. Military buildup was reaffirmed in a tweet from President Donald Trump:

Battle for independence

As tensions escalated, the protests morphed into a much broader debate over Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China. After over 150 years of British rule, many people in the region have developed more affinity for Western ideals and culture.

As a point of emphasis, some protesters even waved British and American flags and sang the U.S. national anthem—acts of irreverence that are totally preposterous on the mainland.

Now, the Communist Party is attempting to rein-in the freedom of the administrative region as the Chinese federal government continues its quest of unifying its 1.3+ billion citizens. Fearing the loss of privileges, protesters are calling for much broader reforms than initially demanded in the extradition protests. The main demands include:

  1. Completely withdraw from the extradition bill;
  2. Retract statements saying that the protests were riots;
  3. Withdraw criminal charges against all protesters;
  4. Thoroughly investigate the abuse of power by local police;
  5. Have chief executive Carrie Lam resign and dissolve the pseudo-democratic Hong Kong Legislative Council by administrative order;
  6. Immediate implementation of universal suffrage (democratic voting) for the Legislative Council and chief executive elections.

Cash out Hong Kong

Protestors are getting more creative in their tactics as things escalate with law enforcement. For example, after a university leader was arrested for using laser pointers against police—which the police branded as “offensive weapons”—the device gained mass popularity among demonstrators.

Now, protesters have taken to a new tactic: sucking the cash out of the local banking system. Posts on Hong Kong social media board LIHKG, the local equivalent to Reddit, show hundreds of photos of people withdrawing hard currency from banks and ATMs. Some protesters are even making trips to multiple ATMs to circumvent the HK$20,000 (~$2,500) limit per transaction.

There are yet to be any confirmed reports of the amount of money that is being withdrawn but Business Insider reported that at least 400 protesters recorded their withdrawals.

However, there are reports of ATMs around the city running out of cash. Although things aren’t dire for Hong Kong banks just yet, should enough people participate in such an event has the potential to disrupt cash access in the city—and in an extreme scenario, precipitate a bank run.

Bitcoin as protest

People peacefully opting-out of local monetary systems could foreshadow the power of Bitcoin. There are currently tight capital controls in China that allow the mainland government to maintain an artificially lowtrading peg with the U.S. dollar to stimulate exports.

This manifests itself in strict financial limitations on the mainland. Chinese citizens can only acquire and move up to $50,000 out of the country per year. These currency transactions are centrally recorded and closely tracked. There are also controls on domestic currency movement. As a relevant example, people going from Hong Kong to Shenzhen people are limited to bringing a maximum of the equivalent of $5,000 without onerous declarations.

The systematic devaluation and management of the yuan means that Chinese citizens are deprived of the real purchasing power of their money. Most Chinese people are unable to invest in safer and more lucrative foreign investments because of these controls. Furthermore, a weak currency drastically decreases the purchasing power of consumers, decreasing consumption and further making the Chinese economy dependent on exports.

Not only that, China’s currency reserves and financial controls will be further stress-tested as the trade war with the United States escalates. Just two weeks ago, the yuan weakened past the 7 RMB per USD peg for the first time since 2008 in response to President Donald Trump’s abrupt escalation of tariffs on Chinese goods.

One thing to keep in mind is that Hongkongers have their own respective currency under the “one country, two systems” compromise. Since 1983, the Hong Kong dollar has had a linked exchange rate system that pegs it to the U.S. dollar at a 7.8 to 1 ratio. And, given that the dollar is the most stable and highly traded currency on the planet, it would be strange for the protesters not to use it for their demonstrations.

But, if dollars were not accessible in the city then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to use Bitcoin. Along that line, there are still reports of increased demand for BTC in the city in response to protests.  With tensions with mainland China rising, expect HKD’s peg to the USD to be stressed while capital to flees from the independent administrative region.

Opting-out of government control

With the advent of Bitcoin, people living under financially controlling regimes, like China’s, have the opportunity to opt-out of the system. Instead of enduring implicit wealth transfers through currency devaluation or inflation (arguably another form of taxation) people can instead buy BTC.

Bitcoin is an ideal protest instrument. Bitcoin can be stored in such a way where it is near-impossible to confiscate and can be used in a way to transfer huge amounts of wealth without regard for borders.

As such, data shows that black markets are quickly forming—and growing—in countries which are financially restrictive (and have adequate internet penetration), as evidenced by strong growth in peer-to-peer trading volume in places such as Venezuela, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Ultimately, Bitcoin has the potential to hold governments accountable for unscrupulous currency management. If the trend in cryptocurrency adoption continues then countries such as China should be rightfully worried.

Source: cryptoslate

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Bitcoin Price, Pantomime Season, More Craig Wright Lies



This week, US President, Donald J Trump, decided that he would like to buy Greenland, thereby completely surrounding the USA’s northern neighbor Canada. Denmark semi-politely told him to… that it wasn’t for sale. Perhaps he would have more luck buying Bitcoin?

Bitcoin Price: Down But Not Out

Well, when it comes to bitcoin price, arguably the less said about the past week, the better. Unfortunately, it’s kinda my job, so I’ll try to make this as painless as possible.

It all started reasonably positively. After a tumultuous weekend, a last-minute pump saw a bullish weekly candle closing at just over $11,500; the highest weekly close in over a year. Even Goldman Sachs was bullish on bitcoin, setting a short-term price target of $13,971, which seemed oddly specific.

However, net capital flows out of five of the top bitcoin exchanges, along with low volumes troubling support at $11k gave a hint at what was to come.

One analyst predicted that price would go as low as $8.4k to fill a futures gap. $11k fell… and then $10k and we were back to four figures. Perhaps a target in the $8000s was on the cards?

Someone had other ideas, however, and price bounced back above $10k, before briefly dipping back below on Friday. Since then we have been in an uptrend but without the steam to push past $10,500. Price has stayed above $10k but looks anything but comfortable in the short term.

Still, anyone obsessing over short-term bitcoin price changes is missing the point (or a degenerate gambler). Bitcoin is a long-term store of value, and still heading to $100k, at least according to the respected analyst, Murad Mahmudov.

Pantomime Season Comes Early… Oh No, It Doesn’t!

It seems like the Bitcoin community just can’t come to any consensus this week, as conflicting opinions were all over the news. And not just one which way price is going next.

First up for discussion was Bitcoin’s alleged wealth distribution problem. Alleged by Civic’s Vinny Lingham, that is. He spent an hour-long debate with Dan Held getting hung up on a hypothetical $10million bitcoin, and whether Satoshi’s stash was ‘fair’. Then VanEck exec, Gabor Gurbacs, stepped in to say it was all a myth and everything seemed balanced to him.

Bitcoin’s midweek crash could be down to a little known (outside of China) Ponzi scheme, or so alleged local expert, Dovey Wan. PlusToken had scammed over 200k BTC, which was starting to hit exchanges. “Not true,” said one analyst, who claimed the majority of tokens had been sent through coin mixers a month ago. Although arguably, the coins which came out of the other side of the mixers could well be flooding exchanges.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) decided that another two months of feet dragging was required before they could finally give approval or disapproval to a Bitcoin-ETF. Then out-of-the-blue the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) gave approval to Bakkt’s custody solution. The company’s bond delayed physically-backed Bitcoin futures product is now expected to start trading in late September.

The only party remaining uncharacteristically quiet was BitMex, which is in the midst of a CFTC probe. Although CEO Arthur Hayes couldn’t resist the urge to poke his head above the Twitter parapet to promise that he will be back.

And Finally…

Craig Wright has been caught forging documents again. The self-proclaimed creator of Bitcoin was using a series of Bitmessage communications as part of his defense, in the case between the estate of Dave Kleiman and himself in a Florida court.

However, the creator of Bitmessage (as in actual creator, not self-proclaimed creator), Jonathan Warren, testified that the messages must be fake because the service hadn’t been released at the time of the message.

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