The end of this month (31 October 2018) will mark the 10th anniversary of the online posting of the now-famous white paper by “Satoshi Nakamoto” outlining the concept of “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” This is an opportune occasion to compare what Bitcoin has achieved with what Satoshi wanted to achieve. While Bitcoin’s rise to a market valuation of over $100 billion is certainly a remarkable accomplishment of one sort, the founder had other aims.
Three problems with the status quo
In announcing the new project in February 2009 Satoshi emphasized three institutional problems with the status quo payment system that Bitcoin would address. First, inflation from central banks that issue fiat money:
The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust.
Second, a lack of privacy and security from commercial banks:
We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.
Third, the high cost of bank-mediated payments:
Their massive overhead costs make micropayments impossible.
How well has Bitcoin addressed these three problems?
Inflation risk and purchasing power volatility
Satoshi wanted to create a currency with less risk of inflation and devaluation. It is of course true that the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of trust in purchasing-power stability. Central banks issuing fiat money have chronically, and sometime acutely, diluted the value of their currencies by expanding them too rapidly. Bitcoin’s source code, which predetermines the quantity path of the stock of Bitcoins, does solve that problem. There can be no unexpectedly rapid expansion. This code provides a valuable object lesson in how to write a constitutional monetary rule that is fully automatic and free from discretion.
However, Bitcoin’s fixed quantity path creates a different problem that inhibits its widespread use as currency. With the number of Bitcoins unresponsive to demand shifts, all the burden of adjustment falls on the price (purchasing power). As a result the market price of Bitcoin is enormously volatile week-to-week and even day-to-day. This makes it very risky to hold or accept BTC as a payment medium for monthly bills that are denominated in anything other than BTC (e.g. in US dollars, other fiat currencies, or commodity index baskets).
Satoshi recognized that demand growth would cause secularly rising value, but said little about the problem of high-frequency volatility of value. He did not design Bitcoin to have an automatically demand-responsive supply, because he did not know how to do it without creating the need for a trusted authority:
[I]ndeed there is nobody to act as central bank or federal reserve to adjust the money supply as the population of users grows. That would have required a trusted party to determine the value, because I don’t know a way for software to know the real world value of things. If there was some clever way, or if we wanted to trust someone to actively manage the money supply to peg it to something, the rules could have been programmed for that.
What Satoshi didn’t know how to do is still not known. The desirability of a stable-valued cryptocurrency has, however, has stimulated dozens of “stablecoin” projects in recent years. There are two main types: (a) coin supply managed by an “algorithmic central bank” that automatically (given a data feed) varies quantity to stabilize purchasing power, and (b) coin supply made endogenous by pegging the coin to a relatively stable fiat currency, to gold, or to a commodity basket. A recent report on “The State of Stablecoins” has identified 57 projects, of which 23 are up and running. Tether USD, imperfectly pegged to the US dollar, is by far the largest of the live projects. Of the 57, twelve use the “algorithmic central bank” approach, the remainder being “asset-backed” either by fiat currency collateral or by cryptoassets. The problem remains unsolved of feeding a program with real-world data in a tamperproof way, or of running a currency peg without any risk to customers from dishonesty or incompetence by the party holding the reserves.
Satoshi suggested—somewhat inaccurately—that Bitcoin would behave like gold under a gold standard:
In this sense, it’s more typical of a precious metal. Instead of the supply changing to keep the value the same, the supply is predetermined and the value changes.
In fact, as I have noted before, the classical gold standard system provided a great deal of long-run elasticity to the quantity of money. A rising purchasing power of gold incentivized the owners of existing mines to dig deeper and increase their output, and encouraged prospectors to seek new sources of gold. The accumulation of increased gold flow over time pushed the…