I’ll say this for bitcoin: it’s got a whole new class of people, like Matt Levine and Guan Yang, increasingly interested in one of my longstanding obsessions — payments. (You might be surprised to learn how hard it is to get people interested in payments.) Guan’s post, along with the response to it from Simple’s Shamir Karkal, provide a techie’s viewpoint into a question which many non-Americans have when they start living in this country: how on earth can can moving money from one person to another be so difficult, expensive, and time-consuming?
Something of a milestone was reached very early in the morning of Friday, November 29, a time when most Americans were either sleeping off their Thanksgiving excesses or out seeking Black Friday bargains. At the end of Wednesday, the price of gold, on Comex, had closed at $1,240 per ounce; that market would not reopen until Friday morning. And then at about 1am Friday, EST, there was a trade on Mt Gox, the largest bitcoin exchange, which valued each coin at $1,242. If only briefly and theoretically, at that point in time a bitcoin was worth more than an ounce of gold.
This is a chart of the value of bitcoin yesterday, Wednesday. It’s hardly a secret that bitcoins are a highly volatile asset class, so relatively few eyebrows were raised when the price soared from an opening level of $230 all the way to a high of $266. An intraday swing of more than 15% is pretty much par for the bitcoin course, these days. But then came the crash: within a few hours, bitcoins the world over had lost well over half their value, and were trading as low as $107 apiece. That’s not normal — and it just goes to underline how bad bitcoin is at doing everything it’s meant to do.
I was sad that I had to miss Bruce Summers’s presentation at the Kansas City Fed’s payment conference this morning; I was a couple of miles down the road, at the Kauffman Foundation. But I did manage to grab five minutes to summarize his argument for the assembled econobloggers: it’s an important one, which deserves a lot more attention than it’s likely to get.
I’m mostly offline today, since I’m attending a payments conference at the Kansas City Fed. (And tomorrow I’m attending an econobloggers’ conference at the Kauffman Foundation: how jealous are you?) There’s a lot to digest here, but one thing already seems clear: if you look at the main players in the payments industry, whether they’re incumbents or new innovators who aspire to disrupting the status quo, everybody seems almost unthinkingly resigned to working on and within the present architecture, where consumers pay with their credit or debit cards, and merchants require some kind of way of accepting those payments.
I spent Wednesday night in Silicon Valley, at a very geeky discussion of Bitcoin, the unregulated digital currency which managed to get a lot of anarcho-utopians very excited. But Bitcoin fever seems to be on the wane right now, and the number of real-world places where Bitcoins can be spent is still, to a first approximation, zero.