Economic Problems

“Money, again, has often been a cause of the delusion of multitudes. Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper... Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

– Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

The ideas of cryptocurrencies are based on economic absurdities that outright contradict two hundred years of economic thought. To unpack the absurdity of cryptocurrencies, we first have to understand the two major narratives about the purpose of cryptocurrencies:

The assumption that both of these narratives simultaneously hold is known as the crypto paradox(Dillow n.d.). The more attractive a crypto token is as an investment, the less useful it is as money. Moreover, conversely, if a token were to become useful as money, it would lose its use as an asset offering high expected returns.

Money must be stable so that we can save it today and spend it tomorrow. Moreover, investiments are inherently risky; we are taking a risk and hopefully being compensated with a commensurate reward. We don’t want our money to be risky or our investments to be stable. Nevertheless the promoters of crypto like to rely on both stories, usually whichever is rhetorically opportune—but they cannot both be true and on their own. And, independently, neither story stands up to intellectual scrutiny.

In fact, the very term cryptocurrency is a misnomer and misleading(Larue 2020; Umlauft 2018). Indeed, academics now instead use the word cryptoassets to separate the false conception that cryptocurrencies are related to monetary instruments. Nevertheless, the term has entered the public lexicon, and in this text, we will adopt its colloquial use despite the confusion in terminology.

Failure as Money

The fundamental concern at the heart of economics is known as the economic problem. The economic problem is the inescapable issue of scarcity and how best to produce and distribute these scarce resources. At its core, economics is the study of systems to make the best use of limited or scarce resources in the presence of a desire for consumption that exceeds supply. The creation of money is a tool that forms the substrate for a society’s collective solution to the economic problem. Money is thereby the means by which markets can discover the price of goods through an equilibrium for the supply and demand in terms of a universal value metric in which the price is denominated (Roche 2011; Hileman 2017).

The Scottish philosopher and early pioneer of economic thought Adam Smith supposed that civilization operated on a quid-pro-quo barter system in which goods were exchanged directly for other goods before the advent of money. In barter, sheep could be exchanged for wheat at an exchange rate relative to the supply and demand of the two commodities and independent of an exogenous measure value. However, most modern scholars reject the barter model as having no historical grounding. The late anthropologist David Graeber argues that early societies instead created complex debt systems within their tribes and that credit systems in the ancient world were ubiquitous and far preceded the invention of money and coinage. Graeber further argues that barter and money were reserved for low-trust environments or inter-civilization exchanges where the counterparty’s creditworthiness could not be determined or enforced.

Thus money, credit, and trust are an inexorably linked throughout human history, and as civilization has evolved towards modern high-trust liberal democracies, so too have the money and credit systems evolved in their sophistication. By corollary, money is an inherently political structure since its creation originates in trust, and its distribution is linked to a society’s thinking about the interplay of scarcity and the value of labor. Decisions regarding whether money is produced, how it is distributed, and who receives it are questions that are inexorably linked to the values of the lives of people who interact with it. In other words, there cannot be apolitical money(Eich 2018), just as there is no such thing as water that is not wet.

The history of the technology of money is also one of incremental evolution. Civilization has evolved from trading in wheat(Einzig 2014), to trading in gold, to trading in notes backed by gold, to trading notes backed by nothing, and finally to trading in bytes backed by notes. Each step along this process carried a shifting set of concerns and compromises and ultimately shifted the custodianship of our money supply to different entities in our civilization. The role of money has a descriptive definition as having three core properties:

These properties present a “moneyness” spectrum(McLeay, Radia, and Thomas 2014b) on which currencies can fall on the end of either good money or bad money. Currencies such as the US dollar are optimal forms of money because they fulfill all three definitions very well on long-time scales. In contrast, historical currencies like units of grain used in early Mesopotamia are suboptimal money since they are inconvenient as a medium of exchange and means of deferred payment due to transport costs, storage concerns, and eventual spoilage.

Amongst these three points, the most essential property of money is that it is a stable store of value against a basket of commodities that consumers buy most often. The amount of money used to buy a coffee in the morning should not differ drastically from the amount used to buy a coffee tomorrow. In developed economies, complex measurement procedures called consumer price indexes are used to measure the relative change of the value of a currency against a standard basket of household goods to measure the efficacy of a managed monetary system.

Historical monetary systems were forms of commodity-based money, in which notes represented a legal claim against the commodity which could, at least in principle, be redeemed at the government treasury. Up until August 15, 1971, the United States was on a gold standard(Andolfatto n.d.), and the government maintained that $35 could be redeemed for an ounce of gold. However, starting with the United Kingdom in 1931, most advanced economies exited their commodity-based money systems in favor of fiat money, a system where the government issued notes are backed not by the commodity but by three ideas:

In practice, the legitimacy of a national currency comes from both a collective social contract about the rule of law and its utility to fulfill the properties of money, price stability, and capacity to spur economic growth. Financial historian Adam Tooze said of the dollar fiat system:

[The dollar] is backed by “nothing” other than the trifling matter of tens of trillions of dollars in private credit, the rule of law, and the power of the state itself inserted into a state system. In other words, the entire structure of global macrofinance.

The defining feature of fiat money is that it has a variable supply. In theory, the issuer fully controls the money supply and can expand or contract the money supply by adjusting deposit terms of commercial banks, quantitative easing, or modifying interest rates. These activities are the primary mechanisms by which price stability and inflation targeting are implemented. However, despite the dynamic money supply, there is a great deal of confusion concerning the fact that the central banks cannot and do not simply “print money” on demand.

A dynamic money supply is a core principle of Keynesian economics and forms the basis for all modern managed monetary systems. Keynesianism refers to a school of economic thought advanced by the British economist John Maynard Keynes in the early 20th century. In his 1936 work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Interest and Money, Keynes outlined a set of macroeconomic theories and models of how aggregate demand has strong explanatory power for modeling economic output and inflation. Keynes’ work, together with the post-war neoclassic school pioneered by Kenneth Arrow and others, gave rise to the mainline branch of modern economics that focuses on quantitative and empirical models to explain market phenomena.

A defining feature of Keynesian thought is that in the presence of market shocks and business cycles, economies do not naturally stabilize themselves very quickly and thus require active intervention that boosts short-term demand in the economy. Keynesians argue that wages and employment are slower to respond to the market’s needs and require central banks and governmental intervention to smooth over economic turbulence and mitigate recessions. Federal Reserve chairman William McChesney Martin once famously said that the role of the central bank is to “take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going,” indicating the need for intervention to tighten easy access to credit once the economy recovers from recession. This school of thought largely influences the modern fiscal interventionist policies of central banks like the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank in their policies after these economies moved off commodity-based gold standards. (Andolfatto n.d.; Shea 2012; Krishna 2017; Bemanke and James 1991)

In modern advanced economies based on Keynesian ideas, most money takes the form of digital bank deposits. These bank deposits are created by commercial banks whenever they make loans. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, and this process creates new money. While commercial banks can create(McLeay, Radia, and Thomas 2014a) money from debt, they cannot do so without limits but are instead constrained by their own profitability, regulation, and the policies of the central bank.

The central bank is effectively the bank for commercial banks. It is a government established entity that acts to facilitate the exchange of money between licensed banking institutions. In many economies, the central bank is a quasi-governmental institution that maintains a monopoly on its role by the consent of democratic approval while functioning much like a corporation at arm’s length from the government. To prevent conflicts of interest, the central bank usually does not receive its budget directly from the government. Instead, its income comes primarily from the interest on government securities that it acquires through the open market.

In the United States model, the central bank chair is a government appointee by the federal government and approved by the Senate for a four-year term. However, a strict separation between the government and the central bank ensures its independence. In the American model, the president can hire and fire the central bank chairman, but the government cannot directly set central bank policy or directly control interest rates. The firewall between the people who metaphorically “create the money” and “spend the money” is an essential part of the central banking model and as we have seen in cases in other countries where this firewall has been broken down, the result is almost invariably nation-wide financial ruin.

Central banking is thus a hub and spoke model, in which the central bank is, as the namesake implies, the hub that connects all other commercial banks. The central bank maintains a ledger with other banks as its creditors, and these balances thus reflect the total balances of deposits held by the commercial banks on behalf of their customers. Commercial banks operate in a fractional reserve model where the total reserves held at any one point in time are strictly less than the total value of all deposits. Commercial banks engage in lending and investing activities with customer money to facilitate economically and socially productive enterprises in their communities. However, the central bank determines the specific minimum amount of reserves. Every day, during the course of regular banking business, a bank will service its customers, engage in lending, and balance its deposits and withdrawals; all of these services result in changing the bank’s balance sheet, which may fall above or below the required reserve balance. To maintain reserve requirements, banks will issue short-term loans to each other at a fixed rate set by the central bank or directly from the central bank. The inter-bank interest rate is therefore the primary lever that the central bank uses to mediate the rate and flow of money in the economy, with everything downstream in the economy dependent on it.

The central bank does not print money or fix the amount of money in supply. Instead, it controls the mechanisms by which money can be created through commercial lending.

Monetary policy acts as the ultimate limit on money creation and is guided by the central bank’s policy to achieve specific goals in the economy. If the price of goods and services rises disproportionately to the currency’s purchasing power, this results in inflation. Conversely, when prices decrease disproportionately to purchasing power, this results in deflation. While economists debate about the causes of inflation, an excess of either inflation or deflation is seen as a hindrance to in a healthy economy.

Under deflationary pressure, prices fall, so it is always rational for individuals to hoard rather than spend money as much as possible, as it will be worth more tomorrow than it is today. This self-reinforcing process takes more money out of the supply, risking deeper deflationary spirals that threaten economic productivity — if no one wants to buy anything, the market cannot fund economically and socially productive activities. Left unchecked, this type of deflationary cycle is enormously destructive to society.

In contrast, while in environments with inflationary pressure, prices rise rapidly. This leads to individuals who exchange their labor and time for money to see the value of their labor decrease relative to the goods and services they need to live. Economic environments of extreme inflation or deflation are not desirable, and both scenarios have led to the collapse of governments and regime change in countries such as Yugoslavia, the Weimar Republic, Hungary, and Zimbabwe. Both hyperinflation and deflationary spirals are antithetical to capital formation and a productive economy, and as such, the central bank’s monetary policy is aimed at avoiding these two situations. Most mainstream economists believe that a small amount of predictable inflation, often 2%, is seen as a desirable target since it discourages hoarding and encourages productive investments.

However, bitcoin is, by its very design, a deflationary asset. The distribution of bitcoin is subject to an algorithm in which its future supply is both finite and fixed at 21 million bitcoins. The amount of bitcoin in circulation increases slowly as new blocks are mined, but there will never be more than the fixed cap allows. Considering the number of tokens irrecoverably lost to technical failures, lost keys, dust transactions, and the death of key holders, the number of tokens viable to transact in must strictly and monotonically go down over time. Supposing that demand remains constant or increases, a decrease in supply will drive the price upwards, thus creating deflationary spirals. A rational economic actor should therefore never spend their bitcoin since it may increase in value in the future, which is antithetical to the purpose of money.

In addition, without any nation-state(Larue, n.d.) recognizing cryptocurrencies as its sole legal tender, there is no demand for the currency to pay one’s taxes. The demand for a cryptocurrency is only based on either criminality or speculation. Since there is no underlying asset or intrinsic value of the currency, its demand is purely from a form of recursive speculation: a bet on what the next fool will pay for it, who in turn bets on what the next fool will pay for it. An indefinite and infinitely recursive version of the silly line of reasoning “I think that you think that I think...” with no basis in any actual economic activity.

Artificially scarce deflationary assets can never form the basis for a modern economy because the basis for all economic growth is the capacity to issue and service debt. Loans denominated in stable currencies are the very foundation of the economy, in everything from home mortgages, to business loans and corporate bonds, all the way up to sovereign debt issued by nation-states themselves. Loans allow individuals to access the future value of money today to be put towards socially and economically productive activities, such as buying a home to start a family or to found a business. The US dollar has the deepest and most liquid debt markets mainly because the dollar has a relatively predictable inflation rate on a long time scale, and its monetary parameters remain predictable up to the scale of decades. Thus the risk of servicing loans is readily quantifiable, and banks can build entire portfolios of loans to their communities out of their reserves.

Trying to construct the same form of loan denominated in bitcoin is impossible (Hinzen, John, and Saleh 2019). Since the value of the supply of the deflationary asset is fixed, and its price is subject to unpredictable and extreme deflationary spirals, it is nearly impossible to calculate the present risk of the loan in terms of its future cash flows. If the asset’s value unpredictably increases in the future, the interest paid on the loan may not be sufficient to cover the loan’s future market value. The activity of lending, denominated in a hyper volatile deflationary asset, is thus fraught with extreme risk compared to the predictability of fiat systems.

Even removing the deflationary cap, as some other cryptocurrencies aim to do, we are still left with intractable problems that the supply of the alleged currency must be determined by a preset algorithm which a priori determines the distribution of the currency ahead of time, thus detached from market conditions. Unlike in the fiat system, where the market conditions for debt products organically determine the supply of money in circulation relative to demand, a cryptocurrency must determine both supply and demand prescribed in unchangeable computer code. This would be like if the United States Federal Reserve decided what the monetary policy of the United States would be from their armchair in 1973 and into the future, regardless of any future market conditions, pandemics, or recessions. This is simply not possible, as we are not prescient enough to predict such long-term cycles of history, and monetary policy must be an organic process that balances supply and demand given present economic conditions in conjunction with future forecasts.

The Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis wrote of this failure of the bitcoin model in his interview Crypto, the Left, and Techno-Feudalism (Varoufakis 2022):

The problem with Bitcoin is not just its fixed supply. It is the presumption that the rate of change of the money supply can be predicted and foreshadowed within any algorithm. That the money supply can be de-politicised. So, it is not a question of how sophisticated and complex the algorithm is. It is, rather, that a purely political, unknowable, process can never, ever, be captured by an algorithm. It cannot and, therefore, it should not.

The core fallacy at the heart of the economic problem of bitcoin as money is the fixed supply, the deflationary construction, and the supposition that a neutral and apolitical algorithm could replace a central bank.

Speculative cryptoassets cannot perform the function of money and are instead speculative assets with no fundamental value.

The economic problems of cryptocurrencies as money are intractable and cannot be solved; no amount of new technology or software could ever fix the inescapable truth that commodity-based money is a rubbish foundation on which to build productive enterprises or run an economy(Davidson n.d.). Combined with the technical issues of scalability (see: Technical Shortcomings), hyper volatility, and unsuitability as a store of value (see: Digital Gold), cryptocurrencies are an extremely suboptimal form of money. In other words, cryptocurrency is not used as a medium of exchange because it cannot scale and is simply unfit for this use case(Roubini 2019; Budish 2018; Davidson n.d.).

Failure as an Investment

Allegedly, in the absence of cryptocurrency having the properties of money, we should consider the economics of investing in it as we would other assets. However, when we try to determine what cryptocurrencies, or cryptoassets, would offer investors, we arrive at a different set of contradictions than in our analysis of them as currencies. Assets are either tangible assets that are intrinsically useful or financial assets that produces a yield that does not purely depend on price appreciation.

A tangible asset has a use value; for example, real estate provides a place to inhabit, a cow can be turned into a steak, and gold bricks can be smelted down to be used in jewelry and electronics. These assets’ value is derived from a fundamental human need, and their demand is organically created from this value.

Financial assets, however, have no tangible existence: they are a useful legal construct. A financial asset is a non-physical asset whose value is derived from contractual claims on income, legal rights, an underlying currency or commodity, or risk transfer between counterparties. Examples of financial assets are stocks, bonds, patents, and derivatives.

Crypto assets are not money, they have no tangible existence, no use value, and no intrinsic value. However, we can analyze them as financial assets using the standard tools of economics. To do this, let us consider the two properties of a financial asset:

In the mathematical formalism of economics, we study the markets for financial assets in terms of simplified economic models called games, which give us insights into the payout structures that give rise to markets.

A zero-sum game is a specific class of game where any one player’s gain is equal to the other player’s loss on any given play of the game. We model the game as a payoff matrix where the outcomes of the participants are given rows and columns (see A and B below). A two-person zero-sum game is thus a game where the pair of payoffs for each entry of the payoff matrix sum to zero.

A coin flipping game is an example of a zero-sum game, where two players, A and B, simultaneously place a coin onto the table. A player’s payoff depends on whether the coins match or not. If both coins land heads or tails, Player A wins and keeps Player B’s coin. If they do not match, Player B wins and keeps Player A’s coin.

*Player XA(1,  − 1)( − 1, 1)
B( − 1, 1)(1,  − 1)

A positive-sum game is a term that refers to situations in which the total of gains and losses across all participants is greater than zero. Conversely, a negative-sum game is a game where the gains and losses across all participants sum is less than zero, and played iteratively with increasing participants, the number of losers increases monotonically. Since investing in bitcoin is a closed system, the possible realized returns can only be paid out from funds paid in by other players buying in.

A cryptoasset is fundamentally different in kind from traditional instruments such as stocks, bonds, or physical commodities because it has absolutely no future income other than the money provided by the investors themselves. Stocks are a stake in a company with tangible assets, intellectual property, and employees that give voting rights over the company’s core functioning. An individual stock tracks the economic growth of an underlying business in terms of its future profit and losses. Through dividends, stock buybacks, or mergers and acquisition events, these profits are paid to shareholders. Similarly, bonds are debt instruments that carry the legal obligation of redemption with interest.

Crypto assets are completely non-productive assets; they have no source of income and cannot generate a yield from any underlying economic activity. The only money paid out to investors is from other investors; thus, investing in cryptoassets is a zero-sum game from first principles. If one investor bought low and sold high, another investor bought high and sold low, with the payouts across all market participants sum to zero. Crypto assets are a closed loop of real money, which can change hands, but no more money is available than was put in. Just as a game of libertarian musical chairs in which nothing of value is created, and participants run around in a circle trying to screw each other before the music stops. This model goes by the name of a greater fool asset in which the only purpose of an investment is simply sell it off to a greater fool than one’s self at a price for more than one paid for it. (Bank of International Settlements 2018)

However, there is a net drain of the total wealth from the closed-loop of a cryptoasset. These take the form of transaction costs, market fees, and miners minting new coins increasing the supply and cashing them out. Coins are sold by miners to pay for their power and operating expenses to maintain their equipment. As of 2020, the current market outflow was a drain of $3.84 billion per year or around $10.54 million per day. This outflow transforms investing in cryptoassets from being a zero-sum game into a negative-sum game as—the payouts across all market participants sum to a negative value. There will be some winners in a negative-sum game, but most participants will lose money. The only net winners for extended periods are the cryptocurrency interactions and market makers who capture the outflow from the closed system.

To understand negative-sum investing, imagine a game of poker. Some strangers meet up to play poker at a casino. They each bring a pile of chips representing money and play against each other in rounds of a game of chance. The total amount of chips the players bring to the table is the total amount that any one player could hypothetically win. As the rounds are played, the chips will change hands between players but no new chips will be introduced onto the table. In addition for every round, the casino will take a percentage of chips for facilitating the game; these chips are taken off the table. Playing many rounds simply results in the casino extracting more and more wealth from the players, and thus the game of poker is negative-sum, and if were considered an “investment,” it would have a negative expected return.

Investing in cryptocurrencies has the same game-theoretical mechanics as investing in other negative-sum games such as lotteries, casino gambling, pyramid schemes, Ponzi funds, and multi-level marketing schemes. Is it possible that some participants will make money speculating on cryptocurrencies? Absolutely. Some participants also make money from multi-level marketing and playing roulette in Vegas, but overwhelmingly most do not. In negative-sum investment activities, the inescapable mathematical fact is that more money goes in than comes out.

Investing in cryptocurrencies is a negative-sum game with more losers than winners and, as an investment, it has a negative expected return.

The reporting bias between winners and losers of this rigged game ultimately means that we will likely never hear about the majority of losers compared to the minority of winners. Few will advertise their bitcoin losses on social media because of the shame and embarrassment associated with losses. This knowledge gap divides cryptocurrency traders into two classes. Those that do not understand the underlying statistics and counterparty risk of cryptoassets believe that the price going up means they are inevitably going to realize a return. Moreover, those who understand the underlying market dynamics are simply predators hoping to extract money from the fools. The entire structure of the cryptocurrency market is predatory and depends on an influx of dumb money and low-information speculators whose behavior is economically indistinguishable from gambling. (Shifflett and Vigna 2018; Makarov and Schoar 2020)

Speculation drives cryptocurrency price formation. People buy cryptocurrency because they believe they can sell it at a higher price later, in dollars.

Many economists and policymakers have likened cryptoassets to either Ponzi schemes or pyramid schemes, given the predatory nature of investing in cryptoassets. Crypto assets are not a Ponzi scheme in the traditional legal definition. Nevertheless, they bear all the same payout and economic structure of one except for the minor differentiation of a central operator to make explicit promises of returns. Some people have come up with all manner of other proposed terms of art for what negative-sum crypto investments might be called:

The story is much the same as the classical Ponzi scheme. Crypto schemes make claims of fantastic investment returns independent of economic activity. Nonetheless, crypto schemes achieve the same result through anonymous internet promoters who are not bound to a single legal entity such as Bernie Madoff’s fraudulent fund.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are a negative-sum game with more losers than winners, and as an investment has a negative expected return.

The economics of cryptocurrency is fundamentally unsound and intellectually incoherent(BankUnderground 2018). There is no solution to the crypto paradox: the more attractive a crypto token is as an investment, the less useful it is as money—and neither story makes any sense because the story of crypto is just a retelling of the same story as historical financial scams(McCrum 2015): money for nothing out of nothing, just get in early and do not ask where it comes from.

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