But Bitcoin isn't a currency. It's a Ponzi scheme for redistributing wealth from one libertarian to another. At least that's all it is right now. One day it could be more. Venture capitalists, for their part, are quick to point out that it's really a protocol, like the early internet, and its underlying technology could still be revolutionary. What are they supposed to say, though, when they've bet hundreds of millions of dollars on it?
But that's not much of a consolation to anyone who bought anywhere near Bitcoin's $1,100 top. Or near $1,000, or $900, or $800, or, well even yesterday's prices. That's because Bitcoin hasn't just fallen 76 percent the past year. It's fallen 36 percent the past two days, as you can see below, with a 24 percent decline the past 24 hours. It's too bad Bitcoin doesn't have a central bank to help stabilize its value.
What in the name of Satoshi Nakamoto is going on? Well, two things. First, Bitcoin's big bubble has been slowly deflating for over a year now. It has no inherent value, after all, because, despite companies trying to get free PR by saying they'll accept it, almost nobody uses it to buy anything other than drugs. Second, though, is a problem that's all too familiar to anyone who tried flipping condos in Miami ten years ago. Bitcoin miners, you see, borrowed money—and real money, as in dollars—that they could only pay back if Bitcoin prices kept rising, or at least didn't fall this much.
Bitcoin, remember, is a digital "currency" that lets you send money online without needing a bank to confirm it. That's because it substitutes a decentralized network of middlemen for a single middleman. And instead of paying them fees, it pays them with new Bitcoins. Think about it this way. The problem with sending money online is that you don't know if I'm trying to scam you by sending the same money to someone else, too. So the solution has been to have a bank sit in between us: I send the money to the bank, it verifies that I haven't sent it to anyone else, and then sends it to you, all for a 2 percent cut, of course.
Bitcoin, though, has a network of miners sit between us instead. These miners try to win new Bitcoins by solving difficult math problems that get even more difficult the more miners there are—and, in the process, they create a public ledger of every single Bitcoin transaction. This means we don't need a bank to know that I've sent money to you and only you, but it comes at the cost of making it irreversible. (And that makes Bitcoin an even more appealing target for hackers who know that you have no recourse if they steal your money).
The key here is that the math problems the miners have to solve get harder the more of them there are. If there's a big influx of miners, say, because of a big bubble that pushes prices into quadruple digits, then there's even more pressure on everybody to upgrade to the latest supercomputers to stay competitive. The thing about the latest supercomputers, though, is that they're expensive to buy and expensive to run. (That's why some miners have set up shop in Iceland, where they can use geothermal energy to power their computers, and Arctic air to cool them). So miners had to borrow lots of money to try to keep up in the Bitcoin arms race.
But all that borrowing hasn't paid off now that Bitcoin prices are free falling. In fact, it's part of the reason that they're doing so. Bitcoin prices are so low, you see, that miners are spending more money running their supercomputers than they're making from new coins. So why are they still going? Well, they have dollar debts that they need to pay back, and where else are they going to get the money? They're stuck, in other words, in a catch-22: they can't afford to keep mining, but they can't afford to stop mining, either. (This, coincidentally, is the same dilemma that oil drillers who borrowed a lot during the boom face now during the bust). This has already forced one big mining group into default. And it's forced the rest to sell the only assets they have—Bitcoins—to pay back their dollar debts. That, of course, only pushes the price of Bitcoin down even further, which makes even more miners sell their Bitcoins to pay back they owe as mining becomes more unprofitable. And so on, and so on.
Bitcoin, in other words, is suffering a deleveraging shock like the one that hit our economy in 2008, but without a Federal Reserve to cushion the blow. That means this doom loop of debt and Bitcoin deflation could take prices down a lot further still. The only solace is that, in the long run, the system should self-correct, as miners drop out and mining gets easier.
But in the long run, we're all dead, and Bitcoin might be too.