To be honest, though, you don't even have to use the word “blockchain” in your name as long as you say you'll be using it in your business. That was all it took for a failing Chinese juice company to make its stock shoot up 150 percent last week, or for a small financial tech firm to send its shares on almost a straight line up 2,600 percent during that same time.
If this sounds like the most obvious bubble ever, even more so than the tulip, Beanie Babies or dot-com manias, well, that's because it is. And it might already be popping.
Now, for the uninitiated, a blockchain is just a record of every transaction a cryptocurrency like bitcoin has ever been used for. The important thing to understand, though, is that it's also a public record. The way it works is that every time a new bitcoin is “mined" — that is, someone wins it by solving computationally-complex math problems — everyone who's a part of the bitcoin network updates their list of who owns what. This might not sound like that big a deal, but it's potentially revolutionary. It means that, unlike with, say, dollars, you don't need a bank to tell you who has bitcoin to send and who doesn't. Everybody already knows that. It's right there in the blockchain. So there's a chance, then, that we might eventually be able to transfer things online without having to pay anyone to do it.
But it's only that: a chance. Bitcoin isn't actually good at these things right now, and it might never be. The most immediate problem is that bitcoin has artificially given itself a very limited amount of bandwidth to process transactions that, guess what, isn't sufficient to process even its very limited number of transactions. That's created a long line of people waiting for their bitcoin deals to clear — a line that you have to pay an average of $50 to get to the front of today. Now, as easy as that would be to fix technically, it's hard politically. You'd need to get bitcoin's many medium-sized players to go against their own interests by making the coins hold more data and harder for them to “mine.” Although even that might not be enough to keep bitcoin from being useless. Nobody wants to spend a currency they think is going to make them rich. They'd rather use something that isn't acting like their 401(k) for their day-to-day purchases, even if that means still having to pay the 2 percent transaction fees they do when they buy things online. After all, it's not like people really mind those. Credit card companies actually give them something they want for them — the ability to undo transactions if they've been hacked or scammed — that bitcoin doesn't.
Which is to say that bitcoin isn't getting any closer to working as a currency or a payments system. Not that investors seem to care. They've pushed the price up from around $900 last year to as much as $19,500 last week for no apparent reason at all. Which is as good a description as there is for why it then promptly lost half its value and even more promptly bounced back to almost $16,000.
Bitcoin is Schrödinger's bubble: It is simultaneously inflating and deflating, depending on how quickly an observer can click refresh.
The only thing bitcoin is actually good for is getting people excited that it will be good for something. It excels at that. How? Well, it's the best type of technological marvel: one we haven't figured out yet. That lets people project whatever utopian fantasy they want on to it. And from there, it quickly acquires a momentum of its own. Just look at the past couple of months. It's been rising because it's been rising. People, in other words, have been buying it because it's been going up, and not because there's any rational reason to do so. Some, of course, are true believers, but a lot aren't. They see people being rewarded for, let's say, their less than sound decisions — like selling everything they own to buy bitcoin, and then moving to a campground while they wait to become dynastically wealthy — and want to get their share before the whole thing collapses. And so they gobble up anything that sounds remotely related to bitcoin. That's all the research they need to do.
It was the same thing during the tech bubble. And it's as sure a sign as there is that markets have graduated from a little speculative excess to full-on mass delusion. Back then, adding the word “dot-com” to a company's name was enough, researchers found, to send its shares up an average of 74 percent from the five days before the change to the five days after. But perhaps even better for all of our newly christened blockchain businesses is that what worked on the way up did on the way down, too. Getting rid of the “dot-com,” you see, made these one-time tech stocks rebound an average of 64 percent amid all the doom and gloom of people figuring out that having a website wasn't a substitute for having a profitable business.
So don't be surprised if, a few years from now, all of these erstwhile blockchain companies decide that they're really machine learning ones, or whatever other buzzword CEOs are using at the time to finish their sentences that begin with the words “disrupt,” “innovate” and “leverage.”
Jumping on a bubble is the quickest way to become a business genius — at least for a little while.