Buying gold with bitcoin: Brilliant or blasphemous?

October 8, 2015, 2:51 PM UTC
Bitcoin coin
A twenty-five bitcoin is arranged for a photograph in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, April 25, 2013.
Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Bitcoin’s invention back in 2008 couldn’t have been timed better. The financial crisis was just coming to a boil, leading people to question the competence of central banks and major financial institutions.

When bitcoin began to enter the mainstream consciousness in 2011, such skepticism was still very much alive. The European debt crisis was just getting underway. And Wikileaks’ publication of U.S. state department cables followed by the blacklisting of the group by payments companies at the urging of the federal government showed the world just how much power the government could wield over an individual’s ability to spend his own money.

The idea that bitcoin is an unstoppable force that would ultimately be used to wrest power from the establishment was championed by the media, which loves a good David vs. Goliath story. And a small group of dedicated users are still clinging to that notion. But as countless economists, financiers, and other naysayers have pointed out, revolutionizing the global financial system requires more than just the earnest intentions of a couple hundred thousand believers. In the real world, Goliath almost always wins.

Bitcoin and the blockchain technology that supports it, however, remain ingenious inventions. And this has not escaped the many establishment figures who are trying to use blockchain technology for non-revolutionary aims. As a distributed ledger of transactions that is public to everyone on the network, a blockchain is valuable to any network that wants to trade a commodity or currency. One of the more interesting companies trying its hand at this mission is itBit. The company is launching its product Bankchain as a clearing and settlement network for the gold market, to help shorten settlement times and improve record keeping for institutional traders, later this year.

Given how large and opaque the market for gold is, the appeal of grafting a distributed ledger on top of it is obvious. Bankchain will enable instantaneous delivery and payment in a market where trades are done over the phone and delivery is measured in days rather than minutes. But itBit’s plan is most definitely not to use bitcoin to trade gold. It is creating a technology inspired by bitcoin’s blockchain and allowing a small number of incumbent players to use that technology, for a fee. What’s more, itBit is the only bitcoin exchange with a banking charter in the state of New York, which will allow the company to help its customers settle their transactions in U.S. dollars.

For bitcoin enthusiasts, the idea of a blockchain-inspired technology that is privately owned is heresy. When the bitcoin website Coindesk first reported the idea back in August, readers were incredulous. “What good is a private consensus-based ledger system; if it is private and closed source, it can be manipulated by whoever owns it,” seethed one reader. Another called it a “marketing gimmick,” arguing that itBit is “running a private database and they use a bunch of buzzwords to try to make it look like a new technology.”

The bitcoin faithful argue that itBit misunderstands what makes the blockchain a useful technology, but in reality they misunderstand why such a technology would be useful for an opaque market in which trillions of dollars in gold changes hands, figuratively speaking, each year. itBit’s plan to graft blockchain technology on existing markets like gold, and later for unregistered securities, has attracted some big establishment names to join its board, like former FDIC Chair Sheila Bair and former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley.

Whether or not Bankchain will be a success remains to be seen. But it is a clear example of why investors like Marc Andreessen have been bullish on bitcoin while others like Warren Buffett have been scratching their heads. As I wrote last year, when Andreessen criticized Buffett for his skepticism:

It’s not that Buffett is ignorant about technology. It’s just that he understands that it’s impossible to know which specific investments will benefit from a technology’s widespread adoption, even if you are prescient enough to know what technologies will revolutionize the world and how they will do so.

We’re seeing some interesting applications of blockchain technology. But those who followed the lead of cheerleaders like Andreessen and bought actual bitcoins thinking their investment would appreciate are still waiting for their big payday. Meanwhile, those who appreciate bitcoin for its anti-establishment possibilities are still waiting for the revolution.

In an ironic twist, many of these folks, with their love of hard money and distrust of centralized power, could very well see blockchain facilitate big banks’ trading of the ultimate hard money, gold. It might not rise to the level of a Sex Pistols credit card, but it’s close.

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