Some of the characters attracted to the digital currency bitcoin continue to be the biggest rivals to its success.
Earlier this month, the SEC charged two bitcoin mining companies, GAW Miners and ZenMiner, both owned by Joshua Garza, with operating a Ponzi scheme. The SEC says that Garza made $20 million in ill-gotten gains by selling customers shares in “hashlets.” Forget what that actually means—for the sake of the public image of bitcoin (both the digital currency and the underlying technology that powers it), it doesn’t matter. What matters is that this fraud, only the latest bitcoin-related criminal activity, brought on another round of bad headlines for the still-nascent industry.
As entrepreneurs continue to raise money to build exciting applications for the technology, criminals continue to demonstrate that it can be exploited to circumvent the law. This is one of the biggest hurdles that bitcoin faces. And there are other hurdles. But 2015 was mostly a very good year for the industry. Here are some of the main arguments that paint a case against and for bitcoin in 2016.
The bear case
1. Reputation. For many, the first person associated with bitcoin is still “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the infamous pseudonym of Ross Ulbricht, convicted this year of running the online drug marketplace Silk Road, which utilized bitcoin. He was sentenced to life in prison. “Bitcoin is associated with criminal activity in the minds of many people,” Jerry Brito, the executive director of Coin Center, told Fortune in March. That still holds true. The CEO of MasterCard, Ajay Banga, is dubious. Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan predicts bitcoin is “going to be stopped.” A bitcoin startup run by a hot-shot former Barclays and Nike executive recently changed its name to lose the “bit” and distance itself from the image of bitcoin.
As Brito points out, “There is nothing illicit or illegal about bitcoin. It is a neutral technology.” But that distinction is lost on the average person. They simply see another negative headline that someone was arrested for a scam involving the digital currency. Coin Center’s research director Peter Van Valkenburgh says, “If it bleeds, it leads. It saddens me because it devalues the work we do. But newspapers seize on the bad news and ignore all the cool stuff, like the venture capital investment or the many possibilities for the technology.”
2. Still no killer app. Bitcoin supporters love to talk up “the many possibilities” of bitcoin, as Van Valkenburgh does. But for now, there hasn’t yet been any definitive “killer app.” Most people still don’t get why they would want to pay for something with bitcoins. The currency’s biggest appeal right now is for remittances—for example, if you need to send someone money in Africa right away, you can send it in bitcoin to avoid the typical transfer time and fee. But most Americans don’t ever have such a need. So instead, many bitcoin entrepreneurs now talk up the blockchain and its ability for decentralized applications. But nothing “killer” in that regard has surfaced yet, either.
3. Startups shut down. Last June, the New York Department of Financial Services at last unveiled the final version of its BitLicense, a regulatory framework for any digital currency companies deemed “money transmitters,” meaning that they hold customers’ funds. The policy was not met with much delight by bitcoin companies, and in August, more than 10 of them went so far as to leave the state of New York, either cutting off service to the state or packing up and relocating if they were headquartered there. It was not good news for the industry; we called it an exodus. But even worse than companies halting their services in the country’s second-biggest city for tech: at least 11 bitcoin companies shut down completely this year, either due to legal issues or financial failings.
If you’re skeptical about bitcoin, you could point to the lack of any compelling reason for the average person to care about it, the fact that some lawmakers are regulating it so tightly that some of the hottest New York bitcoin companies fled the state, and its lingering shady reputation.
The bull case
1. Stability. Bitcoin as a commodity has been more stable this year than in the past, though it certainly fluctuates more than the average corporate stock. The price in U.S. dollars spent the first nine months of the year nicely ranging between $200 and $300. It topped $300 once in July and again in October, then peaked at $500 for an instant in November, after which it fell back to the high $300s. It has steadily climbed over the past two months. Now it’s trading in the low $400s, and a glance at a simple line graph of the price in 2015 (from WinkDex, the price index site created by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss) shows a nice upward trend with only a single major spike. Based on the chart, bitcoin was a sound investment at the beginning of the year and still is for next year.
2. Blockchain. More than anything else, 2015 was the year the “blockchain” made its way into the zeitgeist. It got hot, even if many of the major corporations throwing the term around still don’t appear to understand what it means. The blockchain is the distributed public ledger on which all bitcoin transactions are recorded. (Many readers may not realize you can view the transactions, in real-time, right here.) Bitcoin “miners” upload each transaction as a “block” to the ledger, incentivized to do so by a tiny fee they take each time. “Blockchain” became the buzz word in financial technology this year, with everyone from banking and financial institutions (like Goldman Sachs and the New York Stock Exchange) to payment processors (Mastercard, Visa, and American Express) extolling its potential and publicly announcing interest in it, often in the form of startup investments. JPMorgan’s Dimon, for instance, said his bank was exploring the used of blockchain technology, even if he doesn’t believe bitcoins are here to stay. And on Dec. 30, Nasdaq announced that it completed the first ever stock transaction—a private investment into a bitcoin start-up—to be documented using blockchain technology.
To be sure, part of this is a reaction against bitcoin and its unsavory reputation. As Ryan Selkis of the Digital Currency Group tweeted, blockchain is friendlier to business and innovation (“I want to make money/follow rules”) while bitcoin suggests obsession and perhaps delusion (“I’m fighting a holy war”).
The irony is that many of those touting the idea of the blockchain without bitcoin don’t realize that one needs the other to exist: the reward of bitcoins motivates miners to add bitcoin transactions to the blockchain. Yes, the idea of a blockchain-like public ledger system may have applications in other areas of business, but the bitcoin blockchain itself needs bitcoin. Regardless, the interest being shown by big powers-that-be is encouraging.
3. Record-high VC money. In 2014, bitcoin-related startups raised around $315 million in private venture capital funding. That was more than three times the total of 2013—a good sign. Here’s a better sign: in 2015 bitcoin companies raised $485 million. That’s according to Coindesk’s handy tracking page of all bitcoin funding rounds. That includes big chunks of capital to prominent (and promising) companies like 21 Inc. ($116 million), Circle ($50 million), Chain ($30 million) and itBit ($25 million). It also brings the total amount of venture capital pumped into bitcoin startups since 2012 (when Coindesk began tracking the data) very close to $1 billion. The current market cap of all bitcoins, by the way, is $6.5 billion.
The bottom line
There are stronger arguments in favor of bitcoin in 2016 than against it.
It enjoyed a stable trading price, big excitement in its underlying technology, and bigger investment from venture capitalists than ever before. The latter point ought to be considered the most significant. After all, the job of venture capitalists is to foresee the next big thing—unless, of course, in the case of bitcoin, they’re wrong.