Bitcoin and blockchain are the Rorschach tests of high tech and finance. They are seen as either an over-hyped, speculative digital tulip craze — or the biggest revolution since the dawn of the information age. At press time, bitcoin is in an extended dip, while more than 800 alternative cryptocurrencies have reportedly “died” during 2018, alone. Fresh bitcoin obituaries are published almost daily, just like the hundreds more written across previous market cycles. In stubborn defiance of skeptics, digital currencies and blockchain only come back stronger. This time is no exception.
Writing as the founder of the world’s first-ever bitcoin trading floor, let me tell you: while this roller coaster isn’t for the faint-hearted, it isn’t as bad as they say.
First, the rate of failure for ICOs in 2017 was 46 percent. For tech startups overall, the failure rate is over 90 percent in three years. The good news is that thanks to ICOs, great projects get revenue and capital and don’t have to give up control, or an unhealthy cut of the proceeds, to intermediaries, hedge funds or venture capitalists. Most entrenched legacy interests have built businesses as the gatekeepers to capital. ICOs circumvent them.
The price of cryptocurrencies is irrelevant at this point. People must focus on building long-term value through technology. Institutions, governments, and corporations, now, see this very clearly, and more climb onboard every day. The fair-weather speculators who came in late, and left early, never did and will not define how far blockchain will go. Those who got in early have zero regrets: each dip is from a previous, historic high. If you hold a six year — instead of six month — view, you see the astonishing progress of the leading cryptocurrencies, related assets, and of blockchain innovation. Bitcoin has some bad days — as all assets do — but blockchain is not looking back.
As influencers and institutions realize the value of an immutable public ledger to store information, track transactions and understand that bitcoin is mathematically capped at 21 million bitcoins, people will rush to own and hold bitcoin. You already see this phenomenon in Venezuela and Iran, where people are desperate for alternatives to their failing legacy institutions and paper currencies. Governments fear bitcoin restoring the people’s monetary independence, and simultaneously, the erosion of their totalitarian control.
Nations with legacy financial systems will try to regulate bitcoin and cryptocurrency. They will fail. The reality is that you cannot regulate math. Big countries will only frustrate and drive their innovators to flee to friendly, smaller countries which will soon become the meccas of finance. It’s already happening; most early leaps in blockchain adoption are happening in small countries and emerging economies, because they don’t have legacy institutions fearful of losing power.
For the 3.5 billion unbanked people in the world, ignored by legacy banking institutions, they can now be connected through existing cell networks. With mobile phones, anyone can have a crypto wallet, remote blockchain voting, trade bonds and receive direct refugee aid — without intermediaries seeking their cut. Every service operating on blockchain and using tokens will be accessible in the furthest corners of the globe. These features make bitcoin a viable candidate for becoming a world currency, as Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey proclaimed. This is the future.
Now, the question turns to what regulators should or shouldn’t do. Lawmakers at the federal and state levels could help by turning their focus to a few key areas.
The Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent indication that bitcoin is not a security is a solid first step in helping bitcoin gain acceptance as a practical means for routine transactions, and not only as a store of value. Proposed legislation for a tax reporting exemption on crypto transactions below a certain dollar amount is a good way to allow people to try payment alternatives, like bitcoin, without fear of being strangled by red tape.
Next, lawmakers need to recognize how the tax code is actively penalizing Americans who join the market for alternative currencies and ICOs. Currently, when one wishes to buy or sell an alternative token, they must do so first using bitcoin or Ethereum as the currency of entry. Meaning they have to buy and sell one of those tokens to then pay for the alternative token they want. This creates a double taxation event — an effective sales tax equal to the short-term capital gains rate — when buying and selling alternative tokens. No other asset class faces this penalty. This redundancy has a severe adverse impact on digital assets, adding a cost and compliance burden that deters many from reporting or even engaging in the cryptocurrency arena.
The best way for investors to avoid problems, is to stick to the roots of what makes blockchain, which should be reflected in the type of project and how it is run. With blockchain, we don’t need third parties to intermediate our trust because that trust exists through mathematics and cryptography where before it was through banks and governments.
The bottom line is that governments need to be in the picture just enough to reassure investors, while not so much as to crowd out innovators. The decentralized high tech economy is highly mobile and responsive to adverse change; if America stifles this revolution, then it will and is surely taking place in more favorable regulatory climates. In many industries the service providers compete for consumers’ business. Here, regulators and jurisdictions will be competing for our business.
The blockchain revolution has gone from the dark web markets to Wall Street in less than half a decade. While there will be ups and downs and risk for early adopters, it’s a path of innovation that will bring all of mankind forward.