Where does bitcoin fit in the currency crisis?

Where does bitcoin fit in the currency crisis?

At every turn, Bitcoin supporters say their anonymous cryptocurrency is the solution for countries in currency crisis. Despite its other shortcomings, bitcoin has a use in places like Argentina, but not so much in Greece.

The world economy has been on a tumultuous ride thus far in 2015. The convergence of falling commodity prices, lackluster economic growth, and deviation in interest rate outlooks among major economies has forced countries with already stressed economies into even worse positions.

Currencies, in their role as barometers for an economy’s strength, have shown this strain in places like Argentina, Venezuela, and, more indirectly, Greece. The question bitcoin supporters should ask is: Can the digital currency help?

First, it must be noted that bitcoin, for all its fanfare, has several unattractive characteristics for a currency. Its value is volatile, making it risky to save money in it and difficult to know whether a price is reasonable. From a macroeconomic perspective, bitcoin’s steady and algorithmic growth in supply makes it impossible to react to an overheating or deteriorating economy by tightening or loosening the money supply, and is inherently deflationary.

But bitcoin does offer something that select crisis-laden currencies cannot: convertibility. For businesses and consumers in some of the world’s struggling economies, this is extremely attractive, even if it at the same time subverts governments’ own goals.

Grexit – Enter bitcoin?

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has had many interesting things to say about currencies, including the comments to The Telegraph that preceded his forced resignation. Last year, Varoufakis floated the idea that Greece could issue digital scrip, or a parallel currency, called the FT-coin (FT for “future taxes”) that could allow the country to have looser monetary policy than the rest of Europe without leaving the euro. On its surface, that sounds quite similar to bitcoin.

So does that mean Greece could survive on bitcoin? No. Here’s why: Bitcoin has the same problems for Greece that the euro does. Greece needs expansionary monetary policy to try to jumpstart inflation and lighten its debt load.

Just like Germany’s power in the European Central Bank (ECB) keeps tighter-than-optimal monetary policy, the bitcoin mining process keeps an incredibly rigid money supply, and a key difference from Varoufakis’s FT-coin. The issue for the Greek economy is not the restriction on moving money even though prominent bitcoin supporters seem to think it is. In fact, the capital controls during the most recent Troika negotiations are among the reasons why the Greek banking sector is still standing.

Bitcoin for everyday Argentines

The currency crisis looks quite a bit different in Argentina than in Greece. In Argentina, the problem is disastrous economic mismanagement spurred by the perfect storm of a populist government and detrimental consortium of US hedge funds and judges limiting access to capital markets. What has come out of this mess is a payments problem: There are strict restrictions on exchanging Argentine pesos for foreign currency.

The problem is exacerbated by the government’s artificially high exchange rate with the dollar. This has led to a black market for dollar swapping, confusingly called the blue dollar market, which is more than 50% weaker than the official rate.

Outside of machination and exchange rate arbitrage, like buying foreign luxury cars because they hold value better than pesos, it is a place where bitcoin actually could help consumers and small businesses survive until policy becomes more pragmatic. Pragmatism may only come after President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner loses her office in the October elections,which is expected to occur, but that is still a long way away when inflation is 15%.

Enter bitcoin. Although still used by only a small number of Argentines, it is a way around the official currency controls that does not use the blue dollar market. Recently, the government has begun cracking down on these unofficial exchange markets. Here, the strength of bitcoin—anonymous money transfer across otherwise restricted borders—is what small businesses are yearning for.

This is similar to the way bitcoin was being used in China, before the government cracked down on its use, where it was helping wealthy Chinese invest abroad and access cash to gamble in Macau. Bitcoin may have a similar role in Venezuela in the coming year, as foreign reserves dwindle to dangerous lows. These are the types of places bitcoin can add value for consumers and businesses: places where making payments and moving capital are problems.

Categories: Finance, International

About Author

Alex Christensen

Alex is an Editor at Global Risk Insights, who also currently works in investment research. His work on political risk and economic policy has appeared in many forums, including Business Insider, Seeking Alpha, Oilprice.com & The Emerging Market Investors Association. He holds a Master’s in Economics from the London School of Economics and BA from Washington University in St. Louis.