The next phase in the Bitcoin revolution will be the standardization of the exchanges where the coins are traded. Bitcoin is currently in the Wild West prospector days of its evolution. The world has agreed that a Bitcoin provides a stored measure of value in the same way that gold and silver have throughout the ages. Like gold and silver, Bitcoin is only worth what the other person is willing to pay you for it. This has led to cheating since trading began. Crooked scales and filled ore all became part of the norm as both the miners and the assayers sought to pad their bottom lines. This led to governmental oversight and the creation of centralized exchanges.
The Bitcoin dream has been to police its own community and remain beyond the physical scrutiny of any global government. The Utopian dream was shattered a month ago when Mt. Gox,, by far the largest Bitcoin exchange, shut down due to a security breach and theft of approximately $300 million worth of Bitcoin. Customers who had Bitcoin on deposit with Mt. Gox still do not know how much they’ll get back. The issues at Mt. Gox lay bare the cyber security argument. Surprisingly, Bitcoin as a currency has shown remarkable resilience. This resilience could very well be just the boost needed to legitimize the currency and the lean towards governmental involvement that may actually help this fledgling store of value soar to its mainstream potential.
The timing of the Mt. Gox incident may prove to be a boon for the currency. Tera Group, out of Summit New Jersey, already had proposed a bilateral agreement to the Commodity Trading Futures Commission (CFTC) to begin trading Bitcoins through a swap-execution facility or, centralized exchange. The vast majority of commercial currency trading is done through swaps agreements. A swap agreement is basically an insurance policy that provides a guaranteed value at a specific point in time to protect against currency fluctuations. It’s what the commodity exchanges are founded on. The swap markets are the superhighways of the financial industry. They process massive volumes while collecting a small toll on each transaction. Therefore, the cost on the individual swap is small but the sheer volume of swaps processed makes it a huge revenue source for all of the major banks.
The CFTC has yet to comment on Tera Group’s proposal. We commented in November that Bitcoin had transcended novelty status and that the revenue pool was becoming too big for global banks to ignore. Bitcoin’s resilience in the face of the Mt. Gox debacle is a testament to the power of a global grassroots movement. Bitcoin should have plunged across the globe as owners of Bitcoins tried to exchange them for hard currency. The market’s response turned out to be very orderly. While prices did fall across the board, the market seemed to understand that it was an individual company’s problem and was therefore confined to Mt. Gox customers’ ability to get their money out. As a result, Bitcoin prices have stabilized around $585. This is well off the December high of $1,200 but very near the average price for the last six months.
The last coincidentally timed piece of the structural transformation from Bitcoin as an anarchist, alternative store of value that exists outside the institutionalized financial industry to being integrated into that same financial system is its ability to be taxed by the brick and mortar governments it was developed to circumvent. The Internal Revenue Service finally decided enough is enough and it wants its cut. The IRS has declared Bitcoin as property rather than currency and is therefore subject to property laws rather than currency laws. This allows the IRS to get their share while legitimizing the need for a central exchange to ascertain value. It also eliminates arguments with the U.S. Treasury and Congress over legal tender issues. It’s simply valued as a good that can be exchanged for other goods and services, barter.
Bitcoin is a global marketplace executing transactions on an electronic network. That sounds an awful lot like the forex markets. Industry regulators and the banking industry are going to quickly find that the failure of Mt. Gox has done more to encourage the individual resolve of global Bitcoin users rather than ending this upstart’s existence. Private users of Bitcoin will clamor for the government to protect its people from crooked exchanges just as farmers were cheated in the grain trade of ancient Egypt or gold and cattle by assayers and stockyards in the Wild West. Tera Group may be in the right place at the right time with the right idea as Bitcoin may have proven itself to be self-sustaining at the retail level. Institutional and legal structures are being put in place to continue its evolution as the financial industry is left to figure out how to monetize it.