Bitcoin prices are in a bubble. To recognise this, one need only look at the cryptocurrency’s vertiginous path to its current peak of more than $16,000 — and then recall that it has no intrinsic value. It is not productive like oil, and no government stands behind it. It is not even physically attractive, as paintings, gold and tulips are. As of today, the sole legitimate reason to buy bitcoin it is to sell it later for a higher price.
Should anyone care about this? There is now quite a bit of nominal value behind bitcoin. Multiply the price by the number of bitcoins and the result is more than $270bn — roughly the market capitalisation and double the book value of Wells Fargo, the third-largest bank in the US. There is reason to think still more money is going to flow to bitcoin. Two major exchanges, the CME Group and Cboe Global Markets Global Markets, are about to launch bitcoin futures exchanges. Historically, asset bubbles ascend to their wildest heights after derivative trading is introduced. Such trading is easier and less capital intensive than cash trading and delivery of the underlying asset.
人们应该关心这一点吗？眼下比特币具备了不少的名义价值。用比特币的价格乘以数量，可以得出其总价值已经超过2700亿美元——大体相当于美国第三大银行富国银行(Wells Fargo)的市值，并且是其账面价值的两倍。人们有理由认为还会有更多资金流入比特币。芝加哥商品交易所集团(CME Group)和芝加哥期权交易所全球市场(Cboe Global Markets)这两家主要的交易所将推出比特币期货产品。在历史上，资产泡沫攀升至最疯狂的高度往往是在引入衍生品交易后。相比标的资产的现金交易与交割，衍生品交易操作更简单且资本密集程度更低。
It is telling that Wall Street banks, usually keen to cash in on the sudden popularity of innovative derivatives — mortgage-backed credit default swaps, say — are encouraging regulators to review bitcoin futures more carefully. They have reason to be nervous. Any bitcoin futures trades will have to pass through clearing houses, where defaults are covered by member institutions, such as the brokerage arms of the big banks. If a mass of trades go bad, for example because a crash in the bitcoin price leaves lots of traders unable to make good on their trades, the clearing house could end up holding the bag.
It may also be that the banks simply do not want to be involved. As demonstrated by the spiking price, the bitcoin market lacks natural sellers (other than bitcoin “miners” who need to sell bitcoins to pay the electricity bills on their computerised mines). This would leave the brokers either taking the “short” side of trades themselves, a big risk, or refusing to take clients’ trades and potentially losing business.
It may be that the futures markets will simply flop for lack of people willing to bet against bitcoin while the price is still rising. If so, good. Speculation in bitcoin (or any other arbitrary thing) should be allowed in a free society — so long as it does not put others at risk. If this collective waste of time and energy fails to take hold, that is likely to be for the best.
But will no one else get hurt? Of course, bitcoin could crash to zero. A lot of paper wealth would disappear. But bitcoin is not a bank. It is not highly leveraged, and it seems to have been used as collateral in only a limited number of cases. Much of its nominal value is in essence “found money”. So there is limited cause for worry — until the value gets much higher, or much more leverage seeps into the financial ecosystem surrounding the cryptocurrency. This could happen. Regulators need to follow events closely, and insist on high-margin requirements and tight risk controls for trading in derivatives.
While there are no legitimate, non-speculative reasons to buy bitcoin, there are of course significant illegitimate ones. So long as it retains value, bitcoin is a useful tool for tax evaders, money launderers, and anyone who wishes to avoid the rules and regulations that govern traditional fiat currencies. So while it is not necessary to put up regulatory barriers to trading bitcoin, the points where it connects with traditional currencies, banking systems, and tax regimes should be carefully controlled. Innovative technology is not a licence to break the law.