During 2015, Bitcoin fell into the slough of despond while its underlying technology, Blockchain, rode the media roller coaster to the top. We believe that the reality cycle and the media cycle are mostly disconnected. So we did a Bitcoin ecosystem health-check (TL:DR, patient is OK and can return to work) and posit one theory on how Bitcoin could climb out of the slough of despond and fulfill the dreams that many have harbored.
Bitcoin Ecosystem Health Check
First we checked out the price action. For the Bitcoin patient to thrive, we need a steady rise over some extended period. Some wild volatility is OK as it gets attention from media and traders and as the old saying goes “all press is good press”. However, a steady decline over a long enough time could make even true believers give up (what traders call capitulation). The 12 month chart at Coindesk confirms that the patient is OK – not ready to run a marathon, but healthy enough to return to work.
The question is whether this is sustainable. Traders need something real to trade. Bitcoin could become a niche alternative to gold (easier to carry but not as fun to look at) but it is easier to imagine this niche use case if Bitcoin also has a real use case as a currency to pay for stuff. So we went looking for evidence that people are using Bitcoin to pay for stuff.
I don’t want to add to the landfill of opinions, so I went to the data source about Bitcoin at Blockchain.info to check out merchant transaction volume. This tells us whether Bitcoin is moving the needle for all those merchants who announced that they were accepting Bitcoin. Market price is a lagging indicator. Merchant transaction volume is a leading indicator.
I prefer to look at Estimated Transaction Volume in Bitcoin (rather than looking at it in USD, as this is distorted by Bitcoin exchange price). The chart looks OK but not great. However like charts used by traders, you have to triangulate. Any single chart has flaws. See that spike around December/January? Was that a sudden hunger spike by rich nerds paying for super expensive pizza? It is more likely to be related to people getting money out of China (plus some speculative trading on top).
Fortunately, somebody else spotted this issue after the wild market price swings in 2011 and those helpful data folks at Blockchain.info took note and created another chart called Trade Volume vs Transaction Volume Index.
If the folks at Blockchain.info are listening, the chart that would be most useful is Transaction Volume with trading taken out.
The data does not support a “bitcoin is dead story”. However I cannot see how much of the volume is Darknet. If anybody has that data source, please share.
Clearnet for rich outsiders
This is where we move from the data to market thesis. Hard core data junkies can click away at this point. If you have unusual but expensive stuff to sell, you might want to pay attention.
My theory is that the Bitcoin economy is currently in Phase 2, which I label the Clearnet for rich outsiders phase:
- Phase 1 = Darknet. Illegal online transactions enabled by Bitcoin were made (in)famous by Silk Road.This got some media attention and confirms the old saying that, “there is no such thing as bad press”.
- Phase 2 = Clearnet for Bitcoin early investors. This is the phase we are in today. The merchant logic here is very simple. If a rich person wants to pay me in some unusual currency, I am motivated to accept that currency. Enough people got rich speculating in Bitcoin or mining Bitcoin in the early days for this to be a real niche market. These people are Bitcoin enthusiasts, so if they see two objects they desire equally and one says “we accept Bitcoin” then that rich customer will choose the merchant who accepts Bitcoin. This is fundamentally different from phase 1 because a) it is legal and b) we will start to see merchant success stories akin to the merchants who were early adopters on the Internet.
As always, these phases overlap – “the future is already here, it is just not very evenly distributed.” (thanks William Gibson). The Darknet is still with us.
Quite a few people became seriously rich mining Bitcoin in the early days. So this is a real market. These are outsiders in mindset, but they are rich outsiders.
Cross border transactions are a natural as you also save on all those fees. ZDNet has a good story on home-owners in Italy (usually foreigners) charging in Bitcoin to rent them out.
It will be interesting to see if Open Bazaar helps drive this adoption. Their open commerce pitch (decentralized markets for decentralized money) will appeal to the Bitcoin-rich outsiders.