Blundell-Wignall: The Bitcoin Question – Currency versus Trust-less Transfer Technology


The financial crisis has led to a widespread loss of trust in financial intermediaries of all kinds, perhaps helping to open the way towards the general acceptance of alternative technologies. This paper briefly summarises the crypto-currency phenomenon, separating the ‘currency’ issues from the potential technology benefits. With respect to crypto-currencies, the paper argues that these can’t undermine the ability of central banks to conduct monetary policy. They do, however, raise consumer protection and bank secrecy issues. The valuation of Bitcoins and price volatility issues are discussed, as well as electronic theft, contract failures, etc., all of which could result in large losses to users and hence ultimate costs to the taxpayer (e.g. the failure to provide adequate private pensions resulting in increased reliance on public pensions). The anonymity features of the crypto-currencies also facilitate tax evasion and money laundering, both of which are major public policy concerns. The technology associated with crypto-currencies, on the other hand, could ultimately shift the entire basis of trust involved in any financial transaction. It is an innovation that creates the ability to carry out transactions without the need for a trusted third party; i.e. a move towards trust-less transactions. This mechanism could work to eliminate the role of many intermediaries, thereby reducing transactions costs by introducing much needed competition to incumbent firms. The generic issues that policy makers need to examine are summarised.


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