How Cryptocurrencies Affect the Global Market

Are Cryptocurrencies a Safe-haven Asset or Asset Bubble?

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Cryptocurrencies have become extremely popular over the past couple of years. In 2017, Bitcoin prices rose by 1,318 percent compared to just 15 to 30 percent for most major equity indexes around the world. And, the four best performing lesser known cryptocurrencies all returned more than 10,000 percent during the year. Initial coin offerings, or ICOs, also raised more than $3.7 billion in 2017 with a series of new cryptocurrencies hitting the market.

What Are Cryptocurrencies?

A cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency designed to serve as a medium of exchange. The crypto prefix comes from the fact that cryptocurrencies use cryptography to secure and verify transactions as well as create new currency units (coins). Cryptography makes it very easy to encode something that is very easy to decipher with a key and very difficult to decipher without a key, which means coins can be very difficult to create but transactions can be easy to verify.

At their core, cryptocurrencies are entries in an immutable and pseudo-anonymous database, known as a blockchain, that no one can change (except under extreme circumstances when direct edits are made). The blockchain is a public record that is verified by many different nodes, which makes counterfeiting coins extremely difficult or impossible. It also makes it easy to trace any specific transaction between anonymous individual accounts or wallets.

Global Appeal of Cryptocurrencies

Cryptocurrencies offer an easy-to-use, digital alternative to fiat currencies. Consumers from the United States or European Union may view cryptocurrencies as a novelty, but there are many countries with mismanaged domestic currencies. For example, Venezuela’s authoritarian regime has become infamous for its skyrocketing inflation, which has led to plummeting living conditions for millions of citizens without access to external currencies.

The wild swings of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies may seem risky to U.S. consumers, but Venezuelans may find the swings tolerable when their domestic currency has been in a sharp decline over several years with no signs of abating. In other words, many global consumers may see cryptocurrencies as a hedge against inflation since the number of cryptocurrency coins in circulation is mathematically limited over time.

Other countries have strict capital controls in place to control the flow of money and/or charge high taxes. Cryptocurrencies can be used to circumvent these capital controls and taxes—legal or not—which has led to increased demand on the part of consumers and businesses. For this reason, many countries have started cracking down on the illegal uses of cryptocurrencies for tax evasion or illegal purchases or sales abroad.

How Governments Are Responding

The official response to cryptocurrencies has been lukewarm at best across central banks and financial institutions. While there are some organizations that have been supportive of the cryptocurrency, many central banks remain cautious given the market’s extreme volatility and the high-profile security issues faced in the recent past. The aforementioned issues with tax evasion and capital controls has also led to some widespread concerns.

  • United States Federal Reserve: U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell believes that technical issues remain, and governance and risk management will be crucial before cryptocurrencies become part of mainstream society.
  • European Central Bank: European Central Bank VP Vitor Constancio called Bitcoin a “tulip” in reference to the 17 century bubble in the Netherlands and many other governors have expressed similar skepticism.
  • People’s Bank of China: The People’s Bank of China believes that conditions are “ripe” to embrace cryptocurrencies, but the central bank wants full control and authorities are cracking down on the cryptocurrency ecosystem in the country.
  • Bank of Japan: The Bank of Japan doesn’t see a market for cryptocurrencies.
  • Bank of England: The Bank of England Governor Mark Carney called cryptocurrencies part of a “revolution” in finance, making the central bank one of the few governmental proponents of the technology.

The Venezuelan government, facing capital restrictions of its own, recently launched its own cryptocurrency—called the Petra—that’s allegedly backed by barrels of crude oil. While official sources indicate that the country raised billions of dollars, many analysts are skeptical of these figures and the United States has outlawed U.S. citizens from purchasing the cryptocurrency.

Impact on Global Investments

Cryptocurrencies have many benefits when it comes to frictionless transactions and inflation control, but many investors are adding these currencies as assets to their diversified portfolios. In particular, the non-correlated nature of the market makes cryptocurrencies a potential hedge against risk, similar to precious metals like gold. Many cryptocurrency exchange-traded products (ETFs and ETNs) have arisen for this very reason.

On the other hand, some experts fear that a cryptocurrency crash could have an adverse impact on the wider market, similar to how mortgage-backed securities sparked a wider global financial crisis. It’s worth noting, however, that the total market capitalization of all cryptocurrencies is less than that of many public companies, such as Microsoft Corp., which means that it may not have a meaningful impact on global markets.

In the end, many investors view cryptocurrencies as either a vehicle for speculation or a hedge against inflation, but the size of the market doesn't represent a systemic risk, as of early 2018.