Volatility is a well-recognized impediment to the success of Bitcoin as a currency. An example of the argument for volatility-based caution about Bitcoin, chosen at random, appears in Professor David Yermack’s December 2013 NBER working paper, “Is Bitcoin a Real Currency? An Economic Appraisal.” Wide swings in the price of bitcoins vis á vis other things will obviously tend to suppress its utility as a store of value or unit of account. Nobody wants to deal with recalculating prices denominated in Bitcoin day over day or hour over hour.
But I’ve long felt the volatility knock on Bitcoin to be slightly unfair. My favorite response line has been to say that judging Bitcoin based on its current volatility is like declaring a 10-year-old unfit to play in the NBA because he’s too short.
As a new asset class (or very different member of the “cash or cash equivalent” asset class), Bitcoin has yet to find its place in the world. The uses to which it is put will ultimately translate into a dollar price based on a recognized, relatively steady level of demand. Right now, speculation about where demand for Bitcoin will end up takes place in thinly traded markets. Just those two ingredients — uncertain future use and thin markets — are recipe enough for plentiful volatility.
But there’s every reason to believe that the market for Bitcoin will deepen and grow in sophistication, tempering its volatility. The capacity of the Bitcoin protocol to transfer and store value in exciting new ways will produce transaction demand — supplanting speculative demand, which today dominates because of anticipated price appreciation. Transaction or “use” demand will also increase because of Bitcoin’s capacity to administer countless economic and social functions beyond value transfer, including messaging, proof of authorship, land and title registry, and identity/naming. This will drive volatility down, I believe, both because it will shift bitcoins out of speculation and because it will give the markets more concrete information about what use demand is and will be.