Some economic analysts predict a big change in crypto is forthcoming as institutional money enters the market.3 Moreover, there is the possibility that crypto will be floated on the Nasdaq, which would further add credibility to blockchain and its uses as an alternative to conventional currencies.4 Some predict that all that crypto needs is a verified exchange traded fund (ETF).5 An ETF would definitely make it easier for people to invest in Bitcoin, but there still needs to be the demand to want to invest in crypto, which might not automatically be generated with a fund.
Bitcoin is a decentralized currency that uses peer-to-peer technology, which enables all functions such as currency issuance, transaction processing and verification to be carried out collectively by the network.6 While this decentralization renders Bitcoin free from government manipulation or interference, the flipside is that there is no central authority to ensure that things run smoothly or to back the value of a Bitcoin. Bitcoins are created digitally through a “mining” process that requires powerful computers to solve complex algorithms and crunch numbers. They are currently created at the rate of 25 Bitcoins every 10 minutes and will be capped at 21 million, a level that is expected to be reached in 2140.7
Bitcoin’s main benefits of decentralization and transaction anonymity have also made it a favored currency for a host of illegal activities including money laundering, drug peddling, smuggling and weapons procurement. This has attracted the attention of powerful regulatory and other government agencies such as the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the SEC, and even the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In March 2013, FinCEN issued rules that defined virtual currency exchanges and administrators as money service businesses, bringing them within the ambit of government regulation.9 In May that year, the DHS froze an account of Mt. Gox – the largest Bitcoin exchange – that was held at Wells Fargo, alleging that it broke anti-money laundering laws.10 11 And in August, New York’s Department of Financial Services issued subpoenas to 22 emerging payment companies, many of which handled Bitcoin, asking about their measures to prevent money laundering and ensure consumer protection.12
Litecoin – Litecoin is regarded as Bitcoin's leading rival at present, and it is designed for processing smaller transactions faster. It was founded in October 2011 as "a coin that is silver to Bitcoin’s gold,” according to founder Charles Lee.13 Unlike the heavy computer horsepower required for Bitcoin mining, Litecoins can be mined by a normal desktop computer. Litecoin’s maximum limit is 84 million – four times Bitcoin’s 21-million limit – and it has a transaction processing time of about 2.5 minutes, about one-fourth that of Bitcoin.14 15
Ripple – Ripple was launched by OpenCoin, a company founded by technology entrepreneur Chris Larsen in 2012. Like Bitcoin, Ripple is both a currency and a payment system. The currency component is XRP, which has a mathematical foundation like Bitcoin. The payment mechanism enables the transfer of funds in any currency to another user on the Ripple network within seconds, in contrast to Bitcoin transactions, which can take as long as 10 minutes to confirm.16
MintChip – Unlike most cryptocurrencies, MintChip is actually the creation of a government institution, specifically the Royal Canadian Mint. MintChip is a smartcard that holds electronic value and can transfer it securely from one chip to another. Like Bitcoin, MintChip does not need personal identification; unlike Bitcoin, it is backed by a physical currency, the Canadian dollar.17
Some of the limitations that cryptocurrencies presently face – such as the fact that one’s digital fortune can be erased by a computer crash, or that a virtual vault may be ransacked by a hacker – may be overcome in time through technological advances. What will be harder to surmount is the basic paradox that bedevils cryptocurrencies – the more popular they become, the more regulation and government scrutiny they are likely to attract, which erodes the fundamental premise for their existence..
Supporters of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies claim that these financial platforms are inherently trustless systems - that is, they’re not directly tied to any nation-state, government, or body. They would argue that cryptocurrency is superior to traditional physical currencies because it is not dependent on, for instance, the U.S. federal government.
Grundfest notes that regardless of whether you think that’s a good or bad thing, it’s not entirely accurate. Cryptocurrency aren’t really trustless at all. They are still reliant on the underlying infrastructure powering cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, much of which is located in China. The Chinese government could theoretically make changes to cryptocurrencies at a fundamental level by imposing its will on the data miners who keep them running.
Facebook’s contribution to the cryptocurrency world — Libra — has been hyped in some corners as the answer to a variety of financial issues. In particular, the platform was designed to facilitate international payments and eliminate unnecessary transaction costs and fees.
Professor Grundfest concedes that the goal is admirable, but he believes that the approach is deeply flawed. He doesn’t see introducing another cryptocurrency as the right solution for minimizing payment transactions, and he doesn’t agree with Facebook’s attempts to circumvent traditional banking systems entirely.
Instead, Professor Grundfest argues that a better approach would have been for Facebook to create its own bank that could act as a primary financial institution for its users. The company could have focused on building banking systems customized to each nation or region, addressing regulatory demands and driving down costs. Once those had been established and public trust was built, then it would make sense to simply link each one to create a global network.
Stable coins have grown in popularity as a way to back cryptocurrency with assets that hold real value, much in the same way U.S. currency used to be on the gold standard. Those assets could be other currencies or commodities — virtually anything, really.
There are a couple of issues Grundfest has with this approach. For one, it essentially recreates a system that already exists. The other concern is that it could make it easier for people to commit fraud since it’s not as easy to audit and monitor as traditional currencies.
Professor Grundfest closed the webinar covering some of the stronger applications for cryptocurrency. For instance, people living in countries with weak currencies may be better off investing in Bitcoin than buying local stocks and bonds.
Cryptocurrency’s future outlook is still very much in question. Proponents see limitless potential, while critics see nothing but risk. Professor Grundfest remains a skeptic, but he does concede that there are certain applications where cryptocurrency is a viable solution.