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JPMorgan Bitcoin Analyst Report Part 2 - Full Text (sorry, no graphs)

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A discussion of bitcoin should begin with an Economics 101 refresher on money – what it is, how it is created and why we hold it. The classic definition of money is anything that serves as medium of exchange, unit of account and store of value. A medium of exchange can be anything deliverable for a good or service, whether a mundane object, a precious metal or piece of paper. In allcases, users value the medium because employing it is more efficient than bartering. A unit of account is a way of measuring value from a common reference point, thus also facilitating commerce because goods can be compared more easily. (Recall the euro’s usefulness in this regard since now prices in Europe are comparable across 18 countries.) A store of value is just a way of holding wealth until it is exchanged for goods and services or lent or given to someone else.
For centuries precious metals, or paper currencies convertible into metal at a fixed rate, served these three functions. But followers of financial history know the limitation of a system based on a fixed or slow-growing money supply: it imposes uncomfortable financial discipline on governments, households and corporates.
Hence the progressive debasement of pure gold coins with alloys; the global abandonment of the gold standard during the financial strains during World War I; and the US government’s suspension of the dollar’s gold convertibility given fiscal and balance of payments pressure from the Vietnam War.
Today most countries employ fiat currencies, or paper and coins with no intrinsic worth whose perceived value stems from government declaration (or fiat) collective belief. The government creates demand for a currency by declaring it legal tender, meaning it must be accepted as payment for all debts and it will be used in any transactions between the government and other agents.
Consumers and corporates accept this fiat currency because it is a requirement for settling all debts public (paying taxes) and private. The government attempts to guard the value of money by maintaining a monopoly on its production to avoid counterfeiting, and by establishing a central bank with a mandate to manage its supply responsibly over time.
While this system may sound like blithe existence in The Matrix, this relationship amongst government, central bank, households, corporates and fiat currencies is much more efficient than an alternative like barter. It also makes macroeconomic shocks much easier to manage than an alternative like the gold standard (recall the deflation of the Great Depression and more recently peripheral Europe).
Bitcoin proposes an alternative, however. If – despite their mandates – the world's biggest central banks risk inflation and currency debasement via the rapid expansion of their balance sheets, and if even European governments still impose capital controls (Cyprus), couldn’t a non-state entity more responsibly supply a fiat-like currency to the world? And if this currency were created and exchanged digitally amongst peers of consumers and corporates, it would have the additional advantage of avoiding the fees imposed by financial intermediaries as well as the loss of privacy inherent in third-party payments systems. Hence the purported appeal of a virtual currency: a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value without the alleged recklessness, capriciousness, siphoning and snooping inherent in traditional systems. Even leaving aside this caricature of bitcoin's underlying philosophy, there is something compelling about the idea.
Simple in theory, but more complex in practice. Consider the infrastructure of a traditional monetary and payments system to highlight what bitcoin attempts to replace. A traditional financial system is a national network comprising a central bank owned by a government, which creates money by physically printing currency and minting coins, or by electronically creating bank reservess. That money is used by households, consumers and the government to facilitate trade and investment via a payments system of banks and other financial intermediaries (think PayPal, Visa, Western Union and in some countries, the post office). Financial intermediaries provide numerous services of varying complexity, but their role in the payments system is simple: verify that Customer A has sufficient funds to pay Customer B, then securely transfer ownership of that money between accounts. For assuming that verification and transfer risk, intermediaries levy a fee.
Bitcoin performs these functions of money creation, payment verification and fund transfer quite differently. Its network is international and comprises miners who create the currency and users who obtain the currency to buy goods and services. There is no central monetary authority or regulator. There is also no financial intermediary for exchanging bitcoins for real products. The closest to an intermediary is an exchanger who will swap bitcoins for traditional fiat currencies like dollars, euros, yen or renminbi, like a forex dealer or futures exchange.7
Miners create bitcoins electronically by solving a mathematical algorithm released in 2009 by an unidentified programmer (or perhaps group of programmers) known by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Anyone can be a miner; they simply need to download the software required to interact with others on the network, and acquire hardware powerful enough to run the multitudinous calculations to solve the algorithm. Since the technology required to solve an increasingly complex algorithm grows over time, miners will probably be programming specialists rather than the average consumer or businessperson.
Any individual or business can be a bitcoin user, however, by establishing an electronic account know as a wallet. This wallet is associated with a user's electronic address but not to any other identifying information such as their name, phone number or physical address. Thus bitcoin is a pseudonymous system rather than an anonymous one in that every user is known by something other than the legal names associated with traditional banking.
To provide security as well as transact with other users, bitcoin employs cryptography which assigns two keys (alphanumeric codes) to each account – a private one known only to them and a public one known to all other users in the network. When two users wish to transact, they send a message to the network using their public keys signed by their private keys. This transaction forms part of a block chain or bundle of transactions entirely in the public domain along with all other historical bitcoin transactions performed in the network.
Miners compete to verify that this trade is authentic via algorithms to confirm that indeed a user possesses the bitcoin and did not previously spend it. Programmers (miners) who solve the equations to authenticate a block of transactions receive 25 bitcoins increasing the money supply. Whenever the algorithm is solved, it becomes computationally more difficult so that the next attempt requires more time an effort (i.e. computing power). This feedback mechanism limits the growth rate of bitcoin supply, so is somewhat analogous to the production constraint on gold. The more that is mined, the greater the requirement to dig deeper pits, the greater effort required to extract the marginal ounce and the higher the price of the marginal ounce (or coin). The stock of bitcoins is arbitrarily set at 21 million units to be mined by 2140, 12 million of which have already been mined. At early-February market prices of about $700 per unit, the current bitcoin money supply has a value of about $8.5bn, equivalent to the market capitalisation of the Mauritius Stock Exchange.
As complicated as this process is, it begins to address several acknowledged deficiencies of fiat currencies. It provides steady, predictable growth in the money supply. It eliminates the risk of capital controls because the network lacks a central authority. It provides verification of fund balances to avoid fraud. And it eliminates or at least significantly reduces transaction costs for payments because verifiers are rewarded through bitcoin creation. As fanciful – and indeed Matrix-like – as this bitcoin creation system sounds, perhaps it requires no more suspended disbelief than the traditional fiat system in which a government declares paper to have value and a central bank or national mint thus issues the specie. One doesn’t need to be the caricatured miscreant, Austrian economist or anarchist to appreciate the appeal of such a system.
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