When people think of “money”, most think about using it to purchase goods and services. Bitcoin is terrible as a means of payment. It is slow, can be expensive and is not widely accepted. We are often asked, “what you can actually buy with Bitcoin?” The answer is not much.
Crucially though, it doesn’t matter.
Bitcoin offers little improvement for users when it comes to purchasing coffee and cake. It is easy to underestimate the importance of user experience. Often it is the difference between success and failure. The innovation behind a number of successful technology companies is not necessarily the complexity of the technology, but the improvement it offers to the users’ experience. Amazon originally succeeded as a book seller because it allowed customers to browse, purchase and receive books from the comfort of their lounge chair. Uber offers users a superior customer experience as they order a lift from anywhere, track when it is due to arrive and pay with ease. AirBnb offers users a wider range of accommodation options, often for a lower price than hotels.
Bitcoin does not offer customers a better payments experience. In fact, it is far worse and while it might improve with new technology like the Lightning Network, it is unlikely to be a giant leap forward in payments. The bar for payments is currently very high, by design. Existing payments networks are designed to reduce friction for users. Less friction leads to more payments which leads to more profits for payments networks. Visa’s Paywave allows users to buy their coffee and cake with the tap of a card. Paywave is seemingly everywhere. Apple Pay has improved this again by allowing a simple tap of the phone. Any further improvements are likely to be marginal and are unlikely to come from Bitcoin. Bitcoin is slow, difficult to use and does not improve the customer experience.
Bitcoin might be an improvement for merchants. Using Bitcoin eliminates the risk of fraudulent purchases. Global credit and debit card fraud has been estimated at around US$25bn, a great deal of which is worn by merchants. Bitcoin is a digital bearer asset. Bitcoin can only be spent if the customer is in control of the Bitcoin. There is no room for impersonation. Bitcoin as a means of payment may also result in lower transaction fees to merchants. Credit card issuers charge merchants up to 3% for the privilege of receiving payment. The fees for using the Bitcoin network are typically lower. On the flip side, the Bitcoin network isn’t going to roll itself out to merchants and a middleman is required to build the required infrastructure. Just as Visa and Mastercard charge a healthy commission, it’s safe to assume any middleman will as well. While in theory there might be some improvements to merchants, the customer experience improvements aren’t significant enough to convince customers to absorb the switching costs and start buying their coffee and cake with Bitcoin.
There are two use cases where Bitcoin might flourish as a form of money to make payments. The first is micro transactions. Bitcoin is useful for tiny payments, such as 5c. Credit cards often charge minimum fees per transaction, such as a 30c flagfall, making micro payments impossible. Micro payments could become commonplace for new uses on the web like micro donations or paying for content. Secondly, Bitcoin might flourish for large payments. Transferring $1m to someone else through existing banking infrastructure can be difficult, slow and expensive. Bitcoin happens almost instantly and is relatively cheap. However, the problem of transferring large sums of money is not widespread and Bitcoin’s edge in this regard is unlikely to drive mass adoption.
While Bitcoin struggles as a medium of exchange, many forget that there are other roles of money. There are three roles of money - a store of value, a medium of exchange (buying coffee and cake) and a unit of account.
Bitcoin excels as a store of value - this is where the value of Bitcoin lies.
The following highlights four scenarios in which Bitcoin is appealing as a store of value:
An alternative to gold - Bitcoin is superior to gold. It is easier to divide, transfer, store and secure. Gold has an estimated market cap of $8 trillion and only a tiny fraction is used (in jewellery for example). It is easy to see Bitcoin competing with gold and capturing some of this value.
Offshore banking - it is estimated that $15 trillion is stored in offshore bank accounts such as in Switzerland. There are many different motives for storing funds offshore. It is easy to see Bitcoin competing with offshore bank accounts as an alternative place to store value, outside the purview of others.
Investment hedge - just as many store value in US Dollar or Swiss Francs, many will look to store value in Bitcoin. Storing valuing in Bitcoin is a hedge against macro economic events. Bitcoin is free from association with any country, central bank, political movement or individual. Bitcoin is completely independent and has proven to be uncorrelated to other assets.
In developing economies - for citizens of countries that are ravaged by inflation and political influence, like Venezuela, Bitcoin is an attractive alternative to storing value compared to local currency. For citizens of developed economies, it is easy to underestimate the value of a digital currency that is independent, permissionless and censorship resistant
A common counter argument to Bitcoin as a store of value is volatility. Bitcoin has been highly volatile, which is expected of an asset and technology that is still going through the discovery phase. Bitcoin is only 10 years old. It will take a long time for Bitcoin to be more widely recognised. In the interim, as with any new technology, Bitcoin will be met with both skepticism and enthusiasm. We expect this to continue as the technology and its understanding develops. Gold and fiat currencies have taken a long time to be widely accepted and even today, are at times more volatile than Bitcoin. And volatility works both ways. Just as an investment in Bitcoin may lose value due to volatility, it may increase significantly. Bitcoin clearly has greater potential than gold or fiat currencies.
In most respects, Bitcoin is not a very good form of money. Bitcoin struggles and will continue to struggle as a medium of exchange. People focused on where they can or cannot buy their coffee and cake with Bitcoin miss the point. Bitcoin will continue to break ground as an alternative, superior store of value. Other scenarios to those listed above will likely develop, drawing upon Bitcoin’s groundbreaking properties. There is clearly a large enough market for demand to outweigh supply, as more people learn about and embrace a truly unique form of money.
And if one day it so happens that you can buy a cake with your Bitcoin, well that will be the cherry on top.