The online currency has minted off-line millionaires. But for how long?
The world's fastest-gaining currency has tripled in price again. Last week, SmartMoney reported that the Bitcoin had exploded from an exchange rate near zero to more than $10 in about a year, making it one of the top-returning assets of any kind. On Wednesday the currency topped $30.
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If returns like those seem otherworldly, perhaps its because Bitcoin is a world unto itself. To recap, it's is a purely online currency with no intrinsic value; its worth is based solely on the willingness of holders and merchants to accept it in trade. In that respect, it's not so different from fiat currencies like the dollar or Euro, but whereas governments back such money, Bitcoins lack central control.
In another way, the appeal of the Bitcoin echoes the appeal of gold. Instead of a central bank, a computer algorithm dictates their supply. Today there are six million Bitcoins, a number that will grow at a steadily slowing rate until it approaches 21 million, but no more. As with gold, some see such limited supply as built-in protection against inflation that could result from runaway government budget deficits. Gold, of course, has been a store of value for thousands of years and has at least some industrial use, whereas Bitcoins are brand new and exist only on the Internet.
For some early adopters, Bitcoins have turned from a hobby into a windfall. MtGox.com, the main exchange for users swapping Bitcoins for dollars and other currencies, charges buyers and sellers a fee of 0.65% for its brokerage service. (The name stands for Magic the Gathering Online Exchange, but the Bitcoin dabbler who bought the domain didn't bother to change it.) As recently as a few months ago, the site generated just pennies a day in income. By Wednesday it was making more than $40,000 a day.
Mt. Gox, needless to say, is not a regulated exchange, so its pricing and liquidity data aren't subject to any review or verification. Mt. Gox didn't respond to an email request for comment. The site offers no customer service phone number.
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The largest Bitcoin account holder -- who is, of course, anonymous -- has 297,000 units of the start-up currency, according to Donald Norman, a spokesman for the The Bitcoin Consultancy, which offers advisory services for institutions interested in Bitcoin transactions. At $31 per Bitcoin, that's equivalent to $9.2 million.
Bitcoins are accepted by a limited number of merchants for services, such as website design, and some goods, such as music and clothes. The anonymous nature of the currency has also led to brazen use by drug dealers, including ones who hawk their merchandise on Silk Road, a website than can only be reached through a network that cloaks the identity of its owner. Lawmakers are not amused. "The only method of payment for these illegal purchases is an untraceable peer-to-peer currency known as Bitcoins," wrote Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin of West Virginia this week in a letter to the U.S. Attorney General and the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Cash, Bitcoin advocates are quick to point out, is also an anonymous payment system used to buy drugs, and Norman says the focus on drugs is sensationalistic and misguided. "It would be sad if the growth of Bitcoin was stunted because of this criminal byproduct," he says. "Bitcoin is going to change the world in the same way the Internet did and make societies freer."
It's not clear that U.S. law enforcement agencies could regulate Bitcoins if they wanted to. The currency runs on software similar to the file-sharing software used to download music and movies, technology the entertainment industry has been trying unsuccessfully to quash for years. There's no headquarters, main server or central bank to visit, just a network of thousands of users. It's also not clear whether U.S. regulators would have jurisdiction over a global, virtual currency. Last week, a spokesman for the F.B.I. said he was unaware of Bitcoins and would check into the Bureau's position on them. Subsequent calls for comment have not been returned.
Readers tempted to bet on the Bitcoin should resist, not least because it's unclear whether it will have any enduring worth. Beyond what fans say are the currency's design advantages, its chief appeal at the moment is surely that it's soaring in value. As of now, today is the first day in more than a week that the currency didn't hit a new high. And when the gains stall, the fall that follows may be as breathtaking as the rise.