Bitcoin is many things, depending on who you ask. For hacktivists in Guy Fawkes masks, it is a tool for democratization, the ultimate financial leveler and deregulator. For consumers in countries wracked by hyperinflation, it is—or could be—a way to hold onto some of your savings’ value. For Marc Andreessen and other VCs, it is another PC or internet: a technological juggernaut that will fundamentally alter the way we use money. For terrorists, drug traffickers (most famously the defunct Silk Road) and others who for professional reasons prefer unmarked, non-sequential bills, it is a way to move money without dealing with regulated banks.
For many investors and consumers, Bitcoin is perhaps intriguing, but brings up some nagging concerns. Lack of familiarity with the technology—not to mention the particular jargon and culture that have grown up around it—is one. The volatility is another: the value of Bitcoin has ranged from $5.80 to $1,095.20 in three years, with the average at $272.77. At the time of writing, it trades at around $252.50.
There is some theoretical appeal to ditching fiat currencies and with them the central banks, their sprawling balance sheets and ever more rickety monetary policy—but the chart above brings to mind the Ukrainian hryvnia more than a safe haven.
But Bitcoin is not the only cryptocurrency out there. Nor is it the only application of its core technology. Turns out, you can have just about bit-anything, in theory.
Crypto-commodities: bit-gold and bit-fertilizer
One application that’s being tested out is tying cryptocurrencies to commodities. Earlier this month, Anthem Vault introduced a cryptocurrency backed by gold. Called the hayek after a renowned Austrian economist, each coin represents the value of one gram of gold stored in a vault in Salt Lake City. Anthem Vault’s CEO, Anthem Blanchard, told Business Insider: “Forex has gotten even more volatile, in the last 10-15 years, which is scary to me.”
He’s right: as can be seen above, dollar-denominated gold and euro-denominated gold have moved in different directions in the past year. Still, using a fiat currency to buy a hayek rather than an actual gram of gold does not eliminate the foreign exchange factor. Blanchard is aware of this. His intention is to make gold, and perhaps other metals down the line, “spendable”: just as some retailers now accept Bitcoin, the hayek would be a medium for transactions, rather than just an asset to invest in.
Blanchard thinks the hayek could be especially compelling as a medium of exchange in emerging economies with volatile currencies. Gold might be volatile, but for a citizens of Zimbabwe (which just ditched its currency at an exchange rate of Z$175,000,000,000,000,000 per US dollar) and Cuba (where uniting a constellation of internal exchange rates could lead to a 90-96% devaluation of most people’s pesos), it’s nothing.
The URO is a cryptocurrency developed by Bohan Huang to reflect the value of one metric ton of urea, a common fertilizer which the Wall Street Journal estimated to be worth $24 billion worldwide in 2006. Write-ups on the URO claim that half of world food production depends on urea, but don’t cite a source. The price of the commodity spiked to $770 per metric ton in August 2008 and then tumbled, bottoming out at $225.38 in December of that year. The shale revolution, which has driven down the price of natural gas, makes a recovery in urea prices unlikely.
But that’s not the only case against buying into the URO. It’s been the subject of a healthy dose of suspicion, including accusations that it is a scam. The URO Foundation’s website is defunct. Many have questioned whether a URO-holder could in fact redeem the currency for a metric ton of fertilizer, given that the coin trades for a tiny fraction of urea’s market price. The idea that farmers in Southeast Asia will buy into it, part of the pitch, seems farfetched.
Yet while it has failed by most measures, the URO has seized on an intriguing concept: pegging its value to an unglamorous commodity that has undeniable real-world value. Gold is, after all, practically useless; its value is a just-so story. Urea, on the other hand, is valuable because fertilizers are necessary to feed the planet.
At least three marijuana-related cryptocurrencies have been created, but only one has emerged as remotely viable. PotCoin aspires to serve an emerging, well-heeled and unbanked demographic: medical marijuana dispensaries.
Because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, banks are loath to take dispensaries’ assets. This forces them to do business entirely in cash, which implies great personal risk. In one 2012 incident, a dispensary owner was kidnapped, tortured and mutilated by thieves who wanted to know where he kept his proceeds. The industry has a clear need for a non-physical, secure means of completing transactions and storing savings. In theory, PotCoin responds to this need.
The problem is that dispensaries just as easily use Bitcoin, which is more established and enjoys a higher trading volume. This may be the reason PotCoin has not met with Bitcoin’s success, at least so far: at the time of writing, PotCoin is worth around $0.0016, compared to Bitcoin’s $252.50. Yet some retailers have embraced the fledgling altcoin, including Amsterdam’s Azarius.
Crypto-anything: bit-equity, bit-land, bit-email
The technology makes Bitcoin possible and forms the basis of all cryptocurrencies is the blockchain, a publicly available ledger that records all transactions in a semi-anonymous (but ultimately traceable) format. It enables proof of stake and avoids double-spending without the need for a centralized authority. The insight that nothing necessarily limits this technology to a free-floating currency has enabled the likes of PotCoin and the URO to exist—if not thrive quite yet.
In theory, it could be applied to almost any asset. Mastercoin, since rebranded Omni, aims to broaden the applications of blockchain technology. In an interview with Motherboard, Mastercoin Foundation head of communications Dominik Zynis gave a few examples of what could be transferred using the blockchain: stock certificates, lottery tickets and airline tickets.
Some financial institutions, in theory the ones who should feel threatened by blockchain technology, are experimenting with it. BNY Mellon (BK) has created an internal currency to track corporate actions—mergers, changes in leadership—and securities ownership. Nasdaq (NDAQ) is experimenting with blockchain technology to complement its ExactEquity platform, which allows private companies to manage their cap tables.
If blockchain’s adoption by established financial companies seems to run counter to its cyberpunk underpinnings, it may be even more surprising to hear that states are adopting it. Honduras, where corruption is rife (Transparency International ranks it 126 of 175), seems to have nothing to lose from a decentralized, theoretically secure system for tracking transactions. Their chosen application, however, is strikingly ambitious: the government is entrusting its land title registry to the block chain, “leapfrogging”—as Reuters describes it—the systems used in the developed world and taking one of the most enduring assets it’s possible to own into a new era of financial technology.
The blockchain can transfer not just any asset, but any information, in theory. Bitmessage is an attempt to replace email with a secure, decentralized system that requires no trust in centralized servers.
Oh, also doge
Finally, among the most frequently mentioned cryptocurrencies is dogecoin, born of an internet meme depicting an incredulous Shiba Inu and subsequently powered to a $20.7 million market capitalization by the internet’s inexhaustible appetite for self-referential irony-spirals. Dogecoin donations funded the Jamaican bobsled team’s trip to the Sochi Winter Olympics. One user donated approximately $11,000-worth of Dogecoin to a water charity in Kenya.
Dogecoin has become a common way to micro-tip posters on message boards. In order to maintain this use for the currency, participants aim to keep the valuation low. It is therefore probably not much of an investment; still, it is the closest possible proxy for a bet that the internet will continue to find certain bizarre scraps of culture hilarious.