While “Bitcoin” has become a household word over the past several years, the concept of what cryptocurrency actually is goes far beyond traditional concepts of “money”.
First invented by the individual or group of people known as Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009, the original concept was to create a decentralized automated cash machine (in very simplified form) that would allow anyone to send assets of value to any other person whereby those assets would not need to pass through or be controlled by any financial intermediary. In other words, it was an attempt to build another kind of currency uncontrolled by any central bank or government. Further, such transactions would be recorded by the computers connected to the network so that they could be verified by anyone who had access to it.
When seen as “money” cryptocurrencies pose a very real challenge to the role of central banks in that they essentially establish a new way for value to be created and transferred – globally.
How many cryptocurrencies are there?
At this point, there are too many to count.
Cryptocurrency is given value both by its creation (or mining) and by the other tools that are used to store, access, transfer, trade and transact with it. For example, Bitcoin, which is the oldest form of digital currency, is now traded on exchanges. Its reflected value is usually calculated either against the dollar or the yuan (which most people use to “buy” Bitcoins).
However, it is also not quite that simple. The inherent monetary value of Bitcoin as expressed in traditional currency terms is also impacted by how many people want to hold Bitcoins at a certain point in time (for whatever reason) and further by how many people are using Bitcoin for some other purpose (for example, transferring Bitcoin to another place or using it to buy another asset).
That said, the way that institutional entities (such as the IRS in the United States or the European Union) recognize Bitcoin as a form of “asset” is very much reflected in their understanding of cryptocurrencies as a form of “cash” or monetary asset, valued by reference to local currency. In other words, the inherent value of Bitcoin as understood from the perspective of agencies and governments who recognize and use fiat currency is to treat Bitcoin’s value as an asset understood in terms of local fiat currency – as if Bitcoin’s entire “value” was like dollars, gold or oil.
The two most widely recognized forms of cryptocurrency that are commoditized currently are Bitcoin, which is the oldest and most recognized form of cryptocurrency, and Ether – the “gas” as it were that makes the Ethereum network tick.
What is the inherent “asset value” of Cryptocurrency?
The short answer is that there isn’t one. It can be the value assigned to the currency by what is paid to acquire it, what kind of other asset worth it can be used to buy, how much it costs to create or “mine” such currency, or the perception of its worth based on its scarcity or expected future value.
Ether, as much as it is beginning to be traded, was not envisioned as a “currency” but rather a way to pay for computer processing power to effect another transaction along the Ethereum network. “Digital tokens”, of which Ether is an example, can be priced by the amount of electricity and computing time necessary to either create them or to perform a specific function along the network (such as recording a transaction). In other words, “cryptocurrency” is the juice which allows connected devices to do what they were programmed to do.
It remains to be seen how cryptocurrencies will affect national economies – in fact, the concept of what a traditional economy is could easily be upended (which is the fear of the central banks). Regulation of cryptocurrencies is still beyond the reach, if not ability, of traditional economic controls. This is part of the allure of cryptocurrency. What its ultimate asset value will be, however, is still very much an unknown and incalculable concept.