Can Bitcoin Be Regulated?

One of the attractions of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is the idea that they are not regulated by a central banking authority. It has led to some spectacular jumps in the price of Bitcoin, which is controlled by a relatively small number of global investors. The volatility in the market was even more obvious this summer with the price of Bitcoin rising more than 50% since the start of August, and hitting an all-time high on August 15th before crashing by more than 13% shortly thereafter. The heightened interest in the cryptocurrency has been driven by an agreement reached to finally update the rules governing the software. With the new rules in place, transactions over the network should now run much faster.

This incident shows that Bitcoin is in fact “governed”, if not by a central authority, then by a small group of developers. Further, those who govern the market are insiders who know ahead of time when a change will happen.

This is not how a regulated currency is supposed to work, and can inevitably lead to problems. For example, one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges – BTCe – has now gone down in flames. For those unfamiliar with the ongoing scams and thefts, it appears that many of them, including the stunning theft of 800,000 Bitcoins via the now defunct Mt Gox exchange, used the BTCe exchange to launder their stolen Bitcoins. The indictment of BTCe’s founder appears to show that he was responsible for most of the largest thefts of Bitcoins globally for most of this decade. As you can imagine, regulators are now taking a serious and ongoing look at Bitcoin. And so as Bitcoin establishes itself as a globally recognized currency, or taxable asset, it is slowly becoming more and more regulated.

Most Bitcoins are regulated in some way – and for a very simple reason. It is necessary to have access to conventional money, via an online bank account, in order to buy cryptocurrency in the first place.

Recognition of Cryptocurrency

Is a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin a “currency” or is it really an “asset” that can gain or lose value? Or is it both? Nobody is sure and the uncertainty is likely to continue for some time. Cryptocurrencies are currently being defined and recognised on a country-by-country and sometimes regional basis.

Australian senators have recently called for Bitcoin to be recognized as a currency in the country. They are not the only ones. In the EU, Bitcoins may be used to buy goods and services, and are designated as a “digital presentation of the value not confirmed by the central bank”. Similarly, Japan has also legalized Bitcoin as a payment method. Other countries take a different view. Israel and the U.S. generally treat Bitcoin as a taxable asset subject to capital gains tax. In China, Bitcoin is also generally treated as a taxable asset.

Concerns about what can be bought with cryptocurrency is on the mind of regulators and politicians in many jurisdictions. One of the places this is currently showing up is in locations where cannabis is being legalized, particularly in the United States. The reason is that the U.S. banking industry is still subject to federal rules on financial transactions relating to the sale or purchase of marijuana. Buying weed using Bitcoin is a logical alternative, and a number of branded sub-currencies like Potcoin have stepped into the breach. However, this is being blocked in places like Washington State due to concerns around financial transparency and money laundering. Legislators are considering banning the purchase of cannabis with any cryptocurrency.

Given all of these developments, it is clear that while cryptocurrency may not be regulated by old fashioned means – with value calculations being performed by a central authority – governments are in fact beginning to find ways to regulate this “currency” by controlling how it should be used, taxed, and what products people can buy with it.

No matter what else it may be, this clearly amounts to “regulation” of the market. Even if in its first and earliest stages.

Marguerite Arnold is the founder of MedPayRx, a blockchain healthcare startup in Frankfurt. She is also an author, journalist and has just obtained her EMBA from the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management.

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