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如果弗里德曼和哈耶克還活著,他們會怎樣看待比特幣?

如果弗里德曼和哈耶克還活著,他們會怎樣看待比特幣?

Shawn Tully 2021年08月14日
弗里德曼并不反對競爭性貨幣挑戰法幣。但他認為哈耶克錯了。

這是兩位20世紀貨幣經濟學巨人之間的一場傳奇性的辯論。爭論的焦點是,是否會有一種“挑戰者貨幣”能夠取代政府發行的法幣,成為全球范圍的一種新的支付媒介。雖然對他們來說,比特幣(Bitcoin)是一種幾十年后的產物,但兩位大師如果仍然健在,他們會如何看待比特幣,會不會認為它有能力挑戰法幣呢?

首先上場的是奧地利裔英籍經濟學家、古典自由主義大師弗里德里希?哈耶克,他的對手是倡導自由市場的米爾頓?弗里德曼。哈耶克與弗里德曼在很多問題上的看法都是相似的,不過二者爭論的焦點是,如果出現了一種私人發行的競爭性貨幣,它是否有可能構建一個更加穩定的貨幣系統。20世紀70年代中后期,受阿拉伯石油禁運的影響,美國的汽油、機票乃至家庭采暖價格都出現了飛漲,美元體系進入了二戰后最危險的時期。為了應對這種沖擊,美聯儲向市場大量放水,削弱了幾乎所有人的購買力。美國的消費價格指數一向是以比較平穩的速度上漲的,在這一階段的增長率卻達到了14%。

哈耶克于1950年到1962年間在芝加哥大學任教,他與弗里德曼在那里共事了很多年,這兩位經濟學家對彼此都很了解,但二人并未發生過面對面的爭論。哈耶克將他的觀點寫進了20世紀70年代中后期的一系列演講和論文里,并于1976年出版了《貨幣的非國家化》(The Denationalization of Money)一書。在20世紀七八十年代,二人的觀點尚未對立。不過從20世紀80年代開始,弗里德曼在與經濟學家安娜?施瓦茨合著的書中,首次對哈耶克的觀點進行了公開批判。

在當時,美國的政治家、學者和普通民眾都擔心美元體系將走向崩潰。而美聯儲則采取了與以往的“穩健貨幣”政策截然相反的政策,美元貶值的速度甚至超過了美國工人賺取美元的速度。哈耶克認為,在經濟困難時期,各國央行會通過超發貨幣,迅速將經濟人為地推到一個高點,這樣就會出現美國當時正在經歷的那種通脹。哈耶克認為,對于這種情況,解決方案是讓銀行或者其他公司發行私人貨幣,在公開市場上與主權貨幣進行競爭。哪一種或幾種私人貨幣最能夠保持住消費者的穩定購買力,哪一種就可以成功地吸引最多的用戶。

如果美聯儲繼續大量超發貨幣,導致美元的購買力越來越弱,私營貨幣就將取代美元的地位。這種“讓最好的貨幣獲勝”的理念將終止政府這種不計后果的貨幣政策,央行要么會被迫改革,要么就會出臺新的、更穩定的貨幣政策。

弗里德曼(左)與哈耶克,20世紀最著名的兩位經濟學家。圖片來源:Bettmann/Getty Images; Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

弗里德曼并不反對競爭性貨幣挑戰法幣。但他認為哈耶克錯了,“挑戰者貨幣”注定是要失敗的。在弗里德曼看來,人們和企業確實關心購買力的問題,但他們更重視自己和鄰居、和貿易伙伴是不是使用同一種貨幣。他表示,消費者和企業更喜歡用一種貨幣搞定所有的事情。即便有一種比美元更堅挺的貨幣——假設叫XYZ幣,那美國人也會寧愿只使用美元,而不是在XYZ幣和美元之間頻繁兌換。因此,正是法幣已經被廣泛接受,它才具有了巨大優勢,能夠阻止任何新貨幣取代它的地位。

正是因為哈耶克的上述立場,他才被比特幣愛好者奉為了“比特幣教父”。歐洲央行2012年針對虛擬貨幣的一項研究指出:“比特幣的理論基礎可以追溯到奧地利經濟學派。”而哈耶克正是奧地利學派的代表人物。在谷歌上搜索關鍵詞“哈耶克與比特幣”,你會發現有不計其數的文章將哈耶克奉為“虛擬幣先知”。他們還引了20世紀80年代的電視采訪,證明哈耶克曾經“預測了比特幣”。這些人堅信,市場終將選擇一種最穩定可靠且不會被央行腐蝕的貨幣,那就是比特幣。

很多比特幣的擁躉認為,比特幣作為一種價值儲存手段是很有前途的,但作為一種貨幣則未必。MicroStrategy公司的首席執行官邁克爾?塞勒持有數十億美元的比特幣,他認為比特幣是一筆很好的投資,但是比特幣永遠不會成為一種支付工具。而埃隆?馬斯克曾經說:“紙幣是會消亡的,虛擬貨幣是一種更好的價值轉移方式,這是肯定的。”推特和Square公司的首席執行官杰克?多爾西也十分看好比特幣,他認為:“全世界最終將只剩下一種貨幣,我個人認為那就是比特幣。”比特幣交易所Gemini的首席執行官卡梅隆?文克萊沃斯認為,作為一種高級貨幣,比特幣是很有發展前途的。“因為人們明白了紙幣的原理后都會問:‘等一下,這么多萬億的美元是哪來的,它們只是一堆印出來的紙。它對我手里的這些美元意味著什么?’”

事實上,比特幣在日常購物中很少能夠被接受,只不過它在資金轉移上扮演了一個比較小眾的角色,特別是在需要高度隱私的情況下。“如果大家都涌向比特幣,那哈耶克就錯了,因為他預測人們會選擇購買力最穩定的貨幣。”佛羅里達州大西洋大學的經濟學教授威廉?路德指出:“哈耶克喜歡的那種貨幣是非常穩定的,而比特幣恰好相反,它極不穩定。”

以弗里德曼的觀點來看,比特幣取代美元或者歐元的可能性是很小的,因為所有人都只會使用成本最低、最方便的貨幣。如果有例外的話,只有一種可能,就是這個國家實施了高通脹的貨幣政策,既破壞了老百姓的購買力,又導致了物價的劇烈波動。弗里德曼指出,在物價出現極端波動的情況下,老百姓會使用外幣在黑市上交易商品,就像委內瑞拉人目前正在使用美元和歐元一樣。人們之所以不會用比特幣購物,原因跟人們不會使用委內瑞拉幣一樣——比特幣每天的幣值波動都很大,上下9%的波動都屬常事。因此,老百姓永遠不知道他們的錢今天或者明天可以買到什么。

哈耶克和弗里德曼對“挑戰者貨幣”的前景存在嚴重分歧,不過他們對比特幣的看法應該是相似的。這兩人可能都會稱贊比特幣是一次大膽的自由市場試驗,不過兩人應該都不會認為比特幣將成為一種主要的貨幣形式。當然,哈耶克的觀點是在20世紀80年代美國回歸穩健貨幣政策之前提出的。在哈耶克看來,如果市場全面轉向比特幣,那就是走了一條“邪路”,相當于放棄了一種相對穩定的貨幣,選擇了一種極不穩定的貨幣。而在弗里德曼看來,比特幣面臨的困境對所有新型貨幣都是一樣的——它們幾乎不可能獲得消費者的廣泛認可。

另外,還有一點這兩位傳奇人物應該也會同意,那就是比特幣支持者聲稱的那樣恰恰相反,比特幣的架構存在一個根本性的缺陷,導致比特幣的供給無法進行周期性調整以保持其購買力。首先我們來看看,就算比特幣是一種最穩健的貨幣,它能不能與美元競爭。其次,它是否符合哈耶克和弗里德曼對一種理想貨幣的期待,也就是從長期來看,它有沒有實力保障消費者和企業的利益。

弗里德曼:比特幣輸在“網絡效應”

弗里德曼認為,由于“網絡效應”(也就是某個事物的流行度取決于它的使用人數)的存在,哈耶克提出的“并行競爭貨幣”機制是不會成功的。在貨幣的問題上,“網絡”的規模等于使用美元或歐元交易的消費者和企業的總數。根據弗里德曼的理論,使用美元的人越多,他們買賣商品和流通貨幣就越容易,成本也越低。路德解釋道:“如果所有顧客和交易伙伴都使用美元,而且他們所有的顧客和交易伙伴也都使用美元,我為了節省時間和金錢就也會使用美元,而不是使用歐元或其他貨幣。”

如果一家企業或消費者使用了另一種貨幣,一旦他們需要與鄰居或客戶發生交易,而后者又在使用美元,那么他們就要承擔將自己的錢兌換成美元的成本,而這顯然是額外的交易成本。所以,使用一種普遍接受的貨幣,顯然要比使用一種未被普遍接受的貨幣節省成本。路德表示:“如果你代理了一個自動售貨機的生意,而且你換了一種新貨幣作為支付媒介,那么你就得對這些機器進行升級。”另外,企業為了接受這種新貨幣,還需要采用相關的定價和會計系統,這些都帶來了額外的成本。

弗里德曼認為,單一貨幣具有很大的優勢,因為它與多種貨幣并行的體系相比節省了大量的時間和金錢。另外,不同貨幣的交易和轉換成本也是很高的。因此,即便現行的主要貨幣有些不穩定,民眾和企業仍然會青睞現行貨幣。他還指出,隨著時間的推移,德國馬克和瑞士法郎的保值能力比美元強得多,美國公民在旅行時也會使用這兩種貨幣,但他們并不會在美國本土使用這兩種貨幣,因為來回兌換美元的成本是十分昂貴的。

哈耶克則認為,相比交易成本,人們對一種貨幣的價值波動更加敏感。路德指出:“哈耶克認為,在沒有法律限制的情況下,貨幣的置換成本是微不足道的,重要的是哪種貨幣更高級。”如果一個國家允許競爭性的私人貨幣,消費者自然就會被最好的貨幣所吸引。他們就會拋棄失去購買力的法幣,投向更可靠的新貨幣。

哈耶克指出,最終勝出的“挑戰者貨幣”,要確保一定數量的新貨幣每年都可以購買相同或者幾乎相同的商品和服務,而不能像法幣那樣購買力越來越差。哈耶克寫道:“競爭性貨幣能夠提供的最主要的吸引力,就是確保價格的穩定。”

那么,為什么在那些貨幣政策混亂無度的國家,人們沒有轉投私人貨幣的懷抱呢?哈耶克認為,這只是因為當地法律禁止競爭性貨幣的緣故。弗里德曼則認為,法律因素并不重要,除非少數極端情況,否則消費者和企業都會認為,使用一種大多數鄰居和商店都不使用的貨幣的成本太高了。

幾年后,索馬里的一個案例研究為弗里德曼的觀點提供了支持。1991年,索馬里政府垮臺,當時,索馬里先令是該國流通最廣的貨幣,但老百姓也可以自由使用任何貨幣。在這種情況下,有幾種外來貨幣與索馬里先令展開了競爭,導致后者迅速貶值。雖然不只一種競爭性貨幣比索馬里先令更穩定,但大多數人還是繼續通過索馬里先令做生意。在這場公開競賽中,弗里德曼的“網絡效應說”戰勝了哈耶克的觀點,也就是說,人民對穩定的渴求占了上風。尤其令人驚訝的是,索馬里老百姓是能夠使用美元的,但這并未削弱先令的地位。即便是弗里德曼本人,也很可能會對索馬里的網絡效應的力量感到驚訝。

比特幣的設計缺陷

弗里德曼和哈耶克都認為,最理想的貨幣政策,就是實現穩定的、可預測的、適當的物價增長。不過在弗里德曼職業生涯的早期,他在如何實現這一目標上是與哈耶克存在分歧的。他認為,隨著時間的推移,持有貨幣的需求會與貨幣流通速度呈反比。因此,他認為美聯儲應按照一個固定的、預設的比例增加貨幣供給。

打個比方:如果央行的通脹目標是2%,而經濟通常也以2%的速度增長,那么最好的方法就是將貨幣供給提高4%。超發的這4%的錢,將促進商品和服務的交易量提高2%,從而實現2%的物價上漲目標。路德解釋道:“弗里德曼希望美聯儲將貨幣供給的增量設置在一個固定比例,它又被稱為K百分比規則,K就是固定的貨幣供給增長率。”

就像路德指出的那樣,K規則看起來很像比特幣的模型。比特幣的算法也限制了可供發行的比特幣數量,并且為新幣發行設定了一個固定速度。路德表示:“你可能會說,比特幣與弗里德曼的K規則很像。”但事實上,比特幣的供給是由計算機程序設計的,缺乏靈活性,這是它的一個明顯的弱點。而哈耶克認為貨幣供給應具備一定的伸縮能力,這樣才能夠確保購買力的穩定。“哈耶克認為,如果貨幣的增量超過了貨幣的需求,就會導致一種不可持續的生產繁榮,最終會導致經濟衰退。‘上當’的企業先會過度生產,然后付出巨大代價來縮小生產規模。”路德說。

到了20世紀80年代,弗里德曼修正了他的觀點,開始向哈耶克靠攏。他發現,貨幣需求的變化要比他之前預想的大得多。因此,他接受了通脹目標的概念,并主張根據經濟環境調整貨幣政策。路德介紹道:“弗里德曼認為,如果貨幣供給的崩潰超過了貨幣需求的減少,或者貨幣需求的增加沒有被相應的貨幣供給的增加所滿足,衰退就會隨之而來。弗里德曼開始像哈耶克一樣,認為貨幣供應應該與需求同步。”

比特幣在設計上并不具備根據經濟條件擴大或縮小貨幣供給的靈活性,新發幣的數量也不會隨著持有需求的漲跌而變化——而弗里德曼和哈耶克都認為,這是好的貨幣政策的必要特質。比特幣的供給是由算法預先設定的,它不具備這種在哈耶克和弗里德曼看來十分重要的“減震器”功能。路德稱:“比特幣在設計上就沒有考慮隨需求變化而保持購買力不變的問題。”

由于比特幣的數量是固定的,因此比特幣價值的漲跌,主要取決于個人和機構投資者購買量的變化。就像路德指出的那樣:“只有需求的劇變才能夠影響它的價格,這正是比特幣的特殊設計。”

讓我們想象一個比特幣取代了美元的世界。假設經濟突然快速增長,美國的GDP從2%飆升至3%。根據弗里德曼或者哈耶克的模型,美聯儲可能會將貨幣供給提高一個百分點,此舉可能還會導致信貸供給的提高,以滿足建設新工廠、實驗室和研發中心所需的債務債券需求。這樣下來,總的通脹率是不變的。然而比特幣是無法增加它的供給的。假設比特幣成為法幣,由于信貸需求超過了銀行和投資者可放貸的資金,利率將會出現飆升,由此產生的緊縮,將導致經濟繁榮迅速破滅。

另外,出于同樣的原因,經濟環境的變化還會放大新貨幣的價格變化。在經濟繁榮時期,消費者和企業會爭相購入由比特幣計價的債券和貸款,在經濟低迷時期則會售出這些工具,但比特幣的發行速度卻不會有任何變化來緩沖這種波動。在經濟擴張時期,比特幣的價格可能會大幅上漲,因為不會有比特幣出現。而在現實世界中,美聯儲則會發行更多美元,以抑制幣價上漲。比特幣價格的大幅波動將增加跨國公司面臨的風險,因為幣值的變化,意味著它們從中國、日本、德國等地購買的半導體、家電或紡織品的價格也在不斷變化。

波動性問題

作為一種貨幣來說,比特幣目前的波動性還是太大了。“它的吸引力哪怕相對其他貨幣產生了很小的變化,也會對以后人們使用它的意愿產生巨大影響。”路德說:“如果我們聽到了一個壞消息,人們就會覺得想用它的人變少了,它的價值就會突然跳水。”比如說,前一陣埃隆?馬斯克宣布特斯拉將購入價值15億美元的比特幣,比特幣的價值立即出現飆升;后來特斯拉又宣布不再接受比特幣購車,它的幣值應聲大幅下跌。再比如說,在Visa和Mastercard宣布不再支持某情色網站的付費后,比特幣的幣值再度飆升,因為人們現在只能用比特幣等虛擬貨幣給這個網站充值了。

現在,比特幣波動性是標準普爾500指數(S&P 500)的9倍、黃金的6倍。即使比特幣已經被更多人接受,它的波動性仍然遠超其他競爭性貨幣,因為它的設計不支持通過供給的變化來降低其波動性。

即使隨著時間的推移,比特幣的幣值變得更加穩定了,它也不太可能成為一種成功的貨幣。理由有二:一是比特幣僵化的架構無法保障它的購買力,原因是正如我們上面所討論的,它的發幣量完全不夠靈活;二是各國可能會發行自己的數字貨幣。比如,中國已經公布了人民幣數字化的計劃。光是這條新聞就嚴重打擊了比特幣的價格。

路德指出:“美國也能夠創造一種數字貨幣。美聯儲是美元的發行者,并代表銀行持有數字化的美元儲備金。它完全可以打造一種名叫‘數字美元’的新貨幣,它能夠與現金美元和儲備金等價交換。消費者也可以將數字美元兌換成現金。”人們能夠通過電子錢包進行數字美元的交易,就像比特幣交易一樣,而不用通過銀行。也可以在收銀臺掃描手機進行支付,這樣余額就從消費者的手機錢包轉移到了商家的數字美元賬戶。這些支付活動是在信用卡系統之外進行的,而且省去了高額的“交易費”。路德指出:“對比特幣來說,它面臨的一個最主要的危險,就是有可能會被各國央行發行的數字貨幣超越。”

比特幣的未來:何去何從?

主權國家發行的數字貨幣將進一步限制比特幣的未來。但比特幣作為一種交易媒介仍然有著巨大的潛力,特別是在需要隱私的大筆交易上。路德稱:“比特幣在這方面做得特別好,而其他貨幣在這方面還不能夠與之比擬。”當然,比特幣也被用于許多非法交易,包括用于支付勒索軟件攻擊的贖金等等,所以各國政府都想打擊比特幣的地下交易。不過比特幣是很難控制的,而且這也是它的一個優點。路德說:“現金也被用于地下交易,但和現金相比,政府阻止比特幣交易的難度要大得多。”

弗里德曼和哈耶克如果仍然健在,他們會如何看待比特幣呢?路德曾經仔細研究過這兩位經濟學家的觀點,他表示:“作為一項試驗,他們會高度評價比特幣發展和它的相對的成功。從理論上講,他們可能會認為,比特幣作為一種貨幣能夠有效遏制政府無節制的支出,但他們也希望比特幣可以有一種貨幣供給機制來調節貨幣的需求變化,而比特幣卻并沒有這種機制。”路德認為,弗里德曼和哈耶克絕不會認為比特幣有可能取代美元作為美國的主要貨幣。他們二人最多會認為,比特幣最佳的角色,就是像現在這樣,保持交易的私密性。

如今的比特幣已經是金融世界的一個龐然大物。但從這兩位偉大的經濟學家的理論來看,隨著全世界認識到它的能力非常有限,它的宏偉形象很可能也將逐漸消退。(財富中文網)

譯者:樸成奎

這是兩位20世紀貨幣經濟學巨人之間的一場傳奇性的辯論。爭論的焦點是,是否會有一種“挑戰者貨幣”能夠取代政府發行的法幣,成為全球范圍的一種新的支付媒介。雖然對他們來說,比特幣(Bitcoin)是一種幾十年后的產物,但兩位大師如果仍然健在,他們會如何看待比特幣,會不會認為它有能力挑戰法幣呢?

首先上場的是奧地利裔英籍經濟學家、古典自由主義大師弗里德里希?哈耶克,他的對手是倡導自由市場的米爾頓?弗里德曼。哈耶克與弗里德曼在很多問題上的看法都是相似的,不過二者爭論的焦點是,如果出現了一種私人發行的競爭性貨幣,它是否有可能構建一個更加穩定的貨幣系統。20世紀70年代中后期,受阿拉伯石油禁運的影響,美國的汽油、機票乃至家庭采暖價格都出現了飛漲,美元體系進入了二戰后最危險的時期。為了應對這種沖擊,美聯儲向市場大量放水,削弱了幾乎所有人的購買力。美國的消費價格指數一向是以比較平穩的速度上漲的,在這一階段的增長率卻達到了14%。

哈耶克于1950年到1962年間在芝加哥大學任教,他與弗里德曼在那里共事了很多年,這兩位經濟學家對彼此都很了解,但二人并未發生過面對面的爭論。哈耶克將他的觀點寫進了20世紀70年代中后期的一系列演講和論文里,并于1976年出版了《貨幣的非國家化》(The Denationalization of Money)一書。在20世紀七八十年代,二人的觀點尚未對立。不過從20世紀80年代開始,弗里德曼在與經濟學家安娜?施瓦茨合著的書中,首次對哈耶克的觀點進行了公開批判。

在當時,美國的政治家、學者和普通民眾都擔心美元體系將走向崩潰。而美聯儲則采取了與以往的“穩健貨幣”政策截然相反的政策,美元貶值的速度甚至超過了美國工人賺取美元的速度。哈耶克認為,在經濟困難時期,各國央行會通過超發貨幣,迅速將經濟人為地推到一個高點,這樣就會出現美國當時正在經歷的那種通脹。哈耶克認為,對于這種情況,解決方案是讓銀行或者其他公司發行私人貨幣,在公開市場上與主權貨幣進行競爭。哪一種或幾種私人貨幣最能夠保持住消費者的穩定購買力,哪一種就可以成功地吸引最多的用戶。

如果美聯儲繼續大量超發貨幣,導致美元的購買力越來越弱,私營貨幣就將取代美元的地位。這種“讓最好的貨幣獲勝”的理念將終止政府這種不計后果的貨幣政策,央行要么會被迫改革,要么就會出臺新的、更穩定的貨幣政策。

弗里德曼(左)與哈耶克,20世紀最著名的兩位經濟學家。

弗里德曼并不反對競爭性貨幣挑戰法幣。但他認為哈耶克錯了,“挑戰者貨幣”注定是要失敗的。在弗里德曼看來,人們和企業確實關心購買力的問題,但他們更重視自己和鄰居、和貿易伙伴是不是使用同一種貨幣。他表示,消費者和企業更喜歡用一種貨幣搞定所有的事情。即便有一種比美元更堅挺的貨幣——假設叫XYZ幣,那美國人也會寧愿只使用美元,而不是在XYZ幣和美元之間頻繁兌換。因此,正是法幣已經被廣泛接受,它才具有了巨大優勢,能夠阻止任何新貨幣取代它的地位。

正是因為哈耶克的上述立場,他才被比特幣愛好者奉為了“比特幣教父”。歐洲央行2012年針對虛擬貨幣的一項研究指出:“比特幣的理論基礎可以追溯到奧地利經濟學派。”而哈耶克正是奧地利學派的代表人物。在谷歌上搜索關鍵詞“哈耶克與比特幣”,你會發現有不計其數的文章將哈耶克奉為“虛擬幣先知”。他們還引了20世紀80年代的電視采訪,證明哈耶克曾經“預測了比特幣”。這些人堅信,市場終將選擇一種最穩定可靠且不會被央行腐蝕的貨幣,那就是比特幣。

很多比特幣的擁躉認為,比特幣作為一種價值儲存手段是很有前途的,但作為一種貨幣則未必。MicroStrategy公司的首席執行官邁克爾?塞勒持有數十億美元的比特幣,他認為比特幣是一筆很好的投資,但是比特幣永遠不會成為一種支付工具。而埃隆?馬斯克曾經說:“紙幣是會消亡的,虛擬貨幣是一種更好的價值轉移方式,這是肯定的。”推特和Square公司的首席執行官杰克?多爾西也十分看好比特幣,他認為:“全世界最終將只剩下一種貨幣,我個人認為那就是比特幣。”比特幣交易所Gemini的首席執行官卡梅隆?文克萊沃斯認為,作為一種高級貨幣,比特幣是很有發展前途的。“因為人們明白了紙幣的原理后都會問:‘等一下,這么多萬億的美元是哪來的,它們只是一堆印出來的紙。它對我手里的這些美元意味著什么?’”

事實上,比特幣在日常購物中很少能夠被接受,只不過它在資金轉移上扮演了一個比較小眾的角色,特別是在需要高度隱私的情況下。“如果大家都涌向比特幣,那哈耶克就錯了,因為他預測人們會選擇購買力最穩定的貨幣。”佛羅里達州大西洋大學的經濟學教授威廉?路德指出:“哈耶克喜歡的那種貨幣是非常穩定的,而比特幣恰好相反,它極不穩定。”

以弗里德曼的觀點來看,比特幣取代美元或者歐元的可能性是很小的,因為所有人都只會使用成本最低、最方便的貨幣。如果有例外的話,只有一種可能,就是這個國家實施了高通脹的貨幣政策,既破壞了老百姓的購買力,又導致了物價的劇烈波動。弗里德曼指出,在物價出現極端波動的情況下,老百姓會使用外幣在黑市上交易商品,就像委內瑞拉人目前正在使用美元和歐元一樣。人們之所以不會用比特幣購物,原因跟人們不會使用委內瑞拉幣一樣——比特幣每天的幣值波動都很大,上下9%的波動都屬常事。因此,老百姓永遠不知道他們的錢今天或者明天可以買到什么。

哈耶克和弗里德曼對“挑戰者貨幣”的前景存在嚴重分歧,不過他們對比特幣的看法應該是相似的。這兩人可能都會稱贊比特幣是一次大膽的自由市場試驗,不過兩人應該都不會認為比特幣將成為一種主要的貨幣形式。當然,哈耶克的觀點是在20世紀80年代美國回歸穩健貨幣政策之前提出的。在哈耶克看來,如果市場全面轉向比特幣,那就是走了一條“邪路”,相當于放棄了一種相對穩定的貨幣,選擇了一種極不穩定的貨幣。而在弗里德曼看來,比特幣面臨的困境對所有新型貨幣都是一樣的——它們幾乎不可能獲得消費者的廣泛認可。

另外,還有一點這兩位傳奇人物應該也會同意,那就是比特幣支持者聲稱的那樣恰恰相反,比特幣的架構存在一個根本性的缺陷,導致比特幣的供給無法進行周期性調整以保持其購買力。首先我們來看看,就算比特幣是一種最穩健的貨幣,它能不能與美元競爭。其次,它是否符合哈耶克和弗里德曼對一種理想貨幣的期待,也就是從長期來看,它有沒有實力保障消費者和企業的利益。

弗里德曼:比特幣輸在“網絡效應”

弗里德曼認為,由于“網絡效應”(也就是某個事物的流行度取決于它的使用人數)的存在,哈耶克提出的“并行競爭貨幣”機制是不會成功的。在貨幣的問題上,“網絡”的規模等于使用美元或歐元交易的消費者和企業的總數。根據弗里德曼的理論,使用美元的人越多,他們買賣商品和流通貨幣就越容易,成本也越低。路德解釋道:“如果所有顧客和交易伙伴都使用美元,而且他們所有的顧客和交易伙伴也都使用美元,我為了節省時間和金錢就也會使用美元,而不是使用歐元或其他貨幣。”

如果一家企業或消費者使用了另一種貨幣,一旦他們需要與鄰居或客戶發生交易,而后者又在使用美元,那么他們就要承擔將自己的錢兌換成美元的成本,而這顯然是額外的交易成本。所以,使用一種普遍接受的貨幣,顯然要比使用一種未被普遍接受的貨幣節省成本。路德表示:“如果你代理了一個自動售貨機的生意,而且你換了一種新貨幣作為支付媒介,那么你就得對這些機器進行升級。”另外,企業為了接受這種新貨幣,還需要采用相關的定價和會計系統,這些都帶來了額外的成本。

弗里德曼認為,單一貨幣具有很大的優勢,因為它與多種貨幣并行的體系相比節省了大量的時間和金錢。另外,不同貨幣的交易和轉換成本也是很高的。因此,即便現行的主要貨幣有些不穩定,民眾和企業仍然會青睞現行貨幣。他還指出,隨著時間的推移,德國馬克和瑞士法郎的保值能力比美元強得多,美國公民在旅行時也會使用這兩種貨幣,但他們并不會在美國本土使用這兩種貨幣,因為來回兌換美元的成本是十分昂貴的。

哈耶克則認為,相比交易成本,人們對一種貨幣的價值波動更加敏感。路德指出:“哈耶克認為,在沒有法律限制的情況下,貨幣的置換成本是微不足道的,重要的是哪種貨幣更高級。”如果一個國家允許競爭性的私人貨幣,消費者自然就會被最好的貨幣所吸引。他們就會拋棄失去購買力的法幣,投向更可靠的新貨幣。

哈耶克指出,最終勝出的“挑戰者貨幣”,要確保一定數量的新貨幣每年都可以購買相同或者幾乎相同的商品和服務,而不能像法幣那樣購買力越來越差。哈耶克寫道:“競爭性貨幣能夠提供的最主要的吸引力,就是確保價格的穩定。”

那么,為什么在那些貨幣政策混亂無度的國家,人們沒有轉投私人貨幣的懷抱呢?哈耶克認為,這只是因為當地法律禁止競爭性貨幣的緣故。弗里德曼則認為,法律因素并不重要,除非少數極端情況,否則消費者和企業都會認為,使用一種大多數鄰居和商店都不使用的貨幣的成本太高了。

幾年后,索馬里的一個案例研究為弗里德曼的觀點提供了支持。1991年,索馬里政府垮臺,當時,索馬里先令是該國流通最廣的貨幣,但老百姓也可以自由使用任何貨幣。在這種情況下,有幾種外來貨幣與索馬里先令展開了競爭,導致后者迅速貶值。雖然不只一種競爭性貨幣比索馬里先令更穩定,但大多數人還是繼續通過索馬里先令做生意。在這場公開競賽中,弗里德曼的“網絡效應說”戰勝了哈耶克的觀點,也就是說,人民對穩定的渴求占了上風。尤其令人驚訝的是,索馬里老百姓是能夠使用美元的,但這并未削弱先令的地位。即便是弗里德曼本人,也很可能會對索馬里的網絡效應的力量感到驚訝。

比特幣的設計缺陷

弗里德曼和哈耶克都認為,最理想的貨幣政策,就是實現穩定的、可預測的、適當的物價增長。不過在弗里德曼職業生涯的早期,他在如何實現這一目標上是與哈耶克存在分歧的。他認為,隨著時間的推移,持有貨幣的需求會與貨幣流通速度呈反比。因此,他認為美聯儲應按照一個固定的、預設的比例增加貨幣供給。

打個比方:如果央行的通脹目標是2%,而經濟通常也以2%的速度增長,那么最好的方法就是將貨幣供給提高4%。超發的這4%的錢,將促進商品和服務的交易量提高2%,從而實現2%的物價上漲目標。路德解釋道:“弗里德曼希望美聯儲將貨幣供給的增量設置在一個固定比例,它又被稱為K百分比規則,K就是固定的貨幣供給增長率。”

就像路德指出的那樣,K規則看起來很像比特幣的模型。比特幣的算法也限制了可供發行的比特幣數量,并且為新幣發行設定了一個固定速度。路德表示:“你可能會說,比特幣與弗里德曼的K規則很像。”但事實上,比特幣的供給是由計算機程序設計的,缺乏靈活性,這是它的一個明顯的弱點。而哈耶克認為貨幣供給應具備一定的伸縮能力,這樣才能夠確保購買力的穩定。“哈耶克認為,如果貨幣的增量超過了貨幣的需求,就會導致一種不可持續的生產繁榮,最終會導致經濟衰退。‘上當’的企業先會過度生產,然后付出巨大代價來縮小生產規模。”路德說。

到了20世紀80年代,弗里德曼修正了他的觀點,開始向哈耶克靠攏。他發現,貨幣需求的變化要比他之前預想的大得多。因此,他接受了通脹目標的概念,并主張根據經濟環境調整貨幣政策。路德介紹道:“弗里德曼認為,如果貨幣供給的崩潰超過了貨幣需求的減少,或者貨幣需求的增加沒有被相應的貨幣供給的增加所滿足,衰退就會隨之而來。弗里德曼開始像哈耶克一樣,認為貨幣供應應該與需求同步。”

比特幣在設計上并不具備根據經濟條件擴大或縮小貨幣供給的靈活性,新發幣的數量也不會隨著持有需求的漲跌而變化——而弗里德曼和哈耶克都認為,這是好的貨幣政策的必要特質。比特幣的供給是由算法預先設定的,它不具備這種在哈耶克和弗里德曼看來十分重要的“減震器”功能。路德稱:“比特幣在設計上就沒有考慮隨需求變化而保持購買力不變的問題。”

由于比特幣的數量是固定的,因此比特幣價值的漲跌,主要取決于個人和機構投資者購買量的變化。就像路德指出的那樣:“只有需求的劇變才能夠影響它的價格,這正是比特幣的特殊設計。”

讓我們想象一個比特幣取代了美元的世界。假設經濟突然快速增長,美國的GDP從2%飆升至3%。根據弗里德曼或者哈耶克的模型,美聯儲可能會將貨幣供給提高一個百分點,此舉可能還會導致信貸供給的提高,以滿足建設新工廠、實驗室和研發中心所需的債務債券需求。這樣下來,總的通脹率是不變的。然而比特幣是無法增加它的供給的。假設比特幣成為法幣,由于信貸需求超過了銀行和投資者可放貸的資金,利率將會出現飆升,由此產生的緊縮,將導致經濟繁榮迅速破滅。

另外,出于同樣的原因,經濟環境的變化還會放大新貨幣的價格變化。在經濟繁榮時期,消費者和企業會爭相購入由比特幣計價的債券和貸款,在經濟低迷時期則會售出這些工具,但比特幣的發行速度卻不會有任何變化來緩沖這種波動。在經濟擴張時期,比特幣的價格可能會大幅上漲,因為不會有比特幣出現。而在現實世界中,美聯儲則會發行更多美元,以抑制幣價上漲。比特幣價格的大幅波動將增加跨國公司面臨的風險,因為幣值的變化,意味著它們從中國、日本、德國等地購買的半導體、家電或紡織品的價格也在不斷變化。

波動性問題

作為一種貨幣來說,比特幣目前的波動性還是太大了。“它的吸引力哪怕相對其他貨幣產生了很小的變化,也會對以后人們使用它的意愿產生巨大影響。”路德說:“如果我們聽到了一個壞消息,人們就會覺得想用它的人變少了,它的價值就會突然跳水。”比如說,前一陣埃隆?馬斯克宣布特斯拉將購入價值15億美元的比特幣,比特幣的價值立即出現飆升;后來特斯拉又宣布不再接受比特幣購車,它的幣值應聲大幅下跌。再比如說,在Visa和Mastercard宣布不再支持某情色網站的付費后,比特幣的幣值再度飆升,因為人們現在只能用比特幣等虛擬貨幣給這個網站充值了。

現在,比特幣波動性是標準普爾500指數(S&P 500)的9倍、黃金的6倍。即使比特幣已經被更多人接受,它的波動性仍然遠超其他競爭性貨幣,因為它的設計不支持通過供給的變化來降低其波動性。

即使隨著時間的推移,比特幣的幣值變得更加穩定了,它也不太可能成為一種成功的貨幣。理由有二:一是比特幣僵化的架構無法保障它的購買力,原因是正如我們上面所討論的,它的發幣量完全不夠靈活;二是各國可能會發行自己的數字貨幣。比如,中國已經公布了人民幣數字化的計劃。光是這條新聞就嚴重打擊了比特幣的價格。

路德指出:“美國也能夠創造一種數字貨幣。美聯儲是美元的發行者,并代表銀行持有數字化的美元儲備金。它完全可以打造一種名叫‘數字美元’的新貨幣,它能夠與現金美元和儲備金等價交換。消費者也可以將數字美元兌換成現金。”人們能夠通過電子錢包進行數字美元的交易,就像比特幣交易一樣,而不用通過銀行。也可以在收銀臺掃描手機進行支付,這樣余額就從消費者的手機錢包轉移到了商家的數字美元賬戶。這些支付活動是在信用卡系統之外進行的,而且省去了高額的“交易費”。路德指出:“對比特幣來說,它面臨的一個最主要的危險,就是有可能會被各國央行發行的數字貨幣超越。”

比特幣的未來:何去何從?

主權國家發行的數字貨幣將進一步限制比特幣的未來。但比特幣作為一種交易媒介仍然有著巨大的潛力,特別是在需要隱私的大筆交易上。路德稱:“比特幣在這方面做得特別好,而其他貨幣在這方面還不能夠與之比擬。”當然,比特幣也被用于許多非法交易,包括用于支付勒索軟件攻擊的贖金等等,所以各國政府都想打擊比特幣的地下交易。不過比特幣是很難控制的,而且這也是它的一個優點。路德說:“現金也被用于地下交易,但和現金相比,政府阻止比特幣交易的難度要大得多。”

弗里德曼和哈耶克如果仍然健在,他們會如何看待比特幣呢?路德曾經仔細研究過這兩位經濟學家的觀點,他表示:“作為一項試驗,他們會高度評價比特幣發展和它的相對的成功。從理論上講,他們可能會認為,比特幣作為一種貨幣能夠有效遏制政府無節制的支出,但他們也希望比特幣可以有一種貨幣供給機制來調節貨幣的需求變化,而比特幣卻并沒有這種機制。”路德認為,弗里德曼和哈耶克絕不會認為比特幣有可能取代美元作為美國的主要貨幣。他們二人最多會認為,比特幣最佳的角色,就是像現在這樣,保持交易的私密性。

如今的比特幣已經是金融世界的一個龐然大物。但從這兩位偉大的經濟學家的理論來看,隨著全世界認識到它的能力非常有限,它的宏偉形象很可能也將逐漸消退。(財富中文網)

譯者:樸成奎

It was a fabled debate between two 20th-century giants of monetary economics. The issue: Whether “challenger currencies” could ever displace standard, government-backed currencies as the world’s payment medium of choice. And although the invention of Bitcoin was decades away, the two sages could have been talking about whether the cryptocurrency could ever rise to become coin of the realm, or even a contender.

At one podium was Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian-British titan who championed classic liberalism. Across this imaginary stage stood Milton Friedman, a fellow apostle of free markets. The standoff between the usually like-minded pair centered on whether competing currencies, floated by private issuers, would create a more stable monetary system. When they faced off in the mid-to-late 1970s, the dollar regime was the most unhinged it had been at any time since World War II. The Arab oil embargo had sent prices for gasoline, airline tickets, and home heating on a tear. To counter the shock, the Federal Reserve was flooding the markets with easy money that undermined purchasing power for virtually everything else. The consumer price index, which had traditionally risen at a smooth and modest pace, roared at an annual rate that reached 14%.

Hayek taught at the University of Chicago from 1950 to 1962, years that overlapped Friedman’s long tenure there, and the two economists knew each other well. But the pair didn’t debate face-to-face. Hayek made his case in a series of speeches and papers in the mid-to-late 1970s, and in his 1976 book The Denationalization of Money. They reportedly matched their dueling theories at industry events in the 1970s and 1980s. Friedman’s first public criticism of Hayek’s ideas apparently appeared in his writing with fellow economist Anna Schwartz in the 1980s.

Politicians, academics, and folks on the street fretted that the system was broken. The Fed was pursuing the opposite of its old “sound money” policies by eroding the value of U.S. dollars faster than America’s workers would earn them. Hayek contended that central banks would keep overinflating the money supply in tough times to give economies a quick, artificial high, stoking more of the kind of inflation the U.S. was witnessing at the time. The solution, he argued, was for private monies issued by banks or other companies to battle for customers with sovereign currencies in an open marketplace. The one or even several contenders that did the best job maintaining steady purchasing power for consumers and businesses would win by attracting the most users.

If the Fed kept issuing dollars that bought less and less, privately managed newcomers would supplant the wobbly greenback. The “let the best currency win” concept would halt reckless monetary policies, either by forcing central banks to reform, or by opening the way for new, more stable currencies to take charge.

Friedman had no objections to letting freedom ring by allowing rival currencies to vie for supremacy. But he believed Hayek was wrong and that the challengers would fail. For Friedman, people and companies indeed care about purchasing power. But they place a far higher value on using the same currency as their neighbors and trading partners. Consumers and businesses, he said, prefer doing everything in one currency. Even if an alternative, what we’ll call XYZ-coin, is more stable than the dollar, Americans would rather use only dollars than keep trading back and forth between XYZ-coin and the greenback. Hence, owing to their overwhelmingly widespread acceptance, the reigning, incumbent monies enjoy a huge edge that would block the invaders from gaining a foothold.

For Bitcoin fans, Hayek’s stance makes him a godfather of the largest cryptocurrency. In a 2012 study of the virtual currencies, the European Central Bank stated that “the roots of Bitcoin can be found in the Austrian school of economics,” of which Hayek was a leading voice. Google “Hayek and Bitcoin,” and you’ll see sundry posts by bloggers and academics that refer to Hayek by such titles as “the prophet of cryptocurrencies” and citing 1980s TV interviews that show the elderly economist “predicting Bitcoin”. Indeed, this camp believes that the market will eventually trend to the most stable, reliable money that can’t be corrupted by central banks, and that’s Bitcoin.

Many Bitcoin fans think it has a great future as a store of value, but not as a currency. Michael Saylor, the MicroStrategy CEO who’s renowned for parking billions of dollars’ worth of Bitcoin on the web service provider’s balance sheet, considers it a great investment but predicts it will never be a medium of exchange. By contrast, Elon Musk has stated that “paper money is going away, and crypto is a far better way to transfer value, that’s for sure.” Bitcoin bull Jack Dorsey, chief of Twitter and Square, forecasts that “the world ultimately will have a single currency, and I personally believe that will be Bitcoin.” Bitcoin will gain traction as a superior currency, says Cameron Winklevoss of Bitcoin exchange Gemini, “because of all the money printing and people looking at what’s going on and [saying], ‘Wait a second, where are all these trillions coming from, they’re actually just being printed. What does that mean for other dollars that I’m holding?’”

But in fact, Bitcoin has found little acceptance for everyday purchases, though it’s secured a niche role in transferring funds, notably when privacy is paramount. “If it were true that people are flocking to Bitcoin as a currency, Hayek would be wrong, because he predicted they’d choose the one with the most stable purchasing power,” says William Luther, a professor of economics at Florida Atlantic University. “The kind of money Hayek favored was very stable, and Bitcoin is the opposite. It’s extremely volatile.”

From Friedman’s point of view, Bitcoin would stand little chance against the dollar or euro. That’s because the money everyone now uses is the least costly, most convenient money to keep using. The exception comes in nations that conduct highly inflationary monetary policies that both destroy purchasing power and cause wildly careening prices. In cases of extreme volatility, said Friedman, customers will buy and sell on the black market using a stable foreign currency, as Venezuelans are now deploying the dollar and euro. They’re not buying groceries or paying rent in Bitcoin for the same reason they’re shunning the Venezuelan bolivar: The signature cryptocurrency’s lurching daily swings, averaging 9% from the low to the high, mean families would never know what their budgets can buy from one day to the next.

Hayek and Friedman strongly disagreed on the future of challenger currencies. But they would share similar views on Bitcoin. Both might well praise the concept as a bold, free market experiment. But neither would like Bitcoin as a leading form of money. Of course, Hayek made his case before U.S. monetary policy returned to a far steadier course in the 1980s and onwards. For Hayek, moving to Bitcoin would be going the wrong way, from a relatively stable currency to a drastically unstable one. For Friedman, Bitcoin would face the handicap plaguing all newcomers: the virtual impossibility of winning widespread acceptance.

But the two legends would also agree that contrary to what its supporters claim, Bitcoin’s architecture harbors a fundamental flaw. It ensures that Bitcoin’s supply can’t adjust to keep purchasing power constant through up and down cycles. Let’s examine first, whether Bitcoin could compete with the dollar even if it were the soundest of currencies. And second, how Bitcoin fits with Hayek’s and Friedman’s take on the qualities that constitute a stalwart money—the strengths needed to keep customers and businesses whole in years to come.

Friedman: Bitcoin fails at the “network effect”

Friedman posited that Hayek’s proposed regime of “concurrent competing currencies” wouldn’t work because of what’s called the “network effect.” The idea is that the popularity of an item depends on the number of people using it. In the case of a currency, the universe of consumers and businesses dealing in dollars or euros represents the size of “the network.” According to Friedman, the more people who adopt the dollar, the cheaper and easier it is for them to buy and sell things, and transfer money. “If all my customers and trading partners are using dollars, and all of their customers and trading partners also use dollars, I’ll save time and money using dollars instead of euros or another currency,” says Luther.

If a business or consumer moves to an alternative currency, they will incur costs transferring their money into the dollars that their neighbors or customers are using. Those are extra transaction costs. Buying and selling in a commonly accepted medium of exchange lowers transaction costs versus using a relatively uncommon currency. “There are also ‘switching costs,’” says Luther. “If you have a vending machine business and you switch to a new currency, you need to update those machines.” Companies would also need to adopt their pricing and accounting systems to make and accept payments in more than one domestic currency.

Friedman argued that single currencies hold a big advantage because they save so much time and money versus a multi-money regime. Transactions and switching costs, he added, are extremely high. Hence, even if the prevailing money is somewhat unstable, folks and companies will still prefer the incumbent currency. He noted that the deutsche mark and Swiss franc held their value a lot better than the U.S. dollar over time, and that U.S. citizens used them when traveling, but that Americans don’t use either one stateside because switching back and forth to dollars would be extremely expensive.

By contrast, Hayek contended that people are much more sensitive to fluctuations in the value of a currency than to transaction costs. “Hayek said the costs of switching were minuscule in the absence of legal restrictions,” says Luther. “All that matters is which currency is superior.” If a nation allowed competing private monies, customers would gravitate to the best ones. They would dump the sovereign notes that keep bouncing around and losing purchasing power, and embrace the new reliables.

The winning challenger, he said, would ensure that a set amount of the new currency will buy the same, or nearly the same basket of goods and services year after year, outclassing the sovereign money that buys less and less. Wrote Hayek, “The chief attraction the issuer of a competitive currency has to offer is the assurance that its price will be kept stable.”

So why weren’t people switching to private currencies in nations imposing profligate monetary policies? For Hayek, it was strictly because local laws banned the rival monies. For Friedman, it mattered little what the regulations said: Except in extreme cases, consumers and companies would find it too costly to adopt a currency that most neighbors and stores weren’t using.

Years later, a case study in Somalia backed Friedman’s position. In 1991, the Somalian government collapsed. At the time, the Somalian shilling was by far the most widely circulated currency. Citizens were free to use any money they wanted. Several local entries competed with the shilling, which rapidly declined in value. Although at least one competitor was more stable, most people kept doing business in shillings. In this open contest, Friedman’s network effect won over Hayek’s conviction that the yearning for steadiness would prevail. Amazingly, U.S. dollars were also available to Somalian citizens, but didn’t drive out the shilling. Even Friedman might have been surprised by the power of the network effect in Somalia.

The flaw in Bitcoin’s design

Friedman and Hayek agreed that establishing consistent, predictable, and modest growth in prices was the holy grail of monetary policy. But early in Friedman’s career, he differed from Hayek on how to achieve that ideal. He maintained that demand to hold money that’s inversely related to “velocity of money,” or pace of transactions, is pretty much constant over time. As a result, he argued, the Fed should increase the money supply at a fixed, preestablished rate.

If the central bank targets 2% inflation, and the economy typically expands at 2%, the best course is to swell the money supply 4%. Then 4% more money each year would be chasing a volume of goods and services expanding at 2%, lifting prices by the 2% goal. “Friedman wanted the Fed to set the growth of money at a constant rate and walk away,” says Luther. “It was called the K-percent rule. K was the fixed rate in money supply growth.”

As Luther points out, the K-rule looks a lot like the Bitcoin model. The cryptocurrency’s algorithm caps the number of Bitcoin that can ever be released, and sets a fixed pace for the issuance of new coins. “You could argue that Bitcoin comes close to Friedman’s old K-rule,” says Luther. But the fact that the supply of Bitcoin is preprogrammed and inflexible constitutes a glaring weakness. Hayek wanted the supply of money to expand and contract to stabilize purchasing power. “Hayek said if you get a surge in money growth that exceeds money demand, it would encourage an unsustainable boom in production that would eventually result in a recession. Companies would be fooled into overproducing and eventually have to scale back at great cost,” says Luther.

In the 1980s, Friedman revised his view, moving closer to Hayek. He found that the demand for money varied much more than than he previously thought. As a result, he embraced inflation targeting, and advocated adjusting the monetary spigot depending on economic circumstances. “Friedman said that if you have a collapse in the money supply that exceeds the reduction in money demand, or an increase in money demand that is not met by a commensurate increase in the money supply, a recession will follow,” says Luther. “Friedman came to believe like Hayek that the supply of money should move hand in hand with the demand for it.”

Bitcoin’s design does not provide the flexibility to grow or shrink its supply depending on the economic conditions. The amount of newly issued Bitcoin cannot ebb and flow with demand to hold it—the quality that for Friedman and Hayek was the hallmark of sound monetary policy. The supply of Bitcoin is preset by its algorithm. It does not feature the shock absorbers that Hayek and Friedman deemed essential. “Bitcoin’s designed so that it cannot keep purchasing power constant in response to changes in demand,” says Luther.

Since its quantity is fixed, only a jump or drop in the the amounts of Bitcoin that individuals and funds purchase will push its price up or down. As Luther puts it, “Bitcoin’s specifically designed so that only a demand shock can affect its price.”

Let’s imagine a world where Bitcoin replaces the dollar. The economy suddenly shifts into overdrive where GDP growth spikes from 2% to 3%. In the Friedman or Hayek models, the Fed could lift the money supply by the one percentage point change in the growth rate. That move would raise the supply of credit to match the increased demand for loans and bond offerings to fund new plants, fabs, and research centers. The inflation rate wouldn’t change. But Bitcoin can’t increase its supply. In a Bitcoin regime, interest rates would spike as demand for credit outstripped the funds that banks and investors have available to lend. The resulting squeeze would quickly deflate the boom.

In addition, economic shifts would magnify changes in our new currency’s price, for the same reason. When consumers and companies compete for Bitcoin-denominated bonds and loans in an expansion, or sell those instruments in a downturn, the rate of Bitcoin issuance doesn’t change to cushion the swings. In an expansion, Bitcoin’s price could jump sharply because no more Bitcoin would appear, whereas the Fed would have issued additional dollars, restraining the increase. Big swings in Bitcoin’s price would raise risks for multinationals by constantly shifting what they’re paying in the newly prevailing medium of exchange for semiconductors, appliances, or textiles produced in China, Japan, or Germany.

The volatility problem

Right now, Bitcoin is far too volatile to work as a currency. “Very small changes in its attractiveness relative to other currencies have a huge effect on how much people will want to use it in the future,” says Luther. “If we get bad news, people think that fewer people will use it, and the price suddenly tanks.” He cites the surge when Elon Musk announced that Tesla had purchased $1.5 billion in Bitcoin, the subsequent drop when Musk declared that the EV-maker would no longer accept it for auto purchases, and the surge when Visa and Mastercard stopped accepting payments for the Pornhub site, forcing users to resort to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Today, Bitcoin’s volatility is nine times that of the S&P 500 and six times that of gold. Even if it gains much more general acceptance, Bitcoin’s price would still careen through higher peaks and deeper valleys than competing currencies—because its design doesn’t allow for changes in supply that would smooth those swings.

But even if the supporters are right and Bitcoin becomes more stable over time, it’s still unlikely to ever succeed as a currency. The reasons are twofold. The first: Its rigid architecture would fail at safeguarding purchasing power, since, as we’ve discussed above, the amount being issued is totally inflexible. The second: Nations are likely to adopt their own digital currencies. China has already unveiled plans for a digital yuan; the news alone hit Bitcoin’s price.

“The U.S. could also create a digital currency,” says Luther. “The Fed now issues dollars, and holds digital dollar balances on behalf of banks. It could create a new class called digital dollars that are equivalent to cash and reserve balances. Customers could convert the digital dollars to cash.” People could exchange digital dollars from wallet to wallet like Bitcoin without going through banks, or pay by scanning their iPhones at the checkout counter so that payments go from the consumer’s iPhone wallet to a the retailer’s digital dollars account. Those payments would happen outside the credit card system and skirt big “interchange” fees. “For Bitcoin, a major danger is that it could be outcompeted by digital currencies issued by central banks,” says Luther.

What is Bitcoin’s future?

Digital currencies issued by sovereign nations would further limit Bitcoin’s future. But Bitcoin has strong potential as a niche medium of exchange for transactions, especially big ones, where privacy is critical. “It’s the one thing Bitcoin does exceptionally well that other monies don’t,” says Luther. Of course, Bitcoin is being deployed in lots of illicit transactions, including payments in ransomware attacks, and governments will attempt to crack down on its secret use. But Bitcoin will be hard to control, and that’s another of its pluses. “Governments can do only so many things to discourage its use,” says Luther. “It’s much harder for governments to stop Bitcoin transactions than to block the use of cash, which they can just stop printing, and which is also used for secret transactions.”

How does Luther, who has closely studied the views of the influential monetary economists, think Friedman and Hayek would regard Bitcoin were they working today? “They would applaud its development and relative success as an experiment,” he observes. “They’d see it in theory as a useful check on reckless government spending. But they would want a supply mechanism that takes account of changes in demand to hold money, and Bitcoin doesn’t have that.” Friedman or Hayek would never think Bitcoin could or should replace the dollar as the primary U.S. currency, says Luther. Its best role, they would probably agree, is what it’s used for now, keeping transactions private.

Bitcoin casts a giant shadow in the financial world. But as the two great minds might have concluded, its towering image will recede as the world recognizes that its future is strictly niche.

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