When I first heard about Bitcoin several years ago, I was dismissive that a currency not backed by a central bank or valuable commodity could succeed as a currency. It still seems doubtful to me that Bitcoin could establish itself as a proper world currency, but recent events have lead me to believe that it’s possible and that those involved are not necessarily participating in a de-facto ponzi scheme. Bank of America seems to be getting into the game so Bitcoin looks to me like it might be on it’s way to legitimacy. With this in mind, I thought I’d do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to see if I could figure out the likely future worth of Bitcoins and the value of investing in them at the present time.
The absolute maximum number of bitcoins 21 million. The algorithm which ‘mines’ them is artificially capped so that the quantity will never exceed that number. This means that, in the future, the worth of an individual bitcoin will be one 21 millionth of the market in which they are used. Roughly, the current global GDP is about 60 trillion US dollars. So in, the most optimistic case, with Bitcoin replacing all world currencies, you could expect a bitcoin to be worth $2.9 million dollars. That’s discounting any potential for growth or shrinkage of the world economy.
Now, I think it’s highly unlikely that Bitcoin will replace all currencies, but it does have potential in two areas: illegal transactions and money laundering, and online retail and money transfers. Bitcoin already seems to have become a major player in money laundering and that seems to be driving most of its current real, non-speculative value. While there are probably many billions of dollars of illegal transaction every year, I don’t think that utility in money laundering is likely to turn Bitcoin into a real currency or will even allow it to maintain its current value. The main reason is that if Bitcoin gets saddled with a reputation as a tool for illegal activity, it will likely get legislated against, which will kill its value and potential. The Bitcoin system is distributed, which means that it can exist and function without backing government, but if you can’t exchange them in legitimate markets, their value is limited.
However, one plausible scenario is Bitcoin becoming a major player in online retail. Bitcoins are more convenient in some ways than Paypal or the credit cards that make up the current payment system in online retail, so if retailers and the public were to gain confidence in it, Bitcoin could be a major and legitimate player. Online retail sales in the United States in 2013 were 258.90 billion dollars, so if Bitcoin were to become the primary medium of exchange in that market, a value of $12,300 per coin seems plausible if very optimistic. Given that the US is only a fraction of the total online retail market, and that the market is likely to grow substantially over the years, this number could be larger.
Another note in Bitcoin’s favor is that while other currencies are generally inflationary, the banks which issue them tend to expand the supply faster than the economy grows, Bitcoin is deflationary; It’s supply is capped and when it reaches the 21 million mark, the value of coins will increase with the size of the economy. This means that if bitcoins become a real player, their value has the potential to increase indefinitely. This means that Bitcoin could at some point be a much better investment than currencies issued by national banks.
Now, that’s my guess for maximum market capitalization. You’ll note that my calculations are really hand-wavy and very optimistic. If true, it means that mining (or buying) bitcoins now is still a potentially good investment but it’s still a major risk. The Bank of America analyst I linked to earlier seems to think that $1,300 is a much fairer long term valuation as a competing currency (I’ve been looking at it as a replacement currency which is much less likely,) which would mean that bitcoins are already near over valued. I’m still unconvinced but I think I’ll revisit this soon.