Digital currencies rally, but caution prevails


Digital service: Coinbase offers services for buying, selling, sending, receiving, and storing bitcoin. — Reuters

THIS week, the rally in crypto currencies is at its all-time high.

Bitcoin, the pioneer in digital currency, surged to over US$1,700 per coin in anticipation of a reversal in United States financial regulators’ ruling to allow for an exchange-traded fund for Bitcoin and other factors.

Bitcoin was trading at US$935 on March 24. It rose 82%, pushing its market capitalisation to over US$28bil.

Ether, another such currency, surged from US$8 on Jan 1 to US$90 this week, gaining 1,125% in five months.

The market capitalisation of the 700-over currencies is over US$50bil. The promoters believe it is the currency of the future, hence the rise, but the naysayers believe it is entering a speculative bubble.

But there are some who are ditching gold to mine Bitcoins.

It is a fact that crypto currencies are gaining traction from their inception in 2009. Now, at least 150 organisations including Apple, Walmart, Sears, eBay, Overstock.com, Microsoft, Steam, Expedia and even Subway accept them in exchange for goods.

So, what is Bitcoin then?

It is a form of digital currency, created and held electronically, not blocked by any nation or government, not printed like dollars and ringgit but produced by people. Crypto currencies are digital currencies that use encryption to secure transactions and control how new coins are made.

You and I can get Bitcoins by “mining” computers that validate blocks of transactions using software to solve mathematical puzzles every 10 minutes. If you solve it first, you are rewarded with new Bitcoins.

Bitcoin is the mother of all crypto currencies – also known as virtual currencies, digital currencies and private currencies.

Other than Bitcoin and Ether, there is also Dogecoin, Augur, Chinacoin, Litecon, Dash, Waves and Zcash. There are over 40 exchanges globally to trade in Bitcoins.

All this came about because of fintech, the financial services technology that is disrupting the financial services sector with faster, cheaper and so-called “reliable” transactions for money transfers, bank exchange rates and other money-related transactions. The average clearance is a 12-hour period, which apparently the banks cannot match.

In Brazil, people use Zcash to pay for their taxes, electricity bills and purchases.

This week, Australia said there would be no double taxation for crypto currencies and to treat it just like other currencies from July 1, paving the way for greater usage.

Many are betting on crypto currencies because of the lure that they are the currency of the future. Would you?

Since 2009, there have been gainers and losers, so you decide.

All these digital currencies came about because of the Internet and data. The value of data and digital services is becoming more apparent, and in the digital era, data is the new currency.

Amid all this is blockchain, which is simply a digital ledger that keeps track of Bitcoin transactions and transfers it globally. It boasts of instantaneous transactions, transparent and cheaper than the traditional ways. This is why banks are hurriedly getting their acts together in the area of fintech so as to not miss the boat.

There is a growing number of mergers and acquisitions and crowdfunding for blockchains. Last month, music-podcast-video streaming service Spotify bought over blockchain technology company Mediachain Labs to help reward online content owners with royalty payments.

Other telcos and IT firms are getting into blockchain because they don’t want to miss out on anything. Other payment companies are getting into the act too. There is just too much interest in this new wave of doing things.

The journey of crypto currencies, however, is not without hurdles, and there are plenty out there that cannot be ignored. Even blockchain’s growth cannot be ignored, especially since it is being positioned by those championing it as the de facto technology of the future.

But will it really be all that or will it just add another layer to the overall cost?

All these transfers do not need regulation as yet, something that central bankers don’t like. In fact, Bank Negara is already in the thick of things where fintech is concerned.

While investing in the future is the way to go, it comes with risks and rewards. The best strategy would be to not be in a rush. Do your homework, as there is also the other side of Bitcoin – fake websites, fake online gaming sites, trading, etc.

I bet you would know of someone who has lost money mining Bitcoin or Ether. You honestly wouldn’t want to be put in a spot like those caught up in the recent forex scam and the earlier gold scam.

It would be good too to bear in mind that the sweet spot of crypto currencies has been linked to terrorism financing, money laundering, tax evasion and fraud.

Trust and transparency have been the bedrock of financial institutions all these years. Ensure your bedrock is solid, but at the same time, remember what the former US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke had said in a letter to US senators about virtual currencies, that they “may hold long-term promise, particularly if the innovations promote a faster, more secure, and more efficient payment system”.

Do you think blockchain will bring trust and transparency to the world of crypto currency? Share your thoughts with me at bksidhu@thestar

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