The Node: Bitcoin Is 'Armageddon Insurance'?

What would it take for governments to add bitcoin to their balance sheets? Here's what one expert thinks.

AccessTimeIconMar 25, 2021 at 4:17 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 12:32 p.m. UTC

Yesterday, Elon Musk tweeted that Tesla will hold any bitcoin it brings in from paying customers (instead of converting that BTC to fiat). And it appears the future king of Mars is building a bitcoin stockpile to last through the ages.

This got me thinking whether Earth-bound sovereigns would ever put “bitcoin on the balance sheet,” as the saying goes.

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Under what scenarios would a government follow Tesla and decide to buy bitcoin?

I put the question to James Angel, an associate professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, who specializes in global financial markets.

Here’s what he said:

First, call him Jim.

Second, most rich, developed, western governments are unlikely to ever add bitcoin to their balance sheets. Bitcoin is a private competitor to their “seigniorage franchises.” If it ever catches on – like really catches on beyond Elon Musk’s imaginary moon colony – “they’ll have to tax people in other ways,” Angel said.

In fact, governments "might be happy if it went away entirely,” he said. “There is a long, long, long history of governments shooing aside private currencies.”

Rogue states likely already hold some bitcoin, but not in the same way that MicroStrategy, Tesla or Square do, Angel said. Nations like North Korea or Venezuela view cryptocurrency as a way to evade sanctions, similar to how bitcoin has become a dominant medium of transaction on the dark web (after credit cards, of course).

Governments plugged into the fiat-based, global financial system are unlikely to reap any of the uncensorable benefits bitcoin provides. And while bitcoin is a comparatively cheap way to move large amounts of capital, Angel thinks governments have gotten hip to the “technological revolution” and will have their own stablecoin-like central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) online soon.

But what of the digital gold narrative? Of course no government would hold bitcoin to transact with – no, people do that!

Well, Angel invites us to consider why there are places like Fort Knox or crypts below the Bank of England. In other words, why do governments hoard gold?

“It’s Armageddon insurance,” Angel said. Under a scenario where it becomes too risky to accept dollars or pound sterling, when lenders stop lending, gold becomes a backstop. Fiat currencies are relatively new innovations in the history of money, a departure from centuries of commerce conducted in the yellow metal.

But it’s an expensive hedge. “You have to store it and protect it,” Angel said. Governments are willing to tie up resources (tax resources) because of gold’s history. Bitcoin, newer than fiat currencies, would be a cheaper and potentially more secure way to hold state reserves, but it comes with an added risk of the blockchain’s future.

“It’s an option on the future that you will have a solid blockchain that someone will figure out a need for,” Angel said. He’s skeptical on that front.

The last wrinkle: Governments also hold foreign asset reserves. According to our Virgil, leading us through the scenarios of monetary Armageddon, this is mostly a vanity project. Nations hold other countries' currencies to show they’re able to support their own local money.

If, say, the lira becomes weak, Turkey can purchase foreign assets as a way to stabilize local prices. “If you run out of foreign reserves, your currency plummets,” Angel said.

So why not bitcoin? It is, by some measures, the third-largest world currency. Well, Angel points to the cost-benefit analysis some CIA official has probably war-gamed. If bitcoin receives a state stamp of approval, it opens up a whole host of issues (like the taxation considerations above).

Further, as EY’s Blockchain Lead Paul Brody put it: “Lots of governments hold dollars as a reserve asset both because of the asset value/stability over time but also because a lot of key international trade assets like oil are priced in dollars.”

That isn’t necessarily the case for bitcoin. As Carnegie Mellon Associate Professor of Economics Ariel Zetlin-Jones notes, “The enormous volatility in day-to-day price changes associated with cryptocurrencies shows no sign of slowing.”

That’s part of the reason why programs to collect taxes in crypto, such as in Ohio, have been wound down. Also, why agencies like the U.S. General Services Administration or U.S. Marshals Service that come into possession of bitcoin through criminal asset seizures or other means, auction it off.

Last year, it was unthinkable that a public company would issue several rounds of debt to buy bitcoin. Today, there’s MicroStrategy. I’m not sure anything is off the table when it comes to bitcoin.


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