Last fall, J.P. Morgan Chief Executive Jamie Dimon ominously told a group at the Fortune Global Forum that Bitcoin would likely be stopped by the U.S. government before it became a true currency of use. It might not even take an institution as large as the US government to stop Bitcoin. The global decentralized currency could soon cause its own unwinding.
The problem isn’t that people have stopped using the service. On the contrary—too many people have started to use Bitcoin, and as a result, the payment system is jammed up. Instead of processing payments quickly, it’s taking hours in some cases. Tens of thousands of unprocessed transactions are in queue, and vendors that had accepted Bitcoin are starting to drop out.
“It’s a problem that everyone has seen coming,” said David Yermack, chairman of the finance department at the NYU Stern School of Business. “You have a bottleneck in the technology and as it grows, the bottleneck worsens. It’s like trying to fit more cars on the highway where the highway needs to be widened at some point.”
Bitcoin has gained attention from prominent economists and venture capitalists because it is the first platform that offers a global currency with a democratic process. “We usually delegate this type of thing to experts—the Federal Reserve and so forth,” said Yermack. With Bitcoin, “anyone can be an expert. This decentralized nature of the currency was part of its appeal.”
The “irony,” as Yermack says, is that this popular democratic process is leading to current problems. The service now has thousands of “miners,” or people who are paid 25 Bitcoins (worth a total of $10,500 at the current Bitcoin value of $420 apiece) to clear a transaction. In order for the system to expand, these miners need to agree on a solution. Many of the members, who have invested thousands of dollars in technology to mine Bitcoins, would likely lose their investment once it changed.
“People who now have the fastest computers continue to profit, and most of those people happen to be in China,” Yermack says. “They have no reason to change rules because it will benefit others at their expense.”
The service was fraught with other issues as well, and, according to some, was an unlikely business to gain the type of traction that much of its hype promised. Dimon believed that countries have too much pride and security attached to their currency that governments were unlikely to back them. “No government will ever support a virtual currency that goes around borders and doesn’t have the same controls. It’s not going to happen,” he said at the Fortune conference.
What’s more, other types of innovations – like social media, for example – had to go through years of testing and iterations before the platforms were perfected. Tina Sharkey, chief executive of venture capital company Sherpa Foundry, is broadly known as the person to coin the term “social media,” having registered the domain names including socialmedia.com and socialmedia.org in the late 1990s.
“Product market fit is not something that can always be timed,” she says, It’s not just a question of the actual product but it is the environment, the consumer habits and willingness to adapt and except change, and the timing of what’s happening more broadly in terms of society, the economy, government conditions, and access to the pervasive platforms.”
Dimon has said that he is interested in “blockchain,” the technology Bitcoin uses to process payments, as have executives at nearly every other big bank. Earlier this week, a fintech company R3 CEV said that 40 of the world’s largest banks have recently tested a system that uses blockchain technology to trade bonds. Ex-JPMorgan executive Blythe Masters’ now heads Digital Asset is focused on hat is seeking to bring blockchain technology to global markets. And Sallie Krawcheck, who was once one of the highest ranking women on Wall Street, of Digital Assets Holdings, the start-up run by former J.P. Morgan executives Blythe Masters, which is trying to find uses of blockchain technology in more traditional financial markets.
Yermack, though, says that the overall idea has a ways to go before the kinks are worked out. “This is a problem not just for Bitcoin, but all blockchains,” he says. “It has huge potential, but basic governance problems have not been thought through.”