Once limited to techie news, cryptocurrency has now hit the finance pages and even mainstream media. Bitcoin, one of the predominant players, was trading at around $1,000 in January 2017. The subsequent months saw enormous jumps, with the value per Bitcoin nearing $20,000. With those sorts of gains, it is no wonder that many have wondered how they, too, could get in the game.
“Cryptocurrency” refers to a subset of digital or virtual currency (and its moniker refers to the cryptography used to create it and transact with it). Unlike traditional money it is not backed by any government. The holder does not have a coin or a bill.
Instead, it is an entirely digital asset. It is created, or “mined,” under controlled conditions, although admittedly the identity of the governing body is sometimes a bit nebulous. It is traded on specialized exchanges created for that purpose. Like other securities, cryptocurrency can be bought and sold. Like traditional government-backed currency, it can be used to purchase goods and services, assuming, of course, the seller accepts it as valid tender.
Bitcoin is not the only player in town, but it has been covered the most widely in the mainstream news given the huge swings in value. Nowadays, it is still up significantly from this time a year ago, but most recently it dropped down below the $10,000 mark as investors dumped it amid concerns about increased scrutiny and regulation. The volatility is enough to give anyone whiplash.
The chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in December released a statement on cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings, pointing to specific concerns with this market. Warren Buffet has called it “a mirage” and has said the current frenzy surrounding it will “end bad.”
One of the primary risks with this type of investment is the sheer lack of governmental oversight and regulation. Of course, most types of investment come with some risk. But cryptocurrency markets cross national borders and trading may occur on a system anywhere in the world. Invested funds are very likely to leave the United States without your knowledge.
Regulatory agencies such as the SEC may not be able to offer any adequate remedy. The rules may be different wherever the funds end up; South Korea and China, for example, appear to be working toward regulation in their respective nations. Or the body that might otherwise regulate it – the SEC, for example – might not have jurisdiction at all. The definition of the “thing” being traded is in flux, with many arguing that cryptocurrencies are not securities, and that the trading of them is not within the SEC’s jurisdiction at all.
Surely, some have become significantly wealthier for having invested in cryptocurrency. However, it is definitely riskier than your average investment. In this area, the law is continuously evolving and trying to catch up. If you are thinking of jumping on the bandwagon, it has never been more important to do your research to decide for yourself if cryptocurrency is a reasonable investment.
This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.