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Bitcoin is booming, but is it here to stay?

Illustration by Troy Becker / Forum News Service

FARGO—It's worth more than 10 times the value of gold this week after its price more than doubled in the past month.

That hot streak is drawing more attention than ever to bitcoin, but is the digital currency here to stay as a way to buy and sell goods and services, potentially succeeding the U.S. Dollar? Not quite yet, but some local experts say that could be coming sooner than expected.

What is it?

The bitcoin network was launched in January 2009 as an online-only electronic currency system with no physical bills or coins. For now, it can be purchased on certain websites, including Coinbase and Gemini, and the Nasdaq Stock Market will start trading bitcoin futures like other commodities next year.

James Caton said it's particularly attractive in places like Venezuela, where monetary instability has eroded trust in the official currency system. The assistant professor with the Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise at North Dakota State University said it's also been a tempting currency for black market transactions because of its relative anonymity and lack of central oversight.

That difficulty in tracking bitcoin is built into the system, which requires "mining" with computer processing power to find the increasingly difficult numbers that make a bitcoin valid. The system was designed to only generate a total of 21 million bitcoins, building scarcity into its very makeup that makes it valuable and also difficult to track individual transactions.

Why is it so buzzworthy?

Caton said we're now getting to a point of "general legitimation" as more people realize the advantages of digital currencies like bitcoin.

He pointed to Ripple, a system launched in 2012 that some major banks use to clear account exchanges at the end of the night. Rather than base itself on the U.S. Dollar, Ripple is its own digital currency that costs less to use than other tender, he said.

But bitcoin is the one everyone's talking about right now. One bitcoin was worth about $16,500 the morning of Thursday, Dec. 14, up from about $750 a year ago. Caton said everyone is waiting for the bubble to burst—though people have waited for that since its value first broke $100.

"At some point, there's probably going to be a fall in the price," he said. "I don't know when that is, and I don't know if it will continue climbing further."

Is it a bubble?

Dan Hendrickson, a spokesman for the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota, advises thinking about bitcoin just like any other potential investment—be cautious, and don't invest more than can be lost.

"Our concern is, and we've seen it with gold, oil, real estate and the stock market, these bubbles tend to build up and there's almost always a correction," he said. "Because bitcoin's new, we can't say definitively that that correction is coming, but certainly experts have weighed in and said at some point, it can't go up forever."

Hendrickson said the high-tech nature of bitcoin, too, can make it hard for the uninitiated to make sure they're getting what they think they're buying and make it an attractive place for scammers.

"They go where the action is; they go where the market is hot, and there's no market hotter right now than probably bitcoin," he said.

Can it be used by the average consumer?

Its skyrocketing value is precisely why Ryan Berry said bitcoin doesn't make sense as a currency right now—it's worth too much, and the value is still going up.

Instead, he said it's a useful "store of wealth." Berry, the CEO of Fargo Bitcoin that helps businesses set up to accept cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, said its time in the limelight because of its high value could speed up the eventual transition to a digital system like this.

For now, businesses that accept bitcoin are still reliant on other monetary systems. Vendors that take payment through BitPay, for example, still convert transactions into their native currency.

But he said there are advantages, especially because taking a BitPay payment only costs a tenth of the fee charged for processing a credit card. Several major websites, including Overstock, Expedia and Microsoft, now accept it.

Why isn't it mainstream yet?

The very system at the heart of bitcoin also prevents it from becoming a widespread payment option for now. Berry said bitcoin's biggest problem is its "scalability." The network can handle about 350,000 transactions a day, a far cry from the 11,000 to 12,000 transactions per second that can be done by Visa.

But the "underlying technology," including its reliance on the blockchain, a public ledger without a central authority, is here to stay, according to Berry. He said improvements to the system could make it become a commonplace way to pay for things across the world.

"I feel completely confident that blockchain will be in almost every aspect of our lives in 15 years," he said.

What's ahead?

Bitcoin right now is kind of like a gold bar, Berry said, something that's more useful to store wealth than pay for small transactions. Governments and world leaders will have to get on board to make it the norm, he said.

Caton said there are a few things about bitcoin that need to be resolved. When it's sold for U.S. Dollars, for example, the owner is charged a capital gains tax, but that won't happen if the money isn't exchanged back to legal currency. That's why it might be attractive for those looking to avoid taxes or keep exchanges off ledger books, he said.

That could change if a major government decided to officially recognize bitcoin as legal currency, he said, incentivizing others to come up with low-cost ways to openly use it. The same push to the status quo could come about if enough large institutions and companies accept bitcoin as money, he said.

"It's sort of like this contagion effect where once it's known and once it's practiced, it's hard to undo that," Caton said.

Berry, too, said it's likely that we'll see some sort of cryptocurrency become the norm, a change that could bring 3.5 billion unbanked humans into a truly global economy.

Stopping bitcoin would require stopping the internet, something he said can't be done. That's why he said officials have two choices: Make it illegal, which will only further push the currency toward the black market, or openly accept it and regulate it.

"It's better to get on board as fast as possible and to start regulating and being a proponent of it and looking for the enhancements that it can make as opposed to trying to just pick away at the few problems that we still need to work on," he said.

Business profile

What: Fargo Bitcoin

Where: 3175 Sienna Drive S., Fargo

Phone: (701) 799-8913

Online: www.fargobitcoin.org

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson is the Features Editor for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He previously wrote for The Forum and the Grand Forks Herald.

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