Cryptocurrencies in the Era of COVID-19 (Part One)
To speak of “post-COVID” is not only premature, but perpetuates the myth that the mere passage of time will lead to some kind of universal recovery. The reality is rather more harsh. Currently, the only positive dynamic at work is that the patient will learn to cope with the symptoms of a congenital condition, until, and if, the underlying problem can be resolved. While we would prefer otherwise, this is the Era of COVID.
The opening up of Europe’s Mediterranean tourist industry in the summer of 2020 was always going to increase the rate of COVID transmission, but the experiment was justified in terms of local economic dependency on foreign visitors vis-a-vis the health costs, the degree of disease impact, and overly testing the limits of voluntary social distancing.
From the perspective of the pathogen, however, absolutely nothing has changed. In terms of global polity, economic policy and social welfare, everything has changed, is changing, and may well end up creating scenarios out of all recognition.
Critical to appreciating the “why?” of this reorientation is the recognition that only a raft of temporary, but wholly unsustainable macroeconomic policies, have kept the global economy functioning. The problem, however, is that it is a bit like cheating a wise man. You only get away with it once. Thereafter you have to accept realities and manage how they play out as best as you can.
Central to the latter is the fact that until a vaccine is developed, ours is the era of socio-economic COVID-19 management. All other determinations derive from where they stand in regards this polarity; the spread of the disease on the one part and the damage done to the global economy on the other. The balance between lives and livelihoods. In reality the two are not finally distinct. The acceptance of higher COVID-19 infection will have economic costs both over the short and long term. The worry is that these could be far, far greater than many currently anticipate. Critically, that those people with mild or no symptoms today, could develop significant health problems in their tens of millions as they get older. That the virus lays dormant at a cellular level but surfaces to cause physical problems in the future, negatively impacting the functioning of vital organs, including the brain. As this happens the economic costs will become significant.
To restate. Temporary economic measures funded by quantitative easing have allowed the global economy to maintain a degree of normalcy, but over time these will inevitably weaken the economy they were designed to protect. In similitude, the temporary relief of putting short term spending needs on the credit card eventually crashes into the wall of maximised indebtedness. The consequence is either the hardship of paying back what has been borrowed, or simply walking away from the debt and being cut off from credit thereafter.
The last time the global economy faced anything like this level of catastrophic dialectic was after the two world wars. For the people of Germany and France coins and banknotes were minted with an ever greater number of zeros, but ever reduced buying power. In the end these currencies were simply abandoned — replaced with the Reichsmark and nouveau franc respectively. The former at a rate of one trillion (sic) to one! Stability resulted, but it must be underscored because the printing presses were turned off.
The trick was to introduce a medium of exchange whose physical number was very tightly defined and limited. As long as the temptation to cheat when you run out of money is resisted, all will be well. All this may prefigure a nouveau dollar, digital yuan or an altogether different scenario may unfold.
This is where the current locus of speculation — financial and theoretical — currently lies.
Any considerations in these respects needs to take into account the following factors as delimiting the parameters of probable outcomes:
- Structural shifts in global economic activity away from travel, leisure, tourism, some automotive and manufacturing towards health, security, robotics, datacom and a range of advanced technologies. This not only portends shifts in investment between sectors, but more graphically, shifts in wealth between regions and nations.
- Growing tensions within the European Union. With many of the southern states so highly dependent on tourism, significantly declining income will further exacerbate the north-south wealth gap, and thus tensions over budgetary redistribution.
- Structural shifts in global geopolitics and trade away from multilateralism towards bilateralism, supply chain security, high-tech protectionism and hegemonic alliances.
- A new era of Western statism necessary to reduce the threat of severe economic depression. This will be directed to enhanced infrastructure projects, support for advanced, green and digital technologies, new strategies on preventative and remote health care, and internal security and surveillance.
- Social acceptance of greater government intrusion and regulation as the price of minimising the impact of COVID, future pandemic threats and economic downturn.
More important than any of these are the underlying shift towards new orthodoxies at the expense of tearing up the old order. This not only includes the fundamentals of government macroeconomic theory (and thus policy) but the rules underpinning all commercial and currency infrastructures. “Fundamental” because the three are inextricably linked, yet autonomous enough for one to affect the other with a potential impact so dramatic it is difficult to overstate.
These paradigms are so new, and their final impact so remote, that the most significant element of their existence is easily missed: A year ago such a narrative would have been viewed as sheer lunacy. A year from now so obvious as to merit a historical footnote. Emerging from the rabbit hole everything will be different. Everything is up in the air and everyone is scrambling to find an anchor.
In the meanwhile, popular investment ethos is myopic, entirely oblivious to the undercurrents which will mark the end of the status quo. Somewhere along the line, a soaring Stockmarket has become an end in itself. Wealth, the mere addition of fiat zeros.
The intention of the original cryptocurrency was to sidestep this fallacy. To extricate and preserve real wealth from constantly shifting foundations. Like all ideals, it has been imperfectly realised. No one can deny that the meteoric rise in Bitcoins’ value from $327 to almost $12,000 (at the time of writing) reflects some degree of speculation, but it also reflects substantive, intelligibly based doubts as to the fundamentals sustaining fiat currencies. They may still exist in five or ten years, but what will they tangibly be worth?
Eventual outcomes here — including which cryptocurrencies prove their worth — will be determined by our collective actions. History reveals that whatever divergences take place, in the end the solid and substantial always win out. Lies are exposed and tyranny eventually falls. Shaky assets yield to solid. Bad money drives good to a premium.
(Subsequent additions to this article will examine critical factors determining the path of cryptocurrency evolution in the era of COVID as these arise, including government regulations).