Henry Ford brought cars to the masses. Mark Zuckerberg brought social networking. And the Winklevoss twins are trying to bring ... Bitcoins.
Remember Bitcoin? It's the virtual currency that isn't really a currency. It was developed back in 2009 by the pseudonymous hacker(s) "Satoshi Nakamoto." The idea was to create money that central banks couldn't print and governments couldn't tax. It would give people an anonymous way to buy and sell things over peer-to-peer networks without middlemen -- or inflation! -- taking a cut. Indeed, the supply of Bitcoins is tightly regulated: anyone can "mine" for them by running a computationally-taxing program, but there isn't that much digital gold in them thar computers. No matter how many people become virtual prospectors, the supply of Bitcoins will grow at a predetermined rate -- until 2040. After that, no more will be created.
In other words, Bitcoin has a massive deflationary bias that makes it semi-worthless as a currency. Because the supply of Bitcoins can't increase to meet increased demand, the price should go up. But if the price goes parabolic, nobody will want to part with their Bitcoins to, you know, actually buy things. (Except to buy illegal things). After all, why use your Bitcoins to buy things today when your Bitcoins will be worth more tomorrow? Now, this hoarding can set off a speculative bubble: People buy because the price is going up. And what if the price stops going up? Well, Bitcoin "investors" will try to take their profits off the table, which will push prices down even more, which will lead to even more selling, and so on. That's how Bitcoin went from $48 to $266 in a month -- and then to $105 in a day.
It's not clear why anybody would want Bitcoins. Normal people don't care about hiding what they buy from the government. They're happy with Paypal. And they definitely don't want to go through the hassle of actually getting Bitcoins, which, as Kevin Roose discovered, involves either giving a "currency dealer" your bank account info or sending cash to a
Nigerian prince P.O. box.
Enter the Winklevii. America's most famous rowing-twins-who-love-pistachios-and-think-they-invented-Facebook want to make it easy for the little guy to gamble on crypto-currencies. On Monday, they filed paperwork with the SEC to launch an exchange-traded-fund (ETF) that would trade like a stock, and track the price of Bitcoin -- and only Bitcoin. Of course, as the prospectus for the delightfully-named Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust makes clear, there are plenty of risks speculating in a digital asset with no inherent value. Aside from the volatility of the Bitcoin market -- which is perfectly set up for manipulation -- there's the danger that the virtual coins in the Winklevii's virtual "vault" could get hacked, and vanish like that. And then there's the biggest risk of all: the government could outlaw Bitcoins at any moment. After all, why would the authorities put up with a currency people use to launder money, evade taxes, and buy narcotics?
But the Winklevoss twins are convinced virtual currencies are the hottest thing since virtual friends -- and this time Mark Zuckerberg won't steal their idea! They've already plowed some of their Facebook settlement money into scooping up 1 percent of all the outstanding Bitcoins, and now they want to give everyone else the chance to own part of THE FUTURE -- provided you pay them a fee. Here's how Tyler Winklevoss evangelized for this brave, new currency a few months ago:
We have elected to put our money and faith in a mathematical framework that is free of politics and human error.
He should try putting his faith in history. Inflexible currencies are nothing new, and have failed everywhere they've been tried. Bitcoin can only "work" as long as it's an alternative currency that only techno-utopians care about. And even then, it wouldn't really be a currency. It'd be the bubbliest dotocm stock of them all. That'd be a hard lesson investors would learn for themselves if the Winklevii's Bitcoin ETF somehow got approved (which it won't).
But the good news is if, against all odds, the Winklevoss twins' latest foray into business ends up getting turned into a movie, there's a ready-made title: The Muppet Network.