On Tulips and Bitcoins

When I was in junior high school, I remember being taught about the 17th century tulip mania. Tulips in 1637 cost more than a house! That was a bubble (though some economists think there may have been rational explanations, let’s just call it with what it was considered to be), and my gut feeling is that cryptocurrencies are also bubbling.

I’m not the only person who has made this comparison. There’s an article on CNBC that quotes Elliott Prechter stating that cryptocurrencies are in a bubble comparable to tulips. The head of the Dutch Central Bank has also made the same comparison.

But there’s something else with cryptocurrencies: government. While the US government hasn’t formally stated that it wants cryptocurrencies to go away, the policies of the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice show that’s the case.

Let’s look at what two agencies within the Department of the Treasury have done in regards to cyrptocurrencies. First, the Internal Revenue Service had a choice: Should cryptocurrencies be considered currencies or should they be considered property? If currencies, most taxpayers would just enter one number on their returns for the gain (or loss). (Currency trading falls under Section 988 of the Internal Revenue Code. Gains and losses are simply entered as Section 988 transactions as part of line 21 (“Other Income”) on Form 1040.) This would be simple and straightforward. Instead, the IRS ruled that cryptocurrencies should be treated as property. That means each time you use or sell a cryptocurrency you have a reportable capital gain or loss. That’s a much tougher recordkeeping requirement.

Meanwhile, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN) ruled exactly the opposite. For FINCEN purposes, cryptocurrencies are currencies, not property. That means cryptocurrencies fall under the purview of FINCEN. If you are an active seller of cryptocurrencies to others, you may have to register and are subject to the money transmittal rules. (FINCEN has said “miners” and investors of cryptocurrency are not money transmitters.) FINCEN has gone after foreign (non-US) based wallets, too.

The US Department of Justice has prosecuted US individuals who have been selling Bitcoins.

Perhaps I’m cynical (well, I know I am), but it appears to me that the US government’s actions are designed to make cyrptocurrencies appear more unattractive. That to me is more likely than not to put downward pressure on cryptocurrencies.

I should point out that friends of mine who are far smarter than I am think that Bitcoins will be worth $10,000 in the near future (as I write this, the price of a Bitcoin is about $4,100). I don’t see that. I was in the dot-com industry when that was booming and the NASDAQ would “obviously” reach 100,000. Then the bottom fell out. The cryptocurrency craze of today reminds me of that and of tulips.

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