Receive Focus insights straight to your inbox
Cryptocurrencies have had a torrid time, with headline currencies Bitcoin and Ethereum crashing last year. Is there life in the crypto market yet? And can blockchain, the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies, grow in usage?
We chatted to Chris Becker, blockchain and cryptocurrency expert at Investec, about why cryptocurrencies are so volatile and what it will take for them to go mainstream.
Listen to podcast: The crypto conundrum
Subscribe to Investec Focus Radio SA
A volatile asset
Cryptocurrencies’ volatility is a function of their illiquidity, which is, in turn, a function of the still low levels of adoption of blockchain technology.
Just as ordinary currencies provide access to the economies of the countries that issue them, so cryptocurrencies provide access to the economies of the technologies that underpin them; namely, the specific blockchain technology of each economy.
However, as Becker points out, about 0.2% of the world's population uses blockchain technology presently, putting it on par with some of the world's most illiquid currencies.
One would expect these currencies to be volatile, so it should not be a surprise that cryptocurrencies have been on such a rollercoaster ride.
Read more: Blockchain: the invisible engine of trust
When we talk strictly about blockchains, the currency is a critical component as it incentivises the provision of security, which is at the heart of the technology.
How can cryptocurrencies become accepted?
Becker says that in order for cryptocurrencies to gain more acceptance, people need to see value in using and participating in the underlying economies. Cryptocurrencies have no borders, so one application could be in countries suffering from a financial or monetary crisis (such as Venezuela or Zimbabwe), where there is a loss of confidence in the local currency and a lack of access to foreign currency.
Cryptocurrency (or tokens) can step in, for instance, as a way to borrow or raise dollars in exchange for cryptocurrency. The widespread application of this in these situations is probably a few years away, though, argues Becker.
Further down the track will be its acceptance in countries with more developed and stable financial systems. In time, Becker believes, it will disrupt any centralised, closed-loop financial system, in the same way that the internet disrupted older closed-loop communication and content distribution systems.
Blockchain without cryptocurrency?
Experiments to take cryptocurrency out of blockchain applications – through a distributed ledger system – have been sub-optimal, argues Becker. "This moves away from the decentralised, unrestricted nature of blockchains. When we talk strictly about blockchains, the currency is a critical component as it incentivises the provision of security, which is at the heart of the technology."
Read more: How blockchain is disrupting the art world
Becker says some of the most interesting applications of blockchain have been on the smart contract front. A smart contract is a digital protocol that facilitates, verifies or enforces an underlying contract. In the example above, tokens issued in this way (such as on the Ethereum platform) can be used as collateral to borrow US dollars or for other types of loans.
"When institutional money starts to understand what's going on out there, you can expect to see more capital being allocated to funding innovation in the blockchain space."
Tokens can also be traded with other types of assets, with no intermediation required. For example, says Becker, one could buy tokens that give the holder a share of some real estate in the US, including the underlying income from that. This would also be traded on the secondary market through a smart contract platform.
Becker says there are some exciting developments on this front. "When institutional money starts to understand what's going on out there, you can expect to see more capital being allocated to funding innovation in the blockchain space."
Integrating with other technologies
Currently, power is concentrated in the hands of firms that control Big Data – data sets that are too large or complex for traditional data-processing software to handle. The big social media firms are happy to make their application programming interfaces, commonly known as APIs, available to external users, but these same firms can easily shut down users when it suits them.
This would not be the case in a decentralised data world. The reason for this is that, because blockchain is a decentralised platform, one exciting development of its growth will be increased access to large data sets.
However, because blockchain usage is so low at the moment, such a scenario is still some way off, says Becker, so it's more a case of 'small data' benefiting from artificial intelligence (AI) insights in 'big data' centres at this point. This will change in time.
What Investec is doing
Becker and his team are currently researching blockchain technology to see how its application can change the 'plumbing' of the financial system. "We're spending a lot of time analysing trends and developments, with a view to positioning ourselves to offer value for our clients, should the technology become more mainstream," he says.
What do I need to know if I want to get involved in cryptocurrencies for the first time?
Apart from recognising how volatile cryptocurrencies can be, Becker highlights the fact that there are few proven and trusted custodians of these assets and no legal recourse to technology failures. Your asset is secured only by a string of numbers and letters that make up your password – if you lose that or if someone gains access to it, you risk losing the asset for good. And you have no recourse to your funds the way you might have when, for example, you are the victim of fraud on a traditional bank account.
About the author
Patrick writes and edits content for Investec Wealth & Investment, and Corporate and Institutional Banking, including editing the Daily View, Monthly View, and One Magazine - an online publication for Investec's Wealth clients. Patrick was a financial journalist for many years for publications such as Financial Mail, Finweek, and Business Report. He holds a BA and a PDM (Bus.Admin.) both from Wits University.
Subscribe to Investec's podcasts on market and economy moves
Listen to regular interviews with experts from across the Investec group. Our channel is accessible wherever you currently listen to your podcasts.
Listen to each podcast individually or subscribe to get new episodes as they become available.