We're used to instant access over the web to information, communication, and purchases, all of which enhance the global supply chain. But we haven't yet achieved that kind of free movement for money, particularly when transacting business with someone who uses a different form of currency. The roadblocks to foreign currency transactions now have a solution in the form of digital currency.
The biggest name is digital currency is Bitcoin. As a direct peer-to-peer form of payment, Bitcoin allows money to move freely without any fees or delays imposed by a financial institution getting in the way of transactions. It's not quite instantaneous, as it does have to clear the blockchain, a public ledger of all transactions in the Bitcoin network, though that typically is a matter of 10 minutes rather than multiple business days.
Bitcoin has been around since 2009, following some other attempts at digital currency — attempts that never really gained traction beyond very small circles. Bitcoin also got its start in the circles of tech people who mined the caches of coins. Back then, it was relatively easy to mine them, as opposed to now when they require massive processing power and specialized mining rigs. However, they were worth next to nothing, with beginning values of just 8 cents in 2010. Bitcon became popular among libertarians and other advocates of consumer privacy for offering the anonymity of cash for their transactions. (In truth, all Bitcoin transactions can be traced, though the digital currency is linked with an account number rather than an individual).
With more people participating in the Bitcoin economy, the value of the digital currency took off, first hitting $1 at the beginning of 2011 and then skyrocketing up to $31 by the middle of the year. It subsequently dropped back down to $2 at the end of the year and took a whole year just to get back up to $13. But in 2013, it really started to hit its stride and hit several high points as it went on a roller coaster ride that went up higher and higher. It not only broke into the hundreds but got as high as $1,250. As the coins entered into circulation and were being snapped up as speculative instruments, Bitcoin gained both fame and notoriety, as in the connection to the Silk Road seizure toward the end of 2013.
But Bitcoin is not just for the die-hard libertarians, techno-geeks, or investors any more. Every day more businesses put up “We accept Bitcoin” signs on their stores and websites to extend more payment options to customers. What is merely convenient in retail, though, has the potential to become a real game-changer for companies who participate in the global economy directly.
Currently, banks add on significant processing time and clearing costs for businesses that operate in countries that do not share the same currency. The cost for foreign transactions can be borne by both the payer and payee. In addition to the outright cost in terms of fees, there is the disruption to a business's cashflow due to the additional days banks take to clear foreign transactions. Saving both time and money in clearing transactions is a clear advantage for companies pursuing growth in the global supply chain.
Most companies are still shy of integrating digital currency into their business operations at present, though that will likely change. A while back, I exchanged some emails with Brewster Kahle, digital librarian and founder of the Internet Archive. I asked him to explain why he described Bitcoin as “antifragile.” He said it fits that term “because it gets stronger the more the world shakes.” He offered further details as follows:
- Bitcoin, as a transaction system (rather than as a store of value), can be used with minimal support systems — in fact it has run as just a simple program on many people's machines, and still functions as it has scaled up. Also, the bitcoin community sees it as an experiment and therefore game to be pushed and tested — this is making the technology stronger. So this system is being tested in a very difficult hacker environment, and holds up well, and gets stronger as it is attacked.
Granted, the digital currency has had a number of setbacks, as well as dizzying swings of value, though it's been relatively steady lately, floating around the $500 mark. When it keeps a fairly consistent value, it will become more valuable as a means of exchange, which can expedite payments in the global supply chain.