Tuesday, March 25, 2014

IRS Ruling Destroys Bitcoin's Usefulness As Currency

The IRS has ruled that Bitcoin is an asset, not a currency.  Thank a government agency for some much-needed common sense.  The sound you hear right now is the crying of thousands of techie wanna-bes who thought their precious sets of digits were legal tender.  They'll be better off using seashells as payment.

The description of a Bitcoin transaction for coffee from that Bloomberg article says everything about how inefficient and stupid Bitcoin would be as a currency.  Anyone using dollars to buy coffee - or any other good or service in the real economy - would never have to pay a capital gains tax.  Using Bitcoin means realizing a gain or loss for part of one's Bitcoin holdings.  No one outside of a primitive barter economy or a hyperinflating modern economy would exchange an asset for an asset but that's what Bitcoiners will have to do in the US.

Hard asset hedges against hyperinflation must be liquid and immediately verifiable in value to be useful.  Bitcoin does not pass either of those tests with this ruling.  This ruling does not in any way entice me to consider Bitcoin as a hard asset on par with other commodities like metals or energy.  The difference with Bitcoin is that sharp coders can duplicate it in the blockchain.  This renders its authenticity questionable.  No one can duplicate oil in the ground, metal in a mine, timber in a forest, or inventory in a warehouse.

The clarification of Bitcoin mining as an income-producing activity is an awesome slap in the face to nerds who thought they could get rich for free.  Taxing this "income" at the value of Bitcoin when it was mined means miners may suffer losses if the price of Bitcoin declines in dollar terms.  Let me repeat that so nobody misses it.  Bitcoin mining income is the only type of ordinary earned income that could potentially be subject to a loss greater than its earned value.  Think about how this would destroy a nerd's wealth if the price of Bitcoin crashed.  Tax accountants are going to laugh when a Bitcoin client shows them a mining record worth $600, producing a tax liability of around $150, and the remaining Bitcoin turns out to be worth a couple of bucks.  Miners are going through a lot of effort creating Bitcoins at a peak price just to incur tax liabilities they won't be able to pay with their remaining loot.

The ruling will obviously create demand for an ecosystem that can record and verify crypto-currency transactions independent of a blockchain.  Accountants won't sign off on a Bitcoin client's tax forms unless they can file something like a 1099 verifying its value.  This destroys the libertarian fantasy of an unregulated anonymous economy but that's the only way Bitcoin users can stay out of tax trouble.

Bitcoin is now just another digital asset.  Other digital assets like marketing data and intellectual property have real value because they can produce a tangible benefit for their owners.  Bitcoin confers no such value.  It is just another conveyance.  The effort to produce it will be a nuisance at best and a tax loss at worst.  Real currencies are so much more useful.