When Bitcoin was introduced to the world over a decade ago, it was supposed to be a revolution in the finance ecosystem. But that revolution has hardly come to pass. The cryptocurrency’s tumultuous first decade has been marked by scandals, missteps, and wild price swings. After achieving a record high price of more than $63,000 in April 2021, BTC has fallen by 24% to nearly $48,000 as of Aug. 30, 2021.
But investors and the cryptocurrency’s enthusiasts have doubled down on their optimism regarding its future. As such, the coming decade could prove pivotal to Bitcoin and to cryptocurrencies more broadly.
A Compromised Vision
As set forth by its pseudonymous inventor Satoshi Nakamoto in a seminal paper released on Oct. 31, 2008, Bitcoin was intended to be a borderless and decentralized alternative to government- and central-bank-controlled fiat currencies. Consensus regarding a transaction within the Bitcoin network does not depend on third-party mediators. Instead, it is achieved with the help of blockchain—a peer-to-peer network of systems with electronic ledgers—to verify and authenticate a transaction.
“The cost of mediation increases transaction costs, limiting the minimum practical transaction size and cutting off the possibility for small and casual transactions,” wrote Nakamoto to make his case for removing mediation and replacing it with a peer-to-peer network.
Nearly 13 years later, however, that original vision seems compromised. Decentralization has given way to centralization. Bitcoin whales, or investors who have massive holdings of the cryptocurrency, are said to control its price in the markets. The democratization of printing money through mining has been sacrificed for the efficiency of massive mining farms. Bitcoin's technology is afflicted by scaling problems, resulting in a long history of forks and altcoins.
But those negatives are balanced by the growth of a thriving and vibrant ecosystem for crypto. The cryptocurrency market, which did not exist a decade ago, is currently worth $2.02 trillion.
More than 11,000 cryptocurrencies have been created and are being traded on exchanges since Bitcoin’s debut. Blockchain has become a household word and is being touted as a solution to complex problems. After initial hesitation, institutional investors are also making a beeline toward crypto-assets as a form of investment.
El Salvador made Bitcoin legal tender on June 9, 2021. It is the first country to do so. The cryptocurrency can be used for any transaction where the business can accept it. The U.S. dollar continues to be El Salvador’s primary currency.
Evaluating the Next Decade
The next decade could prove of significant importance to Bitcoin's evolution. Revolutions within the financial ecosystem aside, there are a couple of areas in Bitcoin’s ecosystem to which investors should pay close attention.
Currently, cryptocurrency is poised between being a store of value and a medium for daily transactions. Institutional investors are eager to get in on the action and profit from the volatility in its prices even as governments around the world, such as Japan, have declared it a valid form of payment for goods.
But problems with scaling and security have prevented both occurrences from happening. “[A]rguably the biggest failings for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies over the previous years lie with security,” said Chakib Bouda, CTO at Rambus—a payment firm. Bouda is referring to the billions of dollars worth of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that have been stolen from exchanges by hackers. According to him, a secure Bitcoin ecosystem will lead to widespread adoption. “[W]e expect in 10 years' time, Bitcoin will become mainstream and have a remarkably different reputation,” he said.
The mainstreaming of Bitcoin as a payment mechanism (or for that matter, its increasing attractiveness as an asset class) will not occur without technological improvements in its ecosystem. To be considered a viable investment asset or form of payment, Bitcoin’s blockchain should be able to handle millions of transactions in a short span of time. Several technologies, such as Lightning Network, promise scale in its operations. New cryptocurrencies that have formed as a result of hard forks of the Bitcoin blockchain, including Bitcoin Cash and Bitcoin Gold, aim to adjust the parameters of the ecosystem in order to handle more transactions at a faster pace.
Along with improvements in Bitcoin’s blockchain, Ripple’s CTO David Schwartz compared Bitcoin to Ford’s Model T in 2018. The automobile's manufacturer heralded a revolution in transportation and an entire ecosystem, from highways to gas stations, evolved to serve the automobile. Thanks to extensive media coverage, the beginnings of an ecosystem have already taken root in the past couple of years.
As regulation evolves to keep pace, it is likely that the ecosystem will expand. Schwartz predicts that the next decade will “bring an explosion of low-cost, high-speed payments that will transform value exchange the way the Internet transformed information exchange."
So far in 2021, the price of Bitcoin has topped $60,000 before falling to around $40,000. Large banks are continuing to take notice of the cryptocurrency, with Goldman Sachs reopening its crypto trading desk and BNY Mellon opening custody services for digital currencies.
Citi said Bitcoin could be the currency of choice for international trade. This comes as both PayPal (PYPL) and Tesla (TSLA) made investments in cryptocurrency in early 2021. Tesla bought $1.5 billion in Bitcoin, while PayPal made a bid to buy crypto custodian Curv. Citi noted that Bitcoin’s future is still very uncertain, but that it’s on the cusp of mainstream acceptance. The institutional investor interest is driving broad interest in the cryptocurrency, but issues over custody, security, and capital efficiency are still headwinds for the digital asset, noted Citi.