Wednesday, December 24, 2014

BitGold: The Digitalisation of Metal

Earlier this year I wrote about several attempts to back cryptocurrencies with Gold (The Truth About "Gold Backed" CryptoCurrencies). Most of those I covered weren't backed by Gold in the conventional sense (i.e. a fixed amount of Gold that could be redeemed per currency unit), instead offering only partial backing. There were exceptions such as Ripple Singapore which offers fully backed units on the Ripple network, but totals held are still very modest (not quite 53 ounces of Gold).

Since that article I've noticed new entrants being marketed in this space and interestingly two competing products appear to be jostling for the same name, BitGold.

The first of those to market comes from Bitreserve, a company offering a digital wallet service where you can transfer between Bitcoin, various currencies (USD, EUR, CNY, YEN, GBP) and now Gold (stored and audited by GBI) all through their 'card' system. Think of it like having accounts in various currencies, you can only deposit funds into their system using Bitcoin, but once deposited you can diversify that value across any of the aforementioned currencies if you don't want exposure to Bitcoin's fluctuating value. Bitreserve maintains real reserves to cover their obligations to customers which are published live on a status page.
With our Gold Card, we are reviving gold for the purchase of goods and services. Bitreserve members can convert their bitcoin to bitgold, whose value is substantiated by bullion in our reserve, but still spend it as bitcoin. By creating a bridge between the revolutionary Bitcoin protocol and good old gold bullion, we enable our members to instantly send or spend bitcoin from the ounces of gold held in their Bitreserve wallet. Our Gold Card makes this ancient store of value instantly transferable, infinitely divisible and accessible to anyone with a networked device. Now anybody with some bitcoin and a Bitreserve wallet can have the Midas touch. Old King Croesus would be chuffed. Bitreserve
They're also introducing a similarly structured card that offers their customers exposure to the oil price.
For the first time in history, oil will become a form of payment and compete against all major global fiat currencies. Using Bitreserve’s Oil Card, anyone can hold their value as oil — the fuel for the modern world economy — and transfer that value instantly and for free.

Bitoil™ will work just as bitgold does today. Oil value can instantly be converted into five currencies, gold, or bitcoin at very low cost and can be spent immediately. Oil has a massive and direct impact on the global economy, and a currency that tracks oil prices could become one of the world’s most widely used digital currencies. Whether you are a consumer looking to hold money that’s tied to gas prices, or a business with a large portion of your expenses in oil related activities, Bitreserve’s Oil Card gives you yet another welcome currency option for holding and spending digital value. Bitreserve
To be honest their system sounds quite innovative, but I am still skeptical about attempts to digitise physical assets as I will explain shortly.

The second "BitGold", is being launched early next year. The site is taking email addresses for pre-launch access at and they've raised C$3.5 million from investors. The founders are Roy Sebag (CEO of Natural Resource Holdings Ltd) and Josh Crumb (Former Senior Metals Analyst at Goldman Sachs).
"The Toronto-based company will allow account holders to purchase bitcoins and exchange them for gold redeemable in various vaults around the world, as well as convert the metal back into the digital currency. Customers will also get a debit card, said Sebag, 29.

The company is trying to muscle in on traditional bullion dealers and gold-backed exchange-traded funds, two of the most popular ways for retail investors to get hold of physical gold." Bloomberg
Interestingly the name that both of these new products are launching with, Bit Gold, has already been used by Nick Szabo to describe what could be considered the inspiration for Bitcoin. 
The Bit Gold proposal, by Nick Szabo, describes a system for the decentralized creation of unforgeable chains of proofs of work, with each one being attributed to its discoverer's public key, using timestamps and digital signatures. It is said that these proofs of work would have value because they would be scarce, difficult to produce, and securely stored and transferred.
His early proposal was so closely worded to the way Bitcoin works that many speculated Nick may in fact be Satoshi Nakamoto (or form part of a team that wrote the Bitcoin whitepaper).

Even ignoring the naming issue, I'm still not convinced that trying to link physical Gold with a digital representation is a good idea and here are some reasons why...

Counterparty Risk: As I said in a recent post (How Safe Are Unallocated Bullion Accounts?), I own precious metals because they have a lower level of counterparty risk, putting other parties between myself and a claim on the physical metal is counterproductive to one of the reasons I hold them. Some of these products are structured so that your claim is with the company providing the digital wallet service, while the actual custodian of the Gold may be another layer or two down. Even if regular audits occur, I would not be comfortable that my Gold would be easily retrievable if something were to go wrong (and not all are offering the ability for redemption of the Gold).

Trusted Third Party: One of the key attributes of Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies is the lack of need for a trusted third party to confirm the transfer of units. Transactions occur on a shared public ledger (called the block chain). With no physical asset to account for this can all occur through the use of private keys to sign transactions. The benefit of this is lower transaction costs. Introducing a physical asset to the mix means that you do need a trusted third party (sometimes multiple) to verify the assets, even if a public ledger is still used for transparency of transactions.

Spending Gold: Around 12 months ago I stumbled across a comment from Pierre Rochard talking about the consumer behaviour of those spending Bitcoin, he claimed "Consumers making payments generally replenish their bitcoin balance simultaneously, so it's a net zero." My response, why not just hold their Bitcoin balance steady and use fiat currency to make the purchase? Those introducing these digital Gold products assume there's lots of people out there who want an easier solution for 'spending' their Gold. My Gold holdings are not held for the purpose of short term spending on groceries or electrical goods, I'm not interested in giving up the security of possession for the ability to spend it more easily.

Capital Gains Tax: As I have covered on this site before, Gold (Let Australians Save in Gold Instead of Debt) and cryptocurrencies (Glenn Stevens Talks Bitcoin & Competing Currencies) are not really setup from a tax perspective to facilitate their use as a regular currency (despite the ATO recently giving a break to those using Bitcoins). It's likely that in most situations those using these digital wallet services are expected to keep records of any capital gains or losses (relative to their Australian Dollar value) to tally at the end of year for the purpose of declaring a loss or gain. The Australian tax system is not setup to cater for the use of assets (other than the Australian Dollar) as money and I suspect it would be similar in many other countries. We don't have competing currencies despite Glenn Stevens (Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia) insistence that we do.

Government Regulation: The idea behind most cryptocurrencies is to have a distributed electronic method of creating and transferring value with no need to be in a specific physical location. Adding Gold to the mix literally destroys the advantages of a cryptocurrency because the asset it's linked to is stored centrally, leaving it vulnerable to the negative effects of government regulation.

One advocate for the mixing of these two assets has been Jan Skoyles, CEO at The Real Asset Company, whose opinion was recently covered by a Forbes contributor:
Jan’s argument therefore that there is demand for both a gold-backed currency, and a fully-transparent and accessible gold-trading system, is a persuasive one. By recording gold purchases on a block chain style ledger, the currency can be used not only as a medium of exchange, but also to facilitate gold ownership, and challenge the status quo for clearing and settlement in the gold market. In other words, you can buy your gold, and you can spend it too.
The article goes on to say that The Real Asset Company has their own product in the works. I tried to reach Jan (by email and Twitter) to confirm that's still the case and get some clarification on how it would work, but I'm yet to hear back (will update this post if I do). I'd think most Gold investors would prefer a level of privacy for their 'digital stack', something a public ledger wouldn't easily accommodate.

Everyone has different wants and needs from their assets, especially those used as a monetary resource, so perhaps there are some individuals who are prepared to look past the described shortcomings of a digitalised Gold product for the flexibility and convenience that it offers. If you are one of those people I'd love to hear your reasoning in the comments below.

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