As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is testifying now before the House Financial Services Committee, she will likely get questions about the popularity of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and what, if any, the policy responses should be. Ever since her confirmation, Yellen has been unusually strident—particularly given her reputation as a measured, though left-leaning, academic economist—in condemning cryptocurrency and claiming, without evidence, that it is often used in illicit finance. Below is my March 6 Forbes column, in which I point out that retail and institutional investors are disregarding her claims, as key players in the financial world from Citi to personal finance expert Suze Orman have endorsed bitcoin and cryptocurrency.
Suze Vs. Janet On Bitcoin
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has been sounding the alarms about bitcoin and cryptocurrency. At a conference in late February, Yellen called bitcoin “an extremely inefficient way of conducting transactions” and “a highly speculative asset.” She also asserted—without evidence—that she fears “it’s often used for illicit finance.” Yellen leveled similar charges against cryptocurrency as a whole at her confirmation hearings in January.
But to paraphrase a famous 1970s commercial for a now-defunct stock brokerage, when Janet Yellen trash-talks bitcoin, many people in the financial world don’t seem to listen. Instead, they are listening to companies like Square, MicroStrategy, and Tesla that are putting their cash reserves into bitcoin. And they are listening to analysts from Citi, who say in a new report that “bitcoin is at the tipping point of its existence” and could “become the currency of choice for international trade.”
And now, ordinary investors are listening to personal finance expert Suze Orman, who told Yahoo Finance in a segment that ran Thursday, “I love bitcoin!” She continued, “I like the universality of it. I like that it’s just there and there are corporations that are investing in it.” Orman added that she views bitcoin “as a possible replacement for gold as an investment.”
In the interview, Orman revealed that she “played” bitcoin by investing in MicroStrategy last year, and “rode it all the way up” as the company’s stock price soared along with the value of bitcoin, due to in significant part to the firm’s bitcoin holdings. She even recommended to those who could afford to lose their investment, putting $100 a month in bitcoin through a Paypal (PYPL) account.
Orman cautioned that bitcoin was “seriously risky,” and said she tells investors, “I would not be investing in bitcoin with money that I could not afford to lose.”
Orman’s endorsement of bitcoin is a serious blow to bitcoin’s progressive critics like Yellen, as Orman’s personal finance tips appeal to both red and blue. Indeed, Orman is somewhat of a progressive herself.
In the Yahoo Finance interview, she told host Andy Serwer that she loved Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) “more than life itself,” and that she is supportive of Warren’s proposed “wealth tax.” Orman said, though, that she was worried about whether the money raised by such a tax would be spent wisely by Congress. Skepticism about the effects of massive government spending and fears of looming inflation across a broad cross-section of Americans are major factors fueling the rise of bitcoin and cryptocurrency, despite the warnings expressed by Yellen and other overseers of bureaucracy.
Yellen’s assertions that bitcoin and cryptocurrency are “often” used for illicit financing have also been disputed by an array of experts. In the Citi report, the analysts found that illicit use of bitcoin fell 50 percent from 2019 to 2020, and illicit activities represent a very small share of cryptocurrency transactions in general. “In total, just over 2% of the activity in the cryptocurrency space was linked to illicit activity in 2019, and that total was down to only 0.3% in 2020,” the report said.
As my Competitive Enterprise Institute colleague Ryan Nabil points out, the traceability of cryptocurrency that run on the public ledger system of blockchain—such as bitcoin and Ethereum— makes it futile for criminals to use cryptocurrency for illicit ends. As a result of this traceability, Nabil writes, “law enforcement officials and private investigators can use publicly available information to investigate illegal financing, which could then serve as the basis for subpoenas and warrants.”
Ironically, government-issued paper currency notes are often easier to use than cryptocurrency for illicit transactions because they are largely untraceable. Writes FinTech consultant Hailey Lennon in Forbes, “if we really want to focus on where the money is, we should look at government backed, physical fiat.”
In fact, cryptocurrency’s ability to be traced was one of the five factors the Citi report listed as to why bitcoin could be the currency of choice for international trade. Bitcoin’s advantages are “decentralized and borderless design, its lack of foreign exchange exposure, its speed and cost advantage in moving money, the security of its payments, and its traceability.” That is the case for many cryptocurrencies and that is why—despite the finger wagging by those in power—their use will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.