International Forecaster Weekly

Bitcoin Reached Parity With Silver

So is bitcoin really now more valuable than gold now? You might need to ask a philosopher. All I know is that people sure seem to be willing to pay a lot for it at the moment.

James Corbett | March 4, 2017

Cast your mind back to February 2013. It was a chaotic month for metals traders. The Bundesbank had just roiled world markets by demanding the repatriation of 50% of their gold holdings from overseas. Central bank gold buying had just hit 49-year highs. The Shanghai Gold Exchange hit record volumes as Indian and Chinese investors returned to the market with a vengeance. India's gold imports swelled to 18 month highs.

Indeed, as I noted at the time, the silent gold rush was continuing apace and those in the know were keeping a close eye on the precious metals markets.

But there was another story that was taking place that . A story that, in retrospect, may prove to be more important than all of those. Bitcoin reached parity with silver.

Specifically, the price of one bitcoin equaled that of an ounce of silver for the first time on February 19, 2013.

And just this week, the price of one bitcoin equaled (and quickly surpassed) that of an ounce 0f gold for the first time. (Well, OK, the second time, but in retrospect Mt. Gox's valuation didn't count, did it?)

So what does this milestone mean?

To start on an answer to that question, it might be helpful to look at an even simpler question: How is the spot price of gold and bitcoin determined, anyway? In fact, these are two separate questions with two very different answers, and that in and of itself is very telling.

Although remarkably few know it, until 2015 the gold spot price that set the benchmark for traders around the world was not a number arrived at through some automatic algorithm averaging bids and asks on an exchange somewhere. No, it was set in a bizarre ritual conducted by a company literally known as "The London Gold Market Fixing Ltd." The Gold Fix, as it was called, was a twice-daily meeting that took place between participating members of the London Bullion Market Association, including (of course) Nathan Mayer Rothschild & Sons. When the fix formed in 1919, and until Rothschild pulled out in 2004, the meeting took place in a wood-paneled room at Rothschild's office on St. Swithin’s Lane in London’s financial district. After that point it became a teleconference, still held at 10:30 AM and 3:00 PM London time each day.

The meeting itself followed a bizarre and arcane ritual:

"The gold fix usually begins with the chairman declaring a gold price which is very near the ongoing spot market gold price. Then, the participants will decide to erect flag or not based on their customers' supply and demand. Until all of the members' flag is put down, the gold price is fixed. Otherwise, the chairman must change the proposed price."

But (gosh darn, wouldn't you know it?!) it was discovered to be a huge scam when, nearly one century after it began, the whiz kids in the financial world finally realized that the traders in the meeting could use their advanced knowledge of the yet-to-be-announced new gold price to their advantage. The financial fake news media finally woke up and took notice after the U.K. Financial Conduct Authority launched an official investigation into the scam and everything unwound shortly thereafter. (ZeroHedge's piece on who, exactly, was participating in the fix, was a particularly interesting tidbit to emerge from the scandal.)

Now the Gold Fix has been replaced by the LBMA Gold Price operated by the not-at-all-shady ICE Benchmark Administration and everything is hunky dory in gold price fixing world. Now, instead of a closed-door conference of a few powerful banking interests, the process is "independently administrated, tradeable, electronic and physically settled, conducted in dollars, with aggregated and anonymous bids and offers as well as being published on-screen and in real-time."

Indeed. The price of bitcoin, on the other hand, is at once a more transparent and less tangible figure.

Like everything else with bitcoin, there is no central coordinating body or authority, meaning there is no single price of bitcoin. There are many different exchanges where people are buying and selling bitcoin, and each exchange has its own price based on the bids and asks taking place in their own internal marketplace at any given time.

Organizations like Coindesk have taken it upon themselves to create Bitcoin Price Index (XBP) which calculates the midpoint of the bid/ask spread on a number of leading exchanges. But while this is automatic, electronic, transparent and instantaneous, it is by no means definitive. As the XBP FAQ explains, its use of a midpoint average instead of a volume-weighted average is an essentially arbitrary decision, taken because "the bitcoin market currently lacks sufficient depth and regional liquidity." And what exchanges does one choose to include in such an index? Again, although few would dispute that the exchanges included in the XBP are the "leading" exchanges in a volume sense, exactly where that cutoff lies and what criteria might go into deciding which exchanges to include or reject from the average is, again, arbitrary.

This may seem trivial, but it reveals an important truth, one that is often forgotten when traders are looking for the spot price of any commodity, be it bitcoin or gold or oil or anything else. There is no inherent price for any of these goods. There is only what someone is willing to pay for it.

Which brings us back to the question: What does the recent bitcoin/gold price crossover actually mean?

On its simplest level it means that at this moment traders are willing to pay more of one type of currency (USD) for one bitcoin than they are for an ounce of gold.

But that doesn't tell us very much, does it?

Once again, it comes back to the basic philosophy behind the question of "value." Are you interested in the value of gold and bitcoin as measured in US Federal Reserve notes? Are they just another commodity to be used to turnaround a quick buck? If so, then by all means, study the charts, look for the patterns, find your opportunities and enjoy the game.

But what if the "value" of gold or bitcoin is not measured in government fiat, but in their own potential as monetary instruments? After all, the US dollar will not outlast the US government (in its current form, at any rate), but gold will and bitcoin might. And if these instruments are not investments but hedges, that changes the meaning of their "value," doesn't it?

By that token, gold's utility as a monetary instrument is already a known factor. There are thousands of years of history showing that it has successfully facilitated transactions between people around the globe. Bitcoin is a much different beast. There are the "bitcoin to the moon" proponents who firmly believe that bitcoin will eventually reach the million dollar mark, but there are many many reasons to be skeptical of such an outcome.

The bottom line is that the value of gold, bitcoin, or any other good is a function of its immediate utility, its immediate exchange value, or its potential long-term exchange value, depending on what you are planning to use it for. For the moment, there are people in desperate circumstances (like Venezuelans whose currency has been turned into toilet paper or Chinese looking to secure their wealth by avoiding the inevitable yuan devaluation) for whom bitcoin is worth $1200 or more dollars. There are others, who distrust bitcoin, have never used it, and see no need for it in their own lives, for whom the value is $0. Similarly, there are those for whom gold is just a shiny metal that looks nice as jewelry but has little real utility, and there are others who see it as the only real form of money. All of these people will value these goods differently.

So is bitcoin really now more valuable than gold now? You might need to ask a philosopher. All I know is that people sure seem to be willing to pay a lot for it at the moment.