In an exclusive interview with WIRED, Yanis Varoufakis discusses Bitcoin’s bubble, the fantasy of apolitical money and the opportunities for the blockchain to reform Europe
When I first met Yanis Varoufakis in the summer of 2014, he was a highly respected but relatively obscure economist. Back then, the price of one bitcoin fluctuated around $440. Fast-forward three years and his career has followed a similar trajectory to bitcoin’s valuation. Both have experienced a meteoric rise in popularity, characterised by high-drama and volatility. Varoufakis would be thrust into the limelight as Greece’s finance minister; battling the austerity programme put forward by the Troika and today pursues the lofty ambition of trying to reform Europe. Reaching similar heights, just two weeks ago the price of one bitcoin broke $20,000 for the first time.
Varoufakis may have been one of the very first senior political leaders to explore the use of blockchain-based payments for a national economy. At the height of Greece’s financial crisis, he developed a plan for creating a peer-to-peer parallel payments system, based on the blockchain. Yet he wants to make one point very clear: “I was never impressed by bitcoin itself; but from the beginning I was saying that blockchain is a remarkable solution to problems that we have not even imagined yet.”
As bitcoin’s price continues to fluctuate, it has come under a steady barrage of criticism. Varoufakis is no less damning of the cryptocurrency but on very different grounds.
Bitcoin is “the perfect bubble”
Citing the 17th Century Dutch financial bubble in tulip bulbs, Varoufakis sees bitcoin’s current valuation as, “the perfect tulip bubble.” His explanation is simple. “Just take a look at two graphs. Graph one is a time-series of the dollar price of bitcoin, which has been growing exponentially. Graph two is the number of transactions and the quantity of goods and services that are sold and purchased by bitcoins.” The juxtaposition between these two graphs, suggests that the price of bitcoin is grossly inflated relative to its actual use. This leaves Varoufakis to conclude that, “without a shadow of a doubt, this valuation is the perfect bubble.”
What is driving the belief behind bitcoin? Some suggest that bitcoin is becoming a “safe haven” from national fiat currencies, particularly those that have been inflated through Quantitative Easing (QE). But Varoufakis is quick to reject this narrative. The fact that similar safe-haven assets such as gold and the dollar are not matching bitcoin’s wild price swings is a clear indication to Varoufakis that investors are not fleeing fiat currencies for fixed assets. As he argued, “If there was a correlation in the price of gold and bitcoin, then of course you could make the case that investors are fleeing fiat currencies towards fixed supply assets. But that is not what is happening.”
In Varoufakis’ view, what is really happening is the formation of a classic self-perpetuating bubble. It can be explained by one of Varoufakis’ primary intellectual influences, the British economist, John Maynard Keynes. Keynes famously studied the irrational and emotionally charged decisions that investors make when overcome by speculative fever, greed and hubris. Varoufakis believes bitcoin’s valuation is underpinned by the same irrational exuberance; “as Keynes argued, this is the kind of bubble that forms when average opinion is trying to guess what average opinion will be.” This self-referential game is what continues to erratically drive the price of bitcoin. But in terms of guessing when this bubble might burst, Varoufakis is adamant; “In non-linear dynamic systems, to predict when the bubble will burst, is actually impossible.”