Things Agreed Upon: My Collaboration With a The ECB Director General Who Questions the Value of Bitcoin

7 min readApr 2, 2024

Co-Authored with Ulrich Bindseil, Director General of the European Central Bank

Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin have always been polarizing, even within the world of economics and finance. This divisiveness, which often pits the crypto faithful against skeptical experts from traditional finance, is unfortunate. Both sides can learn a great deal from each other.

One of us is a Director General at the European Central Bank with a focus on payment systems and market infrastructure. This past February Ulrich and a colleague published a viral blog post on the ECB website questioning whether Bitcoin had any fundamental value and listing other reasons to be skeptical of its promise as currency. The blog post was a follow-up to an initial critique on the same blog written by Ulrich and his colleague back in 2022.

The other one of us clearly disagrees. Omid has been working in the crypto industry for years and teaches it at Columbia Business School. As argued on his own blog and in his books, he believes Bitcoin has unique and appealing properties that will eventually make it a backup reserve currency.

And yet: we consider each other friends, colleagues at a distance, and are conducting research together.

We first connected shortly after Ulrich’s initial blog post. Omid presented a list of rebuttals to Ulrich’s arguments — which to his credit Ulrich wanted to hear. Ulrich asked thoughtful questions and volunteered to read Omid’s book. He then invited Omid to present to his colleagues on digital currencies and cited Omid’s writing in his own research. Along the way we learned that we share a passion for the plumbing of finance and the likelihood of it being revolutionized by modern technology.

Unlike Ulrich, other experts in finance often dismiss all blockchain-based innovation, on account of the speculative nature of crypto assets, not to mention the combative nature of crypto believers. Unlike Omid, many crypto professionals dismiss the most important lessons from the history of finance, dooming themselves to repeat them.

We’ve learned a lot from each other by putting our differences aside. We’ve even discovered that there’s a lot we agree on when it comes to the power of decentralized settlement networks, smart contracts, and tokenization.

We agree that Bitcoin is a novel invention created by a genius, and that it will lead to lasting innovation. We also think that decentralization comes with major tradeoffs, one of which is a difficulty to evolve. The next few halvings are going to test Bitcoin’s economic security.

Bitcoin has an illicit use problem. The illicit use of it needs to be addressed — as it needs to be addressed for every other payment solution. Its unique properties require new tools for combating illicit use, but society has to manage the tradeoffs between catching bad actors and censoring good ones. Where to fall on this spectrum is a political decision.

We agree that the energy impact of Bitcoin is significant and must be acknowledged, even as it trends towards renewables. Whether the environmental impact is worth it will ultimately depend on its utility beyond pure speculation. We both think the appeal of Bitcoin is greater in places with high inflation, political oppression, or a lack of basic financial services.

That said, we both think stablecoins might be even more useful to such people for day-to-day use. They might also be disruptive in developed markets as a more sophisticated and programmable payment instrument, one that can be coupled with other tokenized assets to improve capital markets and invent new instruments. [BU1]

Lastly, we both think the high volatility and lack of generally accepted valuation framework of Bitcoin add to the controversy surrounding it. Omid believes that one of his students (or even Ulrich) might someday make a name for themselves by proposing one. Ulrich believes he already found the answer but will try hard to come with a different solution.

Most of all, we both consider ourselves better off for challenging each other’s views and would encourage others to try the same. The worlds of crypto and finance were always going to merge, so we might as well open our minds and learn from each other.

Author’s note: This piece was originally written as a back-and-forth debate about Bitcoin before it morphed into the post above. Below is Omid’s rebuttal to Ulrich’s post on the ECB blog as well as Ulrich’s response to the rebuttal. We share this in the spirit of provoking further debate.

Omid Malekan: Whether Bitcoin or any other asset should have value is for markets to decide. The more interesting question — for any asset — is whether there’s utility, but that lives in the eye of the beholder. I have no interest in collectible tennis shoes, but enough other people do for it to have a multi-billion dollar market [source]. My lack of interest is undecisive.

Bitcoin is an algorithmically minted digital currency with its own censorship-resistant payment system. Anyone can use it and be protected from inflation, repression, & forfeiture. This utility isn’t appreciated in the developed world where currencies are stable, and banking reliable. But countless people all over the world lack these financial amenities. Tellingly, Bitcoin adoption is highest in such countries [source].

In an ideal world, nobody would need Bitcoin. But in this one 25 countries are still experiencing double-digit inflation [source] and several had hyperinflation last year [source]. High inflation is often accompanied by financial repression. Bitcoin served as an effective store of value in these countries, despite its volatility.

A skeptic could argue almost any asset — including dollars, stocks, and real estate — do well when currencies collapse. But these assets are often unavailable to ordinary people, or live on untrustworthy infrastructure. Bitcoin has stronger property rights.

As the original blog post points out, those protections have a cost. Bitcoin is too slow and expensive to be used as a day-to-day currency & is seldom used as originally intended. But many technologies evolve beyond their original intent — the internet was original meant for academia and didn’t allow commercial activity until 1993. Tech evolves to serve users, not the other way around.

Bitcoin’s strong protections require energy. Setting aside the nuances, the environmental impact is significant. But many things use a lot of energy when measured in aggregate — like video games or the US Military. The question is whether the benefits are worth the cost. Bitcoin’s are, at least to women in Afghanistan or expats with family in Venezuela. Corporations and governments might someday find similar utility due to rising geopolitical tensions.

Bitcoin’s censorship-resistance does mean that it can be used for illicit activity. But so can smartphones, the internet, or banking. The existing financial system still accommodates significant illicit activity [source] — despite ever tightening restrictions, the cost of which is borne by everyone, including those who can afford it lease, like the underprivileged in so-called high-risk countries. The total amount of illicit activity in Bitcoin fell last year [source], possibly due to new forensic tools built on the transparency of the blockchain. Banking remains as opaque as ever, and fines for AML-violations jumped 50% in 2022. [source]

What do these benefits have to do with people who invest in Bitcoin ETFs? Very little. But it’s perfectly rational for one group of investors to bet that others will appreciate the utility of an asset. People who invest in Lithium ETFs don’t build batteries, they bet that someone else will.

Ulrich Bindseil: Although it would be nice, I fear that the idea of women in Afghanistan improving their conditions with Bitcoin is largely a romantic wish. And if crypto-assets could support them, wouldn’t a US stablecoin relying on a faster, cheaper, and more efficient blockchain not provide a better store of value or payment mechanism than Bitcoin?

One can easily acknowledge that the technical design of the Bitcoin network appears to be a masterpiece. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not already outdated or on its way to being soon. How can the protocol be changed sufficiently to gain the efficiency it needs to survive in the medium term? Wouldn’t substantial changes betray the narrative of Bitcoin being immutable and having a fixed supply, making it indistinguishable from newer cryptocoins, reminding everyone its design is one of countless possibilities, and therefore not scarce?

We admire the technical designs of the 1944 Colossus computer of Max Newman, but it did not have commercial viability for long. Can we really imagine that Bitcoin will be around in 50 years? Why should it, given the incredible pace of change in computing and crypto technology? And if it’s not around in 50 years, can it have value today without remarkable utility? Proof of work has high energy consumption — proof of stake consumes 99% less energy and centralized ledgers even less. The negative climate effects are experienced by everyone, but perhaps they should be charged to Bitcoin holders, most of whom don’t seem to care so long as prices go up. Ironically, many of them only access Bitcoin through centralized intermediaries, as is the case with the official wallet offered by the government of El Salvador [source]

The “HODL” vision of many Bitcoin owners, predicated on ever-higher prices despite so many question marks and no way to derive a fair value, is a poor basis for a trillion-dollar asset. Unlike the technical resilience of the network, it’s inelegant. It leads to endless promotion by large holders who understate the risks, putting other investors at risk. Having a fundamental value anchor for any asset class isn’t just a side issue, it’s a necessary condition for trust.