Is the Ethereum Merge happening?

One of the most long-awaited events in the cryptocurrency space appears to finally actually be happening: Ethereum’s transition from Proof-of-Work (PoW) to Proof-of-Stake (PoS).

The transformation of the second largest blockchain has long been shrouded in fear, uncertainty and doubt. The onset of a new crypto winter led many to believe that the change would be postponed yet again or not happen at all, in the face of insurmountable complexity and civil war within the Ethereum community.

That still cannot be ruled out. But with market sentiment recently being at rock bottom, much more attention has been paid to all the possible ways the Merge could derail, rather than the fact that the process has been moving forward.

The third and final rehearsal before the Mainnet Merge is taking place this week, when the Goerli testnet transitions to PoS, expected to be completed by August 12th. Provided that the testnet merge goes according to plan an announcement of the time schedule for the Mainnet Merge is likely to follow.

The Mainnet Merge will see the legacy (PoW) Ethereum blockchain is being merged with a special-purpose (PoS) blockchain called the Beacon Chain, which launched on December 1st, 2020. (Bankless has compiled an informative list of FAQs surrounding the Merge here and another good primer can be read here.)

90% lower ETH issuance

The Merge, provided it succeeds, will lead to a ~90% reduction in ETH issuance. Money supply growth will reduce from ~4% per year to close to zero. The effects of the Merge on ETH money supply can be simulated here. The overall supply of ETH in circulation will peak around the Merge and is predicted to decline going forward as the amount of ETH being burnt outstrips the amount of ETH being issued.

The Merge has been likened to a “Triple halving”, in Bitcoin parlance, because the deflationary impact of the change to PoS is roughly equivalent to the effect of three Bitcoin halvings (which of course only happens once every fourth year, with the next one on track in 2024).

With annual ETH issuance being reduced by approx. 5 million ETH, that translates to approx. $8,5b at current prices (~1.700USD/ETH). Considering that most new ETH issuance have tended to be sold directly in the market by miners, that is a lot of selling pressure that will disappear going forward after the Merge.

~99.95% less energy use

Post-Merge, Ethereum will also use ~99.95% less energy than it currently does.

Whether changing to PoS represents an improvement from PoW is a separate debate. But the change to PoS pre-empts any criticism of Ethereum for heavy energy use. If that will lead to increased adoption/investment from actors that previously have had ESG concerns remains to be seen, but it is definitely a possibility given how sticky (fair or unfair) the energy critique has been.

Miner Revolt?

So will the Merge now actually happen? Or will it be delayed yet again?

In his latest essay where he outlines why he is “max bidding” ETH Arthur Hayes makes a logical deduction why he believes the Merge now is for real. Because the one group that is both the best informed and that stand to lose the most from the Merge, namely the Ethereum miners, is turning increasingly vocal about and mobilising against the Merge.

Just like Bitcoin miners Ethereum miners have been generating revenue by solving computationally difficult puzzles to produce blocks of transactions. With the transition to PoS the miners will be rendered out of business. There are few if any other blockchains with the size and scale of Ethereum that the miners can allocate their resources to instead. Naturally they are not happy. Some have indicated that they will turn to supporting Ethereum Classic, that hard-forked from Ethereum in 2016.

Another very possible scenario is that the Merge will lead to another hard-fork and the creation of a PoW Ethereum blockchain that will continue to run in parallel with the main PoS chain.

On the other hand Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin has played down the impact of any post-Merge hard forks.

Yield fest

Whereas the miners stand to lose, validators stand to generate attractive returns from staking ETH under the new PoS mechanism. If the Merge happened today, validators could expect to earn a total of ~8–12% APR, although yields are likely to be brought down as the demand for staking ETH increases.

The yield-earning potential from ETH staking (without the type of crazy credit risk that recently got many speculators in various DeFi yield farming schemes severly burnt) is a potential game changer, as it significantly increases the attractiveness of Ethereum as a financial asset.

Price volatility will in all likelihood continue to be a feature, but for investors that in any case would be holding ETH, the ability to pocket yields is a big added advantage.

While Ethereum remains down approximately 2/3 from the November ATH, it has doubled from the June bottoms below $1.000, as the sentiment has tentatively improved.

There is of course still a chance that the Ethereum Merge could turn into an unmitigated disaster, which in case would freeze the whole Cryptosphere in a deep winter like the White Witch of Narnia. But for the moment it does actually look like the Merge will at long last take place and turn Ethereum into an energy efficient, environmentally friendly Blockchain, that will further distinguish it from its big brother Bitcoin.

Gillian Tett halfway down the rabbit hole

10-15 years ago Gillian Tett was a fine journalist, offering fresh and insightful commentary on the tubing of financial markets. For example her book, “Fool’s Gold” – on the origins of the CDO debacle – was great.

That is quite some time ago. Since then Tett has been effectively co-opted by the liberal Manhattan establishment, and rarely (if ever) has anything interesting to offer anymore.

To be fair, Tett is more crypto-curious than the FT’s otherwise categorically negative stance towards the space. But her latest piece is somewhat confused.

The entire cryptocurrency complex, Bitcoin included, has no doubt taken a heavy beating this year. And SBF has offered credit lines to crumbling competitors like a latter-day J.P. Morgan. But. No government bailouts have been required. And whilst the Bitcoin price has plummeted, the network is stronger than ever.

So, why the implosion of the “terra and luna stable coins”, as Tett imprecisely describes, would be “distinctly embarrassing for crypto evangelists”, is far from clear, when in fact the loudest warnings against Do Kwon’s un-stable/Ponzi coin scheme came from within the crypto community.

I.e. Tett is guilty of equalling crypto with Bitcoin.

It is understandable that the recent turmoil has put many people off cryptocurrencies in general, at least in the short term.

But in the longer term the collapse of UST, Luna, 3AC, Celsius, etc, and articles like this one from Tett will serve to underline that:

Crypto ≠ Bitcoin

Gillian Tett needs to dig deeper down the rabbit hole next time.

Bitcoin, Inflation & Tesla

Ocasionally financial markets react to news in bizarre ways.

On Wednesday stock markets tumbled after the monthly inflation report showed US consumer prices accelerating at their fastest pace since 2008 in April, rising 4,2% year over year and 0,8% month over month, way above economists’ expectations.

The monster of Stagflation is finally rearing its ugly head again, after more than a decade of massive money printing by central banks.

The central bankers thought “Quantitative Easing” would boost economic growth without stoking inflation. But ultimately this unprecedented monetary experiment may end with spiralling inflation and stagnating growth – with Milton Friedman lecturing from heaven that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”.

Ironically, Bitcoin, which was created precisely as an antidote to inflationary monetary policies, also plunged after the inflation report.

The Bitcoin dump accelerated further after Elon Musk tweeted that Tesla will not be accepting Bitcoin payment for Teslas after all, (which do raise some interesting questions about the company’s due diligence practices, but never mind).

On the face of it the tweet is bearish for the Bitcoin price, which duly tanked as low as $45.000.

But, how many people would have exchanged Bitcoin for Teslas anyway? Probably not many. And those few would already be holders of Bitcoin. Nobody would exchange fiat currency for Bitcoin for the purpose of buying a Tesla. Ergo, the initial Tesla announcement of Bitcoin acceptance, though much hyped at the time, did not imply any new marginal demand for Bitcoin. If anything, Musk’ statement may inadvertently lead to less demand for Teslas from Bitcoiners.

Likewise, Wednesday’s reversal statement from Musk should not have any implications for Bitcoin demand. Despite dressing up the announcement in environmentally conscious lingo the bottom line is that Tesla will keep hodling Bitcoin. Mr Musk is a mercurial character and it is not easy to know if he has a bigger plan or is just acting ad hoc, but in this case it may very well be the latter.

In any case Mr Musk’s tweet sowed much fear, uncertainty and doubt. But in a world where consumer prices are accelerating ominously, Tesla’s self-appointed techno-king is presenting late-coming hedge fund managers and the Michael Saylors of the world with an opportunity to pick up Bitcoin on the cheap. As I write this the price is already back above $50.000 again, (Caveat Emptor)

Fed Chair Powell tacitly admits defeat in War on Bitcoin

Bitcoin’s negative price action on Monday seems to come at least partly in response to comments from Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell in a panel discussion with other central bankers hosted by BIS.

That the chief guardian of the US dollar says that Bitcoin will not be a substitute for the Greenback should come as absolutely no surprise at all. What IS more surprising is Powell’s statement that Bitcoin can be a substitute for gold.

This highlights how central bankers have gone from dismissing Bitcoin as a bubble or Ponzi scheme in the recent past, to gradually albeit very reluctantly accepting that cryptocurrencies will play an inevitable role in the global monetary framework.

From challenging the legality of Bitcoin, central bankers are now only challenging the cryptocurrency’s volatility. This is nothing less than a tacit admission on the part of the central bankers that it lies outside their powers to regulate cryptocurrencies out of existence.

Meanwhile, as Powell and BIS boss Carstens keep on repeating that “Bitcoin is backed by nothing”, the ECB stepped up its bond buying to €21,1 billion in the week to March 17th – the highest rate in three months. The pandemic may end, quantitative easing will go on.

Will there be life after Google?

The Google system of the world is an evil empire that stifles entrepreneurial activity and is doomed to fail, before a decentralised Internet will rise from the ashes, argues George Gilder in his latest book. 

life after google

On the face of it the main argument George Gilder is making in his latest book is preposterously bold: “The Google era is coming to an end because Google tries to cheat the constraints of economic scarcity and security by making its goods and services free. Google’s Free World is a way of brazenly defying the centrality of time in economics and reaching beyond the wallets of its customers directly to seize their time.”

Considering that Google generated revenues of 136,8 billion dollars and profits of 30,7 bUSD in 2018 and has a market capitalisation not far shy of a trillion (870 bUSD as of April 22), its decline and fall does not seem imminent, but a rather far-fetched prospect.

Google’s system of the world

Google is not only one of the most valuable (on some days the most valuable) companies in the world, but more than any other of the tech giants Google represents a system of the world, (borrowed from Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy). A system of the world necessarily combines science and commerce, religion and philosophy, economics and epistemology.

Google’s theory of knowledge, its religion, is Big Data. Whereas good Christians may go to heaven “good googlers” are on a determinist path to a place called Singularity, where technology has transcended biology and artificial intelligence surpassed human intelligence.

Reaching Singularity rests on two conditions:

  • All data in the world can be compiled in a single “mind”.
  • Algorithms sufficiently comprehensive to analyse the data can be written.

As Gilder points out the Google theory of knowledge and mind are not mere abstract exercises. They are central to Google’s business model, which has progressed from “Search” to “Satisfy”. Google can already show considerable evidence that with enough data and processors the search engine can know better what will satisfy your longings than yourself. Notwithstanding that it in many cases makes us stupider: Just last weekend I was in Vienna and Google could tell me a restaurant I fancied was closed for lunch. We walked by to double-check and lo and behold open the restaurant was.

The fatal conceit of Google-Marxism 

Gilder – an unreconstructed Reaganite free-marketeer – sees Google’s idea of a universal omniscient logic machine as deterministic and ultimately dictatorial. He accuses Google of repeating Karl Marx’s erroneous belief that we have reached the final stage of history. An immanentized escathon, in the words of William Buckley. Ironically both the technology Utopians and Dystopians share the belief/delusion of the coming all -powerful AI. Gilder thinks they are exaggerating the attainments of their own era, and sees the gospel espoused by the Google guys, Ray Kurzweil (since 2014 employed by Google) and the likes of Life 3.0 author Max Tegmark and Yuval Noah Hariri as hubristic Google-Marxism. Gilder accuses the AI champions of being blind to the realities of consciousness and of having forgotten Gödel’s lesson that all logical systems, such as AI, is incomplete and in need of an “oracle” (such as human consciousness outside the machine). He does not share Kurzweil’s position that when a machine is fully intelligent it will be recognised as conscious.

Indeed, there are eerie similarities between the Google theory of progress and the Soviet economic theories of central planning. The Soviet economist Leonid Kantorovich, who won the Sveriges Riksbank’s economics prize in 1975, the year between Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, never shed the belief that advances in information technology would give Gosplan (close to perfect) knowledge and make central planning more efficient than market choices.

One foundational feature of the Google system is the Zero Price. Informed by Internet pioneer Stewart Brand’s slogan that “Information wants to be free”, Google has made (almost) all of its content and information free, in a digital version of the medieval Commons – i.e. public resources available to all. Private data are the mortal enemy of the Google system of the world.

In Gilder’s view the Zero price is the fatal flaw that dooms Google, just as Hayek predicted that the lack of price signals would doom the Soviet economy. Jeremy Rifkin heralds a Zero Marginal Cost Society, where prices for near every product and service will reach (close to) zero as every device and entity become connected in an Internet of Things and exponential network effects will unleash a Utopia of leisure and abundance – (a vision for the future that needless to say is much in vogue at the Googleplex).

Gilder does not buy into that prophesy. He sees “free” not only as a lie – as Apple CEO Tim Cook acerbically pointed out: “If the service is ‘free’ you are not the customer but the product” – but as a return to the barter system, a system so inefficient that it was left behind in the Stone Age: “Above all, you pay in time. Time is what money measures and represents – what remains scarce when all else becomes abundant in the “Zero Marginal Cost” economy. Money signals the real scarcities of the world concealed in the false infinities of free.” Furthermore, “free” entails a slippery avoidance of liabilities to real customers and no concern for security.

Disconcertingly for Google there are many signs that internet users have had enough of attention-grabbing ads and lack of data privacy.

  • Adoption of ad-blockers are skyrocketing to the degree that even Google itself has felt forced to launch their own “ad-blocker” – and it is the most attractive demographics for advertisers that are leading the trend. In the US 25 percent of internet users were blocking ads in 2016.
  • Internet users are simply developing “banner blindness”, becoming more or less immune to the bombardment of ads.
  • In the product-search category Google is rapidly losing ground to Amazon. Internet users still prefer Google for informational searches, such as “What is the capital of Kazakhstan?”, “Was Jesus a Muslim?” or “When will the world end?”. But by 2017 Amazon had captured 52 percent of the product-search market; intentional searches for products to buy, vs 26 percent for Google and other search engines. 

Nobody really wants the value-subtractive ads that are the underpinning of the Google system. Gilder, who is 78, thinks this will doom Google within his lifetime, although he qualifies his prediction by saying that search will likely remain a valuable business.

Crashing into Hölzle’s Wall

If you meet any technology investor today his first question will likely be if your business is “scalable”? Meaning if you are able to grow revenues with less than proportional, or ideally no increases in marginal cost – the key to ever-fatter profit margins. That is what the likes of Google and Facebook have achieved, and what investors hope the likes of Amazon, Uber, Spotify, AirBnB et al. will achieve.

The question is if the margin story can continue for Google? An inherent challenge in Google’s business model is that “free” inevitably leads to over-consumption. “Free” has enabled Google to capture (effectively) the entire market, but will the company eventually collapse under the weight of the unlimited demand for its free services? As Gilder writes: “The nearly infinite demand implicit in ‘free’ runs into the finitude of bandwidth, optical innovation, and finance – a finitude that reflects the inexorable scarcity of time. This finitude produces not zero marginal costs but spikes of nearly infinite marginal costs – Hölzle’s wall. The latter a reference to Google employee number 8, Urs Hölzle’s lament that Google’s cloud infrastructure was “rapidly approaching a wall”. 

The exponential growth in demand for Google’s services (see chart below) – which roughly doubles every year – has forced Google to build out the largest cloud infrastructure on the planet over the past 15 years, with three underwater cables across the Pacific and more on the way. The 12.899km third cable from California to Hong Kong (that was scheduled to be completed last year but is delayed) will carry data at a rate of 144 terabits per second – up 29-fold from Google’s first 5tbps cable from California to Japan in 2010.

Screenshot 2019-04-22 14.10.56
Source: Urs Hölzle keynote OFC Plenary, 2017

This is putting huge Capex pressure on Google, with the need to continue building massive data centres and undersea cables. As Hölzle pointed out in his 2017 keynote apart from the change from copper to fibre, cable building has not changed much over the past 150 years and the system’s reliance on a small amount of cables leaves it vulnerable to tail risks. Still, Google is to a significant degree essentially free-riding on the backs of carriers such as AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, whose infrastructure investments Google is totally reliant on. The cost is ultimately passed on to the end user: On average (US) smartphone users pay 23 dollars per month for ads, trackers, scripts and other spam that strikes them with malware, slows load times and depletes battery life. Strikingly, on popular publishers’ sites as much as 79 percent of the mobile data are adds.

What will replace the Google World Order?

The latter parts of Gilder’s book are somewhat unstructured and anecdotal but contain insightful observations. Obviously, it would be a futile exercise to foretell exactly how the Google system will meet its end. But Gilder argues interestingly that the overarching threat to Google will come from the Cryptosphere. That the un-secure and centralised Google Empire will be replaced by a decentralised and secure Crypto order. That is admittedly far away – 70 percent of all Internet links are handled through Google or Facebook. But alternatives are emerging, such as Blockstack, whose mission is to “foster an open and decentralised Internet that establishes and protects privacy, security and freedom for all internet users.” Tim Berners-Lee, who fears the Internet is being broken by the centralisation of user data in the giant silos of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft – is one Blockstack admirer.

Gilder also goes through the emergence of Bitcoin and Ethereum and discusses their potential and limitations as currency systems. He sees the upper limit of 21 million total bitcoin units as one of the main challenges that would likely be highly deflationary over time. The high price volatility of Bitcoin could likely be addressed by more issuance and circulation of Bitcoin-redeemable liabilities – something which SEC’s clampdown on ICOs and crypto in general may put up obstacles for. Nevertheless, despite all the challenges it is clear that it is in the Cryptosphere the most interesting economic and political ideas are to be found today.

In the “Googlesphere” on the contrary, true entrepreneurial activity is being stifled by the narrow focus on developing largely parasitic apps and profitless Unicorns inside the Google/Android, Facebook or Apple iOS ecosystems — (a charge I would stand guilty of myself). Gilder also laments investors excessive belief in Marc Andreessen’s mantra that “Software will eat the world”, which has the unfortunate effect of crowding out innovative hardware investment. Though there are pockets of light, such as Luminar Technologies, which manufactures advanced Lidar censors for autonomous vehicles. What makes Luminar founder Austin Russell stand out from the crowd is that he does not believe in the consensus that autonomy is chiefly a software problem, but a hardware one, and that no amount of big data, artificial intelligence and software can make up for bad data from hopelessly outdated hardware. In contrast for example, two of the three finalists in the startup pitch at the Web Summit in Lisbon before Christmas were self-driving startups focused on getting more out of existing hardware with better software, one of them even claiming that a $12 camera will suffice for self-driving – Luminar would beg to differ.

Most business books today are boring. Life after Google is definitely not boring. And even if Gilder will be proved wrong in his hypotheses about the fall of the Google system of the world and the rise of the Blockchain economy, his analyses are insightful as well as idiosyncratic. That makes the book worth reading for everybody seeking to understand the new and uncharted economic landscape we find ourselves in.