When Robinhood disabled customers from buying GameStop, some people in the WallStreetBets subreddit suggested a need for a “decentralized brokerage.” Others said that “GameStop is the new Bitcoin.” Yet others decided to target the Dogecoin cryptocurrency, which spiked over 500% before it failed to process transactions due to overload.
The premise behind these ideas is hilariously wrong, but it’s worth exploring why.
It’s not surprising that young people growing up in the age of decentralized and censorship-resistant cryptocurrency exchange expect stock exchanges to be decentralized and censorship-resistant too.
Stock exchanges do exist to make business ownership accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, while trading stocks has become much cheaper and easier thanks to technology, the value of owning stocks has fallen dramatically.
To be listed on a stock market, a company has to pass many very expensive regulatory hurdles. But by the time a company goes public, much of the risk (and therefore profit) has been taken by venture capitalists and private equity investors.
The 2001 and 2008 financial crises led to the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley and 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. These regulations made it much more expensive to go public, which has led to an over 50% decline in the number of publicly-traded companies. There are now just 3,530 publicly traded companies in the US. Anyone can buy a stock on their phone today, but by the time the government lets the company sell you shares, most of the profit potential has already been captured by wealthy venture capitalists and private equity investors. It’s no wonder people are looking at cryptocurrencies for more risk and return.
Back to the idea of a “decentralized exchange.” We think we own the stocks we buy, but that is not legally true. Cede and Co. legally owns all publicly issued stock in the United States – over 50 trillion dollars worth. It processes over $500 trillion and 325 million trades in these stocks on behalf of individual investors. New York State appointed Cede as the central securities depository in 1973, and all stock exchanges settle their transactions there.
You might think that when you buy a stock, Cede enters your name in a ledger somewhere, but that’s not true either. Cede only records the “street name” — the name of the brokerage which holds the security. The brokerage (ETrade, Robinhood, etc) is responsible for tracking who has rights to shares. You can request to get paper share certificates issued on your name (like investors used to get), but no one does this anymore.
This is a very simplified version of how stock ownership works, but I hope you can see why the idea of a “decentralized brokerage” is absurd.
On the surface, a centralized cryptocurrency exchange work in a similar way. When you buy Bitcoin on an exchange, you get a right to some amount of cryptocurrency. Until you withdraw it to your wallet, you only have a claim to your assets.
The big difference between a share of Gamestop and Bitcoin is that you can take purchase and take possession of Bitcoin without any intermediary. Whether you use a decentralized exchange, buy from a friend, or mine it yourself, no approval is needed for the transaction, and no authority can block the trade or take it away. It’s also impossible for anyone to devalue your Bitcoin by issuing more of it beyond the set mining rate.
These are the real reason why Bitcoin has value. Eventually, the GameStop share price will fall back down to reflect its fundamental nature as an outdated and failing business model, while the Bitcoin price will keep rising as users validate its fundamental nature as an alternative to the failing system of central banking.
What about Dogecoin? If the whim of the members of an investing community drives cryptocurrency prices, can Bitcoin achieve any kind of long-term stability? The Dogecoin outage is a clue.
The Doge network does not have enough nodes to process transactions. The reason Bitcoin has been able to hold a dominant market share since 2009 is that it has the biggest ecosystem of miners, users, and service providers. Unless another cryptocurrency obtains a compelling technical advantage, and the Bitcoin network is unable or unwilling to match it, Bitcoin will keep its lead.