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Bitcoin gains validity as digital gold after Brexit vote

Hard-working Britons with their life savings stashed in British pounds woke up Friday morning about 8 percent poorer after their country voted to leave the European Union.

Meanwhile, bitcoin investors were shielded from the Brexit news: They enjoyed an almost 9 percent jump in the value of their holdings.

It's the type of event that bitcoin enthusiasts, many in the technology industry, have anticipated because of growing political and economic instability in many regions of the globe. Meanwhile, legions of skeptics have criticized the cryptocurrency as a high-risk bet on an unprotected and unregulated alternative to money.

"Bitcoin is effectively becoming digital gold," said Ashvin Bachireddy, co-founder and general partner at Geodesic Capital, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm that backed bitcoin start-up 21 Inc. "You can continue to see further validation of bitcoin as something detached from a centralized government that allows people who work to preserve wealth in a secure way."

Not that Bachireddy — or any credible bitcoin investor — is recommending selling all your pounds, euros or dollars in favor of the cryptocurrency. There is tremendous volatility involved, and the currency still has limitations in how and where it can be used.

Bitcoin volatility

The price of a bitcoin surged as much as 8.7 percent on Friday to $680.19, according to CoinDesk. That followed the Brexit vote, which sent the pound spiraling downward against the U.S. dollar to $1.32, the lowest since 1985.

Bitcoin is not for the faint hearted. It started the year around $430, sank below $360 in mid-January, jumped to $768 in mid-June and then plunged to $603 a week later.

"I'm not a big proponent of bitcoin as a currency replacement," said Steve Waterhouse, a partner at San Francisco-based Pantera Capital, a bitcoin investment firm that started in 2013.

Waterhouse, a native of England, said bitcoin is most effectively used for business-related transactions and money transfers that would take several days to clear in the traditional financial world but can be done digitally with bitcoin on the same day.

Waterhouse said that bitcoin as an investment makes sense in countries with particularly strained economies, like Greece, Spain and Argentina. Separatist actions like the Brexit and some of the policies proposed by Donald Trump lend credence to the idea of putting money into an uncorrelated asset.

The S&P 500 dropped 3.6 percent on Friday, and the pan-European STOXX 600 index closed down around 7 percent lower on the day.

"If nothing else looks safe, you could see people looking to something completely different as a safe haven," Waterhouse said. "It doesn't follow the ups and downs of regular markets."

Jesse Powell, CEO of digital asset exchange Kraken, said that the volume of bitcoin trading on his company's site doubled in the 24 hours following the Brexit vote. Since June 10, there's been a five-fold increase in bitcoin to euro trading as of late Friday.

"There's an advantage to having a currency that isn't political, isn't tied to a government and not subject to these kinds of things happening," said Powell, whose San Francisco-based start-up enables the exchange of national currencies into cryptocurrencies. "It's purely governed by math."

But bitcoin has its own variables. The size of the market expands through a process called mining, whereby coders use software to solve complex math problems and are rewarded with bitcoins. Every four years, the number of bitcoins rewarded is cut in half.

The next halving takes place in July, when miners will receive 12.5 coins every 10 minutes, down from 25 today. So one reason for the recent spike is likely the view that bitcoin supply will be more restricted. Three-quarters of the total supply of bitcoins have been mined.

Speculators can drive the price up and down in ways that would be terribly unsettling for people with significant bitcoin investments.

Pound plunge

"I wouldn't tell anybody to put their life saving into bitcoin because that could just as easily be wiped out," said Powell. "Think about it in terms of diversifying your portfolio. If you have investments in gold or an index, maybe think about bitcoin or cryptocurrency as an asset class you want to have some money in."

Bitcoin bulls expect that the currency will eventually have greater utility in the marketplace and move from being a savings and investment tool into transactions. Businesses that already take bitcoin include Expedia, Dell, Microsoft and dating site OkCupid, but they typically require the use of a bitcoin wallet like Coinbase.

Unlike gold, which only works as an alternative asset for investment purposes, the idea with bitcoin is that it's also easily spendable on everything from groceries to money transfers.

We may get there eventually.

"Most people are buying it for investment or stored value," said Chris Larsen, founder and CEO of Ripple, which is developing a global financial network for digital settlement. "They're not paying their rent. It's the beginning."