While much of the financial world is focused on whether Greece will abandon the euro, the country’s financial troubles have also brought new attention to a different currency: bitcoin.
The digital currency’s value in dollars has risen more than 17% since the start of June, according to data from bitcoin news site CoinDesk. Operators of exchanges swapping bitcoin for traditional money report that trading volumes have greatly increased as the Greek crisis has unfolded.
But, the company’s Twitter post explains, not much of that boost in volume is from Greece itself. After the country’s leadership failed to reach a deal with creditors on spending and tax reform, emergency financial restrictions have blocked Greek citizens from sending funds abroad and capped bank withdrawals at €60, or about $67, per day.
While the country’s precarious situation may have inspired others to seek out the potential safety of bitcoin, those most directly affected simply can’t access their funds to exchange for bitcoin or anything else.
“For Greece, it’s probably too late now–they’re in a pretty bad situation,” says Coinbase cofounder and CEO Brian Armstrong. “It’s the rest of Europe that’s taking this as a warning sign.”
Coinbase announced Monday it’s waiving transaction fees for customers buying and selling bitcoin in euros through July 5, promoting the sale as an opportunity for Europeans to explore the advantages of a currency not controlled by a central authority.
“This is a great kind of moment in history where people are looking at this, and thinking more about things like capital controls,” says Armstrong.
Unlike traditional currencies, bitcoin is produced not by a central bank but by an algorithm that doles out the currency in predictable intervals to bitcoin miners–power users who maintain the blockchain, a shared record of all verified transactions in the currency’s history. Those digital coins can then be transferred simply by recording additional transactions to the blockchain, or stored on a hard drive or cell phone in a cryptographic wallet, without needing to involve traditional banks or services like Western Union and MoneyGram.
Advocates have argued those characteristics make bitcoin safer than traditional, so-called fiat currencies, which can see their values slashed by inflationary government policy or their use curtailed by regulations like the ones now in play in Greece.
“Situations like this crisis in Greece shows [people] that money in banks is not 100% there,” says Filip Godecki, a spokesman for Poland-based bitcoin exchange Bitcurex, which has also seen an increase in volume from European users. “They’re trying to find alternatives, and bitcoin is an alternative.”
But, Godecki says, while the three-year-old startup has seen a burst of new accounts based in Greece and waived fees for its customers there, many of those new users will be largely unable to buy bitcoin until the current restrictions are lifted. Greek officials have said that likely won’t happen until at least July 6, the day after a popular vote is scheduled on European proposals to resolve the economic stalemate.
“What I can see is a really increased interest in the idea,” says Godecki. “However, from a practical point of view, I’m just not sure of bitcoin as an emergency option on a daily basis, because I’m still not sure how much they can transfer from their accounts to exchanges like ours.”
An online marketplace called LocalBitcoins lists standing offers from private sellers around the world willing to trade bitcoin for cash, and the site lists a handful of vendors around Greece, mostly in the Athens area.
But even those transactions have been curtailed by the capital controls, says Peter Dimitrakos, a futures trader and cryptocurrency enthusiast who advertises on LocalBitcoins under the name uzitgc. Many buyers have limited cash after the bank withdrawal limits, and sellers are limited to whatever bitcoin they have on hand, since they can’t transfer funds to an exchange to buy more when their supplies run out.
“The problem now is that there is no cash available anymore, which makes it impossible to buy or sell, because when I sell bitcoin, I immediately buy them back on the exchange,” says Dimitrakos, who spoke via Google+.
Dimitrakos says he saw a “spike in interest” over the past month, with customers new to the virtual currency purchasing “small amounts” of bitcoin before the capital controls were in place. For those who did manage to buy bitcoin, the currency is a way to store value in case the value of funds in Greek bank accounts and wallets plummets–not a day-to-day replacement for the euro, he says.
“People can still work with cash, they can withdraw €60 per day, supermarkets still have food, etc.,” he says, adding that few merchants in Greece accept the alternative currency.
But, some bitcoin advocates argue, that may change in the near future.
“This ecosystem is still an infant, because we can’t just go to, say, a barber and pay with bitcoin yet, but maybe it will be a spark to make such changes,” says Godecki. “Maybe this crisis is just another push to the bitcoin ecosystem, and maybe this will fuel the change.”