Bitcoin has grabbed the imagination of global investors, sending its price soaring to more than US$14,800, and Kiwis are joining the global euphoria.

The blockchain entrepreneur

"We're having people come to us now saying, 'Why didn't you tell us this would happen'. I say, 'We did'."

An early-adopter of bitcoin, Jonathan Ewing has used a specialised debit card from Singapore to pay for the weekly grocery shop with cryptocurrencies.

"I've been flying on Air New Zealand for the last three years and paying in bitcoin, staying in hotels and paying in bitcoin," the 48-year-old says.


"You know, there are mechanisms to exist outside the whole financial system and I've proven that along with a lot of my colleagues."

Ewing co-founded Bitto New Zealand — a company that consults with businesses looking to work with virtual currencies.

More recently he set up Power Badger, a company which is looking at block chain opportunities in the energy market.

"We were mining bitcoin five years ago ... we've built out one of the biggest blockchain processing facilities in the country, we're running one of the biggest mining operations and we're scaling up," he says.

Bitto had set up bitcoin ATMs in Auckland during 2014 but came unstuck when banks refused to provide it services because of concerns of meeting anti-money laundering rules

"With some irony, the same bank has come back and asked if we can consult to them on the necessity of understanding this technology," he said, but would not name the bank.

The new investor

"I saw a bit of profit behind, and I got into it," says Lovinder Singh.

The Hamilton business owner and computer technician spent about $8000 six weeks' ago buying and setting up machines to mine cryptocurrencies.


These "miners" use computers that perform complex mathematical calculations confirming that the transactions to be added to a cryptocurrency's public ledger (known as the blockchain) are legitimate. As each block of transactions is "mined", bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies are distributed to those responsible.

Hamilton business owner and computer technician Lovinder Singh.
Hamilton business owner and computer technician Lovinder Singh.

Singh says he doesn't plan to make his money back for at least a year.

Asked if he was worried about bitcoin's value tumbling, the 30-year-old said: "It's going more upwards than downwards, so I would say I'm pretty happy about it at the moment."

"I had an opportunity to buy bitcoin in 2011. Someone offered me 40 bitcoin for $100. I didn't know much about it. Being an IT student and moved from overseas, $100 was a bit too much money for me. I didn't realise the value of the technology" he said.

At yesterday's price those bitcoin would be worth close to $1 million but Singh was philosophical about the situation.

"You make decisions and you shouldn't regret those decisions," he said.

The financial advisor

"What we have here is mania built on speculation," says Jeremy Sullivan.

The advisor at Christchurch's Hamilton Hindin Greene says while bitcoin has proven a "good gamble", it isn't exactly investing.

"There is no cash flow derived from the investment, unlike shares, fixed interest or property," he wrote in an opinion piece this month.

Hamilton Hindin Greene advisor Jeremy Sullivan.
Hamilton Hindin Greene advisor Jeremy Sullivan.

He likened the euphoria over the digital money to "Tulip Mania" — the Dutch speculative boom of the 17th century.

"At the peak of 'Tulip Mania', in February 1637, some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman ... At one point 5ha of land were offered for a Semper Augustus bulb," Sullivan said.

And while some may think they can make money if they get on board before the bitcoin bubble pops, Sullivan issued a word of caution.

"If this thought has crossed your mind you know for sure that you're gambling. This is known as the 'Greater Fool Theory', where all you need is someone to be a little slower (or dumber) than you. Pity the person who is left holding the candle when the party is over," he said.

"To use a well-known quote from the Great Depression, 'You know it's time to sell when the shoeshine boys give you stock tips'.

"Unfortunately human nature doesn't appear to change all that quickly, it has just moved to a different tulip."

"Yes, the price may increase from here. However, it is equally likely to enter a correction," he said.

"Bitcoin is very high risk. If you still feel compelled to buy bitcoin ... put a 'tenner' on black and not the house. Further, look forward to the applications to which the underlying technology is applied to, this is where the value lies." Sullivan said.

The restaurateur

"We wanted to get in early and let people know we accept cryptocurrency," said Neville Steyn, operations manager for Oyster & Chop and three other restaurants.

Since the eatery on Auckland's Viaduct began accepting bitcoin some six weeks ago, about 15 people have used the cryptocurrency to settle their bill.

Steyn said the bitcoin-paying clientele was fairly evenly split between tourists and locals.

"People that have bitcoin are pretty passionate about it normally. They believe it is the future of payments — that's what we believe as well," Steyn said.

He said that Dixie Browns in Taupo — also owned by Oyster & Chop's Michael Opperman — would likely start accepting bitcoin in the next few weeks.

Steyn personally got into bitcoin earlier this year and invested the proceeds from the sale of his motorbike into the digital currency.

"To be honest I maxxed out my one credit card. I did what I could afford to pay back if it went to zero basically," he said.

Asked if he was concerned of a bitcoin bubble, Steyn replied: "Not any more".

The market watchdog

"There is a real risk that your investment could basically be worth nothing," says the Financial Markets Authority's Garth Stanish.

"Our basic position is this is an area where investors have to exhibit considerable amounts of care and understand the risks," says Stanish, who is the Financial Markets Authority's (FMA) director of capital markets.

Financial Markets Authority director of capital markets Garth Stanish.
Financial Markets Authority director of capital markets Garth Stanish.

Stanish says that investment products generally were in a "reasonably low-yield environment" and that people were reading about the potential upsides of investing in bitcoin.

But he says that cryptocurrencies' value can change very quickly.

"It could be a real rollercoaster. It's really up at the moment, it could crash."

The FMA wants to encourage businesses wanting to provide cryptocurrency services, such an exchange or an initial coin offering, to get in touch with them early about compliance.

"Part of our mandate is to promote innovation and growth in New Zealand markets. We certainly don't have the attitude, 'Oh my god it's something new we've got to completely squash it'.

"We're keen to harvest the good in these new technologies while mitigating the risks appropriately. In order for us to do that we absolutely need the industry to come and talk to us."

What is bitcoin?

•The best-known digital currency, or "cryptocurrency", which operates without any central administrator.

•Invented by "Satoshi Nakamoto" — a pseudonym, and possibly a group of people — and released as software in 2009.

•New bitcoin are generated at pre-set intervals, until they reach a limit of 21 million bitcoin on issue.

•As of yesterday, a single bitcoin was worth about US$14,800

•Blockchain is the technology behind bitcoin. It is the digital equivalent of an old-fashioned ledger, blockchain uses a network of computers to keep track of who owns bitcoin, and to avoid counterfeiting and double spending. Other uses could include tracking credit card transactions, keeping track of health records, or verifying your identity online.